Insurance: Transitory Concepts by German Russians

By Paul Reeb

In today’s American lifestyle, the need for insurance is commonly taken for granted as a necessary part of living much as the household plumbing, treated water and electricity. Seldom, if ever, does anyone posture the possibility that such elements can be successfully left out from a functioning society. Yet, those who enjoy looking into the past to learn of their heritage, they can readily understand the historical era where household plumbing, treated water and electricity were not to be had. Then life did indeed go on without any serious threat to human survival.

“But insurance, what niche in our heritage did that play,” many would stumble to ask? Yes, the thought would barely enter anyone’s mind to consider if it were possible for an individual, an organization, or a total society to function successfully without the so-called protection of insurance. “How odd to even think of such a question,” one might easily ask?

My dormant curiosity has been awakened by a unique combination of events recently occurring within the governing body of our Germans from Russia Heritage Society. Of course, in a small way, I have also been involved. The society has not long ago purchased its first owned home. During the board’s first meeting since the completion of purchase, not surprisingly, the question of insurance coverage arose as perhaps the first order of business. So be it.

What happened may have been a purely a routine matter for the Germans from Russia Heritage Society (GRHS). But for me, the insurance question musters memories of an earlier period of my life, experiences also qualified by some reading and a college classroom. But more precisely, the immediate catalyst reawakening my past experiences came through my reading of the GRHS’s board minutes for 27 March 1982. Two particular paragraphs attracted my scrutiny. The first states:

“The question of obtaining adequate insurance coverage on the condominium unit for liability to third persons was referred to Mr. Hammel and Chris Leingang and Herb Messmer.”

However, preceding this paragraph, the minutes revealed that Mr. Hammel, who is not a board member, was “introduced to the board” and thereafter, by due process, he was appointed to serve as the Society’s representative on the yet-to-be-seated Condominium Association Board of Directors. In Mr. Hammel’s newly acquired capacity, as soon as the business of insurance coverage was acted upon, he was dispatched from the meeting to immediately take care of the board’s mandated concern. Acting expeditiously, Mr. Hammel was able to return back to the meeting before the board’s adjournment. Whereupon the minutes, covered by the second paragraph attracting my scrutiny. It reads:

“Mr. Hammel returned to the meeting and reported that he had obtained $300,000 of liability insurance on the condominium unit for personal liability.”

What I find interesting here is the manner of urgency with which the question of insurance was dispensed with. One gets the impression that here they dealt with a commodity commanding greater priority than plumbing, treated water or electricity. This, in the year 1982, about a century after the first German Russians began settling America’s Great Plains.

But, in the 1920s, six decades ago, Richard Sallet said something quite different about our pioneering grandparents when composing his doctoral thesis which was published in German in 1931. He wrote:

“Although the Russian-Germans are extremely frugal and progressive, it is very difficult to convince them to insure themselves against accidents. For example, the percentage of (these) German farmers who are insured against hail is small. While life insurance for the American has come to be almost taken for granted, one finds relatively few Russian-German heads of families who have life insurance. This is once again typical of their deeply religious attitude which views a hail storm as a trial by God and life insurance as superfluous because of the strong ties within the family.” 1

Though Sallet slides over the insurance spectrum rather casually, I personally would have allowed the topic more weight. The 19th century German-Russian ideological concepts affecting attitudes on this topic are deep grained. For some interesting insights, I choose to turn to words often affirmed by my father and his social colleagues. Even today, the sayings of my father, as I picture the insurance peddler in a Model-T Ford coming up our country lane, ring sharply and clearly in my mind. Bethinking my father’s mental entrenchment caused my head to sink about the time the agent had stopped his clattering machine and had eagerly stepped forward to greet us. Invariably, after a good rain as my father chose to do some yard cleaning, and I by his side, those would be days peddlers would show up, they knowing that farmers would be not busy in the fields. Before he spoke his first word, already my mental defenses were pitched against this shrewd gambler, unscrupulous money taker, smooth talker, social parasite, maker of false promises, tempter into dishonesty, etc., etc. Forty-five minutes later, and I having heaved a sigh of relief, the peddler’s car again had hit the dusty trail without my father having signed any papers.

“It would be defying God’s providence against a pay-off from the insurance company, and that makes it so sinful,” my father said. Then beginning his usual long spiel, he reaffirmed again that his forebears had the unshaken faith and trust in the Divine promise allowing nobody to hunger who earned their bread by the sweat of their brow. “Just think,” he would say asserting, “that agent and his fancy car produce nothing that anyone can eat!” Impressingly, he propounded the notion that the affluent living of those agents and their office staff, plus the construction and upkeep of all those tall skyscrapers in New York City, had to come out of the pockets of farmers who worked from dawn to dusk the year around in summer’s scorching heat and winter’s biting cold. “Those agents,” he repeated, “are crawling leeches that suck blood out of the enslaved suckers who are dumb enough to fall for their smooth talk.” The entire insurance institution, in his view, was clearly a huge parasitic monster dragging down the whole of society. “And is it not a form of gambling, pinning your luck against an insurance pay-off!” my father would repeat once more for good measure. Of course, everyone knew only too well the villainous consequences of gambling.

