Wir Wollen Deutsche Bleiben: We Want to Remain Germans: The Story of the Volga Germans

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Walters, George J. Wir Wollen Deutsche Bleiben: We Want to Remain Germans: The Story of the Volga Germans. Kansas City, Missouri: Halcyon House, 1982.

The author of this general history of the Germans from Russia is expert in the political context in which the history of the Germans of the colonies unfolded. His family had received a desperate famine letter from an uncle in Russia, so they related very closely to what was happening. Walters' sources consisted of materials made available to him by the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia (AHSGR). They are listed in a "Bibliographical Essay," and are frequently mentioned within the text.

This book, written in English despite the German title (translation: We Want to Remain German), which is not an especially good fit with the content of the book, is best read by persons with a bit of background. Walters was especially knowledgeable about the Catholic villages, while the general history by Fred C. Koch focuses on the Lutheran. (Koch, Fred C. "The Volga Germans: In Russia and the Americas, from 1763 to the Present". University Park and London, The Pennsylvania State University Press. 1977.) The two together give readers a broader perspective than either does alone.

In his researches, Walters encountered interesting bits of information, including some primary materials. He tells of a report by Dr. Karl Stumpp on the conditions he found and the interviews he conducted. (This would have been about the beginning of World War II.) Stumpp talks about what people said about the period of collectivization and the famines, especially the one in the early 1930s. Walters weaves into the book details from the records kept by Peter Sinner, a man who left a handwritten record of the Volga enclaves from the 1880s to 1927. Born in 1879 in Schilling, Sinner spoke out against hatred of the Jews. Another first-person account Walters used was that of John Klein, a German-Russian soldier who was pressed into the German army, as many were. Klein found himself in a POW camp in Siberia and benefited greatly from being able to speak both German and Russian, though he found it expedient to pretend he was much more ignorant than he was. Another report by Victor Leiker, a New Jersey Journalist, who interviewed four natives of the Volga Republic in 1968 about the deportation, will be quoted later in this review.

Walters treats a sequence of events familiar to readers of German-Russian history: Wars in Europe, largely related to efforts to put down Protestantism, lasted nonstop from 1618 to 1763 and created untold misery throughout Europe. He tells of conditions in Russia at the time of Catherine the Great's ascent to the throne, and how it was that she, a German princess, came to Russia in the first place. She not only invited Germans to settle South Russia but maintained an interest in them. He treats the Manifesto, the journey to Russia by the first colonists, the nature of the land and how the villages were organized, attacks by bandits and native tribesmen, and village life after things settled down a bit and schools were established.

He reports the struggle to maintain a viable faith life within the Catholic Church. The coming of Polish priests, then the Jesuits, then Polish regulars, then Dominicans, Carmelites, and others meant that the people were better served at some times than others. The building of churches, the first of logs, then brick covered with stucco, proved that church and church buildings were always a priority. The Diocese of Tiraspol, established in 1847, lasted until its dissolution by the communists. He tells of the social life in the villages: funeral and wedding customs, holiday observances, songs (text only), and language characteristics. The high water mark within the Volga colonies was 1871, after which Russification became government policy and promises to the colonists, including freedom from military service, were rescinded. This led to the emigration of thousands to the Americas, and he tells about the life the people established there. The author understands how the political life of Russia affected why the German colonists lived a good life for many years and later why great havoc was visited upon the people.

The lives under communism of those who did not emigrate takes up a large portion of the book. He looks at the nature of work on the collective farms during the initial period of collectivization and records the deterioration of the social, religious, cultural, and physical well-being of the people. A priest, Alexander Frison, was originally imprisoned for giving clothes to the poor. The priest suffered torture, was interrogated mercilessly, then was executed the day of the verdict by a firing squad in the prison yard in Simferopol.

Walters writes about Germany and the Third Reich as a background for understanding the German military attack on Russia. Without this attack, the resident ethnic Germans would probably not have endured mass deportations. The Germans in Russia endured great conflict, when it came to loyalty, as did also some Russians, because their terrible treatment under the communists did not inspire loyalty. The Ukrainians also wanted a country of their own and hoped the Germans, if they were victorious, would support this. Russians, Belorussians, and Germans all hoped for a restoration of individual farming and religion. Everyone hoped for a better life.

The book deals in depth with the evacuation of the Volga villages in 1941. Walters notes that, because almost all men under 40 were serving in the military, the Russian army evacuated villages largely populated by older men and "old and middle-aged women and young children." Some 380,000 persons from 300 villages were evacuated from the Volga area, fulfilling a plan first mapped out before World War I. It involved not only Germans but several other ethnic groups. He mentions an intriguing fact: "Many of the young girls were employed as domestic servants in the big cities of Russia. They were in much demand in that capacity, and there is no evidence they were included among the banished."

The following chilling account appears in the book:

"Perhaps the best account of what happened is given by Victor Leiker, a New Jersey Journalist, who interviewed four natives of the Volga Republic in 1968. The men, ranging in age from forty-nine to fifty-three, made their way to Germany and settled there after the war. Leiker described the evacuation of Obermonjour as follows: In Obermonjour the order came early in the morning. The people were given four hours in which to prepare for the evacuation. Anyone resisting or attempting to hide would be summarily shot, and a few were. Soldiers arrived a few hours after the order and herded the people to the banks of the river where they boarded barges and were taken to a railhead. Each person, regardless of age, was allowed one suitcase or bundle. Some suspected that they would be sent to Siberia and took all the clothes and bedding they could carry. Others took as much food as they could assemble. In the long run those with the extra clothing and bedding had the best chance of surviving the cold in the north where little or no preparation had been made for their arrival.

"At the railhead the people were loaded into freight and cattle cars, some with open vents and some with no vents at all. And so began the long, horrible and disastrous trip to Siberia. No statistics are available, and we shall probably never know how many died on their trip to the the forced labor camps and how many in the forests, mines and fields of Siberia....There was only one railroad running through the Volga Republic and it had no branch lines. The people were almost always forced to walk to the nearest railroad station. It can be imagined that many of those not in good health, that many of the old and young, did not make it to the station." He notes that little is known about banished persons who survived, and he expresses anger that Russia has escaped censure from the international community for what it has done.

The book ends with a powerful essay, "Empty Villages," written on the 40th anniversary of the deportations, 1981-2. Walters recaps what happened and hopes that, as archives are opened, the full story will be told. This is a good book to read for those interested in the author's areas of emphasis and provides additional details for persons who have read other histories.

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