Memorial Essay

An academic reflection on the history and current status of the German Russians, particularly the Volga Germans, published in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the deportation of the entire German population from the Volga German Republic to Siberia and Kazakhstan.

Krieger, Viktor. "Memorial Essay." From www.viktor-krieger.de, August 2011.

Translation from the original German-language text to American English was provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado. Editorial assistance was provided by Drs. Nancy Herzog and Dona Reeves-Marquardt.


The author provided the following abstract, which he had not included in the article posted on his web site:

Abstract

On the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of August 28, 1941, a date that marked the onset of the deportation and eventual decades of deprivation of rights of the German minority in the Soviet Union, Viktor Krieger, a historian concentrating on Eastern Europe, has prepared a memorial essay in which he illuminates the historical background, the struggle for citizen’s rights and equality, the movement for the restoration of the illegally liquidated Volga Republic, and the current situation of this ethnic group in the Russian Federation (RF) and in Germany.

The topical relevance of his work is evident in the fact that around 2.7 million Federal citizens of German Russian origin currently reside in Germany and not less than half a million German Russians still live in Russia. With this essay Krieger demonstrates convincingly that this minority, in clear contrast with other national minorities, continues as ever to be gravely disadvantaged in political, linguistic and socio-cultural matters. Moreover, in Germany there also continue to exist critical deficits in acknowledgment of the experiences of millions of German Russian Federal citizens as being an integral part of the national and European cultural and historical memory. 

A MEMORIAL ESSAY

August 28, 1941 is the darkest date in centuries of German Russian history, for on that day seventy years ago, the Supreme Party and State leadership of the Soviet Union ordered the comprehensive deportation of this minority from the European part of the USSR to Siberia and Kazakhstan. Residing in Germany today are around 2.7 million German citizens—several generations--of German Russian origin. These people have a legitimate concern that the memory of that crime be observed in this country [Germany] in an appropriate and dignified manner.

This essay covers the following topics:

Historical Background

1. World War I and the Intra-War Period        
2. Deportation, Induction into Forced Labor and Special Settlements, 1941-1955
            2.1 Using the Volga Germans as Tools of Propaganda
            2.2 Liquidation of the Volga Republic and Banishment of its German Population
            2.3 Germans as Persons with Diminished Rights
            2.4 The 1944-1946 Criminal Trials of  Volga German Republic Government Members
            2.5 Release from the Work Camps, Subsequent “Special Settlers” Status
3. Half-Hearted Rehabilitation, 1956-1985
            3.1 Relief Following Stalin’s Death, Return of the Caucasus Peoples
            3.2 First Emigration Attempts during the 1950s
            3.3 Massive Autonomy Movement in the 1960s
            3.4 Sustained Discrimination Directed against the German Minority
            3.5 Forced Transformation of Identity
            3.6 Provocation: An Offer of German Autonomy in Kazakhstan, 1979
            3.7 Autonomy Strivings among Artists and Intellectuals
4. Perestroika and Renewed Hopes
5. Disappointments under Yeltsin, 1991-1999

The Current Situation

6. The Situation of Today’s German Minority in Russia
7. German Russians in the Federal Republic [of Germany]
8. Suggestions, Challenges re the Occasion of the 70th Anniversary of Mourning the Deportation
Observations and Conclusions
Important Sources and Bibliography

World War I and the Intra-War Period

The descendants of the German settlers (colonists) distinguished themselves by their pronounced fidelity to the Tsar and their loyalty to the prevailing social and political order. The leadership echelon of the state considered them a stabilizing factor of the system. By the beginning of the 20th Century, in the Districts of Saratov and Samara alone they numbered around 600,000 Russian citizens--former colonists who had populated a space the size of Rheinland-Pfalz [Rhenish Palatinate], about 20,000 sq. km. [or ca. 7,700 square miles]. Festivities held in 1914 in observance of the 150 years since the Germans had arrived at the Volga were an impressive demonstration of the emergence of a new and independent nation of settlers, somewhat akin to the French Canadians. Still, across the Tsarist Empire they had not yet developed any kind of general, nationalist awareness or identity. Rather, they used the names of geographical settlement areas to identify themselves correspondingly as Volga Germans, Black Sea Germans (or South Russian Colonists), South Russian Mennonites, Caucasus Germans, Crimean Germans, or Volhynia Germans.

A briskly written “knapsack” book, in which the harmfulness of the “Russian Germans” is described in plain and easy to remember words such as “The Second Patriotic War, 1914,” “German … Wasps. Three Stories: (1) Comrades, (2) Host and Servant, (3) Two Thoughts. Moscow, 1914.”

However, their ever increasing ownership of land and the rapid expansion of the Protestant faith among the Orthodox population--the so-called Stundismus, which had been established in the German settlements of today’s Southern Ukraine--eventually evoked anti-German press campaigns and led to attempts to curtail the Germans’ rights. An additional factor was a growing uneasiness concerning military and economic developments in the German Empire.  

The Tsar’s immediate declaration of the First World War as a “Patriotic War” was directed primarily against the German Reich, but also against Germans per se, deliberately evoking the struggle of 1812-1813 against the French and Napoleon. Following crushing defeats in East Prussia, the Russian military in particular pressed for the deportation of the German colonists, whom they considered unreliable and as potential spies. Consequently, toward the end of 1914 and in 1915, around 200,000 Russian subjects of German origin in Russian Poland, in Volhynia, in Podolia and in other regions close to the border were forced to leave their places of residence. This despite the fact around 250,000 Germans were serving in the Russian army as officers and soldiers. In Moscow, between May 26 and May 29, 1915 there was a serious anti-German pogrom which resulted in several deaths and injuries and caused considerable economic damage. During the course of the war a set of legislation was enacted with the aim of liquidating German land ownership. Only the bourgeois February Revolution of 1917 saved the German Russians from economic ruin and cultural destruction.

The initial Bolshevik policy on nationalities constituted a positive change from that of the Tsarist Empire. The new national leadership viewed the Volga Germans as a genuinely independent people and granted them the right to nationalist development in language and culture, and to establish their own territorial autonomy. Accordingly, a Resolution by the Tenth Congress of the Bolshevik Party in March of 1921, entitled “Regarding the Immediate Tasks of the Party Concerning the Question of Nationality,” contained the following statement:

    The population of the RSFSR [Russia’s Socialist Federative Soviet Republic] and its associated Republics stands at around 140 million, nearly 64 million of that number being Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Kirghiz, Uzbeks, Turkmenians, Tajiks, Azerbaijanis, Volga Tatars, Crimean Tatars, Bukharans, Khivans, Bashkirs, Armenians, Chechens, Kabardines, Ossetians, Cherkesses, Ingushes, Karachays, Balkarians, Kalmyks, Karelians, Darghinians, Kasikmuchians, Kyurinians, Kumyks, Mari, Chuvashes, Volga Germans [author’s emphasis], Buryats, Yakuts, etc. The objectives of the Tsarist policy regarding these peoples were to destroy any beginnings of nationalist states, to mutilate their cultures and languages, to keep them in a constant state of uncertainty and, lastly, to Russify them as far as possible. The result of this policy was the underdevelopment and political backwardness of these peoples.

In 1918 the Volga German Workers’ Commune (an Autonomous Region) was established, and in 1924 it was upgraded to the Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic (ASSR) of Volga Germans. Moreover, during the 1920s and early 1930s, administrative [German] rural nationalist districts (rayons) were created in Ukraine, the North Caucasus, the South Urals, on the Crimean Peninsula, and in Siberia. Although in the Bolshevik Soviet state there was in reality no such thing as local self-governance, not to speak of self-determining development, the Volga Republic and the network of German rayons did satisfy the most important preconditions for limited political representation of their interests, as well as for consideration of linguistic, cultural and social matters.

Deputy’s ticket for Alexander Heckmann (1908-1994), Representative of the Supreme Soviet of the Volga German ASSR, and the last government leader of the Republic. He was also a representative to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and of the Russian Federation. None of this kept the powers that be from deporting him to Siberia after the dissolution of the Volga Republic in September, 1941, placing him into a forced-labor camp a few months later and sentencing him there.

However, the mid-1930s saw a major switch toward Soviet patriotism, toward a cutting off from anything abroad, and toward the definition of the concept of so-called “hostile nationalities” with a “mother state” outside the borders of the Soviet Union. In all of this, an undoubtedly important role was played by Soviet phobia, that is, the fear of ruinous intervention from the outside. This was based on the conjecture that foreign states could introduce damaging influences via “diaspora” nationalities. In the eyes of Soviet leadership, ethnic minorities thus constituted a potential threat, and that circumstance in itself served to justify mass arrests and “prophylactic” deportations. By 1935 the entire Finnish minority from the Leningrad region was resettled. Some 69,000 Polish and German border area residents in Ukraine were banished to Northern Kazakhstan during 1936, and the Polish nationalist Marchlevski District and the German Pulin District in the Zhitomir area ceased to exist. The same fate was visited upon an entire ethnic group when 170,000 Soviet Koreans were deported from the Far East to Central Asia.

The diaspora minorities were victimized by the Great Terror of 1937-1938, again at a higher than average rate. (Cf. Table 1.) Soviet citizens of Polish, German, Finnish, Latvian, Greek and other nationalities became the primary targets of open and subtle accusations of espionage and of activities of a potentially harmful nature. Especially gruesome effects were experienced by the minority in Ukraine: during one campaign alone, the “NKVD‘s German Operation,” 21,229 persons were sentenced, and 18,005 of them were executed by shooting. Although they constituted only 1.4 % of the Republic’s population, the Germans accounted 14.7 % of all who were liquidated, clearly among the most severely persecuted ethnic minorities. Another terrible statistic is the fact that nearly a fifth (18 %) of German men in Ukraine between the ages of twenty and fifty-nine were murdered!

