| Germans from
North Dakota State University
Fargo, North Dakota
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
These processes and relationships are interdependent.
We do not have a complete
picture without examining their impact at the family level. For
brought tractors and combines to the farm which eased the farmer's
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
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,
3. Carl Bridenbaugh. "The Great Mutation". American Historical
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
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
Heritage Society, 1983.
8. Wishek, p. 252.
9. Barbara Handy-Marchello. & tension Work Among Black Sea Germans
Mclntosh and Emmons Counties, 1933-1940. Master's Thesis, North