A History Overlooked by Academic Historians: Germans
from Russia on the Northern Plains
A Review Essay by Jessica Clark, Theresa Mack Germans
from Russia History Doctoral Fellow, Germans from Russia Heritage
Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries, Fargo
37th Annual Dakota Conference
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Arends, Shirley Fischer. The Central Dakota Germans: Their History,
Language, and Culture. Washington, DC: Georgetown University
Diede, Pauline Neher. Homesteading
on the Knife River Prairies. Edited by Elizabeth Hampsten.
Bismarck: Germans from Russia Heritage Society, 1983.
Luebke, Frederick C. “Ethnic Group Settlement on the Great
Plains.” Western Historical Quarterly 8 (1977): 405-430.
Rath, George. The Black
Sea Germans in the Dakotas. Freeman: Pine Hill Press, 1977.
Sallet, Richard. Russian-German
Settlements in the United States. Translated by LaVern Rippley
and Armand Bauer. Fargo: North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies,
Sherman, William C., and
Playford V. Thorson. Plains Folk: North Dakota’s Ethnic
History. North Dakota Centennial Heritage Series. Fargo: North
Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, 1988.
Considering that Germans from Russia are a minority group in a
sparsely populated region, there is an abundance of historical literature
available. German-Russians, however, have primarily researched themselves,
writing fascinating, self-affirming accounts of their histories.
Only a few academic historians or detached scholars, ones not themselves
of German-Russian heritage, have published historical works addressing
this ethnic group. Both perspectives, insider and outsider, are
important to the historical understanding of Germans from Russia,
as neither is flawless. German-Russians continue to document their
history for their memory group. People should not assume these accounts
lack historical value, since they each add a valuable and new perspective
to the history of Germans from Russia on the Northern Plains. Indeed,
the insights of insiders are essential. Nevertheless, outsiders
can provide more objective approaches to the group’s history.
Detached scholars sometimes reveal experiences that insiders may
not. Furthermore, outsiders tend to provide explanations that are
more detailed. Mostly, outsiders add new perspectives, not necessarily
better ones, but nonetheless new ones. The historiography of Germans
from Russia on the Northern Plains needs such new perspectives from
detached academic historians.
Originally published in 1931, Russian-German
Settlements in the United States, by Richard Sallet, is an insider’s
perspective on the history of “Russian-Germans.” The work
was Sallet’s 1930 doctoral dissertation from the University
of Koenigsberg. He earned a degree in geography, history, and law.
In 1974 two scholars, LaVern Rippley and Armand Bauer, published an
English translation of Sallet’s work. They also added some editorial
comments in their distinctive footnotes, introduction, and appendices.
Although Sallet, Rippley, and Bauer all had academic backgrounds,
they also had close ties to the German-Russian community. Thus, their
work does not provide a detached academic perspective of German-Russian
As part of the 1974 edition Rippley wrote a short, yet in-depth
introduction to Sallet’s work, which provided the much-needed
historical context. This German-language professor begins his introduction
with Germans leaving their fatherland for Russia during the late
1700s. After a brief explanation of their experiences in Russia,
Rippley describes the German-Russian migration to the United States.
At this point Rippley’s introduction disagrees with Sallet’s
closing argument. Rippley argues, “Russian-Germans were slow
to assimilate into the amorphous, nondescript American mainstream.”
Sallet contends the Russian-Germans were losing their distinct culture
as they adapted to the American way of life. This inconsistency
between the translators, editors, and original author creates a
disjointed historical account.
Furthermore, Rippley’s introduction fails to explain Sallet’s
use of the term, “Russian-German.” Evidently, Sallet
prefers “Russian-German” to “German-Russian.”
In his brief preface he notes that Russian-Germans “are people
of German origin whose ancestors … moved from Germany to Russia
and who, then … emigrated to the United States.” Thus
they are Russian-Germans. Sallet’s work has received positive
reviews for its detailed background information. His work focuses
on the geographical distribution of Russian-Germans throughout the
United States. He does address their customs and religion, albeit
minimally. Members of this memory group are more likely to use his
work to trace their family origins than to understand their history.
Three years following the publication of Sallet’s Russian-German
Settlements in the United States, George Rath published The
Black Sea Germans in the Dakotas. Rath was of German-Russian heritage,
as well as a scholar. He grew up in Russia and eventually moved to
Germany, where he earned a degree in theology. In 1922 Rath immigrated
to the United States and worked as a minister for a number of years,
serving many German-Russian communities. While preaching throughout
the Midwest, Rath earned a bachelors of arts, a master of arts, and
a doctorate in modern languages. After the tragic death of his son,
Rath felt obligated to publish this overview of the German-Russian
migration throughout the Dakotas.
