Volk auf dem Weg:  The Germans from Russia in the Americas

By Eric J. Schmaltz, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History, Co-Executive Director of the Northwestern Oklahoma State University Institute for Citizenship Studies, Department of Social Sciences, Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva. 

Final version from October 2011.


The Germans from Russia represent a double-diaspora community (and in the case of some Mennonites, a triple-diaspora).  Their varied experiences in both Old and New Worlds have formed and continuously reshaped their cultural and historical identity over nearly 250 years.   A story of retention and transformation of this “people on the move” (Volk auf dem Weg), this brief discussion examines the ethnic German migrations from the late Russian Empire and the early Soviet Union to the Western Hemisphere between the 1870s and 1920s and this group’s subsequent evolution. 

First, the presentation briefly considers the ethnic group’s general settlement patterns, demographic developments, and historical contributions in North and South America.   It was indeed the problem of land hunger, overpopulation, and other economic pressures which led to early German migrations out of Imperial Russia in the late nineteenth century.  During this time, the great U.S. railroad companies also conducted sweeping advertising campaigns abroad to entice East Europeans to set their stakes on the American prairies.  Later on, their growing desire for political freedom and to avoid Russification policies, military conscription and even outright persecution under the Bolsheviks assumed a more prominent role in driving some of these migrations abroad.  

The great port city of Bremen, Germany, stood as a common distribution point on the long trek from Russia to the Western Hemisphere.  In the case of the United States, an important immigrant point of entry during this period included Castle Garden in New York before it was replaced by the more famous Ellis Island in 1892, but other immigrants arrived through such port cities as Baltimore, Maryland, and Galveston, Texas.  Sometimes medical quarantines and outright rejections by officials forced immigrants to seek different ports of entry or simply to return home.  Others, including my Bessarabian German ancestors, even landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, before settling in the northern plains of the United States.   Halifax served as Canada’s version of “Ellis Island” or main entry point for many new German arrivals from Russia and others.  Much as in Russia a century earlier, many German-Russians started over on the North American frontiers.  Some of the first houses on the nearly treeless prairies at this time were sod homes.   Later on, better home construction took place.

The earliest recorded case of Germans from Russia to immigrate to the United States took place in 1849, but after 1872 increasing numbers began to arrive on the shores and move by way of the railroads into the interiors of the Western Hemisphere.  Some of the Canadian provinces like Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, the U.S. states of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas, and the Pampas (grasslands) of Argentina reminded many farmer immigrants of the sweeping Russian landscapes.  Germans from Russia, especially Mennonites, often sent out advance scouts to survey prospective lands for purchase. 

In the United States, the young prairie communities of Aberdeen and Yankton, South Dakota, and Sutton, Nebraska, served as significant distribution points for German settlers from Russia into other parts of the Great Plains region in search of available land and opportunities.   Meanwhile, Eureka, South Dakota, literally represented the end of the rail lines, from which settlers had to reach their intended destinations on foot or by wagon.  As the remaining lands opened up by the 1862 Homestead Act began to close, the plains of western Oklahoma beckoned these people from the realm of the tsars.  Land hunger drove them southward into Kansas and the Indian Territory in the 1880s, 1890s, and 1900s, including the Cherokee Outlet in September 1893 in the northwestern part of what became Oklahoma.

Starting in the late nineteenth century, significant migrations of German-Russians also reached the American Northwest, including the states of Oregon and Washington.  In addition, in the early twentieth century a significant community of German-Russians established itself in the Lodi, California area, including some of those who originally had settled in the Dakotas, among them a number of Evangelical Lutherans, Lutheran Pietists and Congregationalists.   In more recent decades, starting around the Great Depression and World War II, many Germans from Russia from the Great Plains, especially those in retirement (the so-called “Snow Birds”), have moved to the American Southwest, including New Mexico, Arizona, and California, as well as Florida.

