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The German-Russians - Part I - America Gained When Germans Fled Russia

Hamil, Harold D. "The German-Russians - Part I - America Gained When Germans Fled Russia." Farmland News, 31 July 1972.


From 1918 to 1945, the German-Russians endured severe hardships as a result of famine, expropriation of property and war. These are shown "in flight" with their horse-drawn possessions.
For three days in June this year some 400 persons gathered at Boulder, Colorado for the third annual meeting of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia.

The meeting was primarily concerned with the history of the heritage of the ethnic minority that I knew best while growing up in Northeastern Colorado.

It provided answers to questions that had turned over in my mind many times as I reflected on the remarkable accomplishments of friends and neighbors who came to our community with the tag of minority citizenship as firmly tied to them as any people ever had it.

The people were referred to as Germans or as Russians, and when someone wanted to speak scornfully or derisively, the word was "Rooshun."

Many of these Germans -- or Russians -- came to work in the sugar beet fields. They hired out as family units to do the thinning, the hoeing and the topping over a period that extended from June through November. They lived in austere "beet shacks." They worked hard. They made the most of their inherited knowledge of the land. Many became renters and owners. Today their descendants are found among the leading farmers, livestock feeders, merchants and professional men throughout the irrigated valleys of Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and other states. And they have spread to other areas, of course, in the normal dispersal of the surplus youth of rural America.

Not all of these Germans who came by way of Russia headed for the sugar beet areas. As a matter of fact, the beet workers came mainly from the second wave of farmers who had deserted their lands in Russia to start anew in the United States, Canada and South America.

The first wave came to the Midwest just after the transcontinental railroads had spanned the plains states, and many of them settled in Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas and carried on as the grain farmers they had been along the Volga and around the Black Sea.

An interesting thing about the Germans who came from Russia -- with the exception of the Mennonites -- is that they carried a rather vague identity and were less than aggressive in preserving records or glorifying the achievements of ancestors who had displayed courage and fortitude matching those of any pioneers of the American frontier.

What I witnessed at Boulder was a refreshing show of enthusiasm for knowledge of a heritage that had been all but renounced through at least two generations of German-Russians living in America. The awakening was formalized, more or less, in 1968 at an organization meeting in Greeley, Colorado. Two years later, Greeley was the site of the first "international" meeting of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia. The 1971 meeting was at Lincoln, Nebraska. The 1973 meeting will be at Portland, Oregon and the 1974 meeting at Fresno, California.
A German-Russian development Alexanderfeld. The German influence is still evident in some Russian communities today.
David J. Miller, Greeley lawyer, became the society's president, and Henry J. Amen, 95-year-old business leader and former city councilman at Lincoln, became honorary president. Miss Ruth Amen, daughter of H.J., and a member of the faculty of Nebraska Wesleyan University, was chairman of the convention committee at Boulder, Miss Ester Fromm, Greeley city librarian, has assumed responsibility to organize and catalog literature bearing on the history of Germans from Russia.

The society has developed a close relationship with Dr. Karl Stumpp of Tuebingen, West Germany, who has spent much of his adult life compiling information about Germans who started settling in Russia some 200 years ago. Dr. Stumpp was born in a German colony in the Black Sea area. He spoke at the society's 1971 meeting, and his book, "The German-Russians," has been translated into English by Dr. Joseph S. Height of Franklin, Indiana.

The Story Of The Russians from Germany is a story of a people who suffered the pains, trials and disappointments of migrating to strange lands twice in a little more than 100 years. It is a story of a people who strove for independence in their own way and who equated independence, to some extent, with ownership or control of a piece of land on which crops could be grown and livestock maintained. It is a saga within the greater saga of American agricultural achievement.

It is a matter of history which bothers Russian leaders even today that Germany, down through the centuries, was generally a few steps ahead of Russia in most achievements by which the advancement of civilization is measured.

As far back as the 16th century, the Russian czars turned to Germans for help in architecture, commerce, and even in the training of soldiers and organizing of armies. It was a czarina, though, Catherine II, who made the grand gesture to bring in German farmers and settle them on vacant lands along the Russian frontiers.

Herself a German princess, Catherine was looking for someone to set examples that would inspire Russian peasants. Some historians credit her with a feeling that she was doing her fellow Germans a favor. There is no question but that Russia could profit from strong agriculturally-based communities on a frontier that had been intermittently over-run by nomadic tribes.

Catherine's invitation, or manifesto, went to all parts of what was known as the Holy Roman Empire, but the response was mainly from southwestern German states. This was in 1763.

To a German peasant, short of land and tired of life in the midst of the seemingly interminable wars of that time, the Russian offer was highly appealing. It offered freedom of religion, freedom from military service, freedom from taxes and, most important of all perhaps, free land and the right to acquire additional land.

There was no formal record-keeping, but one estimate is that 27,000 Germans went to the Volga region alone between 1763 and 1768. By the routes some took, the distance was as much as 2,000 miles. It was possible to use Baltic ships and Volga boats for some of the distance, but much ground had to be covered on foot or in crude wagons.

One party walked more than 500 miles from the vicinity of Frankfurt to the Russian border. Those who went to the Black Sea area sometimes traveled down the Danube. The third region of heavy German settlement in Russia was in Volhynia, where available land included some the Russians had taken from Polish lords. Dr. Stumpp says the settlement here was more by private initiative than government encouragement.

For more than 100 years the movement of Germans to Russia continued. There was a quickening of pace after 1804, when Alexander I issued a second manifesto, offering some inducements beyond those of Catherine's proposal of some 40 years earlier.

Having been allowed to write their own ticket, so to speak, as far as organization of their colonies was concerned, the Germans lived pretty much outside the normal movement of Russian social and political affairs. They had their own churches, their own schools, their own community mores. But, by the standards of their country and their time, they prospered. In a sense they became the agricultural pace-setters of Russia.

Their prosperity and aggressiveness were factors, certainly, in the decision of the government to start taking away some of their special privileges. On June 4, 1871, it was announced that the Codex of the Colonies, the special rules applied to the Germans, would be abrogated. This meant the end of self-administration, the beginning of new responsibilities to the czarist government, including military service by young men. Records that had been kept in German for more than 100 years in some communities now had to be kept in Russian.

That's what set off the movement to the United States, Canada and South America. That's what brought the Mennonites, the Lutherans, the Catholics and others to the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska and other states.

It is worth noting that Dr. Stumpp's findings are that even after this migration, the farmers of German descent, in 1914, were in control of more than 23 million acres of Russia's plowland. That is greater than the total of tilled land in West Germany today.

The German-Russians who came to America most certainly can be proud of their accomplishments in this country. But the record shows that their forbears had done pretty well as farmers before any of them came here.

Reprinted with permission of Farmland News.

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