Germans from Russia Symposium

North Dakota State University
Fargo, North Dakota
July, 1990


A summary of German Migrations Eastwood into Poland, Austria, Hungary, Romania, and Russia

Arthur E. Flegel
Menlo Park, California

     As we delve into the study of German movements eastward, let us first analyze the reasons for migrations. Since the beginning of time, man has moved from place to place under two primary compulsions: duress or the opportunity of self-improvement. Therefore, within that context the three major reasons for migration may be more narrowly defined as: (1) economic (2) political and (3) religious.

     For the most part, our concept of migrations centers around the development of the Western Hemisphere from the l7th to the 20th centuries. However, during that period of time, there were also definite movements eastward. In fact, the Crusades, of which there were eight in number over a period of two centuries, 1095 to 1292, can be considered as a positive motivating influence for eastward migrations.

     Ostensibly to free the Holy Land from domination by the infidel Turk, the Roman Catholic Church, (which by this time had become the dominant religious, cultural, economic and political power of Western Europe), seized the opportunity to expand its influence eastward. Consequently, it was never intended for many of these pilgrims to reach Jerusalem. Their role was, instead, intended as a means of creating German settlements in those eastern areas that the church desired to penetrate.

     Thus, a colony of southwest Germans was established in the Galician area of the northern Carpathians, which, however, eventually became absorbed into the Ukrainian and Polish cultures. During the same period a settlement of so-called Saxon Germans (who were in actuality Swabians) was created in the Transylvanian (Siebenbuergen) region of what is presently Romania. They survived Turkish occupation, that included good and bad times for some 700 years, until the threat of living under Communism after World War II caused their emigration to the West.

     A real beneficial aspect of the essentially disastrous Crusades was the advent of new thought processes that included higher education (creation of universities) along with arts and crafts development in a Europe that was just emerging from the Middle Ages. Thus, the Renaissance and Reformation were ushered into history.

     The Teutonic Knighthoods that had become powerful through the Crusades were seeking elbowroom and proceeded to resettle along the Baltic seacoast. Among these were the Hohenzollern, a powerful knighthood whose original domain lay near Stuttgart in south Germany. Encouraged by their neighbors who feared their eventual muscle-flexing and through the arrangement of strategic marriages, they were able to take over the development of the northeastern lands that became first the Electorate of Brandenburg and later the Kingdom of Prussia. In fact, their name was derived from Prussi, one of the many Slavic tribes they absorbed into their realm.

     Germany of itself was no more than a loosely connected confederation of states comprised of Kingdoms, Principalities, Archbishoprics, Bishoprics, Grand Duchies, Duchies, Margravites, etc. There was no unified Germany until 1871, when Otto von Bismarck finally achieved what for centuries had eluded his predecessors.

     Martin Luther's nailing of his 95 Theses on the church door of Wittenberg, Saxony in 1517 was indeed an earthshaking event of modern history .As the petty rulers seized upon Protestantism as a means to throw off the yoke of the Roman church in central Europe, their subjects, over whom they maintained the power of life and death, were obliged to do likewise. In some cases where strong religious convictions dictated otherwise people chose to leave their native community by whatever means possible rather than submit to the changes. But, for the most part, this was not possible.

     Subsequent to the Reformation was the Counter-reformation, initiated by the Archbishop of Salzburg with permission from the Pope in Rome, to bring the errant Protestants back into the Catholic fold by whatever means expedient. People had three choices: recant, die by the sword, or escape. Determined not to recant, some 30,000 fled into neighboring Protestant Saxony. This event, more generally known as the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), began as a religious conflict but ended as a political struggle that devastated eastern and south-central Germany. As a result, settlers came from France, Switzerland, Italy, the Austrian Tirol, and Spain into Germany to augment the depleted population. The addition of strange surnames tended to greatly alter the complexion of the redeveloping regions.

     As an aftermath of the Thirty Years War, the religious freedom that had been guaranteed the French Protestant Huguenots by King Henry IV in the Treaty of Nantes in 1598 was abrogated by Louis XIV in 1685, causing over 200,000 to flee. Many escaped across the English Channel to England and America, but the vast majority fled into Germany. Especially welcomed by the Prussian rulers, the immigrants were resettled into East Prussia and the Spreewald area south of Berlin. Many of those remaining in the Rhineland's area became part of the German immigration into the Volga Region of Russia.