Until the early decades of the twentieth century, most Germans from Russia were engaged in agriculture for their economic livelihood.  In the United States and Canada, for example, numerous Black Sea (Ukrainian) German farmers especially tended to raise wheat on the North American prairies.  Specifically, these Germans from Russia made significant contributions to the emergence and growth of the wheat and grain production segment of my adopted state of Oklahoma’s agricultural industry and in other states.  Further, it should be noted that the Mennonites introduced the hardy Russian (Turkey) red winter wheat to the Great Plains.  More recently, scholars have speculated that it was in fact Russian agricultural scientists at the time who had taken particular interest in this development, and perhaps had even encouraged it.  Anna Thompson, a longtime educator of Russian Mennonite descent and the current president of the Central Oklahoma Chapter of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, recently told me the story of how Mennonite women and girls at the turn of the last century sewed kernels of this variety of wheat in the hems of their skirts, thereby transporting the seeds first to Kansas, and then Oklahoma. 

During this period of intense immigration, many Volga Germans in particular worked on beet farms as laborers in Colorado and western Nebraska (such as in the town of Grand Island) and on the railroads.  However, in some instances, a smaller number of German-Russians simply stayed in the eastern urban centers of the United States, such as New York City, while others, including some Volga Germans, stopped in the great city of Chicago, Illinois, to work on the railroads and in other expanding industries.   Many Volga Germans also went to Lincoln, Nebraska, to work for the railroads there.   Meanwhile, as many as 37,000 German-Russians immigrated to Argentina during the 1870s and 1880s.  Indeed, a number of South American countries like Brazil (whose government actively and directly recruited settlers, unlike the United States) and Argentina were transformed into lands of East European immigration during the nineteenth century, with numerous Volga Germans working in the meat-packing industry along the Argentinean railroads and also as tenant farmers.  Volga Germans especially made their homes in northeast Argentina near Buenos Aires, while Black Sea Germans moved into the southeastern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul. 

The first Germans from Russia settled in North and South Dakota in the 1870s.  This significant migration intensified in the 1880s, 1890s, and early 1900s and continued to a lesser extent until the early 1920s, when the U.S. government established strict immigration quotas over the next four decades.  According to U.S. census data, North Dakota’s total population increased by more than fifty percent between 1900 and 1910, and part of this resulted from the rising German-Russian presence.   By the early 1900s, North Dakota claimed about twenty percent of all Germans from Russia in the United States.   Many Black Sea German settlements were concentrated in the north-central, southwestern, and south-central parts of North Dakota.  These clustered communities actually overlapped, creating a general triangular region that scholars have traditionally referred to as the state’s “German-Russian Triangle” (Dreiecke).  The North Dakota counties of Logan, McIntosh and Emmons held quite high population concentrations of Germans from Russia.  Some estimates are that as much as thirty to forty percent of North Dakota’s population of 670,000 today can claim at least some German-Russian ancestry.  Many of the great iron-cross Catholic cemeteries also can be found in this region. 

According to the Center for Volga German Studies at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, as many as one million descendants of Volga Germans today reside in Canada alone, a remarkable figure when considering that Canada’s total population is only about 35 million.   Significant German-Russian communities were founded on the Canadian prairie provinces, and a number of large Russian Mennonite communities, including some wealthy farm families and landholders, can be found today near Steinbach, Manitoba, as well.   According to the Center for Volga German Studies, more than 1.2 million descendants of Volga Germans also today reside in Argentina, whose population stands around 41 million. 

According to the 1920 U.S. Census, more than 120,000 Germans from Russia lived in the United States.  By 1940, after the great period of migrations, the German-Russian population figures could be generally broken down as such:  200,000 in Canada; 350,000-450,000 in the United States; 30,000 (mostly Mennonites) in Mexico; 250,000 in Brazil; 150,000-170,000 in Argentina; 4,500 in Paraguay; and 2,500 in Uruguay.  In other words, the total number of Germans from Russia in the Western Hemisphere by 1940 had reached over one million, with about 630,000 in North America and roughly 407,000 in South America.  We also cannot forget that following World War II—and these included a number of my extended relatives—another 30,000 German-Russian refugees or Displaced Persons (DPs), who had fled the Soviet Union into western parts of Allied-occupied Germany, received sponsorship to start new lives in North and South America and even Australia, mostly doing so between 1948 and 1952. 

