Germans from Russia Symposium

North Dakota State University
Fargo, North Dakota
July, 1990


Outside-In, Inside-Out, and Bottom-Up: A Historian Looks at the Germans from Russia

Dr. Barbara Handy Marchello
University of North Dakota, Grand Forks

     I was surprised by the curiosity that met my first explorations of the history of Germans from Russia. People kept asking me why I, an Anglo-American, was interested in this other ethnic group. I think some were a little suspicious of my motives because I have no family or social ties to the community of Germans from Russia in the United States. But I simply wanted to know more about the history of North Dakota, and the Great Plains, and the people who settled this land, and it was impossible to ignore such a large and important ethnic group as the Germans from Russia. In fact, it is hard for me to understand how any historian of the Great Plains could overlook the cultural and agricultural contributions of the German colonists who immigrated from Russia, though many have. So, I have kept them in mind as I pursued my studies in social and women's history, and I am turning again to these immigrants to help me answer some of the questions about the immigration process.

     The people who most likely would take an interest in the history of Germans from Russia are social historians. They come wrapped in different packages: rural immigration, ethnic, family, or women's historians. But as social historians we are all interested in history from the "bottom up." We are less interested in the man in the White House than the voters who elected him. We care less about Rockefeller than about those who worked in his mills. We want to know about the people who were once thought unsuitable subjects for history because they did not wield political, economic, or military power. Some have thought this history impossible to gather, because the people we want to know left few records; but in the past thirty years, research has broadened to include resources that unlock the worlds of ordinary people.

     Census records tell us a great deal about the basic information. The census tells us about marriage, children, occupation, language, and place of birth. We can also tease out of the census a little bit about the kind of work women did in the home, whether there were boarders and if they were related. We can also look at church records and histories and find out a lot about social organization, community standards of behavior, and such surprising tidbits as who was quarreling with whom over property boundaries.

     Another important resource for the history of Germans from Russia is the family histories and personal memoirs. The memoirs written just for the family are as important as the great books that line the shelves of the libraries. It is from these family histories that a picture of a way of life and the development of communities can be reconstructed. Please keep writing them, and remember to donate a copy to the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection.

     In North Dakota, we have a remarkable resource for the history of the immigrants who settled here. During the Depression, the Works Projects Administration (WPA) sent out interviewers to gather the life stories of first generation immigrants. These were recorded by counties, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and accuracy, but still offer us the words of women and men who recounted their experiences of the journey to and settlement in North Dakota. These are the homely histories. They tell of the household goods they brought with them, the way they secured and prepared their food and clothing, the crops they raised and the equipment they used. The first church, school, and post office of the township are recorded, too. For instance, the record of Christian Albus and Katharina Edinger Albus tells us that they brought only their clothing and bedding with them when they journeyed from Rumania to Jamestown in 1882, but they were fortunate enough to build a two-room house of lumber when they first arrived which they furnished simply. Katharina cooked on a "cheap four-lid cook stove." In 1884 the Albus' organized a German Baptist church in their home, and Christian served as its first Sunday School Superintendent. Two years later Albus donated land for a school. To many this information may seem too ordinary to matter, but to social historians this is really exciting stuff. We are not interested in the power people had to make others do their bidding: but 1) in the power of people to survive under difficult circumstances and 2) in the ways they struggled to construct their lives and to leave their children in better circumstances than those they had experienced.

     An important, but often overlooked, source of information about ordinary people is found in the objects they left behind. We understand, almost instinctively, that objects convey something to us about the people who made or used them. We keep things as representations of our family's past. These things connect us to people we remember warmly and to people we are descended from, but never met. To historians, objects tell a story that is different from the written record. Objects often speak of activities too commonplace to be recorded as "history." Tools, utensils, clothing and toys lend another dimension to lives that often seem flat on paper. Many accounts of German women from Russia describe their hard work in the field and barn, large families, and the wonderful bread they made. But when we know that they also found time to do fancy needlework and took pride in the beauty of their homes, we develop a better sense of who these women were and an even greater admiration for their accomplishments. Nina Parley Wishek described the fancywork she saw in the homes she visited in McIntosh County.

