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Do not Sell Your Identity Below its True Value, a Speech by the Representative for Aussiedler

Verkaufen sie Ihre Identitaet Nicht Unter Wert, Rede des Aussiedlerbeauftragten

Bergner, Dr. Christoph. "Do not Sell Your Identity Below its True Value, a Speech by the Representative for Aussiedler." Volk auf dem Weg, July 2007, 6-8.

This translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder. Colorado


The speech by the Parliamentary Secretary and Representative for Aussiedler Affairs, Dr. Christoph Bergner, advanced to an emotional and political high point of the Bundestreffen. The speaker first conveyed greetings from Federal Chanceloress Angela Merkel and from the Minister of the Interior, Dr. Wolfgang Schaeuble, and then he cited as the basis for his activities the Coalition Agreement of the Federal Government: "Again, we pledge our adherence on a continual basis to responsibilities toward those people who, as Germans in Eastern and Southern Europe as well as in the Soviet Union underwent great suffering and wish to remain in their current homeland, but also to those who wish to come to Germany. This applies especially to those Germans in the successor states of the Soviet Union, for whom the post-war consequences have lasted the longest."

Following is the text of the greater part of his further remarks.

Dr. Christoph Bergner (r.) in conversation with Prof. Michael M. Miller during the Partnership Conference following the Bundestreffen
You have heard the clear statements contained in the Coalition Agreement. My task as representative for Aussiedler Affairs and national minorities consists in engaging myself toward realization of these intentions and declarations. This is not always a simple matter. After more than 60 years since the war's end, public attention prefers to look elsewhere. But if one wants to do right by the Germans from Russia, one must be prepared to continue even today to think about their problematic post-war fate and after-effects, as much with a view toward the Germans from Russia who seek to find their way into the nation's society, as well as toward the Germans in Russia, those German-Russians within the Russian Federation and in the other CIS States, who live there as minorities.

After-effects of problematic post-war fate - how do these manifest themselves today? Let me mention three such after-effects that, given my experience, seem especially important.

First there is the problem of poverty, which we here in our prosperous society are barely able to grasp, but which I observed again and again during visits to former Trud-armyists and their relatives in Barnaul, in Pavlodar and in other places. To this day, Germans, as a result of deportation and post-war destiny, continue to live in deplorable poverty and certainly are in need of our assistance. Therefore, humanitarian support must remain even in the future to be part of our assistance policies.

Secondly, there are the consequences of exclusion from participation in society:

An article in your Association's publication, "Volk auf dem Weg," printed last year, still gives me pause. It consisted of an overview depicting the varying levels of educational attainment among different nationalities in the former Soviet Union and comparing them at various successive points in time.

While during the 1920s Germans (along with Jews) were still among the most educated peoples in the Soviet Union, their level of educational attainment dropped following the repression toward the end of the 1930s and especially following World War II. Forty years after the very first comparison year, they ranked last among the 18 nationalities that were compared.

Suppression and discrimination took from the Germans exactly that which had earlier enabled their participation in Russian society, that is, education, training, and development of skills in business and in public life.

To be sure, there are by now specific examples of highly qualified German-Russians in outstanding positions, but the consequences of legal incapacitation and constant humiliation that are still recognizable in the formerly Communist Greater Russia affected none of the nationalities in such a sustained fashion as they did the German-Russians.

For me, too, overcoming the post-war problems means that we must engage ourselves toward cultural emancipation of the German-Russians.

I am grateful to any and all who contribute to that end: the Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland, the IVDK and other associations who remain active in the successor states of the Soviet Union.

But I must also express criticism of the study by the Nuremberg Institute of Job Market Research, IAB, that has been cited in detail in speeches we have been hearing. I suspect that the statistics used as its basis are defective. We shall deal with this aspect further in the expanded Aussiedler Advisory Council. The matter that angers me most is that the IAB study spreads discriminating judgments to the public without even beginning to take into account the complex base conditions the German-Russian Spaetaussiedler have to deal with, and with headlines such as "Joblessness much higher for Aussiedler than the norm" it calls into doubt the very virtues these same German-Russians have kept up during years of suppression, that is, their diligence and the will to work.