     The Waldensians (Waldenses), so-called heretics, were able to survive annihilation by the Catholic Church by entrenching themselves in the mountains of southeastern France and northwestern Italy. They rejected much of the church's dogma, advocated the symbolism of the Eucharist, deplored the taking of oaths, and promoted lay ministries. These beliefs were promulgated and strongly influenced by the development of the Moravian Church in Bohemia, as well as the Anabaptist movement in Switzerland. Under the leadership of an erstwhile Catholic monk, Menno Simons, from whom the name Mennonite was derived, they became prominent in the Dutch and German Friesland areas. From there, many emigrated to America under William Penn, while others migrated eastward at the invitation of the Polish princes during the 16th and 17th centuries to settle in the Danzig region and build dikes to control the flooding of the Vistula River which annually inundated the land. Within a few generations these resourceful and energetic people developed excellent farm and dairy lands all along the river to Warsaw. Other names significant in Mennonite history were Jacob Hutter (Hutterites), Thomas Muenzer, and Conrad Grebel.

     Having recovered from the Mongolian onslaught by the beginning of the 17th century, the Russians, under Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, desired to bring western culture into their realm. German professionals and craftsmen were employed under contract to provide skills and to teach the indigenous Russians new and better ways of doing things. As a youngster Peter enjoyed visiting the Nemtzki Svoboda (German suburb) outside Moscow and was greatly impressed by the quality of the German lifestyle. He determined that his people should be afforded greater exposure to this admirable culture, thus setting the stage for later German immigration into Russia.

     As the Austrian Hapsburgs increased in power they succeeded in forcing the Ottoman Turks out of south-central Europe and the Balkans, which they had occupied since the Crusades. Seeking settlers for the newly acquired lands, the rulers, Maria Theresa, Prince Eugene, and later, Josef, turned to southwest Germany. From 1740 to 1790 German enclaves in Slovenia, the Banat and the Batschka were created along the fertile Danube River valley. During this period of time the previously mentioned Galician region was resettled by some 13,000 Germans of all faiths in communities that flourished until World Wars I and II. At the same time another migration brought people into the Bukovina, an area south of Galicia and northeast of the aforementioned Siebenbuergen, adjoining Moldavia. Some pioneers into Austrian lands later moved on into Russia, but for the most part they lived secluded and cheerful lives for some two centuries before being uprooted by the advent of the World Wars and Communism.

     The Seven Years War (1755-1762), which sorely devastated the Rhineland and adjacent areas, set the stage for another wave of migrations eastward.

     When the German princess, Sophia Augusta of Anhalt Zerbst, became Czarina of Russia in 1762, she promptly issued manifestos inviting German settlers into her domain. To promulgate this endeavor she employed German-speaking French agents to set up recruitment centers throughout Germany, which were in operation for a period of four years, 1763-1767. They were terminated as a result of stringent edicts being handed down by the various rulers involved. Nevertheless, the Russian recruiters had succeeded in enticing some 29,000 middle and southwest Germans to emigrate from their homelands for the promise of a better existence along the lower Volga River region. On both sides of the Volga from northeast of Saratov to Kamyschin in the south, 104 villages were established over a four-year period. Surviving many hardships, they flourished until World War II, 1942-1945, when they were forcibly dispossessed and dispersed into Asiatic Russia and Siberia.

     The Partitions of Poland by the three neighboring powers, Prussia, Austria, and Russia began, in 1772, to be followed by two other divisions in 1793 and 1795, which terminated Poland's existence. Seizing this opportunity, the resourceful Prussians created a military occupation of the newly acquired regions and proceeded to begin colonizing and making arable the undeveloped virgin lands. Under the despotic rule of the Polish kings and princes, there was little opportunity and no incentive for the indigenous Poles, who were kept as lowly serfs, to improve lands that were totally under control of their lords and masters. However, it was a great boon for ambitious south Germans who were always eager for opportunities of self-improvement. Their prominence in the Posen, West Prussian and Warsaw regions encouraged further immigration during ensuing years.

     The advent of these new arrivals did not set at all well with Mennonites who for more than a century had been living their secluded lifestyles within the Polish realms. Choosing not to comply with the 1789 Decree of Kaiser Frederick Wilhelm II, which called for their full-fledged Prussian citizenship that would include military service, they sought permission from Catherine II to reestablish themselves in Russia. To that end, they were afforded large areas of crown lands and, beginning in 1789, created first the Chortitza settlements along the Dnieper River and later the Molotschna area immediately to the south. These migrations that numbered well into the thousands, lasted through the 1820's and comprised, not only Mennonites, but Lutherans and Catholics as well.