Second, the presentation briefly analyzes the ethnic group’s own evolving self-perceptions as well as outsiders’ changing views of these peculiar “Russian” Germans upon their arrival in Canada and the United States.   In general, German-Russians were quite clannish, “a people unto themselves” in their initial encounters with outsiders.   Early on, they also expressed a distrust of politics and politicians, especially when it concerned issues beyond their own local communities.  Part of this distrustful attitude resulted from their negative experiences in late Imperial Russia, when they lost some of their legal privileges.  In addition, their emphasis on local affairs was a continuation of a traditional form of self-government and provincialism that had earlier been granted by Russian imperial authorities in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. 

Carrying over from the old country, the first Germans from Russia also mostly married within their Christian denominations and ethnic group.  In time, however, especially after the mid-1900s, more German-Russians, particularly the more educated and professional in the larger urban centers, began to marry outside of their own ethnic group, and that could mean marrying people of other religious persuasions.   The Old World villages’ religious segregation by denomination (Lutheran or Catholic, for instance) began to break down gradually on the American frontier, where the creation of compact ethnic settlements had become more difficult to maintain.  For example, German-Russians on the American Great Plains observed in the early years that the village center with farm lands surrounding the community was no longer possible when they had to settle under the township system, which tended to scatter the population into individual farmsteads.  There appeared to be more opportunities to establish compact German-Russian settlements in parts of Canada, northeastern Argentina and southern Brazil, however.      

Only gradually do we see a noticeable increase in the number of German-Russians receiving a higher or university education in North America, especially after World War II.  In the early years, an advanced education might concern something “practical,” such as accounting and engineering, as well as teaching the German language.  The shift from agriculture to other professional careers, as well as growing assimilation, contributed to this development. 

By contrast, in Brazil and even Argentina, as scholar Frederick Luebke noted, more compact settlements were permitted, thus allowing for a greater degree of cultural and linguistic retention.  Moreover, in Latin America, greater cultural barriers arose between Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking peoples and the Germanic-speaking peoples from Russia when compared with a greater cultural and linguistic affinity between Germanic-speaking groups and the English-speaking regions of North America.  However, one could argue that at least from a religious standpoint, various German-Russians of Roman Catholic background held more in common with the dominant Latin heritage than did those of a Protestant heritage. 

Besides the economic and cultural processes contributing to assimilation, we must unfortunately acknowledge the long-term impact of anti-German sentiment of the two world wars.  These conflicts also led to greater assimilation pressures.  In addition, the anti-Russian sentiment in the United States following the Bolshevik Revolution (the so-called Red Scare) and the later Cold War era also compelled many German-Russians initially to try downplaying their East European roots and connections.   These developments only built on the old turn-of-the-century native stereotypes about the German-Russians being “dumb Russians” or so-called “inferior” East Europeans.  In the case of Mennonites, their professed pacifism also made them a bitter target of both authorities and local populations during the First World War.  The German-Russians’ economic accomplishments and impact on local culture and food traditions subsequently tended to be downplayed and at times underappreciated for many years.

As Luebke observed, we find similar and, because of the greater degree of linguistic and cultural separation, at times even more severe anti-German feeling erupting in Brazil during the two world wars.  Brazil entered World War I in April 1917 at the same time as the United States against Imperial Germany.   These anti-German episodes also generally contributed to a downplaying of German culture and language in Brazil.