     They did beautiful cross-stitch work, flowers in color and geometric designs. Also, they crocheted yards and yards of lace, and their aprons and summer dresses and babies' bonnets were all elaborately trimmed. Their pillowcases had wide insertions set in above the hems, and the cotton bed covers were inset with insertions and bordered with lace. I have seen lace five and six inches wide hanging from the bedside. Added to the lace trim there might be cross-stitch work (1).

     Immigrant women who continued to stitch and crochet fancywork, as they had in their Russian village, may have found it to be a comforting connection to their former life, and it may have reminded them of their mothers, grandmothers, and neighbors who gathered to talk over village affairs while they stitched. Fancywork was not only a means of personal expression for women, but represented relationships between women. Eventually, women stopped doing the most elaborate and decorative types of needlework. We can examine the reasons for this and, perhaps, better understand the historical processes that brought change to the immigrant community. At this time I can only guess at the reasons fancywork was set aside. Perhaps women found the work less enjoyable, or less challenging, when it was not done in a social setting. Perhaps the influence of American-style needlework, which by 1880 was becoming simple in design, unimaginative and dependent on purchased patterns, encouraged immigrant women to give up the time-consuming work. It is possible that women, who had been taught that stitching was part of womanhood, were glad to give it up, when community standards no longer required this skill of all women.

     Social historians use all of these resources to write history from the "bottom up."
Looking at our nation's history from this upside-down perspective, we understand the stuff from which our nation is built. We all know from our high school history texts, that it took money raised from the sale of land to build the railroads; social historians remind us that it was not money, but men, who laid the rails. It is also social history that examines the link between the money that built the railroads and the people, many of them Germans from Russia, who settled the land and raised the crops that traveled by rail to market, thereby making the investment in the railroad pay. The railroads would not have succeeded without the hard work and determination of the families who bought or homesteaded the great expanse of empty land between the Mississippi River and the West Coast. By looking at history from the "bottom up": Even the men who financed and built the railroads (men who have been called great and powerful) are brought into focus as part of a tightly woven network of interrelationships in which all are dependent to some extent upon others.

      How do we move from the homely histories of wheat farmers and housewives, stone boats and bedspreads, to a sense of historical process and the place of Germans from Russia in that process? Here we must turn history "inside out." Instead of examining the great institutions of government or business we begin with the most basic, long-lasting and pervasive institution, the family. The family, in one form or another, is present in every culture and in every time throughout history. Relationships within the family vary in different cultures and have changed across time; but each family type or individual family can be analyzed to see 1) how work and power was divided among family members, 2) how sexuality and childbirth were regulated, 3) how the family related to the larger community, and 4) how kin fit into the family structure (2). By asking these questions we can understand family life in almost every society. Then we can add the particular factors that provide the context for the family in that society. During the settlement period on the Great Plains, a time of historical importance for our purposes, the important factors are the fact that migration to the Great Plains was largely composed of families, the availability of cheap land, the influence of the railroads and the companies that controlled the grain markets, the rapid industrialization of urban America, the continuing movement from rural areas to urban areas, and the great population movement from Europe to North and South America.

     These processes and relationships are interdependent. We do not have a complete
picture without examining their impact at the family level. For instance, industrialization
brought tractors and combines to the farm which eased the farmer's workload somewhat.
But if we examine the family within the context of these larger historical processes, we see that farm women may have benefited the most from industrial advances. The tractor and, even more, the harvester combine relieved them of heavy fieldwork and the enormous chore of feeding a threshing crew (which were always done in conjunction with housework and child rearing), and, perhaps, the burden of bearing the large numbers of children needed to operate a farm of six hundred to one thousand acres or more before mechanization. If we think about these processes in relation to the family (rather than the farmer or the farm or a nebulous population group), we won't lose sight of the impact of these events on the different members of the family or the way historical processes may have changed relationships within the family.