The Black Sea Germans in the
Dakotas begins with a limited description of Germans migrating
to Russia. Instead of describing their life experiences, Rath catalogs
the creation of Russian villages and their churches. Before turning
to the immigration of German-Russians to the United States, Rath also
provides a sketchy description of German-Russian culture. He points
out their unwavering religious devotion, whether it was Evangelical
or Catholic. He also notes their resilient nature, as they held onto
many German traditions.
Once Rath begins explaining the core of his research it quickly
becomes apparent that he is not writing for the sake of historical
analysis. Instead, Rath focuses on the settlement patterns throughout
North and South Dakota. This trained theologian also points out
a number of Protestant churches within each German-Russian town.
Comparable to Sallet’s work, Rath writes from a geographical
standpoint. The work is nothing more than a population study. It
appears that Rath wrote the book to help people within his memory
group trace their family roots, not their cultural history.
The same year Rath’s book was published, in 1977, the Western
Historical Quarterly published an article by Frederick C. Luebke.
“Ethnic Group Settlements on the Great Plains” provides
a refreshing analysis of German-Russian history. Luebke, a professor
of history from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was of German,
not German-Russian, heritage, and so he was able to offer something
of an outsider’s perspective. Whether his viewpoint was that
of an insider or an outsider, he did provide a glimpse into the
social and cultural history of Germans from Russia. This work, however,
examines a much larger picture–European immigration.
According to Luebke, “the importance of foreign-born immigrants
and their children for the settlement of the Great Plains has been
largely overlooked by historians of the frontier and the trans-Mississippi
West.” He insists that academic historians have published
an enormous amount of literature on Native Americans, yet they have
failed to research European immigrants. He believes that most historians
assume these immigrants constitute a homogeneous group. Luebke uses
Walter Prescott Webb as an example, stating that Webb scarcely mentions
“ethnic groups of European origin” throughout his regional
histories. He finds this especially disturbing because past censuses
have shown that European immigrants constitute a large portion of
the Great Plains’ population.
Owing largely to his German background, Luebke provides an in-depth
historical explanation for the German migrations. He does briefly
touch upon the history of the French, Spanish, Irish, English, and
many other European immigrants. Yet, with the concentration of German-Russians
in the Great Plains region, Luebke centered his research on their
experiences. He explains the division of Germans by acknowledging
Germany’s history as heterogeneous provinces. Comparable to
most German-Russians, Luebke describes this ethnic group as “unusually
thrifty, hard-working, and persistent.” Unlike Sallet and
Rath’s books, Luebke explores less of the geographical settlement
patterns and more of their cultural traditions. Moreover, he explores
the methods of adaptation and assimilation. Luebke concludes that
German-Russian communities were able to maintain their cultural
traditions because they were accustomed to preserving their culture
in a foreign land.
Six years following the publications of Luebke’s article and
Rath’s book, the Germans from Russia Heritage Society in Bismarck,
North Dakota, published Pauline Neher Diede’s memoir. Homesteading
on the Knife River Prairies is a short, but intriguing read. William
C. Sherman, a sociologist, wrote an enticing introduction to Diede’s
memoir. Sherman is of English, Irish, and German background; thus
he adds an outsider’s perspective to an insider’s account.
According to him, the lack of information regarding German-Russian
history is a direct result of their settlement patterns. Sherman notes
that most Germans from Russia settled in the “Great Plains’
most rural regions.” These people were “hard-workers”
in small towns and “simple farms.” Furthermore, they were
preoccupied with their survival in a foreign land, and did not have
time to reflect on their lives.
Diede’s account is the story of her immigrant parents. As
a young girl, Diede wanted to record her family’s history
in order to document their story. In 1983 Diede finally fulfilled
one of her childhood aspirations by publishing this work. Untrained
in scholarship, Diede did not attempt to write an objective historical
account. Rather, she simply wanted to document her family’s
trials and tribulations as German-Russians in the Great Plains region.
She began her research by interviewing her father and uncle. In
the forward, Diede reflects on her research process, noting that
it was both alarming and enlightening. She not only learned of the
sufferings her family experienced when they first arrived in Ashley,
North Dakota, but she also discovered a number of interesting family
secrets. For instance, she learned that the marriages of both her
parents and her aunt and uncle had been arranged back in Russia.
This work demonstrates the importance of an insider telling the
memory group’s history.
