The Alsace Emigration To Russia

Homeland Book of the Germans from Russia 1967/1968
Revised by Joseph Schnurr
Published by Countrymen’s Alliance of Germans from Russia

The Alsace Emigration to Russia
By Dr. Joseph S. Height, Franklin, Indiana

It is generally known that a significant number of Alsatians emigrated to Russia in 1803- 1817. There were several Alsace villages in the Odessa district as one can clearly recognize by the location names of Straszburg, Elsasz, Seltz, Mariental and Sulz. Unknown to our countrymen were the particular circumstances and actual reasons that gave rise to this emigration. Up to now one has been satisfied with the supposition and general conclusions of other South German emigration areas. But as we shall see, there were special circumstances and reasons in Alsace that were decisive factors.

Through a lucky coincidence some years ago I found a scientific investigation report of the Russian emigration of the Alsatians released by the French Homeland Researcher Paul Leuilliot. It was published in 1930 in the “Revue Historique” under the title: “L'emigration Alsacienne.” I wish to hereby present to the readers of the Homeland Book a broader view found in the research article.

It must be emphasized that the emigration was limited mostly to Lower Alsace. Coming into question are mainly the districts of Weiszenburg, Hagenau and Zabern. Also the “Kantone” that bordered on South Pfalz and Nord Baden.

That the districts of Weiszenburg and Hagenau were in particular so deeply involved in the emigration is due to the economic and political situation existing in that time period. This area was particularly victimized in the Revolution years and therefore was much poorer than the other cantons in Lower Alsace.

The trouble began when the Prussians and Austrians who, to support the Royalists, had occupied Lower Alsace from the Lauter to Moder before the year's end were driven back over the border by the Revolutionary army. With the retreat of the troops, the terrorized inhabitants hurriedly fled from house and yard in panic and fright to cross the Rhine. That was the “great flight” of 1793 during which at least 40,000 people became homeless.

It was not until years later (1795-1798) that these so called “Emigrierten” [emigrated persons] set foot on home soil again. But they never found their own homes. The government had sold their goods to those who remained and to new arrivals. Since the new regime was “enemy-minded,” it was hard for them to reconcile with the changed conditions. Dispossessed, uprooted and discouraged, the farmers, once owners of goods and property, now had to serve as hired men and field workers to earn their miserable bread.

Employment opportunities were rare and unsure. Money was scarce and wages were highly taxed. For those who returned there was no possibility of owning property since all community property had been divided among those who remained. In addition there were the abuses. The poor people complained about the unjust demands for outstanding taxes, the increased demands for contributions, and especially the severe strictness in supervising the community forest lands. Two citizens from Seltz, for instance, complained in their own names as well as in the names of their fellow citizens about the government's authority to impose excessive punishment and fines for forest wantonness, particularly as to the strong prohibition against gathering the dead foliage in the community forests. "We are not able to pay fines of up to thirteen to eighteen franks." The mayor of Seltz added: "We unconditionally need the dead foliage. We live on potatoes and cheese curds. If we do not get foliage we cannot fertilize our potato fields." (March 17, 1808). When an immigrant from Lobsann was asked why he was leaving, he declared that he would not risk not gathering firewood in the forest and then finding himself freezing to death in the coming winter.

A further complaint was about the cost of wood. Because of the speculation by middlemen and a senseless labor dispute between Weiszenburg and Speyer, the cost of lumber was tripled. A modest but diligent day laborer declared, for instance, that he was leaving because lumber was so expensive that he could not build a house for himself.

The real and deepest reason that convinced the Lower Alsatian to move was his unshakeable desire to own ground. In an effort on the part of three emigrants from Roppenheim, Schirrhoffen and Leutenheim to obtain travel visas, they protested that it was not the spirit of dissatisfaction and not laziness that induced them to move away, but iron necessity. "We are farmers without land. We could be day laborers but those are so numerous that each addition to their number only increases the need of the individual because the wages constantly get lower. In our communities the landed property is already divided into small farms in such a manner that each family can handle its own essential work."

The Straszburger Barrister Flaxland referred to "the massive parcelling out of commodities" and confessed that it was pointless to advise the emigrants to remain slaves, dig at the Napoleon Canal, or manage a trade because of a burning desire that drives them to emigrate. A married man cannot decide to serve as a hired man. As head of a family, he does not want to work for a boss and in case his share of community property is not enough, he would rather go to a foreign land where he is promised his own property. “It is, therefor, not surprising that, for instance, on one list of thirty-one emigrants, the names of ten so-called "servant small farmers," twenty day-laborers, and only a single craftsman appeared.

The Russian emigration of the Alsatians began in 1803 when the invitation of Czar Alexander was announced. During that year and the years following many families moved from Lauterecke to Odessa and settled in the four Catholic colonies in the Groszliebental district near Odessa and in the Krim [Crimea].

Because of the war unrest caused by Napoleon, emigration was almost totally interrupted. Not until 1808 and 1809 did the swell of emigration develop. It spread not only over the Weiszburger and Haugenauer land, but also included the Südpfalz and the Dukedom of Baden. These emigrants became the settlers of the Catholic colonies in the Kutschurganer and Beresaner district. A considerable number of Alsatians of the Evangelical faith settled in the colonies of Worms and Rohrbach at that time.