     Again, looking inside the larger historical process, we see that within the family
relationships and roles were deeply affected by immigration. All of the changes that
immigration brought about affected gender relationships in the family. Moving away from home, strange language and customs, poverty, and hardships contributed to an unsettling of customary relationships. Women may have lost some of their power in the home, particularly if they were not living near their mothers or grandmothers or other elderly women of the village who supported them physically and emotionally. Men may have gained power through the acquisition of land and their social and business contacts with near neighbors and in the market towns; contacts women rarely had access to. A new order of gender relationships developed as families became more comfortable in their new circumstances. Women gained social position in the community and a stronger voice in the home, as they helped to establish churches and new community social structures. The balance of power between men and women in the family shifted about, I suspect, until it came to rest in a new order that would become customary in time.

     We also turn history "inside out" when we study the history of Germans from Russia as a part of the settlement of the Great Plains. Moving from the specific to the general, the experiences and contributions of Germans from Russia in farming on the plains, the development of markets, adaptation to the new environment and the rebuilding of the social structures that replaced village life, illuminates the total settlement process and how that process affected the land and the people, as well as how people with European customs and language affected the land and the institutions of the Great Plains. When the experiences of the Germans from Russia, are added to and compared with those of other ethnic groups we have a deeper, more complex picture of settlement than a generalized overview could possibly afford.

     That's how and why a social historian would deal with a special population group.
Perhaps more important than historical method, and probably more pertinent for our
interests, is the question of who is writing the history. There was a time, not long ago,
when the great historians of America believed that history must be written by those who
"knew life at first hand. " These historians were said to have the "priceless asset of a
shared culture. " In the early sixties, established historians became aware that a new breed of scholar would soon be writing the history of America. These future scholars, who so worried their teachers because they did not share a culture with past Americans, were "products of the lower middle-class or foreign origins (3). In other words, these students were outsiders looking in on the feast of American history. Historians despaired that these students, thought to be unqualified to interpret the past, might mean the end of scholarly history .We know as we look back on the past thirty years of scholarship that middle-class and immigrant scholars have not ruined history, but opened it up, broadened the topics, and widened our perspectives.

     Historian Lawrence Levine wrote about the culture gap and his own experiences in leaping across it. The child of Jewish immigrants who grew up in New York City, he has written a biography of the midwestern politician, William Jennings Bryan, and a cultural history of African-Americans. He believes that no culture gap is impassable and that those who would confine the writing of history to those who share a cultural experience would limit the subjects of history to the elite, the wealthy and the well educated (4). Levine wrote his complaints in 1968, and since that time academic history has become more and more interested in the study of ordinary people. Yet, there are still those who would rein in all the varieties of cultural history. This spring the prominent American historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the study of specialized histories "invites the fragmentation of our own culture into a quarrelsome spatter of enclaves, ghettos and tribes. " He suggested that diversity in historical study might lead to "incoherence and chaos. " What Mr. Schlesinger fails to understand is that diversity is American history, that we cannot "[master] our own culture" without knowing the history of diverse cultural groups. Mr. Schlesinger would have us believe in a United States without cultural or ethnic distinctions, that those distinctions that do exist are superficial and unimportant to the student of American history (5). If Mr. Schlesinger still believes in the melting pot, as he asserts in this article, he would soon be relieved of this belief if he were to attend a lutefisk supper in Portland, North Dakota, one night and a borscht supper in Linton the next.

     But history can be tricky. It tells us whom we are, how we came to be where we are
today, and helps us prepare for the future. How, why, and by whom it is written influences the selection and arrangement of information. Therefore, we must reserve some healthy suspicion for the people who write our history .The distinction should be made between good and bad history, not history by insiders or outsiders. If the culture gap imposed an impassable barrier for historians, the history of the Germans from Russia would be impoverished by the loss of the work of Nina Parley Wishek and Richard Sallet.