I now come to my third after-effect of the fateful post-war conditions that I wish to discuss, it is the loss of the German language.

Among the most irksome prejudices concerning Germans from Russia which, by the way, are present even among some of the Laenders ministers of the interior, is the opinion that the considerable loss of German language skills among Germans from Russia is a result of indifference or lack of concern toward one's linguistic past. That is simply wrong! Losing German-language skills is clearly the result of suppression. For all those who are still incapable of grasping this, I am happy to recite a poem by the German-Russian poet Erna Hummel, which depicts a declaration of love and a story of suffering in relation to one's own language. May I cite a few verses of this poem [loosely translated here]:

Erna Hummel
To my Mother Tongue

Through you I once lost my family home,
Humiliated, I was forced to go out into the world...
Yet, those true melodies of your songs
I allowed to sink into my soul.

Lying in the dust, on your account,
It was you that gave me renewed strength.
And even when I was derided on your account
I still crowned you with my love.

And as death made its stealthy way through the ranks of our people,
When grave upon grave opened up on your account,
You remained close to me, I loved you,
You were, for me, may grandest song.
And now let me cite the final verse of this poem:

As I was lying in the dust on your account,
You remained my strength, which gave renewed hope,
And even when I lost hope a thousand times because of you,
Praised be the great fortune that I was given through you!

Thus the poem by Erna Hummel, which indicates how German-Russians fought for their mother tongue and suffered for it. This might also remind some of those who, given this land of comfortable multi-language conditions, might be given to a more lax use of language, and to remind them of the value of their own mother tongue.

To me it is a fatal situation that knowledge of the German language has, through legal enactment, become the pre-condition for qualification for Germans from Russia (and their kin) as Spaetaussiedler, for loss of German-language knowledge is clearly the result of the consequences of their post-war treatment, which should justify exceptional response.

To be sure, I envision no possibility of redoing these decisions, but I feel obliged to address openly the problems connected with them. The belated introduction of ever higher acceptance hurdles through ever tighter language criteria has led at least in part to bitter family separations, of which I learn in nearly every discussion hour, from the descriptions by those who are directly affected. I would at least like to assure you that I am looking for ways of how one can try to resolve at least some of the worst of these separations in the future.

Even more fatal to the reception of German-Russians as Spaetaussiedler is an entirely erroneous image of these Germans from Russia, which stems directly from inappropriate insistence on prerequisite standards of language skills and expresses itself usually thus: "They are not at all or insufficiently capable of speaking the language, therefore they are not Germans." These and similar statements represent a wide-spread mistake. This mistaken idea leads to even more false, and even insulting concepts regarding what to call your ethnic group: "German Russians," "Russians" or, until recently, wording that is part of the federal refugee act, "Non-German descendants of German Spaetaussiedler," -- what is that supposed to mean?!

You are Germans! In any case, you are Germans if you wish to be such. Your families have suffered much because of their ethnic German nationality. A glance at history, particularly at least some measure of respect for this suffering should prohibit any doubt of your membership in German ethnicity.

Therefore, do not allow your membership in German-ness be denied! Do not allow yourselves to become victims of superficiality, which in Germany is unfortunately wide-spread, at lest with regard to questions of national conception and history.

Moreover, do not permit that this kind of superficiality might gain ground among yourselves.

Above all, this means: do learn and keep up the German language! Here in Germany, in Russia, in Central Asia, in Ukraine.

I am aware that this declaration comes with a cultural dilemma, which I wish to describe by means of two statements:

1. "The Russian language is great and powerful" - I read in Turgenyev, and he is right. The Russian language is a splendid language, but so is the German language. Therefore, no one needs to forget the Russian language in order to prove his membership in German ethnicity.

