The Landmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland Celebrates Sixty Years

Part III:  Ten Turbulent Years, 1987 - 1996. Third article in this series.

The Editors. "The Landmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland Celebrates Sixty Years." Volk auf dem Weg, April 2010, 12-13.

Translation from the Original German-language text to American English provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado

The 1990 Bundestreffen in the Wiesbaden Rhein-Main Exhibition Center coincided with festivities of the Landsmannschaft in celebrating forty years of existence.

1987 was a decisive year in the history of our ethnic group: At the highest levels, foundations were being laid for mass emigration of Germans from the Soviet Union. It all began with a new Moscow law that took effect on January1, 1987 dealing with migration into and out of the Soviet Union.

During that same month the Federal Government’s representative at the CSCE Conference, Hans-Dietrich Wrede, promised: “Our countrymen can rely on the fact that the Federal Republic of Germany will provide them with integration assistance that is required for a good start into the future.” Jürgen Trittin, a future member of the leading echelon of the Greens, during a course given by the Landsmannschaft in Lower Saxony, already hinted at future limits when he stated, “… if not too many of them arrive.”    

In a government declaration, Federal Chancellor Dr. Helmut Kohl stated with utmost clarity: “We will urge very strongly that more Germans will again be able to leave the Soviet Union.”  He thanked US President Ronald Reagan for approaching in conversation with Michail Gorbachev the topic of the desire by Germans in the Soviet Union to emigrate. In his keynote speech at the 20th Bundestreffen of our Landsmannschaft, Friedrich Zimmermann, Federal Minister of the Interior, backed up this statement, as did German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher during a reception for the Landsmannschaft’s national board.  

During a visit to the Soviet Union, German President Richard von Weizsäcker termed very understandable the desire of Germans living there to maintain their language, culture and faith. During conversations with Germans from Russia arriving at the border transition camp in Friedland, and during a November 26, 1987 reception for an expanded leadership group of the Landsmannschaft at his offices in Bonn on, he expressed strong personal ties to our ethnic group and the Landsmannschaft.

During 1987 the Germans from Russia were the dominant topic of discussion in churches, in the political arena, at local levels, and on television. On ZDF [Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen, a government-sponsored TV channel – Tr.], the program “Das Buch von Olga und Johann [The Book about Olga and Johann],” dealing with the Epp/Wiebe family, provided much material for discussion that reached far beyond the ethnic group, and on ARD [the primary government-sponsored TV channel – Tr.] a film entitled “Sowietbürger deutscher Nationalität [Soviet Citizens of German Nationality]” was a primary source for controversial debate.

Germans form Russia even at that time remained quite aware when others desired to lecture them or become judgmental about them. Spokespersons for the ethnic group such as the peripatetic Nelly Däs, the successful local politician Dr. Herbert Wiens, and human rights proponent Georg Hildebrandt would become fairly incensed when, instead of “Germans from Russia,” the terminology in use came to be phrases like “Soviet Germans” or “those of German origin.”   

It was in 1987 when Germans form Russia and the entire world received news of surprising changes in Soviet emigration policy: During May more than 1,000 Aussiedler from the Soviet Union were received into the Federal Republic of Germany, and by the end of the year the monthly number reached five digits for the first time.

The Landsmannschaft and other friends of the Germans from Russia took this development into account very seriously. For example, on May 1, 1987, historian and successful journalist Dr, Ingeborg Fleischhauer established in Bonn the “Commission for the History and present of Germans in Russia/USSR – Historical Commission,”  perhaps the most significant body that, in cooperation with us, would deal with questions concerning Germans from Russia Germans from Russia including Dr. Herbert Wiens, Dr. Gerhard Hildebrandt, and Prof. Dr. Hugo Jedig participated as equals in direct round-table discussions with the Soviet diplomat Valentin Falin, the renowned writer Lev Kopelev and other noted personalities from the Federal Republic, the US, Italy, Israel, the Soviet Union and even the DDR [German Democratic Republic = East Germany].

Of the Federal states, Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and Hesse in particular began to look after the Germans from Russia. As early as 1979, Baden-Württemberg had become patron of the Landsmannschaft, Bavaria reminded the republic of a national obligation toward the Germans from Russia, and Hesse, the patron state of the Volga Germans, began in 1987 to set the stage for beneficial collaboration with the Landsmannschaft and its youth organization. On November 26, 1987, people were finally able to hear on Moscow TV that many of the two million Germans in the Soviet Union desired to emigrate, “because things would be better for them in Germany than here” – but, as one could also hear, “if not for significant problems such as language and cultural barriers.” Even so, echoes of Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika were ringing in people’s ears.

Via the personalities of Kristina Carl, who was born in 1949 in Leipzig, and Ute Richter-Eberl, born 1960 in Hamburg, a fresh breeze buoyed the cultural work of the Landsmannschaft in 1988. They began to organize meetings and exhibitions, and the broader public began to learn that the Germans from Russia actually had, as part of their specific history, their own brand of literature and had brought forth renowned artists including the composer Georg van Albrecht and the painter Otto Flath.   

