From the Steppes to the Prairies: The Story of the Germans Settling in Russia on the Volga and Ukraine

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Aberle, George P. From the Steppes to the Prairies: The Story of the Germans Settling in Russia on the Volga and Ukraine. Bismarck, North Dakota: The Bismarck Tribune, 1963.

Msgr. George P. Aberle of Dickinson, North Dakota had access to few sources, he says, when he undertook to write his history of the Germans from Russia. He says he used personal knowledge, observation, and a few fragments and articles. His book predates the general histories by Joseph S. Height and Adam Giesinger by about 10 years, so his is a true pioneering work. Frequently this reviewer questioned facts (e.g. he says that German colonists took little or no part in the political life of the country in Russia), so it may not be the best first book to read. But he records stories the others do not, gives lots of names and detail, and Germans from Russia buffs will enjoy it. He gives specific facts about where villagers from South Russia settled in the United States, so it is also useful to persons collecting their family history.

The book opens with a thumbnail history of Russia's dealings with the Mongols and Tartars and how they set the stage for Catherine the Great and her manifesto. Throughout, he has a good sense of the historical setting against which the German Russians played out their life in and eventual exit from the area above the Black Sea. He loves stories. For example, he notes that the presence of huge wolves made it necessary for the first settlers to travel in groups and carry a gun at all times. He reports that various skills possessed by the first colonists were in demand by their Russian neighbors, and the groups benefited each other. German blacksmiths got iron and steel from the Russian "smelteries" to make items such as plows. It is clear that Msgr. Aberle accepts negative statements about Russians as fact, but one must realize that this was written shortly before political correctness kicked in.

He sets the German colonists'story firmly within the historical/political events of the day, in Russia and in the United States. He pays attention to migration to South America, noting that emissaries from countries in South America visited the German colonies in Russia, but he knows little detail about the political situation there once they arrived. He records an effort in the Crimea to herd Catholic settlers into the Orthodox Church and relishes the considerable embarrassment of Orthodox Church officials when the several hundred people who were to have been taken into the Orthodox Church failed to show up for the reception. He also tells of the late arrival of Bohemians and Moravians to the Crimea. He says that within 100 years, more than 100,000 Germans lived in Russian cities rather than on farms. The focus of the book is on the Catholic colonies, but Msgr. Aberle frequently reminds readers that there were many Protestant colonies.

He recognizes 1876 as a year that marked change in the status of the German people in Russia. That was when the Russian government arbitrarily revoked longstanding policies, changing their German colonists' status and increasing distrust where once there was cooperation. Msgr Aberle traces the deterioration in the relationship between the Germans and the Russian government and the common people. In 1861, the serfs were freed but not offered free land as the German colonists had. He notes that the German colonists came to be regarded as aliens and intruders, and the Russians, who had seen themselves as neighbors, became convinced that whatever the Germans possessed belonged rightly to them. An escalating level of thievery, especially by the Germans' former Russian employees, became the order of the day without interference by law enforcement or condemnation by the judges. Bad feelings grew and hiring stopped. Up to 1876, Germans had had their own courts and dealt with all crimes except the most serious, such as murder, which was judged by the district court. In 1876, "Russian judges were appointed in every district."

He provides an interesting list of the wars in which soldiers from the German colonies fought:

World War I--1914-1917

Msgr. Aberle is very aware of the hardships endured by the settlers on the prairies of North and South Dakota. He tells of dangerous prairie fires, storms, distance from other settlers, primitive tools, and the difficulty in providing basic necessities. This book would be a good general source for persons studying pioneer life. He always notes strength of character, religious faith, and incredible persistence in the face of hardship. We learn of the difficulty of providing clergy and a consistent religious life and of lay-led worship even among Catholics.

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