In spite of little attention being paid these emigrants in 1803, great attention was paid by the government officials to the massive departures in 1808 and 1809. They observed now that the emigration fever attacked not only poor farmers and day laborers, but also well-established landlords and craftsmen who set out to move to the land of promise, "New Russia.” As early as in the summer of 1808 more than 1,000 people moved afar from the district of Weisenburg. That was only the beginning. Soon there was hardly a village between the Lauter and the Moder where not at least one family had decided to emigrate. In the districts of Seltz and Lauterburg there were several villages from which thirty to forty families moved to Russia. In 1809 in the Dukedom of Baden more than 900 emigrants were counted.

The Alsatian government at that time was occupied with the question of whether the emigration was spontaneous or organized. As early as 1808 the "Präfekten" [governor] of Weisenburg knew that there were Russian agents in Rastatt and that foreign envoys were in contact with the inhabitants. The mayor of Seltz knew that the former postmaster at Rastatt held meetings on a nearby hill and won many citizens over to emigration. The mayor of Kesseldorf gave his colleague in Seltz the news that an official from Rastatt appeared in the Village Management Office to register the Alsacers as subjects of the Grand Duke. He had the printed Russian visas with him and announced that the emigrants should gather at the stone wall at Rastatt to begin the June 25th journey.

Still better known is the Russian Organization. The Consul in Frankfort, a banker named Maurice Bethmann was commissioned to provide the emigrants with visas and traveling money. And in Weifienburg in May of 1809 a certain Anton, previous Austrian Husar, was arrested because in public houses he openly delivered the emigration visas that were obtained by Bethmann. It is not known whether flyers were used. It is certain that the letters of the earlier departed emigrants contributed much in promoting further emigration.

For example: A citizen from Lobsann mentioned that he received a letter from a brother-in-law in the Krim [Crimea] with the information that destitute emigrants should go to Vienna where the Russian ambassador would advance the money necessary to travel to Russia. Copies of these letters from Russia were even made and addressed to Rastatt general delivery. It is also known that between 1803 and 1808 Russian immigrant colonists sent many letters to relatives and friends back in the old homeland. Some of these letters were intercepted upon arrival and held by the Alsatian authorities. There was, for instance, the letter that Johann-Adam Hieb wrote in 1808 to his brother-in-law, George Koch, saying, “I am writing to you, my brother-in-law, to ask you to come to this land with your family and all relatives whose circumstances permit it. Here we are provided with meat and bread. The wine prices are the same as those for you at home. Fruit is plentiful. Anyone arriving here with 1,000 Florins lives like a nobleman. Each family of four to five members receives without cost 180 Arpents (62 hektar) of arable land and pastureland. One also receives an advance of 350 rubels… The soil need not be fertilized here; the women need not do fieldwork here. One can easily acquire 100 head of cattle, for which enough pasture is available. I live four miles (28 km) from Odessa, on the shores of the Black Sea, and three miles from Moldau. I own twenty oxen, eight cows, three horses, much poultry and all necessary equipment for farming. Since the first year of our arrival, we have made twelve loads of hay each summer. The idea that the cows here do not supply butter here is false. The one of you who contemplates moving here can bring along a pair of boots for me.”

Another immigrant, George Laturnus, Community Secretary from Marienthal near Odessa, writes on June 1, 1808: “Our mother (meant here is the wife) weeps for joy to be living in such a happy land. We once thought that Oberseebach was so rich with wheat, but here the poorest colonist has more than the richest farmer at home with you… There are no day workers here… We live at the Russian border. Up to there, one has to pay his own travel expenses, but from there we are driven in vehicles as far as Odessa, four miles (28 km) from where we live. Everyone gets his share of land. Each family gets a house on 180 Arpents (62 hektar) of land and 1.289 Francs in your monetary system, to furnish his first household. The smaller villages consist of sixty families. Each religious group has its own church and its own priest… Our chickens eat more grain and our horses crush more under their feet than one needs to nourish a family for a whole year. Yes, my brother George and I cannot bring the crop in without help. The new colonists (Kutschurganer) help us with the harvest for one-third of the crop. Our main work periods are sowing time, the harvest and hay making. The women work in the kitchen. I own four yokes of oxen, two horses, six cows, many pigs and so many chickens that we get a basket full of eggs each day. Think not, dear parents, that I make this up. I can truthfully say that I had to beg for my bread at home, but here all is going well with us now. We have no need to fertilize our land. The fruits, the wine and meat cost the same as for you at home.”

The third letter selected to quote from was written to Johannes Kirschner of Seltz at the Rhine. It was written by his sons in Kleinliebenthal on January 20, 1809. Quote: "Every kind of fruit is in over-abundance here. This is not a wilderness as you might believe, but very beautiful and level land. The Russians are people of good character and good morals. Their laws are…

[N.B.: Text missing after page 108.]

Map: Places in Alsace-Lothringen from which emigrations to Russia took place.
Prepared by Dr. K. Stumpp

Our appreciation is extended to Alma M. Herman for translation of this article.

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