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Along with Swab Germans in Georgia

The year 2017 marked the 200th anniversary since the first German settlers (mainly Wurttemberg Swabs) showed up in Georgia. A number of factors contributed to this migration. However, Wurttemberg’s internal affairs, such as constant warring conditions, increased taxes and economic hardship, played major roles. Moreover, the increased discontent towards the Lutheran church strengthened religious protests that sent the population searching for new homes. Even though, the Swab presence ended by the hands of those who had originally invited them, and much of its historical remains have been conquered by nature, their legacy continues to capture people’s hearts and minds in Georgia.

September 16, 2020 - Bacho Chubinidze - Stories and ideas

German engraving of Tbilisi, 19th century / commons.wikimedia.org

Historical context

In 1801 Alexander I, one of the least nationalistic tsars of the Romanov dynasty, gained the crown. Because of his European ways of thinking (largely inspired by his Swiss tutor), Alexander was searching for ways to establish closer relations between the Russian empire and western European nations. Three years later, the tsar issued a manifesto, which stated that the empire was offering newly conquered lands to foreigners, for one particular reason- investing in agricultural development and engineering. The manifesto created a fantastic opportunity for Swab pietists from Wurttemberg (known as separatists), who had seceded from the regional church and were seeking religious freedom. This was one of the many advantages included in Alexander’s manifesto. Nothing was standing between them and the opportunity to apply for permission to settle. The tsar granted them the right in May 1817 and the first group of Swabs (consisting of 31 families and 181 people) stepped onto Georgian soil seven months later. It should be noted that a few historical sources mention the first German colonists as far back as the 1760s, who they claim fled from the Seven Years War and settled in Georgia by a decree of Catherine II of Russia. Earlier sources also suggest that the first contact between the two peoples happened in the 4th century A.D. when Germanic Goths settled on the Crimean Peninsula, and from there started to penetrate colonies on the Georgian Black Sea coast.

The mutterkolonie

On September 21st 1818 the first Swabian colony of Marienfeld(modern Sartichala) was established by 65 families on the eastern side of the country. The name was chosen after Queen Maria, the mother of Alexander and the sister of Frederick I of Wurttemberg. The date of the first colony’s founding marked the beginning of unexpected hardships. The unfamiliar climate and diseases, such as malaria, shook the inhabitants for the next decade. Some challenges were even presented on a societal level, as a person usually married the relatives from other German colonies, which were established within the next 5 years. The closest colony to Marienfeldwas named in honor of the Russian Tsar Peter I. Petersdorf was founded on the shores of the Iori river by 17 families. Small churches and prayer houses were also constructed near the homes, though none of them survived until today. The last settlement in this area, founded by 10 families, was also located on the Iori shores.

Freudenthal (modern Sagaredjo) was established between 1842 and 1847. Later on, all three colonies became incorporated under the single name of Rosenfeld. Along with a few other locales, it became famous as mutterkolonie, or mother colonies since other German provinces (non-Swabian) also emerged in Abkhazia and Azerbaijan.

Alexandersdorf

The second, and the catchiest, Swabian colony of Alexandersdorf (modern Aghmashenebeli avenue and Marjanishvili square) was founded in 1818 in what appeared to be the new center of modern Tbilisi. The area arried the name of the architect of German migration to Georgia, tsar Alexander. Alexandersdorf consisted of two rows of houses surrounded by kitchen-gardens, where local inhabitants pursued agriculture and sold products on Tiflis markets. In 1820 at the site of one of the residential houses of the modern Marjanishvili square, the neo-Gothic Lutheran church of St. Peter and Paul was constructed. This would become the main reason why Georgians later started to call the place “Kirochnaia,” derived from the German Kirche, the church. Six years after its foundation, the decision to incorporate Alexandersdorf in Tbilisi was finally accomplished, but much of its inferiority remained in the village’s style. By 1836 the population was fluctuating between 140-160 people and that number skyrocketed after the opening of the Vera Bridge (modern Galatkioni bridge), which connected the area to another part of the city center in the 1880s.

After living in peace for several decades, 1946 brought he notorious tearing down of the entire St. Peter’s and Paul’s church by the hands of German WWII prisoners. Since there were no Swabians left in Georgia (due to their exile to Kazakhstan by Stalin 5 years earlier), the communists initiated a campaign to erase the historical past in order to set up the grounds for a new history for Homo Sovieticus.

Elizabethtal

Five years prior to the demolition of the main Lutheran church, the whole colony of Elizabethtal vanished in a single night in October 1941. It was founded on November 19th 1818 and was named after Alexander’s wife Elizabeth, although an alternative version suggests that it was devoted to St. Elizabeth, since November 19th is the actual day of her remembrance.  Infrastructures to Elizabethtal are preserved in a much better condition than in any other Swabian settlement across the country. Wine cellars can be found in all of the homes there as wine making caught the attention of many local Germans due to the specificities of Georgian soil. The settlement was one of the most developed and prosperous Georgian colonies and was inhabited by 65-72 families. In 1857, however, an unknown religious dispute divided the society in two and 38 families founded the new village of Alexanderhilf(modern Tsalka). The area was where some inhabitants would resettle again in the new colonies of Blumenfeld (modern Kavta) in 1892 and Waldheim (modern Dmanisi region) in 1911.