On a more positive note, sports have long been one way North and South Americans of different backgrounds have integrated into their respective popular cultures.  For example, the sport of baseball turned into an especially favorite pastime among Germans from Russia immigrants assimilating into mainstream United States society.  In the early 1920s, the entire Snow Township baseball team was composed of members of the Hummel and Vetter families of McLean County, North Dakota.  The Hummels and Vetters were German Lutherans from Bessarabia who came to the United States in 1902.  Married into the Hummel family, the Vetter homestead even built its own regulation-size baseball diamond (playing field), where it hosted competitive games for two summers—a sort of “Field of Dreams.” 

Third, the presentation briefly reflects on this ethnic group’s sometimes strong and at times tenuous cultural and family ties with the Old World.  The role of various German-language newspapers in maintaining these connections was crucial, much as the Internet does today.  For several decades, beginning in the late nineteenth century, letter writing and newspapers connected families on three continents (North and South America and Europe).   These newspapers continued operating well into the 1930s, but by the 1940s and 1950s, they essentially closed down for financial reasons as the readership diminished.

This Transatlantic communication between German-Russians persisted into the turbulent early Soviet era.  For example, sometimes with the assistance of certain sympathetic Soviet guards or nearby local residents, countless letters were circulated around the USSR and even smuggled into Germany, Canada, South America, the United States and elsewhere.   These are the so-called famine and GULAG letters.   A fair number of German-language newspapers on the North American Plains published excerpts of hundreds of letters between 1928 and 1937, including the Dakota Freie Presse (Yankton, South Dakota, and New Ulm, Minnesota), the Nord-Dakota Herold (Dickinson, North Dakota), Die Welt-Post (Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska), the Eureka Rundschau (South Dakota), the Wishek Nachrichten (North Dakota) and others.  Recently authenticated by scholars, hundreds of unpublished letters to relatives during the 1930s even managed to arrive in Saskatchewan, Canada, from Mennonites deported as kulaks to special settlements in the Urals.

Many Germans from Russia who had immigrated overseas were shaken, grieved, and ashamed by the course of events in Lenin’s and Stalin’s Soviet empire.  It seemed that these Germans from Russia immigrants only wished now to carry on with their own lives in the “New World,” with fresh beginnings.  As German-Russians in the Western hemisphere continued to assimilate into their respective new societies, they mostly remained silent about their heritage following this period of mass persecution.  Especially after Stalin—and here I speak with more authority in the North American case—they grew hesitant about relating their history and origins to others, and even more so about acknowledging too much about the mass repression and violence done to their compatriots under communism.  At the time, this attitude or perhaps survival mode was understandable in view of the two terrible world wars against a German adversary—and along with it, the stigma of being German—and the rise of a new power to challenge the West during the emerging Cold War, Soviet Russia (and ironically, along with that, the stigma of being associated with Russia).  For many years, these immigrants and children of immigrants decided to leave the “old country” behind once and for all—at least until the collapse of the Iron Curtain beckoned younger generations to take another look at what had transpired.

Though German émigrés from the USSR in West Germany were more politicized and outspoken against Soviet communism during the Cold War, the terrible legacy of Nazism tainted most things German after 1945, in effect overshadowing much of the Soviet experience.  Ethnic Germans from Russia on both sides of the Iron Curtain had in fact found themselves compromised by the recent history of the competing claims of the Red Star and Black Swastika.  For many years, the jaded memories of two world wars (creating strong anti-German sentiment in the West) as well as of the Bolshevik Revolution, Russian Civil War, Soviet persecution and the Cold War (and with it, a strong anti-communist and anti-Russian sentiment in the West) helped shape the group’s historical narrative in the Western Hemisphere. 