     Since, through the Partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, 1795) Russia had acquired Polish Volhynia, it was very natural for the Germans, primarily Mennonite and Lutheran, to move further east into Russian Volhynia. This area had been settled intermittently over the previous century by Germans who had been invited as tenant farmers by the barons of huge estates. The colonies flourished until World War I when large numbers were dispersed into Siberia with some being able to escape into the western world.

     With the advent of the French Revolution in 1792 and the ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte (1804-1814), the conditions of the Germans along the Rhineland became deplorable to the extent that people were eager to emigrate. Many sought to escape his domination by migrating into the Prussian Polish lands. This draft evasion was short-lived, for Napoleon's successful campaigns eventually led him to invade Russia. En route he conscripted German soldiers for the invasion, and, in Poland, created the Duchy of Warsaw. This left the German-speaking element in that region persona non grata. Napoleon's advance and ultimate defeat at Moscow did succeed in bringing new names into the Volga communities through the advent of German prisoners of war , who, having been sent to the Volga colonies, chose to marry and remain there.

     Alexander I, grandson of Catherine II and nephew of the German King of Württemberg, ascended the throne in 1801. He promptly issued a manifesto similar to Catherine's, designed to bring people into the Black Sea area which his predecessors had wrested from the Turks. The unrest caused by Napoleon in west Germany and the concurrent crop failures brought immediate results. Beginning in 1804, some 50,000 Germans from Baden, Württemberg, Hesse, the French Alsace, Switzerland, and adjacent regions gathered at Frankfurt a/M [am Main] to join caravans for the long treks eastward to Russia. At the border they were received by the Russian army, transported to the vicinity of Odessa, and quarantined in barracks until they could be permanently settled in communities assigned to them by the Crown. Others braved the tortuous waters of the Danube on so-called Donau Schachtel (river scows) through the dangerous Turkish regions to also finally arrive at Odessa. With typical German industry, these Ukrainian Germans were instrumental in creating the breadbasket of Europe, and their colonies flourished until the advent of communistic collectivism destroyed their incentive for self-determination. Many died during the Russian Revolution, while the majority of those who did survive were later dispersed into Asiatic Russia and Siberia where thousands perished.

     Having acquired Bessarabia from the Turks at the Treaty of Bucharest in 1812, Alexander I sought German settlers for that region as well. His manifesto came as a godsend to the distressed Germans in the Duchy of Warsaw, Poland. Beginning in 1814 settlers from Poland and south Germany established some 24 villages which, along with their daughter colonies, flourished greatly. Upon being ceded to Romania at the Treaty of Versailles in 1918, the Bessarabians fared considerably better than their neighbors under Soviet Russia's Stalin. In 1940, under an agreement between Hitler and Stalin, the Bessarabians were required to vacate their properties and be resettled in the Warthe River region of Poland. Over the years Hitler had conscripted Polish slave labor for his munitions plants from this area, which was now under populated. Following the Nazi collapse in 1945, the Bessarabians were again forced to flee and are now scattered over the entire globe.

     The last really sizable migration to Russia was during the years 1817-1819 by a Separatist group (Chialists), followers of Johann Albrecht Bengel and later John George Rapp. Believing the millennium to be imminent and influenced by the Baltic Baroness Countess von Krudener of German descent, who was able to make special arrangement with Czar Alexander I, they boarded the Schachtels (river scows) at Ulm to make their way down the tortuous Danube to Ovidiopol and Odessa with many perishing en route. Some decided to remain in the Odessa region, while others chose to challenge the perils of the long overland treks and across the Caucasus Mountains to their intended destination near Mount Ararat, where Christ was supposed to reappear .The settlements in the vicinity of Tiflis (Tblisis) eventually developed a flourishing and very extensive wine industry.

     With the abrogation in the 1870's by Czars Alexander II and Alexander III of the privileges guaranteed in the terms of the manifestos of Catherine II and Alexander I and the opportunities afforded by the developing countries in the Western Hemisphere, thousands of Germans determined to immigrate to these lands of greater promise for the future. This huge migration lasted until the advent of World War I in 1914 brought it to an abrupt halt.

     Even as we speak, the migrations of Germans continue at an amazing pace. People who for two centuries have called Russia or Poland, as well as other eastern European countries, their homeland are seeking means of emigration with the hope of joining their brethren as well as exercising the opportunity of self-determination. Only history will tell the eventual outcome of all that is taking place currently.

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