Curiously though, during the 1930s and 1940s, young German-Russian farmers began to experiment with taking out hail insurance. They soon learned, however, that they were one-fifth hailed out the minute they bought a policy, and they could never recover more than 80% even when totally hailed out. Seldom would hail damage awards exceed the amounts paid out in premium. Ten to fifteen years of playing the role of the “sucker” finally put most grain farmers into the category of the wiser when it came to taking out hail insurance. The admonition of the “old timers” had to be learned the hard way.

My second year in college seemed far removed from those childhood experiences on the farm where insurance peddlers would periodically pester my father. Yet, one day, this feeling also was changed. On a Monday morning, the professor in Philosophy 2 abruptly announced that for the entire week he would give lectures on the merits and demerits of the insurance system. It was to be a week without assigned outside reading. He wanted our minds to remain uncluttered to better listen to his message. Hurray! That sounded great. Reflecting upon my own background, the announcement left me curious, I actually looked forward to hearing another slant, perhaps?

“Oh!” exclaimed the Professor Dr. Frank Dickinson moments later, “If car chains were to be outlawed, there would be a lot less accidents on icy roads.” We students jerked in our seats and looked at him dumbfounded by this incredible statement. “Yes,” he added, “drivers without tire chains mounted would drive extra cautiously because of their sudden awareness to the extreme hazards being encountered, while drivers using chains get a false sense of security and consequently take extra risks.” He then elaborated further for another ten minutes just to bear out his point. His wrap-up conclusion, “So it is with having car insurance, those drivers too often beset themselves with a certain degree of mental laziness; whereas, otherwise, they would think more responsibly and be more cautious.” The rest of his lecture for that class period turned into a mind-boggling glum picture of the overall institutional insurance system. And his refrain, that day, strikingly paralleled what I had before heard from my father. But the grayish-tinted dignified- looking professor, considering his surname, could not have been of German-Russian extraction. It puzzled me then, and still does.

“Insurance,” the sharp-witted professor asserted the next day, “frames the mind into accepting a state of fatalism which shirks all individual and social responsibility. Human minds become so programmed into complete dependence upon outside assistance for every major and minor human experience that all behavior reactions become totally puppet like. Thinking ceases to be required. The medical doctor is expected to take care of Joe Doe’s backache. The mechanic is supposed to take care of his car. The pastor has the responsibility to get him into heaven. The lawyer is to save him from legal entanglements. The banker is relied upon to keep him floating in money. And finally, the insurance company, for a generous fee, is supposedly going to take care of all the catch-alls that can’t be fitted anywhere else; and furthermore, they offer him the assurance of compensation should in this circus ring of professional servants any malpractice occur. That is the most fascinating merry-go-round.”

Now, years later, the vision of those class sessions again reflashes in my mind. How astounding that the college professor’s prevailing theme exuded during his insurance sessions hand-in-gloved with my own father’s philosophical mainstay, “Stay clear of all system promoters.” To accomplish his set-apart image, my father relied heavily on a few cornerstone credos: be self-reliant, be your own boss, work out your own problems, take the consequential attitude, anticipate and be prepared, fix all you can yourself, live within your means, stay debt free; manage your own finances, put the most faith in your own judgment, beware of smooth talkers, and, finally, read and interpret your own Bible. “Doing all these,” he would say, “who needs insurance?”

My father reached 83, and unrelentingly staunch in his beliefs, he never took out a single insurance policy of any kind. Still, he accumulated land and savings like all frugal German-Russians; survived the Great Depression without a dent; provided higher education for all his children; and never suffered the less in his retirement years, he paid his own way all the way and still left a nest egg. By not taking out any insurance, he bucked the trend, and proved to himself that it could be done.

To the last, he would like to hammer away, at any opportunity, at espousing his “pet notions” as they became commonly called. Perhaps most lastingly, his favorite earthy “notion” remained: “To be wasteful is stupid and sinful,” and if he had a chance, he’d likely add, “and insurance is just that!” And one could rest assured that his basic moral scruples were never left unsurfaced either. He’d voice the strongest objection to any scheming and abusive manipulation for exacting wrongful gain through insurance. Hence, to him, the system inherently hatched temptations for dishonesty and offered a license for irresponsibility.

Now, in the year 1982, how differently and lightly we, the most of us, take the matter of insurance. I choose to read the minutes of the 27 March GRHS board meeting once more, and ask whether, just maybe, there should be made room to ponder the above observed heritage a little more?

1. Richard Sallet, Russian-German Settlements in the United States, trans. by La Vern J. Rippley and Armand Bauer, Minneapolis, The Lund Press, 1974, pp. 86, 87.

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