Table 1. Persons arrested between January 1, 1936 and July 1, 1938,
listed by selected nationalities

Nationality
(A Selection)

Number of Arrestees

Percent of
all
Arrestees

Nationality’s
Percentage of
USSR Population

Russians

657,799

43.6

58.4

Ukrainians

189,410

13.3

16.5

Poles

105,485

7.4

0.4

Germans

75,331

5.3

0.8

Byelorussians

58,702

4.1

3.1

Jews

30,542

2.1

1.8

 

 

 

 

Latvians

21,392

1.4

0.1

Iranians

14,994

1.1

0.02

Estonians

11,002

0.8

0.1

Finns

10,678

0.7

0.1

 

 

 

Totals

1,429,711

100

100

[The Soviet Union’s] entry into World War II led to a further radicalization of policies against “undesirable” peoples: during the 1940-1941 timespan, hundreds of thousands of Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, Moldavians, Latvians, Estonians, and Lithuanians were removed by the NKVD from annexed western regions and sent off to the Asiatic part of the country.

Deportation, Induction to Forced-Labor Camps
and Special Settlements, 1941-1955

Using the Volga Germans as Tools of Propaganda

Following Germany’s attack in June of 1941, Stalin, just as the Russian Tsar had done in 1914, proclaimed the “Great Patriotic War.” At any rate, the Soviet leadership believed for some time that it could influence the hostile foe with ideological class-struggle rhetoric. An internationalist-minded propaganda scenario even had the Volga Germans play a role during numerous demonstrations in the Autonomous Republic of Volga Germans, whose life of happiness, prosperity and equal rights in the Soviet people was being extolled and the “Working Germans” were challenged to bring about the downfall of Fascism. These appeals were immediately relayed to the Party leadership in Moscow, they were reprinted in Soviet newspapers and leaflets, and made part of radio propaganda against the attacker. Nevertheless, the initial weeks and months of the war proceeded rather unfavorably for the Soviet side. Hundreds of thousands of Red Army personnel became casualties or prisoners of war, and some even went over to the other side, while the front kept moving hundreds of kilometers into the Russian interior. The Soviet military leadership, like its predecessors during World War I, tried to justify the dismal state of the war by pointing to “treasonous” activities by the German population in the border regions. They slandered these Germans as disloyal citizens and demanded their banishment. As early as August 15, 1941, a highly disorganized evacuation transplanted around 53,000 Germans from the Crimean Peninsula, at least initially to the North Caucasus area. In the usual cover-up language, this deportation was termed an “evacuation.”

An appeal by farmers of the Volga German Village of Schwed, published on July 17, 1941 in the propaganda organ “Die Wahrheit [The Truth].” It was targeted primarily at soldiers in the Wehrmacht [the German ground forces]. [The headlines: “Topple Fascism! Death to Hitler! Appeal by Soviet Germans to the German Farming Class.” -Tr.]

After the failure of these initial attempts at influencing the approaching enemy with class-struggle slogans, official propaganda quickly crossed over to tirades laden with hate and horror messages. Increasingly, “Germans” and “Fascists” would become synonymous concepts, with fatal consequences for German Russians. Seemingly standing in the way of this onslaught was the ASSR of Volga Germans, with its merely formal constitutional rights, with representatives in the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and in the Russian Federation, and with participants in the national and party apparatus. These circumstances and other considerations likely led to the decision at the top leadership levels to solve the “German problem” once and for all.

Liquidation of the Volga Republic and Banishment of its German Population

During the Polit-Bureau session of August 26, 1941, Stalin and his closest confidants ordered the dissolution of the autonomy and the forced resettlement of Germans of the Volga German Republic from the Saratov and Stalingrad regions. Designated as resettlement target areas were the Siberian Altai and Krasnoyarsk regions, the areas around Omsk and Novosibirsk, and the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan. In this, as in other population transfers, the organization charged for their implementation was the Peoples’ Commissariat (Ministry) for Interior Matters (the NKVD).

Although arrived at in secret, this decision to dissolve a national republic (the existence of which itself was firmly anchored in the Soviet constitution) still required the formal and legal “blessing” by the highest Soviet powers. For that reason, two days later, the [in fact] powerless head of state, Mikhail Kalinin, in the name of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR signed the ukase [decree] entitled “Regarding the Resettlement of Germans Residing in the Volga Rayons.”

The official decree of August 28, 1941 levied a severe charge against the Germans, namely, the existence of “thousands and tens of thousands of subversives and spies” who, “given a signal from Germany,” would carry out bombing attacks. A further decree, dated September 7, 1941, ordered the transfer of the territory of the Volga German Republic to the neighboring Saratov and Stalingrad districts.

During subsequent weeks and months, further secret government decisions also led to the banishment of other German population groups, all without their own autonomous status. This included, for example, the as yet unoccupied part of Ukraine, the Trans-Caucasus and North Caucasus, and large cities such as Moscow, Saratov, Kuybyshev, Stalingrad and Gorki. By the end of 1941, as many as 794,059 people had been “resettled” from the European part of the Soviet Union to places such as Kazakhstan and Siberia. Among them were 438,715 Volga Germans. This constituted the largest ethnic deportation in the history of the Soviet Union.

The entire “German Operation” proceeded without the public knowing about it. Only the official newspapers and radio broadcasts of the one-time ASSR of Volga Germans announced the decree of August 28, 1941. All the same, foreign countries were informed, and the National Socialists’ propaganda apparatus exploited this course of events to the fullest.

A news clipping from [the Nazi organ] “Ostdeutscher Beobachter” Number 251, September 19, 1941, printed in Poznan.

Germans as Persons with Diminished Rights 
The forced dissolution of the ASSR of Volga Germans in August of 1941 and the banishment without exception of “Soviet citizens of German origin” from the [unoccupied] European portion of the Soviet Union marked a transition to wide-spread persecution and discrimination against the entire minority. Whether it was a deeply rooted collective farmer, a ruthless Stalinist functionary, a practically fully Russified Stalinist intellectual or old Bolshevik, a deeply faithful Catholic, a Communist model worker, an already dispossessed rich peasant (kulak), a university professor or an officer, no one was spared total deprivation of rights—solely decisive was ethnic membership.
Measures carried out after deportation were aimed primarily at erasing all political, societal and cultural traces of German life in the Soviet Union:

  • Cultural destruction. Dissolved were all nationalist-cultural institutions such as the German State Theater in Engels, the German State Pedagogical Institute and several technical colleges, the Philharmonic and the Symphony Orchestra, plus the German State publishing house. Also liquidated were the Central State Library in Engels and dozens of canton (rayon) and school libraries, while most German-language editions and books were disposed of, and any volumes still remaining in book stores were sold as heating material. Nearly the entire inventory of the Central Museum of the ASSR of Volga Germans (which had been founded in 1925) and items in other collections would be lost permanently because of improper storage or theft. Moreover, German was forbidden entirely as the language of officialdom, of the media and in teaching.


  • Economic Looting. The Soviet government confiscated individual properties on the one hand, that is, private homes, household goods, garden harvests, household animals, equipment, supplies, etc. And on the other hand, the state took over all properties of the kolchoz [collective farms, locally managed], including that of the sovchoz (larger, state-owned farms), enterprises and offices.


  • Curtailing Citizens’ Rights. The discriminatory diminution of rights in the Soviet Union perpetrated against  minorities was clearly not anchored in law. With this clever move the Bolshevik powers would for decades be able to deny the comprehensive suppression of the German Russians and, later, of other minorities as well. Although nothing was written down, there soon emerged a dense net of discriminatory regulations originating from Party decisions, government rulings, and NKVD instructions. All Germans, including those living in cities, were without exception moved to rural locales and small rayon cities. They were forced to perform physical labor and were not permitted to leave the official locales they had been shipped to. Especially for the national intelligentsia and specialists in different fields, this sort of government procedure constituted a disastrous development with devastating consequences. The final, sole, and fatal objective of all these measures was the liquidation or degradation of the political and cultural elite of the German Russians.


  • Transfer to Forced-Labor Camps. For the German minority, a further step toward deprivation of citizens’ rights was the nearly comprehensive induction of all juvenile and adult persons into work camps. In its utter totality, this process remains unique in the military history of the USSR. Not only males eligible for military service and older men up to fifty-five years of age (as of January, 1942), but also German girls fifteen years of age and older, and women up to forty-five years of age (as of October, 1942), were all forcibly inducted into collection camps of the People’s Commissariat for Defense (!) and taken to remote locations far removed from family members and children. Moreover, ethnic-German officers and those Germans in the soldier ranks of the Red Army were mustered out of their military units and also assigned to work camps. Like prisoner inmates, all of these Germans were employed in work projects requiring the heaviest labor and only minimal qualifications. This work included construction of railroad lines and industrial concerns, the oil and coal industry, and felling of trees [in the Far North]. During the war no other ethnic group in the Soviet Union was exploited to this extent. Around 350,000 of the 1.1 million German Russians within the war-time Soviet-controlled regions were forced to perform heavy labor. In specific camps the death rate was estimated at no lower than twenty percent.
A photo showing German Russian forced laborers, along with Kalmyk fellow sufferers.
  • Fostering Anti-German Propaganda. Innumerable articles in handbills and newspapers, books, and periodicals, in which the primary invective was directed against Germans (not, for example, directly against the enemy or the Fascists per se), quickly poisoned relationships between other ethnic groups and the German Russians. This turned out to be even more the case as Soviet authorities simply ceased to differentiate between the latter and the attacking nation. The broad-based deprivation of rights and defamation of the [German] nationalist minority made it very clear that this propagandizing of ethnic hatred, of chauvinistic epithets, and effecting any possible kind of disadvantage was clearly permitted, and not subject to legal punishment.


  • Renaming of Locales. To erase any memories of former German settlements in the Volga region, in Ukraine and on the Crimean Peninsula, [German] names of locales were replaced with Russian names that were strongly Soviet in nature. For example, the city of Balzer became Krasnoarmeysk, that is, Red Army Member, and one of the oldest and largest Volga German settlements, Mariental, founded in 1776, became Sovetskoye. 