     Is there, then, a significant difference in the way insiders and outsiders write history? Maybe. But the difference is one of perspective, not quality. Our perspectives of what is worth preserving about the past may differ. We should be grateful that they do. No one historian can possibly include everything there is to know about a subject, and those who have tried often write superficial, disorganized accounts of events. Smaller bites of history are usually more digestible. As we struggle to understand our history, whether it is a personal heritage or the history of a nation, we must consider a variety of perspectives and adopt them, modify them, or reject them. This difference in perspective is not necessarily related to objectivity. Neither a historian who shares a culture, nor one who looks across a culture gap can claim that distance or proximity advances objectivity. The objectivity we seek is not neutrality, but open-mindedness and the "desire to understand. "All historians like or dislike their subjects. Sometimes we are appalled by the actions of our subjects, we are concerned for their suffering, and we share their joy. The historian that does not recognize his or her involvement with the subject of study will not recognize the biases he or she brings to the study, no matter from which perspective he or she writes. There is an interaction between the historian and the subject that leads the historian to ask the questions, which will unlock the history, which will bring history into focus for the reader. This interaction is more important than, and more fruitful than, a shared culture or ethnic background.

     A fine example of the difference that perspective makes can be seen by comparing the homesteading experiences recorded by Richard Sallet in Russian-German Settlements in the United States and by Pauline Neher Diede in Homesteading on the Knife River Prairies. (7) Sallet describes Germans from Russia as the most effective farmers, who quickly moved from the desperate poverty of the new immigrant to prosperity. Without dwelling on the hard years he cites several examples of farmers who went from rags to riches in a short time. He proudly lists the percentages of sugar beet farmers who owned their farms, but has little to say about the much smaller number who worked as beet laborers.

     In contrast, Diede writes with compelling detail about the hardship of the first few years on the prairie. She never glosses over the backbreaking work, the shortage of food, the humiliating need to depend on the kindness of neighbors. Diede not only shared the culture, but also shared the experience as the daughter of pioneers.

     Is one of these accounts better or more accurate than the other? No. The perspectives are different and the authors wrote with different purposes. Each selected from the information available the facts to emphasize. That is the historian's job: to select, arrange, and analyze information about the past. Both Diede and Sallet did a fine job, but with a different purpose and perspective (6).

     Comparing Diede's history of the pioneering Martin's and Neher's with the sensitive observations of Nina Parley Wishek provides another, perhaps clearer, example of the difference in perspective between those who lived the culture and those who viewed it from the outside. Wishek, a Yankee-American with a colonial heritage, felt that her young maids, German emigrants from Russia, looked down upon Americans and their ways, probably because of the newness of the North Dakota settlements. "I soon learned, she wrote, "that in spite of our feeling of racial superiority, we were ridiculed and looked down upon by them. Diede, on the other hand, wrote of the feeling of inferiority her parents felt as new immigrants from Russia. Language, education, class, and household comforts separated them from Yankees, and other immigrants who had been settled longer, but even as they became established on the Knife River, they never lost the feeling of inferiority. The irony is that the perspective of the writers is complicated by the perspective of those they are writing about. The reader is left to deal with an apparent conflict in the historical record. But this is not a conflict of historical fact, but of contending perceptions of reality. In cases like these, history becomes more interesting because it begins to wrestle with the complexities of human nature.

     What is my perspective? I want to place the history of the Germans from Russia in a larger context. A few years ago I did some research on the Black Sea Germans in south central North Dakota (9). I wanted to examine the effect of the Depression and government agricultural programs on farmers in that area. I found that farmers were already following many of the techniques recommended by county agents, particularly diversified farming, and were willing to accept government programs in exchange for the support check that accompanied them. Many of the federal programs administered by the county agent, especially those for women and children, were designed to bring farm families into the mainstream of American life. Agents were confounded by the resistance they encountered in these counties, but also found that they learned from the farmers and their families while they were passing on the latest in approved agricultural and rural life information. Viewed in this context, we see that the farming traditions of Black Sea Germans provided them with more stability during drought than farmers who planted wheat from fencepost to fencepost. We also see an interaction between county agents representing mainstream American ways and values and the Black Sea Germans that indicates that neither community was immune to ideas and customs of the other.

