Bessarabien: Deutsche Kolonisten am Schwarzen Meer

Book Review by Allyn Brosz

Schmidt, Ute. Bessarabien Deutsche Kolonisten am Schwarzen Meer. Deutsches Kulturforum östliches Europa, Postdam, Germany, 2008.

Dr. Ute Schmidt’s comprehensive history of the Germans in Bessarabia is a welcome addition to the literature of the ethnic Germans in southeastern Europe. To be sure, the Heimatbuch der Bessarabiendeutschen remains a valuable resource. Many good village history books, village family registers [Ortssippenbücher], and family histories focusing on the German minority in this area of the world have also been published over the years. Now Dr. Ute Schmidt has synthesized this material to present an integrated history of the Bessarabian Germans -- the best that has appeared in more than forty years. It is written in German for a general audience, nicely complementing the Heimatbuch der Bessarabiendeutschen.

Some writers have conflated the histories of the Bessarabian and Black Sea Germans in a manner that often confuses more than it clarifies. The Bessarabian Germans shared some history with the Black Sea Germans because of their geographical proximity, but important differences set them apart. The tsarist manifesto opening Bessarabia for settlement in 1813 was issued almost a decade later than the 1804 manifesto that opened immigration to the Black Sea provinces of Cherson and Taurida. Sizeable groups of immigrants came to Bessarabia from Württemberg, either directly or after a brief interlude in South Prussia (i. e., the Warsaw colonists), and others arrived from the north German states. In contrast, the Black Sea colonies contained proportionally more settlers from Alsace and the Palatinate. In religious terms, the pietistic movement was more deeply rooted in Bessarabia, while the Reformed Church generally found more support among the Black Sea colonists. Finally, however, it was the political settlement after World War I that ultimately set the Bessarabian and Black Sea Germans on radically different paths. The Black Sea colonists were subsumed in the Soviet sphere of influence, subjected in turn to civil war, collectivization, famine, and the Great Terror. The Bessarabian Germans escaped most of that; they were abruptly separated from the newly-formed Soviet Union and their territory was ceded to Rumania. Theirs was by no means an easy fate, however, because the Germans in Bessarabia felt the mounting pressure of a resurgent Rumanian nationalism during the 1920s and 1930s as they were expected to assimilate into the greater Rumanian society.

Dr. Ute Schmidt has written this history for a general audience. It is much more approachable than her 2005 magisterial, scholarly study, Die Deutschen aus Bessarabien:  Eine Minderheit aus Südosteuropa (1814 bis heute). That study focused primarily on the resettlement experiences of the Bessarabian Germans and their assimilation into postwar German society. The strength of Dr. Schmidt’s current book lies in her presentation of the unique history of the Germans in Bessarabia within the broader context of geopolitical tensions between Russia and its western European neighbors. She paints with a broad brush and there are passages that could have benefited from more detail and specific examples. I hope there will be sufficient demand for this book to allow Dr. Schmidt to expand the book in a second edition.

Dr. Schmidt begins by outlining the historical forces that have shaped this international crossroads since antiquity. Successive chapters deal with broad and important themes affecting the Germans in Bessarabia:  settlement and settlement conditions; special administrative oversight and local self-government; religious and church life; the German school system in Bessarabia; agriculture, animal husbandry, and viniculture; handicrafts, industry, trade, and infrastructure; village life; custom and culture; population expansion and the occupational and social structure of the Germans in Bessarabia; the Germans in an ethnically and culturally diverse Bessarabia; Russian policy during the period between the suspension of special administrative oversight in 1871 until the Russian Revolution of February 1917; the period of Rumanian rule from 1918 to 1940; resettlement, flight, and integration into postwar Germany. The final section, “Bessarabia after 1940 until the present – impressions from a divided land,” offers an up-to-date assessment of the land that the Germans left behind.

Appendices include lists of loan words in the dialect of the Bessarabian Germans, bibliographic sources, people, places, images, and tables. A time table and a concordance are also included. The book is richly illustrated throughout, containing more than 260 color and black and white photographs. Even if you don’t speak a word of German, or if you manage to get through this book only with the help of a well-worn German-English dictionary, the book is worth having in your personal library just for the images. The twenty rare color photographs of the 1940 resettlement are, by themselves, worth the price of the book.

In summary, this is a first-rate book and should be on the bookshelf of anyone who is interested in the history, culture, and destiny of the Bessarabian Germans. It is, without question, the authoritative history of the Germans in Bessarabia. An English-language translation for the sizeable North American readership would be very welcome.

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