The 1944-1946 Criminal Trials of Members of the Last Government of the Volga German Republic

Even during the war the secret police attempted, by mean of several court trials, to collect evidence of “treasonous and criminal” activities by Germans and to try to prove their ties with political, news service, and military sites in the Third Reich [Nazi-Germany]. Primary consideration went toward discrediting the former leadership of the ASSR of Volga Germans [that is, German Communists (!) – Tr.] and, if at all possible, staging criminal prosecutions against them. All of this, of course, was meant to provide the Stalin regime with belated justification for the liquidation of the Republic and for repressive measures against citizens of German origin. These politicians included leaders such as Alexander Heckmann (1938-1941), the last government chief of the Volga republic; Heinrich Korbmacher (1938-1941), Third Secretary of a regional party committee; the People’s Commissars Friedrich Fritzler (agriculture) and Johannes Maier (finances); plus other leading economists and Soviet functionaries, all of whom eventually performed forced labor on the construction site for the Bogoslov aluminum processing plant, the so-called BAZ-stroy of the NKVD in the city of Krasnotur(y)insk in the Sverdlovsk region.

Prisoner photos, June, 1944
A. Heckmann
J. Maier
H. Korbmacher

The arrests of these men began in April of 1944. After they had been tortured and had undergone months of interrogation, these prominent Germans were forced to admit to having established anti-Soviet organizations in the former Volga German Republic, and by making use of such organizations, having carried out comprehensive harmful work. Additionally, the men were charged with having prepared their organizations for an armed uprising against the Soviet Union after Hitler-Germany’s attack.

Still, in November of 1945 contradictory statements from the prominent prisoners being held for investigation caused a higher body, the People’s Commissariat for State Security (NKGB), to conduct a new investigation. Many indications had been pointing toward a grand-scale show trial and toward public sentencing for “treason” committed in their socialist homeland by Volga Germans and, thereby, by all German Russians. However, credible confessions and trustworthy evidence would be needed for such a process. With mere self-accusations, the risk of retraction was too great, especially since the accused in the Central Interior Prison of the USSR’s NKGB had already distanced themselves from self-accusations extracted from them in Sverdlovsk.     

The carefully conducted probe in Moscow’s Butyrka Prison lasted more than half a year. Because this broadly-applied effort yielded no satisfactory results and not a trace of any kind of insurgent groups or Fascist subversives, a resulting written indictment accused the Volga German prisoners merely of anti-Soviet propaganda with a “nationalist” backdrop. On August 9, 1946 Korbmacher, Heckmann and other persons of involvement were each given a four-year prison sentence.

In April, 1958 Friedrich Fritzler, while working as a stove fitter in a village near Alma-Ata (Kazakhstan), requested his legal and official rehabilitation from the General Attorney of the USSR. Another careful series of investigations discovered no guilt of his or of his fellow-accused, simply because, as the closing argument by the State Attorney stated, they had merely “expressed their dissatisfaction over the resettlement of the Volga Germans.” On March 12, 1959 the judgment of the Special Committee of the Minister of the Interior imposed on August 9, 1946 against Alexander Heckmann, Johannes Maier, Heinrich Korbmacher and Friedrich Fritzler was lifted. Moreover, they were officially and entirely rehabilitated with respect to this penal matter.

Thus it appears certain that as early as during 1946 the State’s security apparatus, even after enormous efforts of pushing investigations against high-ranking Volga German Party and State functionaries, was unable to prove the existence of any insurgent groups or weapons stashed anywhere, or of Fascist insurgents and spies having perpetrated their mischief in the territory of the ASSR of Volga Germans. Nevertheless, conclusions such as these still did not lead to either the lifting of the decrees of August 28, 1941 and September 9, 1941, or the restoration of the Volga German Republic. Even the post-Stalin official rehabilitation of the victims of the political penal system did not alter that position in any way. This despite the fact that by the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s all judgments handed down in secret procedures in which Germans were charged with subversive and treasonous activities against the Soviet government had been lifted. These facts were knowingly and deliberately kept from the Soviet public.

Release from the Work Camps, Subsequent “Special Settlers” Status

The enactment of the government order entitled “Regarding the Legal Position of the Special Settlers,” which was dated January 8, 1945, put in motion a partial lifting and a stepwise easing of certain aspects of forced labor, which up to then had been applied with uniform severity. The years 1945 and 1946 brought the beginning of the closure of the work camps and the transformation of the German “contingent” to normal members of workforces of various concerns and construction organizations. However, they were not given back the rights of normal Soviet citizens. Rather, they were classified as “Special Settlers.” Only with the agreement of the company management and the corresponding [NKVD] commanding officer were the formerly mobilized Germans ever allowed to leave their assigned place or permitted to have family members rejoin them. Of course they were also forbidden to return to the locales they had lived in before [the deportation of] 1941. Meanwhile, attempts to reunify family members would drag on into the second half of the 1950s.

Similar to what happened to the Germans during the time span of 1943-1945, a series of reprisals also was visited upon other ethnic peoples, including the Kalmyks, the Chechens, the Ingush, the Crimean Tatars and others. Their autonomies were also dissolved and they were resettled en masse in Siberia and Central Asia. They, too, lost all their belongings and experienced grave violations of their civic rights.

In comparison with the average Soviet citizen, the Special Settlers were massively disadvantaged in most aspects of cultural, societal and political life. They were placed under direct administrative control of local and rayon NKVD commanders and were, without protection of any sort, delivered to the arbitrary whims of the commanders and their associated personnel. These persons of diminished rights were not allowed to leave the places they had also been forcibly assigned to. Moreover, they were still forced to perform heavy labor, primarily in agriculture, as simple laborers in coal mining, in the forests and on construction sites. In addition, great difficulties were put in the way of anyone desiring to attend places of continuing education or, especially, the universities and technical institutes. Together with restrictions placed on them regarding entry into the official Communist youth organization (komsomol, in Russian) and along with their minimal presence in the Party, their opportunities for occupational and societal advancement were minimal.

More than anything else, the November 26, 1948 decree by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, which officially placed a written stamp of approval on the permanent banishment of repressed peoples, constituted the clearest expression of the prevailing xenophobic climate of the post-war years. Henceforth, for every Special Settler over 16 years of age the NKVD commanders created a personal file that documented every detail of their lives and, like criminals, they had to provide finger prints, and every distinctive bodily feature was recorded in detail. Every month these people had to report in person to the chief commander of the NKVD responsible for the Special Settlers, and without his written permission they were not allowed to be more than five kilometers [three miles] away from their assigned residence. Of the 2.800,000 registered Special Settlers, the 1,225, 000 Germans constituted by far the largest number (43.5 %), followed by around 316,700 Chechens (11.2 %); 165,300 Crimean Tatars (5.8 %); 81,500 Kalmyks, and other nationalist, religious and social groups.    

Half-Hearted Rehabilitation, 1956-1985

Relief Following Stalin’s Death, Return of the Caucasus Peoples

After Stalin’s death in March, 1953 an era of hesitant liberalization began. It eventually led to the measure which in 1955-1956 finally released the deported peoples from their special NKVD commanders’ oversight. However, normal civic rights of the victims of Stalinism were still not restored completely. The Germans continued to be the targets of accusations of treason. The corresponding “Liberation Decree” of December 13, 1955 stated in unmistakable terms that those who had been banished “do not have the right, to return to their locales” from where they had been resettled. Additionally it stated that the lifting of Special Settler Status did not imply the “return of properties confiscated during resettlement.” In fact, those affected by this had to cede in writing any claim of the return to their earlier places of residences and any claim to their properties.

That [the Soviets] were capable of acting differently is shown by their treatment of other, also deported and slandered minorities, e.g., the Chechens, the Kalmyks, the Balkars [Balkarians], the Karachays and the Ingushes. In 1956 the Party leaders decided to restore the territorial autonomies of these peoples, citing the remarkable explanation that already undertaken measures toward equal legal status and societal integration have not proved “sufficient, because they have not finished the task of complete rehabilitation of peoples who were baselessly and forcibly resettled, and the restoration of their equal rights among other nations of the Soviet Union.” Furthermore,

    because of the wide territorial scattering and the lack of an autonomous construct, conditions required for the general development of these nationalities, their economies and their cultures are non-existent; moreover, there is a real danger of a gradual eroding of their national cultures.

By means of five decrees issued on July 9, 1957 the official legislative body, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, enacted the Party’s decisions and declared null and void the earlier legal actions from 1943, 1944 and even 1956 (the ban on the return of these specific peoples). The government also financed the return settlement process, made investments in the area of housing and development of social and transport infrastructure, and provided financing toward the restoration of cultural and educational institutions. As a result, the majority of the affected minorities were living in their national territories as early as the beginning of the 1960s. As a whole, these measures created a solid basis for an enduring political, cultural and social integration of the overwhelming majority of these peoples into Soviet society.

The Kalmyks can serve as an example for a description of these political, financial, social and linguistic-cultural reparation measures. The government’s program “Regarding the Assistance Measures for the Kalmyk Autonomous Dzungh Territory in the Stavropol region,” enacted with lightning speed on February 22, 1957, after a mere six weeks (!) following the Rehabilitation Decree, introduced a comprehensive housing construction program for the returnees, provided 220 tractors and other equipment for the new Machine Tractor Stations, and ordered the construction of schools, hospitals, telephone switching stations, and other social institutions. At the same time, the government decree called for the restoration of a teachers’ institute in the capital city of Elista, a Kalmyk Institute for research into their language, literature, history, plus a publishing house and a printing enterprise. A follow-up program enacted September 2, 1957 included, besides the continuation of numerous socio-economic support measures from the budget of the particular Union Republic, plans for building a central museum and a library for the Republic and opening a Kalmyk dramatic theater and a school of music. To assure higher education for the national group’s cadre before the opening of the Pedagogical Institute in the [Kalmyk] capital Elista (in 1964), allocation seats were reserved at various [Soviet] educational institutes in Moscow, Astrachan and Stavropol. By 1970 the Institute was upgraded to a classical university called the Kalmyk State University. Representatives of the Kalmyk Autonomous Republic began to be able to voice at Soviet Union and Republic levels--as much as that was possible under Soviet reality--the real interests of their nationalist territory and its voters. In 1959, with the express support from the highest levels in Moscow, the 350th anniversary year of the entry of Kalmyk tribes from Dzungaria (today, northwestern China and western Mongolia) into the area on the lower Volga was broadly celebrated with the clear aim for an unmistakable demonstration that this ethnic nationality was “a partner with equal footing in the development of Socialism.”

First Emigration Attempts during the 1950s

In contrast, the Soviet government’s harsh unwillingness to accept the German Russian minority as a nationality on equal footing in the country, among other aspects and events, led to the first massive movement aimed at emigration.

