Disobedience, Protest and Resistance by the German-Russians in the Soviet State (Part 2)

Verweigerung, Protest und Widerstand der Russlanddeutschen im Sowietstaat

Krieger, Dr. Viktor. "Disobedience, Protest and Resistance by German-Russians in the Soviet State." Volk auf dem Weg, March 2007, 12-14.

This translation from the original German text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado

NOTE: This article is a continuation from the February 2007 Issue, pages 14-15 (still to be continued)

Armed Resistance in the Black Sea Region

The situation of the Black Sea Germans during the years 1918 - 1920 differed form that of the Volga-Germans. While the latter were, nearly without interruption, part of the Soviet power arena and throughout the years were forced to endure the merciless food delivery requisitions plus numerous mobilizations of persons and horses and then themselves became victims of catastrophic famine, the Germans in southern Ukraine and on Crimea initially suffered primarily as a result of the bitter clashes between various civil war parties, from the chaos resulting from quickly spreading illnesses such as typhoid fever, as well from attacks by marauding gangs, especially those led by Nestor Machno.

In Odessa and environs alone, power changed hands at least seven times within three years: a provisorily government, Boleshvist grab of power, entry of German-Austrian troops, and then the conquest of the city by the White Guards' volunteer army. Only from February, 1920 onward (on Crimea, from November) were the Bolshviks finally able to assert themselves.

Under these circumstances, most of the settlements were left to themselves to look after order and calm in their villages and to set up armed self-protection units, which originally began to be formed under the direction of Reichs-German officers and, in the end, were to represent a part of the troops for maintaining order that were associated with independent Ukrainian government
(Central Rada). The men of these militias would also form the core of armed resistance against the requisition policies of the Bolsheviks.

With regard to the course of the largest uprising by farmers in the Odessa region during the summer of 1919, new details have been obtained from an eye witness report by a former German prisoner of war, published only a few years ago. The uprising began on July 27 in Grossliebental, just as the village was being entered by a troop of 20 men under the leadership of Sirik, the chairman of the German Revolutionary Committee, with the goal of arbitrarily requisitioning contributions, confiscating weapons, and causing new elections for local administrative positions to be held.

Eighteen of the soldiers were murdered by the residents, and the uprising expanded into the entire Odessa Gouvernement. Angered farmers besieged the provincial center and detonated a railroad line; on August 2, about 12,000 protesters stormed Odessa, but were beaten back. With great effort, using a comprehensive mobilization of the workers and party membership in the city, as well as with the help of outside military units, the Soviets then succeeded in putting down the rebels. Only by February 14, 1919 was railroad traffic restored, but a few days later the city fell to an atttack from the Denikin troops and supporting armed units of German settlers. Subsequently, after Soviet power had been restored, dozens of the rebels and former members of protective militias were arrested and, for the most part, shot. During the Great Terror of 1937-1938, these facts from the past would continue to serve as an important basis for charges levied against others.

A group of colonists, their number still inexact, fought against the Red Guards form within the White Army. It has been discovered that an independent German rifle battalion, a component of the Volunteer Army, that fought until the Wrangel-Troops retreated from Crimea during the fall of 1920 and, at its beginning (January, 1919), had originally numbered 800 colonists.

Part 2. Peaceful and Violent Protests, from 1921 through 1941

Wave of Emigration

The relatively liberal period of the 1920s, especially in contrast to 1914, was characterized by drastic economic, juridical, and social-cultural decline, not only for the upper crust in the German villages, but also for the majority of middle-tier farmers. As a result of the Socialist land reform, most of the German farmers lost a considerable amount of their land tracts. For example, a large farmer who may have owned perhaps 60 to 65 desyatins of land [ca. 160 to 175 acres], after the revolution had to be content with about 16 desyatins [ca. 43 acres], and [German] estates were taxed at a significantly higher rate than those of their Russian or Ukrainian neighbors.

In German colonies, there was also an above-average number of lishentzy (persons whose voting rights had been revoked). This revocation had resulted in grave consequences for those affected and their family members. Not only large land owners, but small ones, lost their possessions as a result of government seizures. But additionally, the campaign by the government that was so hostile to the church inevitably led to serious conflicts between the settlers and those Soviet authorities who had been entrusted with responsibility for school and church matters.

No wonder that the implementation of such policies would lead to stronger desire for emigration. During the years between 1923 and 1928, while the opportunity for legal emigration still existed, 18,300 Mennonites alone, or about 15 percent of this ethno-confessional group, would leave the Soviet Union, migrating primarily to their brethren in faith in Canada, Mexico and the US.

But due to the changing internal political situation, repression by the state increased from about the end of 1927 on, leading eventually to a ban on religious instruction, to more and more persecution of the faithful and of the clergy, to a state takeover of the village schools, to excessive grain requisitions, to the dissolution of national agrarian and union organizations, and to dispossession and banishment of the so-called kulaks and, finally, as the real climax - the forcible collectivization of farming operations. It took the Soviet powers until 1932 when, finally and completely, they successfully degraded the formerly independent German farmers and even artisans to a landless proletariat who, now working in the organized collective operations, had become entirely dependent on the state.

