Lexikon of German-Russian Literature

Lexikon der Russlanddeutschen Literatur

Brantsch, Ingmar. "Lexikon of German-Russian Literature." Volk auf dem Weg, November 2004, 24.

Translation from German to American English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado

[Review of] Annette Moritz' "Lexikon der russlanddeutschen Literatur [Lexikon of German-Russian Literature]," Klartext Verlag Essen, 2004, vol. 12 in a Series entitled "Forschungen zur Geschichte und Kultur der Russlanddeustchen [Research on the History and Culture of Germans from Russia]," 207 pp., 12.50 Euros, ISBN 3-89851-314-3.

With this "Lexikon of German-Russian Literatur," Annette Moritz has performed a highly meritorious piece of work, particularly when on contemplates how very little today's average German knows about the history and life of the German-Russians, not to mention their literature.

There is, of course, the lexikon entitled "Russlanddeutsche Schrifsteller [German-Russian Authors]" by Herold Belger (Edition Ost Berlin, 1999, 215 pp., 20 Euros, ISBN 3-932180-54-2), but that particular lexicon, albeit a lovingly researched listing of German-Russian authors, does not provide reviews or critiques of their main works, which Annette Moritz does provide in her own lexicon, very likely based on Belger's work.

In reviewing the most important works of authors -- from the very beginning to the present -- she deals with in alphabetical organization, she has performed a gigantic piece of work. She not only read them all, but did not shrink back from evaluating them based on her reviews. In doing so, she also demonstrates an astonishing capacity for understanding the situation of literature that was so far removed from its original home.

This capacity for being able to feel the spiritual and inner situation of an "insular literature," which is truly unique for a non-German-Russian, is combined in Annette Moritz with her confident and objective look at these literary works.

Even the early, first works by German-Russian writers, such as one by the former officer in the Seven-Year War, Bernhard von Platen (b. 1733 in Braunschweig, d. 1774 in Gast/Volga) she explains from the background of their historical and societal situations, but without abdicating aesthetic criteria.

By means of his poem "Reisebeschreibungen der Kolonisten, wie auch Lebensart der Russen [Describing the Colonists' Travels as well as How the Russians Live]," she thus rightfully views von Platen, who became a Volga-German out of necessity, as the founder of German-Russian literature. She also writes about another groundbreaking text of German-Russian literature, "Das Lied vom Kuester Deis [Song of the Sexton Deist]" by David Kufeld, of whose life we barely know anything but perhaps his origin in the colony Schaffhausen, where he worked in the district administration office in 1912, and his voluntary participation in World War I.

In making use of the text written for the occasion of the 150th-anniversary celebration of the founding of the first German Volga colony (1764), she honors the combination of history (Kirgisian attack on Mariental in 1776), phantasmic elements (e.g., the dance of the witches on the church steeple) and critical-realistic descriptions of conditions in the villages ("Die Beamten und Pastoren/ hausten frech zu jener Zeit/ doch die braven Bauern glaubten/ an der Pfaffen Heiligkeit [Officials and clerics/ carried on brazenly in those days/ yet the good farmers still believed/ in the saintliness of their clerics])." In this way she was able to reject convincingly a rather myopic piece of criticism -- that this piece had a "sweetly religious tone" -- given, possibly from an ideological basis, by the otherwise meritorious literary critic of the German-Russians, Waldemar Ekkert.

Annette Moritz also evaluates critically another piece produced for the occasion of the 150-th anniversary of the first colonists' arrival in Russia, a celebratory play called "Fest und Treu oder der Kirgisen-Michel und die schoene Ammie aus Pfannenstiel [Fast and True - or - Kirgis-Michel and the Beautiful Ammie of Pfannenstiel]," again, while basing her opinion on Ekkert, agreeing with him this time. Ekkert writes: "All the characters seem to speak in a well-chosen, old-fashioned kind of language, in long sentence structures, filled with dates and events -- this dispels any sort of dynamic."

Contrast that piece with a production of 1868, the story "Schoen Ammie von Mariental und der Kirgisen-Michel [The Beautiful Ammie of Mariental and Kirgis-Michel]" by Friedrich Dsirne, a "Picture of the Volga-Steppes from the 18th Century," clearly composed from a considerably boundary-breaking view that has the boy Hannamichel, who is abducted following an attack by the Kirgis, saved thanks only to the help of the daughter of a Kirgis chieftain and only thereby able to return to his beautiful Ammie. In other words, rapprochement between different peoples without the lifting of an accusing index finger of the later socialist realism.

If the first 150 years of German-Russian literature, from 1764 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, requires a delicate capacity for empathy and a thorough grounding in historical knowledge, these two prerequisites are needed even more intensely for understanding the literature of the German-Russian ethnic group who suffered the most severe blows of fate of all Germans in foreign lands.

The establishment of the Volga-German Autonomous Republic in 1924 enabled an initial blossoming of German-Russian literature within the Soviet Union inside and even outside the territorial autonomy of the German-Russians. And societal expectation that a Soviet-German body of literature might improve the reputation of the Soviet Union in Europe and, in particular, in the Weimar democracy of Germany, stood as godparent to a development that was initially officially encouraged.

It is especially in view of this socio-political background that Annette Moritz' thorough historical knowledge comes to the fore. She never rejects in any biased way the often exaggerated socio-political engagement of the Soviet-German authors of the time. An unbiased look at a somewhat characteristic pathetic-bombastic social engagement has the effect, at least with Annette Moritz, of a kind of sobering experience, especially as one follows her description of the lives of these "enthusiastic" authors, which generally ended up in forced labor prison camps and in exile.

Allow me to cite two examples of the above: Franz Bach, one of the two "founders" of German-Soviet literature, was, even before the October Revolution [of 1917], a kind of rebel, who was drummed out of a priests' seminary because of inflammatory poems of his. Since he welcomed the October Revolution and, as party member, participated in the civil war, he saw his poet's task as aiding the building up of a new societal order, which we can see, for example, in the way he dealt with class warfare in the story "Dem Lichte entgegen [Toward the Light]." It was with traditional means that he involved his literature in a propagandistic manner, whereas his descriptions of nature might be more of an indication of his poetic talent. The fact that, despite this apparently model attitudes -- in 1934 he was accepted into the Authors Society of the USSR -- he was nevertheless arrested by the secret police in 1937 and died a despicable death in the GUlag in 1942, demonstrates the absurdity of Stalinistic arbitrariness, which rolled over anything and anyone.

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