The photo shows two Weber family members, father and daughter, at the German Embassy in Moscow, engaged in filling out applications for leaving the USSR. 1956.

The desire to leave the Soviet Union was especially strong among those Black Sea Germans who in 1941 had found themselves under German-Romanian occupation and between 1943 and 1944 had been resettled to the Warthegau [a Western Poland region under German control at the time. I happened to be part of this contingent. - Tr.] or even to the German Reich. There nearly all of them had been given German citizenship. [At this point, a few details not relating directly to the Volga Germans might be mentioned: many of those former Black Sea Germans also fled from Poland to Germany before the end of the war, but after its end most were deported en masse by the Soviets, thus joining their Volga German brethren in work camps, etc. My family was fortunate to be spared this fate. – Tr.] In 1955, the German Federal Republic recognized these persons [deportees in the Soviet Union – Tr.] as Germans, in the sense of the [then West] German constitution and granting them the right to immigration and integration [in their original ancestral homeland, West Germany in this case. – Tr.] The Soviets, on the other hand, considered this group to be Soviet citizens only and [as mentioned above – Tr.] “repatriated” around 210,000 of them, the so-called Administrative Resettlers, mostly against their will. They were critically inclined toward the Soviet government and the Communist ideology, particularly because nearly each of them could produce a long list of relatives who had been dispossessed, persecuted, forcibly resettled and/or murdered by Soviet organs. During the period 1956-1957 alone, more than 80,000 adults turned in applications for moving to the Federal Republic of Germany. However, by the late 1960s only a few had been able to leave the country. The authorities simply did not grant emigration permissions and attempted by all possible means, including court sentences, to intimidate these potential emigrants and to discredit them in the eyes of the Soviet public. 
                             
Massive Autonomy Movement in the 1960s

Despite general awareness, official propaganda denied the ongoing discrimination of this minority and claimed that measures such as the introduction of instruction in the mother tongue (two to four hours per week), the publication of two German-language newspapers, and establishment of lay artist collectives had put “Soviet citizens of German nationality” on a completely equal footing with other peoples. After 1955, only a paltry few former residents of the Volga area were allowed to return. Anyone else who had attempted to return was rejected because they had not been registered with the regional police and were consequently not permitted to take a job, to rent a dwelling, or to build a home. As a result, the long years of persecution and suppression, along with the never-ending German-phobic propaganda, discouraged many so much that they hardly ever dared to admit being German. Despite all this, there was no lack of collective and individual letters and submissions to newspapers directed to party and government offices, in which specific injustices were named, existing restrictions were complained about, and demands were made for justice for victims of Stalinism. Proponents of complete rehabilitation strengthened their efforts, no doubt motivated by the approaching 200-year anniversary of the initial settlements on the Volga. But provincial KGB administrators informed the powers in Moscow about this growing German autonomy movement, representatives of which intended to send a delegation to Moscow in 1964.

Considering the growing dissatisfaction, in the spring of 1964 a commission established by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR began to take up this matter. As a result, the Party’s top leadership decided on a half-hearted compensation act: By August 13 the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR was presented with a draft of a ukase [decree] on the German question.

A clipping from the Central Party organ of the German Democratic Republic [that is, Communist East Germany – Tr.], “Neues Deutschland,” reporting on the announcement of the August 29, 1964 ukase regarding partial rehabilitation of the Volga Germans. The headline reads, “Acknowledgement of Soviet Citizens of German Nationality. Sub-title: Decree by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR.”

Two weeks later the highest government organ confirmed the submitted draft verbatim, and the internal Party decision thus became the official decree of August 29. However, the decree merely declared the German minority not guilty of active collaboration with the enemy, and the decree of 1941 was not lifted, merely modified. Return to and restoration of the territorial autonomous region, along with all corresponding rights and possibilities for development, were denied because, allegedly, the rayons of their earlier residence were “occupied,” although backing material of the legal department of the Supreme Soviet clearly indicated that population numbers in the former German “cantons” (rural districts) had, in comparison with pre-war numbers, decreased by up to half, and only in the cities had it increased. Moreover, the participating Party and government functionaries—in this case in stark contrast with their opinions on, say, the Kalmyk ethnic group—expressed strict opposition to honoring in any way the 200-year anniversary of settlements by German famers on the lower Volga.

In January and in July of 1965, two groups of delegates of German activists were in Moscow to negotiate with, among others, then President Anastas Mikoyan, regarding the complete rehabilitation of their ethnic group, but they received unmistakable rebuffs. Even lists of thousands of signatures from those desiring to return had no effect. Given the nearly hermetically sealed-off borders of the USSR, the Kremlin power holders could afford their position of political-juridical restrictions and the linguistic-cultural lack of propsects for the German populations.

A photo showing the participants of the second delegation which demanded the restoration of the Volga German Republic; Moscow, June, 1965.

Further efforts to gather signatures and to send new delegations to Moscow in 1966 and 1967 (the 50th anniversary year of the “Great October Revolution”), and in 1972 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary year of the founding of the USSR were nipped in the bud by the KGB and the police. Proponents of autonomy were also exposed to moral pressure from their colleagues at work, by societal organizations such as the Communist Party, the Communist Union of Youth (komsomol), and trade unions. They were often intimidated, put under surveillance, spied on and threatened with court proceedings, even if they renounced their “socially harmful notions.”

Sustained Discrimination Directed against the German Minority

The stubborn refusal of the Soviet leadership to restore the illegally liquidated Autonomous Republic was accompanied by serious disadvantages, and it prevented genuine equal status with other Soviet peoples. Within the multi-ethnic USSR state, important political, linguistic, cultural and other rights of individual peoples were closely tied to the existence of their own territorial autonomy and, along with that, unrestricted access to higher education (university, pedagogical and technical institutes), occupational advancement, instruction in the mother tongue, cultural support (national museums, theaters, cultural and historical institutes, publishers, the press, etc.), political representation, and advancement to leadership positions.

Grave discrimination [against the German minority] was rampant in the socio-cultural and educational spheres. Let us consider as an example the Novosobirsk region of Siberia. According to a census of 1979, of the intellectual occupations in particular and of most leading positions, the Germans of the region, at 2.7 percent of total employment in these areas, were very strongly underrepresented. From their ranks came only 1.1 % of all doctors, 1.0 % of engineers, 0.8 % of university teachers, and 0.7 % in management positions. In contrast, they were much more strongly represented in occupations requiring heavy physical labor. In the Novosibirsk region Germans furnished 9.1 % of all pig-breeders, 6.4 % of all milkmaids, 6.3 % of all agro-technicians (tractor operators, operators of agricultural equipment such as mowers, etc.), 5.3 % of all blacksmiths, and so on.

Regarding education, Germans in the Soviet Union also suffered a uniquely negative development. This ethnic minority, which in the Tsarist Empire and prior to World War II had been nearly universally capable of reading and writing and had been among the most educated peoples in the Soviet Union, fifty years later, among the dozens of nationalities in the Soviet Union, now had the smallest proportion of persons who had completed normal schooling! This can be traced back, on the one hand, primarily to the generous support for economically and educationally backward ethnic groups in the Soviet Union and within autonomous republics, and on the other hand to the targeted suppression and discrimination directed at the German Russian ethnic group. In this regard, fairly apparent are the educational successes of Asiatic peoples with their own republics within the Union (Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tajiks), as seen in Table 2.

Table 2. Number of Academicians from a selected list of Soviet peoples,
census numbers of 1939 and 1989

 

Peoples

Number of Academicians per
1,000 persons
of a corresponding
nationality

Number of Academicians per
1,000 persons older than 15
of a corresponding
nationality

1939

1989

     Germans

5.2

57

     Chuvashes

2.6

74

     Kazan (Volga)-Tatars

2.2

92

     Kalmyks

1.9

145

     Mordvins

1.4

92

     Kazakhs

0.9

119

     Uzbeks

0.7

90

     Tajiks

0.5

75

Even more serious than discrimination in social and educational matters were the consequences on language and morale stemming from the refusal of pubic rehabilitation. In contrast with the other, “titular peoples,” there was no national museum, not a single publisher, no research facilities, and no art collections that might have been assembled, preserved, researched to propagate the cultural heritage of the German ethnic group. Dire negative consequences arose because of the official ban on research into and publication of the history and culture of the German Russians. It was a unique occurrence in the Soviet multi-ethnic country that a certain ethnic group, which prior to 1917 possessed a rich historiography—and in addition, by the outbreak of war in 1941, hundreds of published articles and books in the Soviet Union alone—but in the course of nearly half a century was systematically reduced to a heap of people without a history. By the end of the 1980s, only one (!) scientific Russian-language treatise on the Volga Germans was published. [Emphasis is by the author.] The one-time Central State Archive of the Republic—downgraded after the war to the Engels branch of the State Archive of the Saratov region—with its rich content of materials on the Tsarist and Soviet periods of the Volga Germans, was declared absolutely inaccessible to scientists and homeland researchers. In fact, simply the public mention of its existence was forbidden.

Ruin of the dilapidated Lutheran church in the former Volga German settlement of Messer (the Russian name being Ust’-Zolikha), Saratov region.

Similarly, service by tens of thousands of (Soviet-) Germans in the ranks of the Red Army prior to 1941 and thereafter in fighting units, and especially their forced entry into and sacrifices during their stints in the hinterland as part of the so-called “Work-Army,” were for decades deliberately kept out of any scientific monographs or any documentation of personal memories of contemporary witnesses, in the mass media and museums exhibits. Not only in the Party, the government and administrative apparatus, but also in the eyes of neighboring peoples, German Soviet citizens continued to be regarded as persons with diminished rights and on whom the still unchanged charge of national treason continued to weigh heavily even during post-war times. Rumors kept being circulated about Fascist paratroopers, insurgent groups, flags with swastikas, secret weapons caches, saboteurs and other “pests,” groups of spies, etc., even though by Khrushchev’s time these trumped-up charges had, during the course of careful investigations of numerous court trials held during the 1930s and 1940s, been determined to have no foundation, and the Germans who had been sentenced in those trials had been completely rehabilitated. But as visible representatives of the nation that had unleashed against the Soviet Union a war that continued for years and caused many losses, this minority served as the preferred target of German-phobic resentment by their neighbors, colleagues and superiors.