Finally, the discussion briefly concludes with the issue of how, since the 1960s and 1970s, the Germans from Russia in the Americas have made a more conscious effort to preserve their traditional heritage and memory, but now as proud, loyal and productive citizens of their respective countries in the Western Hemisphere.  It is interesting that in general it was the children and grandchildren of the immigrants who made this decision—people who had already become relatively successful and safely integrated into the cultural and political mainstream.  By the 1960s and 1970s, many of them were middle-aged or older, and they now possessed the necessary economic and social resources to preserve at least part of their traditional heritage.  This trend appeared among numerous ethnic groups and minorities following this period after the Vietnam War and the Watergate Scandal, but the German-Russians have stood out in recent years with their intense fascination with genealogy and heritage preservation.  Especially with the recent rise of the “digital village” called the Internet, they have established closer contacts with fellow German from Russia groups in Latin America and those once behind the Iron Curtain.   Since the early 1990s, tour groups from North America to Germany and the former USSR have even been organized as well. 

As early as the 1920s, during the American famine relief efforts in Soviet Russia, educated members and activists within the German-Russian community on both sides of the Atlantic called for establishing ethnic associations, including Volga German intellectual and Stalin victim Peter Sinner (1879-1935), but not until the “ethnic renaissance” of the post-1960s did they manage to create two international heritage societies in North America—the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia (AHSGR) in 1968 and the Germans from Russia Heritage Society (GRHS) in 1971.  AHSGR membership today is about 4,000, and about 2,000 in the GRHS.  Most of their members come from the United States and Canada.   

Similarly, in 1975, on the one hundredth anniversary of the first migrations to the country, the Volga Germans of Argentina began to organize their own ethnic association.  The current president of the Association of the Descendants of Volga Germans in Argentina (Asociacion Argentina de Descendientes de Alemanes del Volga), Isabel Kessler, has been working to create an actual federation out of the 18 branches that now comprise the association.  The idea is that such an official federation would be the only way to maintain and promote their ethnic heritage.   Membership numbers there remain uncertain, however.  More recently, the North and South American heritage groups for German-Russians have been contacting each other, and some of their early collaboration includes inviting guest speakers and translating publications, but stronger cultural bridges remain necessary to preserve and promote their heritages to a wider audience.    

In closing, one of the difficult challenges these heritage organizations face is the aging demographic of those who still more or less identify with the traditional ethnic identity.  It might become the case that special collections at academic institutions, sometimes receiving assistance from the existing heritage societies, will assume more responsibility and possess greater resources and capabilities to help preserve the heritage over the long term.  In the past few decades, a number of special collections and archives have appeared at state universities and even private colleges across North America, including the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection at North Dakota State University in Fargo (1978), the Dr. Sidney Heitman Germans from Russia Collection at Colorado State University in Fort Collins (1993), and the Center for Volga German Studies (CVGS) at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon (2008). 

So much more about the topic of Germans from Russia could be discussed, but all these migrations to the Western Hemisphere represent a fascinating diaspora history.  Their long-term impact will be felt for generations to come.

CONSULTATIVE BIBLIOGRAPHY

Armand Bauer and Elaine Bauer, “The History and Work of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society,” ed. Eric J. Schmaltz, Heritage Review 41:1 (Mar. 2011):  3-13.

Doris L. Bergen, “Tenuousness and Tenacity: The Volksdeutschen of Eastern Europe, World War II, and the Holocaust,” in Krista O’Donnell, Nancy Reagin, and Renate Bridenthal, eds., The Heimat Abroad:  The Boundaries of Germanness (Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2005).

Ruth Derksen-Siemens, ed., “Remember Us”:  Letters from Stalin’s Gulag (1930-1937):  Volume One:  The Regehr Family, trans. Peter Bargen and Anne Bargen (Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, Pandora Press, 2008).

Frank H. Epp, Mennonites in Canada, 1786-1920:  The History of a Separate People (Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Macmillan, 1974).

__________, Mennonites in Canada, 1920-1940:  A People’s Struggle for Survival (Toronto, Ontario, Canada:  Macmillan, 1982).

James R. Griess, “German Russian Settlements in Latin America” Special Topic Issue in the Journal of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia 34:2 (Summer 2011).