During all those years, there were dramatic instances of nonviolent resistance by the German agrarian population, which, in a spectacular wave of emigration, would reach its climax and thereby attract the attention of the entire world: spurred on by the repressive agrarian policies, during the fall of 1929 thousands of German settlers decided to go to the capital city and there to demand from the central government the right for free emigration. Dr. Otto Auhagen, agricultural attache at the German Embassy, commented on their apparent motivation as follows:

"Nearly everywhere, the German population seems overwhelmed with a feeling of total helplessness, often bordering on despair... The Commune has robbed the farmer of his economic independence, and he feels not only like a servant, but even as a slave; he is horrified by the possible dissolution of his family, and he would rather die of hunger than deny his faith."

According to as yet incomplete data, as of mid-November of 1929, the number of those desiring to emigrate came to 12,439 persons, of whom 9,120 were Mennonites, 2,481 Lutherans, 743 Catholics, and 95 Baptists. Most were from the Siberian district of Slavgorod. After long weeks of waiting, 5,671 of them received permission to migrate to Germany and from there to North America. The rest was forced by the secret police to return to their home villages.

The political significance of this action was, in its effect on the fate of not only the Siberian farmers, not to be underestimated. One of the party functionaries expressed this as follows:

One of many propagandist publications in the republic-wide newspaper "Nachrichten" (Engels), here on the topic of emigration; printed December 3, 1929.
"The German kulak, although he did not shoot at us from a gun, did give us a political slap in the face, one that is more serious than the serious loss of a lone activist... The terror on kulaks is insignificant in comparison to the political action that the German kulak has exercised with the idealist and organizational-political assistance from American capitalism. Organizing and leading an imposing number of servants and poor farmers during this thirteenth year of the existence of the Soviet State is considerably more complicated and effecting than shooting an activist in the dark of night."

The Soviet powers would never forget this instance of being exposed on the political stage of the entire world, and with the next opportunity, during the years of the Great Terror, 1937 - 1938, they would exact gruesome vengeance. Any participation in that earlier emigration action would now provide at least an initial reason for arrest, and further charges would result from association with the existence of relatives overseas or from any contact whatsoever with Western countries or any foreigners. This appears to be the decisive factor in why, even with similar numbers of minority residents within the region of Altai and Omsk, some 3,171 Germans were arrested, and of those 2,312 were shot in Altai, whereas in the regain of Omsk [considerably farther east], the respective numbers amounted to a "mere" 539 and 128, respectively.

Critical Behavior on the Part of the German Leadership Cadre

During the 1920s the new political leadership tier among German-Russians was not "on the same page." Some of its highly placed representatives attempted to criticize or at least soften in effect the measures taken by the central and regional authorities, effectively equating them with putting the German minority at a real disadvantage in comparison with other nationalities.

Discussion between Wilhelm Kurz (right), head of the government of the Volga-German Republic, and Michail Kalinin, head of the national government; 1928.
For example, the director of the German segment of the Odessa Gouvernement's Executive Committee, Gebhard, complained about the higher economic burden placed on the colonies as compared with that placed on farmers of other nationalities. In fact, during 1921 the former filled their foodstuff requisition burden at 100 to 120 percent, whereas neighboring Russian, Ukrainian. Bulgarian and Moldavian villages delivered at a level of less than fifty percent of requirement. According to a situational report, these accomplishments and performances were ignored, and local party and Soviet functionaries continued to behave in a hostile manner toward German settlers and made them out to be as anti-Soviet and counterrevolutionary.

Criticism of these kinds of opinions and perceptions as well as the struggle against "Greater-Russian Chauvinism" were an important part of the activities of the national party segment during the first years of Soviet power. The frequently encountered distrust from the party and Soviet apparatus may be understandable within the context of a broadly circulated description of the German and, especially, the Mennonite farmers: "Economically revolutionary, politically reactionary." Although objectively the German farmers provided the new powers with greater usefulness, they were considered, based on their efficient economic methods, their relatively high level of education, their various ties with foreign countries, and their apparently strange Protestant and Catholic faith, to be, in the final analysis, significantly more difficult to influence in matters of ideology and social collectivization than other ethnic groups.

At the time, certain "national Bolshevist" tendencies were present even among Volga-German politicians. For example, during a 1928 party confernece in Engels, Johannes Schwab, head of state of the Volga-Republic, publicly criticized the catastrophic state of writing and reading abilities of German children of age 8 to 11: their level of proficiency, 38 percent, was considerably lower than that among Russian and Ukrainian children of the same ages (58.2 percent).

Wilhelm Kurz, head of the Volga-Republic's government, attributed these and similar circumstances to the so-called "Spirit of Moscow," which resulted in a distorted perception of problems at the local level:

"The relationship of central organs with the German Republic is disturbed to an extreme level.
This is apparent from the cliched pattern of action. When a representative of the Volga-Republic takes a problem to any official or office, he is told: 'You are from the German Republic? You are rich - what else do you need? You'll manage by yourselves.' This mechanical, cliched reaction is ingrained not only in experts and administrators, but also in their party superiors."

During discussions within the Central Committee of the Party on April 24, 1928 on the subject of increasing the grain requisitions, Kurz also had the courage to criticize openly the policy of the Central Committee. Moreover, he contradicted the all-powerful Vyacheslav Molotow and strongly rejected the levying of additional obligations on the Volga-German Republic.

The consequences arrived inevitably, even if slowly: Kurz and Schwab were removed from their positions in 1929 and 1930, respectively, and a few years later both fell victim to the Stalinist Wave of Terror.

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