The destruction of the solid pre-1941 German way of life and the deliberate scattering of the German minority across millions of square kilometers in Central Asia and Siberia led to growing repression of the mother tongue as well as to an unavoidable adaptation to the dominant Soviet Russian cultural model. The example of language development makes this plain (see Table 3). But in this context one must not fail to remember that the cited results of censuses unfortunately do not express the factual command of the language and the actual daily use of it. What is reflected here is a subjective acknowledgement of the German language.  Following the micro-census of 1994 within the territory of the Russian Federation, in which for the first time the true level of command of the ethnic idiom was asked for, only 12.5 percent of those asked indicated that they spoke German in their families. [I assume that those questioned were Germans by origin. – Tr.]  

Table 3. Command of the language by age
Census of 1989

 

Birth Years

 

Age Groupings

German as Mother Tongue, in %

Union Republic Kazakhstan

Novosibirsk
Region

1969-1978

   Ages 10 - 19

40.2

23.9

1959-1968

   Ages 20 - 29

51.6

23.3

1949-1958

   Ages 30 - 39

48.6

22.9

1939-1948

   Ages 40 - 49 

55.9

32.0

1929–1938

   Ages 50 - 59

70.2

48.3

1919-1928

   Ages 60 - 69

80.0

67.1

1918 and prior

 Ages 70 & older

90.3

78.7

All Ages

54.4

36.6

Forced Transformation of Identity

The harsh and restrictive position of the Soviet leadership echelon caused not only resignation, withdrawal into the private sphere or looking for refuge within a religious community, but also introduced a broad change of attitude among the German minority, namely, from that of thoroughly loyal Soviet citizens to potential emigrants. An exemplar of the description of this forced transformation of identity is an underground tract from 1973 with the telling title “From Thinking of Autonomy to Thinking about Emigration,” which also carried the sarcastic sub-title “Das Sein bestimmt das Bewusstsein. Karl Marx  [Being Determines Consciousness. Karl Marx].” The authors demonstrate convincingly that the thought about emigration constituted a logical conclusion from more than thirty years of unchanging anti-German policies of the Soviet government. Initially the Germans strongly believed in Soviet law, that the German language and culture had a future in the country, and that national autonomy could be restored. But persecution of those demanding equal status according to the spirit of Soviet law caused disillusionment: “Our national consciousness has been misinterpreted as nationalism.” Finally, according to the authors, trust in the justice of Soviet law had been completely shattered. Thus the most urgent question had become: “To be or not to be?” As the result of a long and difficult process, the following thought grew within the souls of many German Russians: the idea of a free existence, “Das Sein [True existence]” could only be fulfilled by emigration as far as possible away from all those hostile anti-German decrees and ukases. This tract and a certain “Appeal by Citizens of German Nationality in the Soviet Union to the United Nations (UN)” were completed during the spring of 1973 and on May 18, along with lists signed by 7,000 family representatives eager to emigrate—representing around 35,000 people—were presented to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR in Moscow and to international human rights organizations.

Andrey Sakharov (4th from the left) at a farewell gathering for a group of Germans desiring emigration, shown here also with the well-known activist Friedrich Ruppel (3rd from the right), 1974.

Provocation: An Offer of German Autonomy in Kazakhstan, 1979

The extent of the emigration movement and the accompanying political damage abroad apparently forced the central powers in Moscow to begin thinking about a possible solution to the “German question.” In a memorandum of August, 1978 a commission led by KGB-chief Yuri Andropov suggested the establishment of territorial autonomy in order to “counteract the unhealthy emigration and nationalist atmosphere.” The reasoning for the specific geographic positioning of that future territory was quite remarkable: nearly half of the Germans were assumed to be “deeply rooted” in the Kazakhstan territory, where there was reputedly a large number of the national/ethnic leadership echelon, and there were in that specific Union republic more than 230 villages in which Germans made up the majority of the residents. The commission therefore suggested the formation of a German autonomous region covering five rayons located in the districts of Karaganda, Kokchetav, Pavlodar and Zelinograd, adjacent areas with a total area of 46,000 square kilometers [ca. 17,760 square miles] and with Yementau as the center. The area already had a population of 202,000, of whom 30,000 were Germans. Apparently, Moscow was aiming to play the German minority against the Kazakh titular nationality—which is the only way to understand the sheer absurdity of the following argumentation. “The establishment of German autonomy in the Volga area is impractical because very few Germans reside there and they have no historical roots there.” When local residents of the proposed area learned of the suggested plan, unrest broke out in Zelinograd June of 1979 and in other cities. While the government normally reacted extremely harshly against expressions of displeasure of any sort, political and personal consequences did not ensue in this case. However, the mere resistance by the local Kazakh population and their leading people against the announced founding of the autonomous region led to the withdrawal of the suggested plan. This only shows once again that Moscow was never seriously interested in providing true equal status for the Germans.

Autonomy Strivings among Artists and Intellectuals

The autonomy idea received new impetus after the establishment of the professional German Theater for Drama, which was opened in December, 1980. Young artists quickly noticed that the Kazakh provincial city of Temirtau in the Karaganda region contained only a small circle of interest, that is, of a potential audience, and that their occupational future was in severe peril simply because of the declining significance of their mother tongue. Actual governmental support alone for ethnic institutions in the educational and cultural spheres within an ethnic territorial administrative unit, specifically with autonomous status, would have made for considerably better working conditions and opened up a better prospect for the future than it was actually the case for them as well as for other representatives of the “Soviet German creative intelligentsia” (literati, journalists, teachers of German, folklore researchers, historians, musicians, painters, etc.). Several times, the actors presented petitions to the highest government and Party offices in Moscow and in Alma-Ata. These contained clear descriptions of the miserable situation of the German language and culture they had encountered during numerous guest performances in Siberia and in all of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, in the Urals and on the Volga. The essential thinking was that only the restoration of the Autonomous Republic on the Volga could provide the requisite conditions for equal status for the German minority with other Soviet peoples in all societal and cultural areas. Disregarding minor and greater harassment and interference from censors, the artists’ collective succeeded in sensitizing broad masses of German Russians to the problems of their ethnic history and the present situation.

Photographs showing the dissidents of the Novosibirsk region
W. Maier
W. Axt
Chr. Ramchen and his family

Beginning with the late 1970s, intellectuals from the humanities, the social, medical and technical sciences also became increasingly engaged on behalf of the problems of their own countrymen. The citizens’ rights activities of a group of dissidents from the surroundings of the academic center in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk gained recognition far beyond the borders of their country. In February, 1983 the Novosibirsk District Court found Konstantin Asmus, Viktor Axt, Vyacheslav Maier and Christian Ramchen guilty of having written a book on the history and the present status of the Germans in the USSR that contained “deliberately false statements,” and of distributing it among their countrymen. Moreover, they were accused of attempting to send numerous “slanderous” petitions to various institutions in the Soviet Union. The court seemed especially angered by the publication of the “Open Letter to the Scientists of the USSR; Dedicated to the Idea of the Rebirth of the German Naionality within the USSR.” Asmus and Axt had worked for the Academy of Sciences, Maier had been studying sociology and carried out numerous polls, and Ramchen had been a department head of a research institute. For their activities they were sentenced to between one and two years of forced labor.

Perestroika and Renewed Hopes

The liberalizing trend that set in after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power created certain conditions for an unbiased reappraisal of the history of the German minority and for their complete rehabilitation. Among active proponents of autonomy a decision emerged for a representative delegation—similar to those in the 1960s--to make an expression of demands for ethnic equal footing. During 1988 three delegations of German autonomists were formed and sent [to Moscow]. The most significant of these, consisting of fifty-six delegates, stayed in Moscow nearly an entire month, July 11 to August 5, and was able to meet with the chairman of the National Council for the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. Again, their negotiations were unsuccessful as the delegates were served with the usual unpromising phrases. However, in contrast with the all too familiar KGB practices of Brezhnev’s time, this time there were no persecutions of the participants.

Furthermore, from about the fall of 1988 on, predominantly positive articles appeared in the centrally controlled print media and on radio and television on the history and current problems of a minority that had been ignored for a very long time. Even the requirement of restoration of German autonomy was stressed in these pieces. This reemerging rehabilitation kind of political exercise contributed to a sensitizing of society regarding the innocent victims of Stalinist crimes. In particular, the human rights organization “Memorial,” founded in early 1989, became strongly engaged on behalf of universal rehabilitation of all victims of Communist violence stemming back to 1917.  

Considered as genuine milestones on the way to overcoming the Stalinist past were two decrees by  the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR: the January 16, 1989 ukase entitled “Regarding additional measures toward restoration of justice for victims of oppression during the time frame of the 1930s and 1940s as well as the early 1950s” and a November 14, 1989 declaration entitled “Regarding the assessment that repressive acts against peoples who were forcibly resettled as having been illegal and criminal, also on safeguarding the rights of these people.” 

Buoyed by these entirely positive political and societal changes, toward the end of March, 1989 German activists founded the country-wide Association “Wiedergeburt [Rebirth]” intended for political, cultural and educational matters. According to their founding by-laws, their most important goal was “to satisfy the national-ethnic needs […] of the more than two million Soviet Germans and, above all, to restore the illegally liquidated Autonomous Republic of Soviet Germans on the Volga.” Thanks to single-minded lobbying activities by representatives of the Association “Wiedergeburt” and by a number of German representatives to the Supreme Soviet appointed in March via a new, free election process, the Chamber of Nationalities of this highest government organ on June 12, 1989 convened a “Commission for Problems of the Soviet Germans.” A few months later, during its November 28 session, the Supreme Soviet accepted the conclusions and suggestions of that commission of delegates to begin the process of restoring the German autonomous territory within its old borders. A just solution for the “German problem” seemed almost there to be grasped.
However, as early as February, 1989, particularly after the mass media had reported the founding of the Association “Wiedergeburt,” active resistance against any autonomy emerged in the affected regions of Saratov and Volgograd. Primary instigators and leaders of this wave of protest, which was expressed via numerous petitions to central power organs and resolutions by factory gatherings threatening strikes and demonstrations, and which quickly assumed highly organized forms, was the political leadership echelon, clearly fearing the loss of their own power and influence. All along, leaning on the example of ethnic clashes in the autonomous region of Nogorno or Mountainous Karabakh (conflicts between Armenians and Azerbaijanis), they stirred up fears of “unavoidable conflicts” with the Germans.

