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Review of the book The Open Wound: The Genocide of German Ethnic Minorities in Russia and the Soviet Union, 1915-1949 and Beyond

By J. Otto Pohl

Sacramento, California, author of the book, Ethnic Cleansing in the USSR, 1937-1949. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.


Samuel Sinner's new book is a welcome addition to a growing body of literature on the subject of genocide. Sinner describes the various phases of the genocide perpetrated against the Russlanddeutschen and calculates the resulting excess mortality from each of these phases. The whole process of this genocide encompassed 34 years (1915-1949) and three different rulers; Tsar Nicholas II, Lenin, and Stalin. During World War I, Tsar Nicholas II deported close to 200,000 ethnic Germans from Volhynia, Bessarabia, and other western regions of the Russian Empire to Siberia. Sinner estimates that between one third and one half of those deported perished. During the Russian Civil War (1917-1921) Bolshevik forces massacred over 60,000 ethnic Germans in the Volga, Ukraine, Crimea, and Caucasus. These atrocities occurred in the context of forced grain requisitions that left the German communities of the Volga and other areas without any food. Sinner calculates that the famine resulting from these requisitions claimed the lives of 300,000 Russlanddeutschen, 150,000 of them in the Volga region. Under Stalin, the mass deportation of peasants branded as kulaks, executions, and the 1932-1933 Holodomor (Murder Famine) killed another 300,000 Russlanddeutschen by 1937. Finally, Stalin's forced dispersal of virtually the entire German population of the USSR to special settlements and labor army work sites during the 1940s brought the total death toll of the Russlanddeutschen due to the policies of the Russian and Soviet governments from 1915-1949 up to around one million. This final phase also permanently destroyed the centuries old German communities of the Volga, Ukraine, Crimea, and Caucasus.

Sinner's book has two roughly equal parts, one in English and one in German. The two parts are similar, but not identical. The German section has considerably more statistical information regarding demographics than does the English part. In the German portion there are 14 tables regarding population statistics, whereas the English section has no tables. In contrast, the English portion of the text deals more extensively with placing the Tsarist and Soviet policies towards the Russlanddeutschen within the context of comparative genocide studies. Sinner manages to comment on almost the entire English language historiography dealing with the subject. He even devotes several pages to the writings of the present author.

Sinner firmly establishes that the Russlanddeutschen were victims of genocide as defined by the system of international law established after World War II. He also makes the first tentative, but necessary steps of comparing the genocide against the Russlanddeutschen to other more well known crimes against humanity. In particular he highlights some important similarities and parallels between the genocide against the Russlanddeutschen and the Aghed (Armenian Genocide). In many ways this is Sinner's most valuable contribution. He brilliantly demolishes the too often heard argument from some academics that the Soviet government never targeted specific groups for mass murder on the basis of their ethnicity. By showing the historical errors inherent in such arguments, he has greatly advanced the discipline of comparative genocide studies.

A great deal of research still remains to be done regarding this dark chapter of history. But, Sinner's book has established the broad outlines of the genocide against the Russlanddeutschen. He presents the historical narrative of these events and puts them in the proper theoretical and comparative context. His work is a very important contribution to both the scholarship on the Russlanddeutschen and comparative genocide studies.

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North Dakota State University Library
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