Soviet-German "Rehabilitation" and the Ethnic German Nationalist Wiedergeburt in the USSR and CIS, 1987-1995

By Eric J. Schmaltz

Master of Arts Thesis, Department of History

Graduate Faculty, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, ND, 1996, 180 leaves. Germans from Russia DK34.G3 S347 1993. (not available on interlibrary loan).


After 1955, the Soviet Germans and other Soviet minority groups struggled to preserve their ethnic identities. The Stalin years had witnessed the abolition of the limited territorial, political, and cultural concessions provided by Lenin. The most opportune moment for them to act politically was during the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras.

Inspired by post-Stalinist "rehabilitation" policies, the Germans established the Wiedergeburt ("Rebirth") nationalist movement in 1989. Claiming to represent the ethnic Germans' national interests, the Wiedergeburt made demands that rested on Lenins notion of self-determination--namely, a people's right to determine its own political status. Formerly a peasant people, many ethnic Germans during the Soviet era began articulating radical democratic and nationalist demands in the wake of their own socio-economic modernization and growing political awareness.

The Wiedergeburt was an unintended outgrowth of Soviet nationalities policies. Originally attempting to provoke an international socialist revolution, the Soviet Union based its nationalities' policies on Marxist-Leninism, an ideology advocating political equality and socio-economic modernization. Soviet nationalities' policies had politicized ethnicity to the point of breaking up the Soviet Union.

The regime failed to live up to its ideological principles by refusing to grant autonomy to the Soviet Germans, and the Wiedergeburt was unable to unify the ethnic German community. The Germans' political and regional antagonisms, the differences of opinion between German progressives and traditionalists, and German mass emigration also adversely affected this ethnic group's chances for autonomy in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Soviet-German elite and its supporters were the last best hope for an ethnic group that has lived in the East for more than two hundred years. Tragically, at the very moment the Soviet Germans achieved political consciousness, the ethnic German community and the Soviet Union were disintegrating. After an unsuccessful struggle for self-determination, the ethnic German community must acknowledge that it still lacks the two major prerequisites for an independent nation-state: territory and people. Without a modern state, the ethnic German community will inevitably perish within the next generation. Socio-economic modernization and political integration, initiated by the Soviet system, will erode the last traces of German ethnicity in the CIS.

With the Rebirths' political decline, the ethnic Germans must either emigrate to the ancestral homeland of Germany and assimilate into `West' German society, or they must assimilate into the post-Soviet republics. For the German minority staying in the East, its current assimilation into the non-Asian republics will be the preferable solution to national self-determination. The realistic decision to adopt a new homeland or nation-state, either in Germany or the CIS, will improve their long term socio-economic and political prospects as national citizens.

(Abstract reprinted with permission of the author.)

Eric J. Schmaltz received his Bachelor of Arts in History and German from Saint Olaf College, Northfield, MN, in 1994 and his Master of Arts from the Department of History, Graduate Faculty, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, ND, in 1996. He completed his graduate studies in the field of history with a Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. During the summer of 1994 and 1995, he was employed at the North Dakota State University Libraries working with the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection.

In June, 1995, Eric Schmaltz completed an oral history interview in the German language with the Most Reverend Joseph Werth, Bishop of Siberia, Russia. The 1995 interview was published in 1996 in the English, German, and Russian languages.

The published interview of Bishop Joseph Werth by Eric J. Schmaltz is available for purchase from the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, NDSU Libraries, P.O. Box 5599, Fargo, ND 58105-5599, or the Germans from Russia Heritage Society, 1008 East Central Avenue, Bismarck, ND 58501.

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