This hostility toward the German minority, which culminated in a rhyme directed toward the Germans, “Na saratovski karavay rot ne razevay – Reiβe deinen Mund nicht auf in Richtung des Saratower Brotlaibs [um ihn kostenlos zu verzehren] [Don’t open your mouth in the direction of the Saratov loaf of bread [in order to eat it up gratis],” actually had a long history in this region. As early as 1918, the local Party and Soviet apparatus had vehemently opposed the transformation of the Volga German colonies into a national territory, and in 1922 the Saratov people again strictly opposed giving up the city of Pokrovsk (which became Engels in 1931) and the district with the same name. At the time only the decisive action by the central government in Moscow countered the opposition successfully.

But this time [1989], the central power echelon distinguished itself by its hesitant and contradictory positions. Neither in 1989 or thereafter did The Union’s and Russia’s government provide financial and material means toward a social and economic support program. This inevitably allowed suspicions to arise that any housing for returning Germans and providing jobs and social support would primarily occur at the expense of the two receiving regions and would thus lead only to additional worsening of already tense state of the economy and of the supply of goods.

At the same time, opponents of autonomy did not shrink from open and latent hostile slogans that intentionally harkened back to the heroic war years and to hostile images of the Cold War. Making the rounds were statements and banners such as “Stalin was right in resettling the Germans,” “No to German autonomy in the Volga region,” “No to Germany on the Volga,” or “What the Kaiser in 1914 and Hitler in 1941 did not succeed in, ‘Wiedergeburt’ is trying to obtain with the help of the FGR [Federal German Republic].” Germans living in the Saratov and Volgograd areas increasingly complained about chauvinistic occurrences and the distorted depiction of historical facts perpetrated in the regional media. In some settlements the local authorities began to exert pressure on local German families to induce them to leave the locales “voluntarily.” These kinds of protests essentially lasted in varying intensity until 1992.

Image of the local Russian-language newspaper “Zarya” reporting on an anti-German demonstration on January 27, 1990 in the Sovetski Rayon in the Saratov region (formerly the Mariental Canton of the Volga German Republic).

The hatred so openly expressed by the Russian majority population as well as the vehemence of baseless misrepresentations deeply hurt the law-abiding Germans. As reliable workers they were very welcome in the Soviet Union, but highly undesirable to this day as an equal-status Soviet (Russian) people with its own language and culture, with rights to ancestral settlement territory and to local autonomous administration. It should come as no surprise, then, that from about 1990 on there was a noticeable increase in submissions of applications for emigration to Germany.

Disappointments under Yeltsin, 1991-1999

Given the ongoing dissolution of the Soviet Multi-National State and the increasing powerlessness of the political and legislative institutions Union-wide, the hopes of German activists began to rest more and more on Russia’s leadership under the charismatic champion of political and market economy reforms, Boris Yeltsin. During the period of a democratic upswing the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation (RF) accepted two pieces of legislation which to this day mark the practical rehabilitation process in the country: “Regarding the rehabilitation of repressed peoples” of April 26, 1991 and “Regarding the rehabilitation of victims of political repressions” of October 18, 1991. In these laws the totality of measures by the Stalinist regime against deported peoples who were “subjected to genocide and slanderous attacks” were again declared to have been “illegal and criminal.” Among other matters, these peoples thereby also had the right “to restoration of territorial integrity.” On July 3, 1991 a commission of Russia’s Parliament was formed expressly for the purpose of dealing exclusively with suggestions for implementing the April decree concerning the Germans.

Unfortunately, and despite its strong protestations of solidarity, Russia’s government leadership, like the Union government before, was unable to bring itself to accept a legal solution for the German problem. During his official visit to Bonn in November, 1991, Yeltsin presented seemingly comical suggestions concerning the selection of sites for a future German autonomous territory at, among other locales, the territory of the rocket test area “Kapustin Yar.” At any rate, in the “Joint Declaration by Chancellor Kohl and president Yeltsin” the intention of revitalization of the Republic of Germans in the “traditional settlement areas of their ancestors” was once again confirmed. However, during a meeting on Jauary 8, 1992 with the residents of the sovchoz “Osinovski” in the Saratov region, vehement opponents of Volga German Autonomy, the Russian President allowed himself a virtually hostile statement concerning his German countrymen:

    I wish to make a binding declaration here just to make things clear to everyone. In places where there is no compact settlement of Germans, that is, where the Volga Germans do not constitute a majority, there will be no autonomous territory! I assure you of that as your President! (Voices from the crowd: “Hurrah!”) An entirely different matter is the military test area 300,000 hectares [ca. 741,300 acres] in size, which is not settled and has been released by Marshall Shaposhnikov. And that is, we can assume, where they will be resettled. This soil, which is riddled with missiles, they are to work on. And Germany will assist in this endeavor. At some time a district or perhaps even a rayon, a national rayon of Volga Germans, will exist there.

    In your situation here, Russians are primarily in the majority. Along with you in your area there reside and work more than fifty nationalities. Of what German autonomy of Volga Germans, on your territory, can there be any discussion? Not a single house will be torn down anywhere on account of the Volga Germans. That, too, I guarantee. You should know that and inform others of it. This is not subject to debate. And it is also not intended to cause any disputes. In any case, now … (a voice from the crowd: “Please excuse the interruption … Had this announcement been made at the right time, there would not have been this movement, believe me.”) Well, I did not know that this movement existed here in your area, but as you can see, I am answering you in a timely manner and am declaring responsibly …

With this declaration the gifted populist Yeltsin confirmed his unerring feel for the mood of a local population, which in this case nearly unanimously opposed the restoration of German autonomy. National television showed in several news reports this appearance of the President, which means that we are not dealing here with an inadvertent verbal slip.

A map showing loosely scattered sites (marked in black) that Russia’s government intended for settlement of Germans returning to the Volga region. February, 1992.

A few days later the President tried to minimize (at least toward the outside) the resulting political damage when on February 21, 1992 he signed the ukase “Regarding immediate measures toward rehabilitation of the German Russians,” in which a German rayon in the Saratov region and a German district in the Volgograd area were planned. Rightly, and angrily, those affected rejected this suggestion as a tasteless joke, since it dealt with merely a set of some small, non-adjacent tracts, and government-guaranteed financing was absent this time as well. In another move, an attempt was made to turn the attention away from the Volga to two ethnic-national rural districts in Siberia: in July, 1991 there followed the establishment of the “Halbstadt” rayon, and of “Azovo” in February, 1992. These rural tracts with an area of around 1,400 square kilometers each [ca. 540 square miles], initially touted as “Islands of Hope,” actually received initial support from the Federal Republic side, which invested hundreds of millions of Deutsche Mark on establishing slaughter houses, cheese processing plants, and objects for the social infrastructure, all without appreciable effect, that is, in terms of encouraging the German population to remain in Russia. 

One can certainly doubt that the two administrative [German] Rayons would provide any realistic prospects for the German Russians’ future there, most of whom were living in cities. Consider the oppressive dominance from the agricultural sector and a total lack of anyone representing their political interests, barely realizable socio-economic development opportunities, and an archaic folklorization of cultural life. Even the rural population saw no realistic future for itself. Thus, by the end of 1998 eighty percent of the established German population of just the Halbstadt rayon emigrated. Those rural Siberian districts would henceforth serve as collecting areas for refugees and migrants from neighboring Kazakhstan.

A photo showing a dual-language sign [in Russian and German, pointing to Kusak] beside a road in the rural district of Halbstadt in the Altai region.

A further attempt to avoid compensation with any kind of substance was evidenced by the construct of national-cultural autonomy, which the official Russian side praised as “guarantee for national-cultural self-determination.” A corresponding law went into effect in July, 1996, in an attempt to get past the “territorial fixing” when trying to solve existing and future problems regarding nationalities. However, the legislators left unspecified the manner in which this was to be put into practice when only the territorial administrative units (republics, regions and provinces) were in possession of the full creative power in the political, economic and socio-cultural spheres. Still, on December 20, 1997 the Ministry of Justice nominally registered a “Federal National-Cultural Autonomy of German Russians.” But its status as a legal public association of persons without any guarantee of government financing and without any political say in reality corresponded roughly to that of a publicly registered club which is left with the role of petitioner for temporally limited projects.

The Situation of Today’s German Minority in Russia

After Yeltsin the problems of the German Russians continued with further acts of marginalization. To this day Russia’s leadership stubbornly avoids participating in or even expressing any sympathy on the occasion of the [Germans’] national day of mourning which on August 28 each year evokes grave memories of the deportation decree of 1941. Not once during the eight years at the helm of government did Russian President Putin mention the tragic fate of his German countrymen. President Medvedev as well has refused to issue a joint German-Russian declaration on the occasion of the 70th anniversary day of mourning the deportation.

A census in 2002 in Russia again shows that the academic educational level of the German minority, with 103 of 1000 persons fifteen years or older completing a higher institute of learning, continues to lag considerably behind the nation average of 157, a fact which can be seen as an immediate consequence of direct and indirect discrimination. Even the Federation’s September 2007 support program entitled “Development of the socio-economic and ethno-cultural potential of the German Russians,” which was passed after a tough struggle and is aimed at the time frame 2008 to 2012, will not change anything about this unsatisfactory status. The largest portion of the rather modest funds is designated for projects such as housing and hospital construction in the rural districts of Azovo and Halbstadt in Siberia and for sewage purification plants and sewage systems in a few rural settlements.