2. The second statement, heard last week during the Heimatfest of Banat Schwabians from Romania, is equally powerful: "when your own language is lost, your ethnic group disappears."

This latter statement originates with Adam Mueller-Guttenbrunn, a poet who resisted the magyarization attempts of Banat Schwabians by Hungarian regimes and thereby helped to preserve the cultural uniqueness of his ethnic German nationality group.

"When one's own language is lost ..." I believe that Mueller-Guttenbrunn is right. If one wishes to preserve one's identity, if one wishes to maintain and preserve cultural connections, one must preserve one's own language, which, after all, is at the center of cultural connectedness.

If you, a German from Russia, do not wish to lose your cultural identity in the future, for which your families suffered so much, if you do not wish to allow, right now, that this identity become victim of superficial disparagement, then you will need a connection with the German language: in Russia and in the CIS it is a minority language, but here in Germany it constitutes a regained mother tongue at last.

In this context, I wish to convey expressly to the Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland my gratitude for continuing to publish its publication "Volk auf dem Weg" in German, even if this decision in favor of an exclusively German-language publication, in the face of the immigration of many Germans from Russia with only minor [German] language skills, must certainly have been a difficult one. You thereby provided a clear sign. One that deserves respect, for in the final event, is a matter of the preservation of German-Russian identity.

Do not sell your identity below its true value!

What do I mean by that?

A certain concept has made the rounds that seems to me fraught with problems. It is the idea of a "Russian-language Diaspora." This designation is becoming ever more prevalent when speaking about people who have come here from the former Soviet Union. I find this concept a non-fit, even an undignified one, if one thereby implies the 2.3 million German-Russian Spaetaussiedler. There is a categorization going on here without regard to actual history! I believed it would not be good, and not commensurate with your history if you allowed yourselves to be relegated into a the role of cultural vagabonds that seems, at least for me, to be the case when this classification into an amorphous bucket called Russian-language diaspora is used.

Throughout the multiplicity of ethnic German groups, you deserve a respected and emphatic place! No other German ethnic group lived through such close encounters and cultural experiences in social dealings with the peoples of Russia and Ukraine, but also with peoples in Central Asia and Siberia.

This cultural experience constitutes an enrichment for German culture as a whole.

Among the lists kept by travel agents while sending adventurous tourists to many parts of the world, travel destinations in the country with the largest area in the world, the Soviet Union or the CIS countries figure hardly at all. Even among citizens of former East Germany, interest and opportunity for getting to know that large country in the East were more limited than we might have expected.

The actual base for "civil-societal contact" that were agreed to at German-Russian summit meetings and via governmental consultation during recent years is much smaller than the signatories to these agreements were aware.

It is the German-Russians - rooted in German culture and informed by Russian history - could be particularly helpful in creating civil-societal bridges between countries.

I am therefore rather proud that during we have succeeded via recent mutual government commissions to be able to agree that German-Russians in Russia and in Germany would increasingly be included in the "Petersburg Dialogue."

In that vein, they will meet tomorrow at a partnership conference that exists under the motto "Pillars of Bridges." During this conference your Landsmannschaft will sign a mutual agreement along with other major German-Russian associations.

Mr. Fetsch, you know how much I welcome this. It is fully in the interest of a continuing development of Germans from Russia, and we should also be able to make a contribution that is beneficial for the relationship between our states. We desire civil-societal contacts, and there are now multiple efforts to improve these contacts between the CIS States and Germany.

One of the most authentic and natural civil-societal bridge is embodied by the Germans from Russia. So let us make use of this chance so that we may make a contribution to understanding between states.

I thank the Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland for this and other initiatives, for your support in the integration of Spaetaussiedler, and I thank you for your contribution toward the preservation of the identity of the German-Russian ethnic group, an identity whose preservation and maintenance is significant for all of us.

In your continued efforts, my wish is for every success for your ethnic group, here in Germany and in the countries where our Spaetaussiedler originate.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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