In 1988, five years after the publication of Diede’s memoir,
the North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies at North Dakota State
University published one of the most influential books regarding North
Dakota’s Ethnic History. Plains Folk: North Dakota’s Ethnic
History is a compilation of seven essays, each of which pertains
to a different ethnic group. William C. Sherman and Playford Thorson
edited this work. As stated earlier, Sherman was sociologist at North
Dakota State University, and Thorson was a historian at the University
of North Dakota. They did not write the essay pertaining to the Germans
from Russia. Sherman provided an informative introduction, which established
the harsh environmental realities that immigrants faced once they
settled in North Dakota. He also wrote a brief description of North
Dakota’s smaller minority groups. Thorson, on the other hand,
wrote an in-depth account of Scandinavians in North Dakota.
Timothy J. Kloberdanz wrote the essay titled, “Volksdeutsche:
The Eastern European Germans – Hungry for Land, Hungry for
a Home: North Dakota’s ‘Other Germans’.”
Kloberdanz is not only a folklorist at North Dakota State University
but also German-Russian. Evidently, “his volksdeutsche forebears
came to Colorado from the Volga Region of Russia.” Kloberdanz’s
research interests center on German-Russian folklore, and as a result,
he has published a number of books and articles pertaining to his
memory group. Despite providing one of the most informative and
well-written accounts about Germans from Russia, Kloberdanz is unable
to write a detached historical account.
Kloberdanz argues that experiences in foreign countries forced German-Russians
to treasure their cultural traditions. He believes that all decedents
of German-Russians also have a deep-rooted pride in their heritage.
According to him, all Eastern Germans have “a preference for
village life and agricultural tasks; a pioneering past; land hunger;
strong religious beliefs; a marked distrust for outsiders; and strained
relations with immigrants direct from Germany.” Kloberdanz
provides a detailed account of the German migration to Russia and
life in this foreign land. Then he follows migration patterns to
the United States. He provides vivid details of the journey west.
Before going into a more thorough description of the Eastern German
groups, Kloberdanz provides an in-depth look into the social life
of Germans from Russia on the Northern Plains. This essay was truly
informative and refreshing.
Within months of the publication of Plains
Folk, Shirley Fischer Arends published her 1988 Georgetown University
dissertation. Like the other authors, Arends has a German-Russian
background, and therefore, she provides another insider perspective.
She does not attempt to remain objective in The Central Dakota Germans:
Their History, Language, and Culture. Despite her ties with the German-Russian
community, reviewers have labeled this work as landmark and fresh.
Nonetheless, Arends is not a trained historian. Rather she is a
linguist, whose research depends on her ethnic group’s cultural
background. While her book begins with an explanation of the German-Russian
diaspora, she only dedicates one chapter to the group’s history.
Within this chapter, Arends provides an immense amount of information
regarding life in Russia. Yet she rushes through an explanation
of German-Russians in the Dakotas. At the heart of this linguist’s
research is an analysis of German-Russian dialect. One reviewer
stated it eloquently by claiming her objective was to “contribute
to the self-understanding and even pride of the German inheritance.”
She did not attempt to document her memory group’s historical
The lack of material by detached scholars in the Germans from Russia
specialized collections, demonstrates the extent to which outsiders
have overlooked this memory group’s history. The American
Historical Society of Germans from Russia in Lincoln, Nebraska,
the Germans from Russia Heritage Society in Bismarck, North Dakota,
and North Dakota State University Libraries’ Germans from
Russia Heritage Collection in Fargo, North Dakota are three larger
collections working to preserve German-Russian heritage in the Great
Plains region. According to Michael M. Miller, the bibliographer
for the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, his collection
has approximately 3,000 books. He estimates that those written by
outsiders constitute only five percent of the collection. In other
words, only 150 out of 3,000 books are from an outsider’s
perspective. He points out that even fewer are by academic historians.
Considering that the Great Plains region is sparsely populated,
and the Germans from Russia are a large minority group within the
region, the lack of historical accounts by detached scholars is
understandable. Germans from Russia have traditionally recorded
their own history for their own memory group. There have only been
a few academic historians or detached scholars documenting the ethnic
group’s history. Despite the lack of detached scholarly accounts,
Shirley Fischer Arends, Pauline Neher Diede, George Rath, Richard
Sallet, Timothy J. Kloberdanz, and many others have provided informative
works regarding German-Russian heritage from an insider’s
viewpoint. Their works, however, only provide one side of the story.
Without this detached academic perspective, the historical treatment
of Germans from Russia remains incomplete. According to Frederick
C. Luebke, historians have overlooked this ethnic group’s
history because they view European immigrants as homogeneous. William
C. Sherman argues that historians have dismissed German-Russian
history because most of them settled in rural areas. Kloberdanz
subtly points out that many German-Russians have “a marked
distrust for outsiders.” Whether due to ignorance, historical
locale and population, or distrust, the fact remains that German-Russian
history is in need of an outsider perspective by academic historians.