     Germans from Russia were only a part of the great stream of immigrants who came to this country. Most settled in the agricultural regions of the Great Plains and because of this have been largely neglected by mainstream historians. Settlement on the Plains has rarely been analyzed with regard to the effect various ethnic groups had on this process. How did their experience differ from that of Swedish pioneers, Irish laborers, and Ukrainian farmers? Did the differences go deeper than their clothing and housing? Yes, I think so. Immigration changed their lives, their outlook, the relationship between men and women, between parents and children, between families and community. If there were differences in the ways these ethnic communities responded to the immigration process, upon what were the differences based? Can we identify a particular factor such as cultural heritage, economic status, reasons for immigration, time of arrival, place and circumstances of settlements or was it a complex of these factors? Certainly the Germans from Russia, with their history of dual migration, first from Germany to the Russian frontier, then from Russia to the plains of North or South America, are a very special example, an example that can answer many of the questions I have been asking.

     These are the questions the resources demand that I answer. Beside these, I am also asking myself what I can learn about my own life from the immigration and pioneering experiences of Germans from Russia. It is fairly obvious that someone who shares the culture will be personally enriched by a greater understanding of this cultural heritage. I, too, am enriched and enlightened by this history, for this is the story of human experience and relationships. If we read the history deeply we understand that this is not just the story of building a house and raising a crop from the meager resources of the prairie, but the story of human adaptation and adjustment under difficult circumstances. We also see that immigrants were able to preserve basic values, while reordering family life and community customs. Though village life and family ties were lost in migration, the values of the village and the family were carried along and reestablished on the Great Plains. As we face a rapidly changing world, we all can take comfort in knowing that, in the past, people were able to maintain values despite wrenching change.

     As we turn the Germans from Russia upside down, inside out, and peer at them from the inside or the outside, depending on our perspective, lessons for today and the future become increasingly clear. A survey of recent political events in Eastern Europe and within the Soviet Union shows that political, economic and communication boundaries are breaking down. These boundaries separated "us and them", and sometimes defined good and evil. Changes are taking place for many reasons. One reason is that ties based on cultural heritage remain strong, even after years of suppression. Nearly one hundred years after the "melting pot" theory was espoused, we find that ethnic heritage does not break down easily. The history of Germans from Russia can explain to us about the strength of cultural bonds, the historical changes in cultural heritage, and its importance in human affairs.


1. Nina Farley Wishek. Along the Trails of Yesterday: A Story of McIntosh County.
Ashley, North Dakota: The Ashley Tribune, 1941, p. 240.

2. John Mack Farragher. "History From the Inside Out: Writing the History of
Women in Rural America." American Quarterly, XXXIII, 1981, pp. 536-57.

3. Carl Bridenbaugh. "The Great Mutation". American Historical Review, LXVIII,
January 1963, pp. 322-23.

4. Laurence Levine. "The Historian and the Culture Gap". The Historian Workshop, 1968, pp. 309-326.

5. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. "When Ethnic Studies Are Un-American". The Wall Street
Journal, April 23, 1990.

6. Levine, p. 314.

7. Richard Sallet, trans. La Vern J. Rippley and Armand Bauer. Russian German
Settlements in the United States. Fargo, North Dakota: Institute for Regional Studies,
1974; Pauline Neher Diede, ed. Elizabeth Hampsten. Homesteading on the Knife
River Prairies. Bismarck, North Dakota: North Dakota Germans from Russia
Heritage Society, 1983.

8. Wishek, p. 252.

9. Barbara Handy-Marchello. & tension Work Among Black Sea Germans in Logan,
Mclntosh and Emmons Counties, 1933-1940. Master's Thesis, North Dakota State
University, 1988.

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