During the years following, available funding could not keep up with the rising numbers of immigrants and the increasing load of responsibilities for the Landsmannschaft, and it would become increasingly tough and, finally, impossible to keep a full-time, paid cultural advisor.

There were also times when differing opinions concerning autonomy for Germans in the USSR would influence the debate at all levels of our ethnic group. Those of the generation who experienced all the bad times were mostly skeptical while, on the other side, nostalgic members in the Soviet-German organization “Wiedergeburt [Rebirth]” were dreaming of a new German future on the Volga.

Vladimir Chernyshev, chief editor of the Moscow newspaper “Nenes Leben [New Life],” apparently knew something in 1989 that others did not and, in front of 1,000 attendees in Bonn, he confessed, “It has come to light that reestablishing autonomy on the Volga will not be as simple as we had imagined.”

Chernyshev’s companions were forced to rethink the matter. Hugo Wormsbecher contented himself with publishing Soviet literature and concepts of a cultural autonomy. Heinrich Groth tried to create political capital at high levels; Waldemar Weber returned to his natural talents of poetry and publishing. Jakob Fischer in Bavaria, the Emich couple in Hesse, and other activists among the “Wiedergeburt” organization had recognized the signs of the times early on and discovered in the Landsmannschaft a suitable platform for realizing their goals.

Soon enough one could hear initial warnings, which some Germans from Russia simply did not wish to understand. Even their declared friend, the then Federal Minister of the Interior, Dr. Wolfgang Schäuble, at a Bundestreffen of the Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland in Wiesbaden stated on June 25, 1990: “To preserve our own stability, we, too, are not in a position to absorb two million people without causing serious problems.” And during Homeland Day 1991 Schäuble became even more explicit: “Emigration to Germany must not be the only option in their future.” This was intended for all immigrants, but for the most part it would affect the Germans in the USSR.  

This came at a time when the Federal Republic placed highest priority on assimilating the people from what had once been the German Democratic Republic [East Germany].  Many Germans in Russia began to fear, not without reasons, that once again they had been shunted to a side track.

Our countrymen in the now new Federal states found themselves in an especially peculiar situation. Their enthusiasm for their own organizing group after reunification [with West Germany] was great, and so, on November 3, 1990 the first Eat German regional chapter of the Landsmannschaft was established by four hundred Germans from Russia.  

During those years, Dr. Horst Waffenschmidt (1933 – 2002), German government representative for the Aussiedler, actually spread a measure of optimism among German Russian circles between the Rhine and Ob Rivers. Of course, reality would operate against this optimism, which was confirmed only partially. Although a still considerable number of Germans were able to leave the Soviet Union, they saw themselves confronted with tougher criteria for guaranteeing acceptance into Germany, and they would have to be content with a reduction in initial assistance in starting life in Germany. 

As of January 1, 1993, Germans coming back from the [former] Soviet Union would officially no longer be designated as Aussiedler, but as Spätaussiedler [late resettlers, literally]. If they were younger, had good command of the German language, and had just the right occupation, nothing much actually changed for these Spätaussiedler. But the Aussiedler who actually did arrive would come from all walks of life and all ages, and most German Russian heads of household, on whom very often the fate of an entire clan depended, had also aged. As a rule the children were no longer as God-fearing as their parents, and they were bent on blaming Germany, and not the Soviet Union, for the heavy injustices that their families had suffered through terror, war, deportation and loss of home.

From 1991 on, the Landsmannschaft had Alois Reiss (1925 – 2008) occupying its top position). He received many plaudits from social proponents, who had traditionally dominated the Landsmannschaft, simply because he did not shrink back from explicitly decrying the worsening situation caused by new refugee legislation that was passed in the 1990s.   

Despite difficulties of different varieties, the work of the Landsmannschaft remained successful. Although membership did not grow at the same rate as the rate of arrivals of Germans form Russia in the Federal Republic, in 1996 it did reach the significant total of 30,000 paying subscribers to “Volk auf dem Weg,” the highest ever in the sixty-year history of the Landsmannschaft.

The size of the issues of our organization’s official organ also increased (after a change in editorship in 1982) from 24 to 48 and, at times, even more pages. As a newcomer from “the outside,” so to speak, the new chief editor, Johann Kampen, was not able to throw into the equation a long past in the Landsmannschaft, as his predecessors had done, but due to many years of contacts with the writers of the ethnic group inside and outside the country, he would receive many more people stories than anyone had before. This filled the needs not only of “Volk auf dem Weg,” but also of the Heimatbücher [annual special collections published by and of] the Landsmannschaft, which as of 1990 would once again appear annually.

(To be continued.)

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.  

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller