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Nullifying German culture: The dangers of wartime policies

The German minority in Russia experienced the repressive policies of both the Russian Empire and Soviet Union first hand. Their legacy is mostly forgotten and suppressed in today’s Russia.

October 18, 2022 - Joshua Kroeker - Articles and Commentary

Engels, Saratov Oblast, formerly known as Pokrovsk and Kosakenstad. A historical centre of the Volga Germans.

Today it is hard to imagine that the culture of ethnic German minorities flourished throughout much of the Tsarist Russian Empire and early Soviet Union. From Saint Petersburg and Moscow to the Black Sea in Ukraine, along the Volga in Russia and in the mountains of Georgia, ethnic Germans lived for centuries contentedly amongst the local population. Until the tumultuous years of the First World War and the ensuing Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, German peoples were considered a respected minority within the empire’s borders.

The twentieth century was witness to countless human tragedies. One of those, the end of the German communities in Russia, is little remembered today. In addition to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans at the hands of Soviet deportation policies, the German experience – that is ‘being German’ – was mostly lost in the vast territories of the Siberian and central Asian steppe. History, and in particular wartime policies, brought about this turning point in the trajectory of millions of now forgotten lives.

Immediately after the outbreak of the First World War and the ensuing conflict between Imperial Germany and the Tsarist Russian Empire, a number of actions were undertaken to repress ethnic Germans living in Russia’s western border lands. These would become just the first of a series of ethnic cleansings directed at the German peoples of the Russian Empire. Within the first year of the war, hundreds of thousands of Germans were forcibly deported to eastern parts of the empire, where they were forced to wait out the war, oftentimes in inhumane conditions. Many, naturally, did not survive the trip or the harsh conditions in Siberia. Only after 1917 were they allowed to return to their homes, broken, wary, and no longer welcomed as before.

In 1941, after the Nazi German invasion of the Soviet Union, similar actions were undertaken. This time around, the stakes were much higher. Ethnic Germans were not only deported from the borderlands, but from all western and central parts of the Soviet Union. In total, over 1.2 million ethnic Germans were forcibly relocated to Siberia and Central Asia. Hundreds of thousands died on the way there or as a result of the poor living conditions. This was justified by national security needs – Stalin considered that the Soviet Germans could be spies, secretly plotting to help Hitler and Nazi Germany destroy the Soviet Union.

For the most part, these peoples were not allowed to return to their homes after the war. Many of them were forced to work for the Soviet regime and live out the remainder of their lives in alien regions far away from all they knew and loved.

The Soviet policy in dealing with the ethnic Germans was one of repression and cultural negation: Soviet Germans, kin of the Nazi invaders, needed to be re-educated and reformed as Soviet peoples and not as Germans.

In the following three decades, the history and culture of the Soviet Union’s ethnic Germans was actively cleansed. German children were no longer allowed to learn German at school, therefore losing their language and being forced to use Russian on a daily basis. The practising of religion, formerly an essential element of the German culture, was prohibited. German language publications, radio and literature all but ceased to exist. Many Germans who grew up in the Soviet Union today recall that they can only recite one or two fairy tales from their childhood, and nothing more. Soviet policies effectively nullified German culture.

Anti-German policy was systemic. In the field of education, quotas prohibited Germans from entering most courses, such as law, medicine, or journalism. Of the few Germans who were permitted to study, they were sent to engineering or agriculture schools. Of the millions of Germans living in Siberia and Kazakhstan throughout the Soviet era, less than 5 per cent completed higher education, roughly half of the local average for the overall population. Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, ethnic Germans were transformed into uniform Soviet citizens – homo sovieticus.

The era of perestroika under Gorbachev and the ensuing collapse of the Soviet Union saw a slight rebirth of German culture. Many of the rules from earlier ceased to exist. Legally, Germans were free to be German again. This, however, remained mostly impossible. Little of their culture remained, and many of those who felt connected to the German nation emigrated in the late 1980s and 1990s. Between 1980 and 2000, over two million ethnic Germans migrated from the post-Soviet space to the Federal Republic of Germany. Only a few hundred thousand remained.

Of the remaining ethnic Germans living in Russia and Kazakhstan today, few continue to carry with them traditional German practices, their language, or their identity. For those that do, they continue to face decades old stereotypes and anti-German sentiment. Once representing an integral component of the bright ethnic tapestry that was the Tsarist Empire, names of towns have been changed to Russian or Kazakh names, churches have been torn down, and German memories have dissipated. Travelling throughout the vast regions of the post-Soviet space today, one hardly encounters reminders of German culture.

The Nazi German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 was undoubtedly an enormous catastrophe for the Soviet Union and its peoples. The ethnic Germans that had been living peacefully and prosperously in the Tsarist Empire and then the Soviet Union, those who had nothing to do with the invasion and almost always supported their Soviet compatriots, became threefold victims. They fell victim to the war, to the Soviet anti-German policy, and to history.

In the post-Soviet space today, the memory of the ethnic Germans of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union hardly exists. Their experiences have been lost to posterity. Wartime policy is rarely positive in the cultural sphere. As the example of the Soviet Union’s ethnic German community demonstrates, minorities often bear the brunt of war’s burden.

Joshua Kroeker is a historian and political scientist, holding degrees from the University of British Columbia in Canada, Heidelberg University in Germany and St Petersburg State University, Russia. He is currently undertaking his doctoral study at Heidelberg University. He specialises in modern Russian and Ukrainian history and politics. @jrkroeker on Twitter


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