Elizabethtal also used to be home to the second biggest Swabian Lutheran church, after St. Peter and Paul, which dates back to 1871. After the Soviet invasion, communists demolished the dome, though it is unclear why they left the remaining construction unimpaired. In the early years of Bolshevism, the church was functioning as a municipality club and closed after a small fire in the post-WWII period. There is also a graveyard on the left side of the church where surfaced gravestones are erected along each other, forming a mysterious circle that looks like the Knights of the Round Table. According to a version of events, these people were the main driving force of the Settlement. 

One more documented peculiarity without mentioning Swabs) of the colony is connected to an event Europe stopped dealing with after medieval times– witchcraft. According to the memoirs of pastor Anton Bertoldy (who served in the colony between 1854-1861), in 1858 Elisabethtalwas drawn into the fear of witchcraft. Based on the Bertoldy notes, the Baumeister family had been robbed and they used a ritual with a key in the center of a table in order to identify the thief. The process was led by local inhabitants who were asked to perform the black magic. The document also states that the key directed itself to a number of people, including the pastor and the Baumeisters. The story spread fast and caused massive anxiety, while Bertoldy claims no fire nor sword were used against the ‘witches,’ who paid some number of fines for their ‘wrongdoings’. The event was later named ‘Walpurgisnacht’ in Elisabethtal.

Katharinenfeld

Katharinenfeld (modern Bolnisi) is yet another mutterkolonie, founded in 1818 by 95 colonists from Swabia. The name supposedly honored queen Katharina of Wurttemberg, who was also a sister of tsar Alexander. During the 1826 Muslim uprising in the South Caucasus, the colony was raided by Muslim free-rioters and many residents were either killed or sold as slaves in the Ottoman empire. The settlement even had its own five football teams, a newspaper, church with a choir and a hunting club. A 1889 edition of the Tbilisi newspaper Iveria characterised Katharinenfeldas one of the most developed places in the country. A huge Lutheran church in the center of the village brought German charm to the Caucasian land. The best students stayed in the school in order to educate the local children, while others continued on to higher institutions. Similarly to St. Peter and Paul, this church was also deconstructed by German World War II prisoners and was transformed into a sports hall. Despite the high level of development, the colony was infamous for the high level of robbery that was happening on its outskirts. The colony was strictly German, inhabited only by the migrated population. According to one of the settlers (who claimed the colony’s name was in honor of the Russian Empress Catherine II rather than Katharina of Wurttemberg), his ancestors arrived on the land much before 1818, as they were travelling to pray in Jerusalem and decided to stay in this place due to the unknown difficulties in reaching their final destination. One of the biggest advantages of the settlement was the quality of its agricultural land. The site was distinguished because of its soil and rivers, whereas wine making become a significant part of the village culture.

During the war of the nations in the 1940s, the Red Army renamed the village Luxemburg in memory of Rosa Luxemburg, a famous Polish Marxist. In 1944 it once again had a name change to Bolnisi, as we know it today. During the exile, around 6000 people had to leave the village. The communist authorities reconstructed or demolished almost all of the buildings, though several household items, such as huge iron ovens built inside walls (presumably the ancestors of central heating) are still in their place. The Germans did not even waste the smoke that was coming out from the stove, and they used the Swabian technique for smoking a piece of ham after 40 days in the water canister. This tradition still lives on among the modern Bolnisi citizens. German buns are still baked in Bolnisi, whereas cinnamon is also often used in various meals.

Notably, there were more German settlements throughout the country (including three colonies in Abkhazia and a couple more along the Azerbaijani border), which are not linked to the Wurttemberg Swabs. Though the colonists were very hardworking, they were also busy with numerous recreational activities, including bowling and hunting clubs, dance and theater evenings, a women’s club (where there was an opportunity to do handicrafts) and a football club.

In the aftermath of the 1917 revolution, during the first collectivisation in Russia, rumors started to spread that a similar thing would happen in Georgia. A few years later, whispers became certainty and a majority of the land came under the ownership of the state, which meant the end of flourishing community life in Georgia. The colonies lost ecclesiastical sovereignty and Lutheran churches were banned, while most of the pastors were shot dead. In late August 1941 all 24,000 German Georgians received an order of deportation either to Siberia or Kazakhstan. Only those who were married to Georgians or Russians preserved their places. Until 1955 the deported Germans were forbidden to leave Central Asia and Siberia. It was not until 1979 that 2,053 Germans were allowed to return to Georgia. During these times, the villages and heritage had already been destroyed, and they got new names along with the new residents. Although Swabs were commonly known as colonists, Georgians never saw them in such an infamous manner, but rather the nation from the North.

In 1997, with the co-operation of German and Georgian historians, the Church of Reconciliation was opened in Tbilisi, which laid the foundation for Swab descendants to gather together and carry the torch of the past to preserve a true legacy for the future.    

Bacho Chubinidze is a Georgian diplomat based in Poland. He holds an MA in European Interdisciplinary Studies from College of Europe and is fluent in Polish, Russian and English. During the studies, he sought to extend the reach of diplomacy and had accepted as an intern at the Embassy of Georgia to the Republic of Poland. Currently, he is living in Kraków and actively engaged in the embassy activities, while publishes articles about the history and international affairs.

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