__________, ed., The German-Russians, Those Who Came to Sutton, M.A. Thesis, Nebraska State Teachers College, Kearney, 1968.

Douglas Hale, The Germans from Russia in Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980).

Gordon L. Iseminger, “The McIntosh County German-Russians:  The First Fifty Years,” Journal of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia 11:2 (1988): 1-20. 

Isabel Kessler, “Update on Programs and Activities in Argentina,” Journal of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, 33:3 (Fall 2010):  26.

Timothy J. Kloberdanz, “Plainsmen of Three Continents:  Volga German Adaptation to Steppe, Prairie, and Pampa,” in Frederick C. Luebke, ed., Ethnicity on the Great Plains (Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press, 1980).

__________, “Volksdeutsche:  The Eastern European Germans,” in William C. Sherman and Playford V. Thorson, eds., Plains Folk:  North Dakota’s Ethnic History (Fargo: The North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, 1988), 117-177.

Frederick C. Luebke, Germans in Brazil:  A Comparative History of Cultural Conflict during World War I (Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State University Press, 1987).

__________, Germans in the New World: Essays in the History of Immigration (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1990). 

Theodore B. Pedeliski, “The German-Russian Ethnic Factor in William Langer’s Campaigns, 1914-1940,” North Dakota History Journal 64:1 (Winter 1997):  2-20.

J. Otto Pohl, Eric J. Schmaltz and Ronald J. Vossler, “‘In Our Hearts We Felt the Sentence of Death’:  Ethnic German Recollections of Mass Violence in the USSR, 1928-48,” Journal of Genocide Research 11:2 (June 2009):  323-354.

LaVern J. Rippley, “F.W. Sallet and the Dakota Freie Presse,” North Dakota History Journal 59:4 (Fall 1992):  2-21.

Richard Sallet, Russian-German Settlement in the United States, trans. LaVern J. Rippley and Armand Bauer (Fargo:  North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, 1974).

Norman E. Saul, “Documenting Non-Russian Immigrants from Russia,” Slavic & East European Information Resources 7:2/3 (2006):  139-151.

__________, “The Migration of the Russian-Germans to Kansas,” Kansas Historical Quarterly 40:1 (Spring 1974), available online, 20 Aug. 2011.

Richard D. Scheuerman and Clifford E. Trafzer, The Volga Germans:  Pioneers of the Northwest (Moscow, ID:  University Press of Idaho, 1980).

Eric J. Schmaltz, An Expanded Bibliography and Reference Guide for the Former USSR’s Ethnic Germans (Fargo:  Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries, 2003). 

__________, “‘The Long Trek’:  The SS Population Transfer of Ukrainian Germans to the Polish Warthegau and Its Consequences, 1943-1944,” Journal of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, 31:3 (Fall 2008):  1-23.

__________, “A Portrait of Peter Sinner (1879-1935),” Heritage Review 32:1 (Mar. 2002):  32.

William C. Sherman, Assimilation in a North Dakota German-Russian Community, M.A. Thesis, University of North Dakota, 1965.             

Samuel D. Sinner, ed., Letters from Hell: An Index to Volga-German Famine Letters Published in "Die Welt-Post" 1920-1925; 1930-1934 (Lincoln:  AHSGR, 2000).

__________, The Open Wound:  The Genocide of German Ethnic Minorities in Russia and the Soviet Union, 1915-1949 and Beyond/Der Genozid an Russlanddeutschen 1915-1949 (Fargo:  Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries, 2000). 

Ronald J. Vossler, The Old God Still Lives: German Villagers in Czarist and Soviet Ukraine Write Their American Relatives, 1915-1924 (Fargo:  Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries, Fargo, North Dakota, 2006).

__________, We’ll Meet Again in Heaven:  Germans in the Soviet Union Write Their American Relatives: 1925–1937 (Fargo:  Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries, 2001).


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