All the mostly positive political changes after 1985, such as greater respect for human rights and at least pro forma equality for individuals and for all citizens, cannot cover up the fact that the continuing lack of political-territorial rehabilitation, the lack of an ethno-national autonomy, has held and will continue to hold grave disadvantages even for individual people. The new constitution for the Russian Federation adopted in 1993 once again set before everyone’s eyes with great clarity that the German minority, in contrast with peoples with their own autonomous territory, is still subject to grave structural disadvantages in the political and cultural spheres. According to this Constitution, the Federation Council of Russia is the upper house of the Federal Assembly of Russia (Parliament) and is comprised of two representatives from each territorial unit. At the time, then, the Federation Council thus represented at the highest level of government not only regional interests, but de facto also those of the corresponding “titular” nationalities. According to Article 104, members of the Federation Council, along with legislative organs of the individual republics and territories, have the right to introduce legislation as well. The same right rests also with any representative in the State Duma, the lower house of Parliament. It is, of course, highly doubtful that any of these deputies might consistently take on the problems of an ethnic minority that resides across widely scattered geography.

Furthermore, national republics are given a considerable degree of independent administration at the local level, among other things, in regard to exploitation of local mineral resources, taxation legislation and support of specific developments in the agricultural and service sectors. Their areas of responsibility also include education and culture, science and research. Moreover, Article 68, Paragraph 2 of the Constitution grants only the republics the right to permit, in addition to the Russian language, the respective ethnic language as an official language in the specific nationality’s territory whose name it carries. Thereby the language and thus the culture of national peoples [with territorial autonomy] enjoy governmental support and financing. Together with grants from the national government, the accumulated tax revenues in the corresponding territories guarantee stabile financing of the already existing social and cultural infrastructure and even their further development.

For these reasons the “titular nationalities” with their own territory, such as the Kalmyks, Yakuts and Buryats, for example, can rely on significantly greater opportunities to provide a hearing for their legitimate economic, political, and linguistic-cultural demands—via their representatives and delegates in Moscow as well as on the local levels—than the numerically superior, but geographically widely scattered “territory-less” German minority. Consider the example of the former central archive of the Volga Republic in Engels which in 2004, solely thanks to the generous support from the German Federal Republic to the tune of 400,000 Euros, was finally expanded, and its documents were saved from impending loss--as if Russian citizens of German origin (597,212 of them) paid fewer taxes than, say, Russian citizens of Kalmyk (173,996), Yakut (443,852) or Buryat origin (445,175). To be able to use and preserve their mother tongues, the latter nationalities possess the means to carry out education, print newspapers, and air broadcasts via radio and TV. In addition, they have their own national museums and archives, opera houses, research institutes for national history and culture, maintenance of memorials, professional theater and dance groups, national universities and technical institutes. All of these institutions are permanently financed and continue to be expanded—all without having to rely on assistance from abroad or special programs and projects. [Previous and subsequent emphases are the author’s. – Tr.] It is just these kinds of arrangements relevant to education, culture and creating an identity that are deliberately withheld from the German minority, and as a consequence, it has [nearly guaranteed] their inferior command of the German language, their below-average educational levels and urbanization, as well as their restricted social mobility. It is in this manner that the extent of ethnic inequality becomes apparent even in today’s Russia.

The denial of true rehabilitation by the government’s justice department also brings with it further grave negative effects. Although subsequent to the downfall of the USSR most of the myths and symbols of Soviet power were increasingly discredited, the cult of the “Great Patriotic War”—the designation given to the war between Germany and the Soviet Union from 1941 to 1945 persists in post-Socialist Russia even today—is continuing to gain significance as a factor of determining identity. The main point of conjuring up pure ideology is the cult of patriotism and heroism; and pride in the victory over Germany, and the concomitant moral superiority vis-à-vis the “German Fascists,” continues to be cultivated with great care. At the same time, official propaganda tends to sweep aside the dark side that does not fit the otherwise glorious scenario: complicity with Hitler between 1939 and 1941, actual collaboration with the occupiers by a considerable portion of the Soviet population, misery and deaths in the Gulags, deportation of entire peoples, deaths from hunger, repression in the hinterland, and much more.

The German Russians, looked at as the representatives of the nation that had unleashed the war on the Soviet Union with its major losses, continue to suffer greatly, particularly so in moral and psychological areas, as a consequence of that kind of “coming to terms with the past”—all the more because the past and present denial of restoration of the German Volga Republic is not rarely interpreted as solid confirmation of their alleged guilt. This circumstance stirs up open and latent phobia of Germans and leads to a minimizing of the crime perpetrated on “Soviet citizens of German nationality.” To this day, within the Russian Federation there is no national memorial for the German victims of deportation and work camps, no national museum or documentation center, not a single place of memory on the territory of any former work camp. In school, the persecution and discrimination they suffered during Soviet times is hardly dealt with. Overall, the historical memory of the Russian nation lacks any awareness whatsoever of the tragic fate of its co-citizens of German origin.

Great consternation was engendered by a joint communique issued after the final session of the German-Russian governmental commission for matters concerning German Russians which was held in May of 2011 in the West Siberian city of Tomsk:

    Both sides have pleaded for an honest and responsible look at the events of seventy years ago. In a historical context, the deportation of the Soviet Germans must be viewed to be a consequence of the attack on and occupation of territories of the USSR by Hitler’s Germany.

As if the 1937 deportation of the Korean minority or of the Kalmyks, Chechens and Crimean Tatars of 1943-1944 had likewise to be justified as “the consequence” of “attacks!” Results from international scientific research, which was based primarily on advance work by courageous Russian historians and archivists, agree: for Stalin’s regime the attack by Hitler’s Germany was merely a welcome occasion for ridding itself of some undesirable ethnic peoples. The Russian Federation’s legislative act of 1991, “Regarding Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples” clearly spoke of “policies of despotism and lawlessness” by the former Soviet government leadership, which led to forced deportations of numerous ethnic peoples in the 1930s and 1940s.

In today’s Russian Federation, only the restoration of territorial autonomy can in the final analysis constitute a secure basis for factual equal status of the German Russians within the multi-national country. [Emphasis is that of the author. – Tr.] It would take the wind out of the sails of widespread German-phobic prejudice, it would form legal preconditions for representation of political interests at the Federative and local levels, it would enable appropriate local self-government to suit the needs of the minority, create a reliable framework for long-term financing of socio-cultural institutions, and thereby become a lasting homeland for the long-suffering German Russian ethnic group.

German Russians in the Federal Republic [of Germany]

Up to the First World War the German settlers [in the Russian Empire] had hardly any contact with people or institutions in the old homeland. Whenever a Black Sea or Volga area colonist endeavored to emigrate from the Russian Empire the goal was typically not the “Original Homeland” of Germany, but rather it was the United States, Canada or Latin America. For a well-established, proud farmer the prospect of serving a [German] estate owner or to become a property-less worker in a factory would have been a truly humiliating step down. Before 1914, tens of thousands moved to overseas lands, where they could obtain or lease land inexpensively and continue their familiar way of life. Today millions of descendants of former German Russian settlers live in the US, Canada, Argentina or Brazil. The attitude [regarding emigration just described] hardly changed between the wars, even though during the Weimar Republic a few thousands of political emigrants, students and refugees from the famines in the Volga region, Ukraine and the Caucasus stayed in Germany. 

Things were totally different during the post-war times, when the main goal for emigration [from the Soviet Empire, etc.] became (West) Germany again. This was so because the deportations and persecutions since 1941 in particular had systematically degraded the once deeply rooted German farmer or tradesman to a proletarian without property and without a home who, after Marx, literally “had nothing to lose.” At the same time, the economic dynamics of the young West German country offered attractive opportunities in wage-earning jobs. On the other hand, the Soviet authorities would accept family reunification as the only reason for emigration. Applying for emigration from the country was permitted only to join a relative of the “first grade” (parent, sibling, child). And from the mid-1950s on, that class of relatives was present for the most part only in the Federal German Republic.

Primarily eager to emigrate were those Black Sea Germans and their descendants who during the war had found themselves occupied [by the Germans] and who had received German citizenship in 1943 [and later – Tr.]. Part of them had been able to find their way to the Western occupational zones [of Germany], but by far the greatest portion of them were forcibly “repatriated” [during and] after 1945 and placed under special administration in Eastern regions [thus joining the Volga Germans four years or so after their own deportation. – Tr.]. In the banishment locales these potentially German citizens inter-married with other groups of German Russians, thus expanding greatly the circle of those eligible to return; for from 1955 on, the German Federal government acknowledged that kind of naturalization stemming back to war times. These repatriated Germans and their descendants were thus granted the right to return to Germany, and they were included in legislation dealing with refugees and compensatory benefits for war-time losses. It was in this way that the problem of family reunification had taken root, one which would for decades burden (Federal) Germany and Soviet relations.

By about 1986, 95,107 Germans in the USSR received permission to emigrate to the Federal Republic, and according to Soviet data, from about 1960 on some 16,411 persons primarily of German origin were allowed to emigrate to [Communist] East Germany. From a mere 450 emigrants in 1985 the number of emigrants had risen to 147,950 in 1990, reaching the highest number for any one year with the 213,215 returnees in 1994. In the meantime, reunification of the two Germanys and the collapse of the Soviet Union had taken place. The rapidly rising numbers of immigrants caused the German Federal government to pass a number of restrictive measures. By July 1, 1990 a new law for admitting [German] immigrants [into Germany] went into effect, according to which entrance application could be filed only in the specific country where the applicant lived. Only after examination of legal preconditions and the issuance of a so-called Decision to Admit would the affected person of German origin be allowed to enter Germany and finally to be acknowledged as Aussiedler [official immigrant of special German-origin status – Tr.]. The so-called Kriegsfolgenbereinigungsgesetz [Law Resolving the Effects of War], which as of January 1, 1993 determined the legal basis for further admission of persons of German origin from the countries of the CIS and other Eastern European nations, severely limited the number of potentially legitimate entrants. From then on, persons born after January 1, 1993 were not permitted to “initiate the admission process on their own.” Certain legal experts deem this law to be potentially unconstitutional because the lawgivers had decided on the kind of conclusion to the incoming stream of (Spät)Aussiedler [(late) returnees of special German-origin status] which “cannot be interpreted to be the meaning of Article 116, Paragraph 1 of the Constitution.” Further restrictions had to do with the Kriegsfolgenschicksal [fate arising from the consequences of war – Tr.] and also affected non-German spouses of Spätaussiedler.

Even further hurdles and restrictions were introduced in 1996. Advancing to the list of the most important conditions for recognition as Aussiedler were “language skills transmitted within the family, that is, by the parents,” that is, language that had to sound “natural” and not like “artificial, acquired High German.” For hundreds of thousands of German Russians these regulations constituted a serious barrier that was difficult to overcome, primarily because the deportation, the deliberate scattering from compact settlements across the enormous territories of Siberia and Kazakhstan, life in a mixed-nationality and Russian-language-dominant environment, attendance of Russian-only educational institutions, etc, etc, led unavoidably to serious loss of command of the mother tongue, particularly for those born after 1945.

Protest demonstration by German Russians with regard to family reunification, in front of a Federal Administrative Office in Cologne. May, 2002.

Additional hardships arose from the “Law Regarding the Designation of Interim Locale of Residence for Spätaussiedler” (also called the Residence Designation Law) enacted on February 26, 1996 and renewed several times thereafter. This legislation seriously restricted the freedom of choice for those affected and contributed to families having to live apart for several years, and it hindered employment mobility. As far as we know, other minority groups were not affected by this legislation. Although during recent years there has been very little further immigration from countries of the CIS, the legislation remained in effect until the end of 2009. Virtually ignoring the historic reasons for loss of language, another immigration law, enacted on January 1, 2005, sharpened the admission criteria even further and called for ever stronger examination, particularly in the area of command of the German language. A critical part of the reform ordered that even non-German family members of the applicant for admission must undergo a language test. This introduced an even faster decline in the rate of immigrants. In 2004, they still numbered 58,728, but within two years the number was down to 7,626, and in 2010 it went down to 2,797. The total population of Germans in the countries of the CIS has been estimated at around 0.7 million.

In addition to legislative restrictions that brought the number of immigrating German Russians to a virtual standstill, their societal acceptance in Germany was not always beyond dispute. Moreover, media reports frequently do not shrink back from grave distortions of the facts. In 1996, Oskar Lafontaine, prime minister of the State of Saarland, thought he had discovered that the primary danger for the job market came from the [German] resettlers, and with that claim, simply plucked out of thin air, he attempted to win an election campaign. In 2007 the police chief in Hannover thought aloud about using police from Russia against German citizens of German Russian origin who had committed a crime.

Numerous press and television reports have depicted immigrant German Russians mostly in a negative light, the most frequent attributes being “problem factors,” an alleged high crime rate, potential for violence, unemployment, ghettoizing, poor language skills, and lacking the will to integrate. Certain politicians do not hesitate to use descriptions such as “ethnically privileged immigrants,” “the group most difficult to integrate,” “voluntarily separatist,” “religiously segregated,” “authoritarian and right-leaning tendencies,” “socio-cultural estrangement in Germany,” and other similar epithets.

Only a study published in January, 2009 by the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, under the title “Unused Potential. On the Status of Integration in Germany,” has finally led to a marked objectification in media reporting. This particular study for the first time compared various immigrant groups with regard to their capacity to assimilate, and the German Russians came off particularly positively. The second generation in particular, that is, those born here [in Germany], is barely distinguishable from its indigenous age group. 

Suggestions and Challenges on the Occasion of the
70th Day of Mourning for the Deportation

  1. Regulations regarding the entry, naturalization and integration of victims of anti-German policies from countries of the CIS should not be part of immigration legislation, but should be handled via separate legislation and with the agreement of organizations representing those victims.

    Germans in Russia above all are victims of Stalinism. Even the Russian Parliament recognized this in no uncertain terms via a law it enacted on April 26, 1991 on the rehabilitation of repressed peoples. Immigration by German Russians is thus a direct consequence of the “lasting echo of unatoned Stalinist crimes.” It is known that the war instigated by Nazi Germany gave the Soviets a pretext for plundering, deporting and repressing this minority. The Federal Republic of Germany, as the successor nation to the fallen Third Reich, has acknowledged partial responsibility for the grave fate of these long-suffering people. This was and remains an honorable sign of solidarity with and redress for suffered injustices which continue to have their effect into the present. The German minority in the Russian Federation (RF) has in fact been disadvantaged to this day. German Russians from that state and from other nations of the CIS strive to move to the Federal Republic on the basis of entirely different historical circumstances and motivations than “classic” immigration groups such as immigrant workers or asylum seekers.

  1. The criteria for admitting German victims of the effects of war from successor states of the USSR must be modified.

    As long as German Russians in the RF do not have the same rights as other nationality groups, the [earlier] general acknowledgment of the lasting fate of war effects should have no time limit. The same applies to affected people in other successor states of the former USSR, with the exception of the Baltic nations. In determining conditions for admitting Aussiedler there must, in the case of German Russians, finally be an exception to the outdated definition of “German-ness” based on origin-language-culture, and a transition to the only appropriate criterion, namely, victimhood of the effects of war, or stated otherwise: the simple fact of repression and discrimination experienced by persons of German origin [emphasis is that of the author]. If the applicant personally, or his parents or his grandparents, were direct victims of ethnic repression and discrimination, then those affected must have a constitutional right to admission into Germany.

    Primary proof of persecution should above all be the Rehabilitation Certificate issued by courts and other authorities subsequent to examination of relevant KGB or NKVD records. In the former USSR since 1989, and later on in successor states, these documents have been provided to anyone filing an appropriate application. All other preconditions for acknowledgment of (Spät-)Aussiedler status should be subordinate to this, the most important determination.

Certificate # 1947 issued by the Main Department of Internal Affairs in Volgograd of the Ministry of the Interior, dated December 27, 2004, acknowledging that Special Settler Alexander Herbert, born in 1951, had been repressed on the basis of his German nationality, and was rehabilitated for that reason.
  1. German Russian museums and document and research centers.

    In today’s unified Germany the 2.7 million German Russians comprise a significant demographic, economic and socio-cultural factor. For their self-identity, the memories of repression and persecution play a formative role. Not only were the Germans from Russia objects of nationalist politics, but they also appeared as persons of action and influence who performed in resistance, protest, and acts of refusal. Their centuries-long history is characterized by pioneer spirit, hard work, and their will to assert themselves.

    Frequently a rather positive acknowledgment is now painted, namely, that by their numbers they constitute the 17th Land [state] of the Federal Republic. But in contrast with an actual Federal Land, which by means of dozens of museums and research institutes maintains, preserves, researches and documents its regional history and culture in myriad ways, for the Germans from Russia in the FGR there is not a single scientific institute, no independent research institute or state museum, no national-ethnic archive, and no library or document center. This lack of institutional anchoring is in great measure the reason why the indigenous population possesses barely any knowledge of the special historical development and the unique culture of the German Russian minority. Long overdue is the establishment of a clear symbol of the memory of the collective fate of the German Russian Federal citizenry, be it in the form of a museum or perhaps of a research and document center.

Observations and Conclusion

The collective rights of a minority cannot be separated from an individual citizen’s rights. Disadvantaging an ethnic, religious or social community in comparison with other groups – in our case we are dealing with the restoration of territorial autonomy that has never been granted – has immediate consequences on constitutionally declared basic rights, as well as on opportunities for individual development. The example of the German minority in the former Soviet Union and in today’s Russia is reflected in this dovetailing effect. As long as the Russian Federation does not restore the illegally liquidated Volga Republic and the German Russian ethnic group does not have the same rights as other national minorities, members of this long-suffering minority should have a constitutional right to be admitted into the Federal Republic of Germany. The historical experiences of the millions of Federal citizens of German Russian origin do not only form the basis for their own positive identity, but they have in the meantime become an integral constituent of German history. It is high time that their past is appropriately recognized as part of the national and European cultural memory.    

Most Important Sources and Literature

Sources

Eisfeld, Alfred and Herdt, Victor Herdt, ed. & publ., Deportation, Sondersiedlung, Arbeitsarmee: Deutsche in der Sowietunion 1941 bis 1956 [Deportation, Special Settlement, Workers’ Army: Germans in the Soviet Union Between 1941 and 1956]. Cologne, 1996.

Publications by Viktor Krieger

Vom russischen Kolonisten zum Bundesbürger: Grundlinien russlanddeutscher Geschichte [From Russian Colonist to Federal Citizen: A Baseline for German Russian History], a monograph to be published soon.

Bundesbürger russlanddeutscher Herkunft: historische Schüsselerfahrungen und kollectives Gedächtnis [Federal Citizens of German Russian Origin: Key Historical Conclusions and Collective Memory], an anthology to be published soon.  

(With Küpper, Herbert:) “Rehabilitierung; Sondersiedler [Rehabilitation; Special Settlers]” in Lexikon der Vertreibungen, Deportation, Zwangsaussiedlung und ethnische Säuberung im Europe des 20. Jahrhunderts [Lexicon of Displacement, Deportation, Forced Resettlement and Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe]. Brandes, Detlef, Holm Sandhausen, and Stefan Troebst, eds. and publs.. Further editing by Kristina Krzysztof Ruchniewicz and Dmytro Myeshkov. Vienna, Cologne, Weimar 2010, pp. 539-544, 599-603.

Deutsche aus Russland gestern und heute. Volk auf dem Weg [Germans from Russia yesterday and Today. A People on the Move], 7th ed. Stuttgart 2006 (Co-authors: H. Kampen and N. Paulsen): http://www.viktor-krieger.de/Deutsche.aus.Russland.pdf  
    
“Patrioten oder Verräter? Politische Strafprozesse gegen Russlanddeutsche 1942-1946 [Patriots or Traitors? Political Criminal Trials of German Russians, 1942-1946]“ in Verführung der Gewalt. Russen und Deutsche im Ersten und Zweiten Weltkrieg (West-östliche Spiegelungen – Neue Folge, Bd.1) [Seduction by Violence. Russians and Germans during World Wars I and II (West-East Reflections – New Series, vol. 1)], publ. by Eimermacher, Karl and Volpert, Astrid, in conjunction with Bordyugov, Gennadiy. Munich 2005, pp. 1113-1160.   
“Personen minderen Rechts: Russlanddeutsche in den Jahren 1941-1946 [Persons of Diminished Rights: German Russians 1941-1946],” in Heimatbuch der Deutschen aus Russland 2004, Stuttgart 2003, pp. 93-107.  http://www.vikor-krieger.de/Entrechtung2003.pdf

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation and to Drs. Nancy Herzog and Dona Reeves-Marquardt for editorial assistance.


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