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A Whole Empire Walking: Refugees in Russia During World Ward I

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Gatrell, Peter. A Whole Empire Walking: Refugees in Russia During World War I. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1999.


This book is about the many dislocated people in Russia during World War I, but this reviewer was particularly interested in the plight of the ethnic Germans.

A mixture of hostilities and ethnic hatreds led to government and military policies that set an almost unimaginable surge of refugees into motion in Russia during the years of World War I. The dislocated included hundreds of thousands of Jews, Lithuanians, Latvians, Ukrainians, and about anyone else identified as non-Slav. Among them, ethnic Germans constituted a kind of undigested lump in the nation, their loyalty suspect because they had maintained their own language and cultural identity, they were prosperous and owned large tracts of farmland, and they were of the same nationality as the enemy. Also, they were not Orthodox in a country where the Orthodox religion was the only faith with any legitimacy.

What was the experience of many Germans living in Russia during this time?

Gatrell mentions these:

-A Russian General named Ianushkevich, who was fond of the scorched-earth destruction of villages, pushed Germans back “hundreds of miles from the front.” He argued that “although they are Russian subjects, they are not Orthodox.” He also sent long-settled German peasants from Galicia to the east. “Galicia thereby became the first major site of mass civilian displacement during the war.” Ianushkevich grabbed at the chance to reward his soldiers with the vacated farms.
-In 1914, the governor of Tula, referring to popular opinion, recommended that Germans, even Russian subjects, were “enemies of the fatherland” and should be removed and their land given to Russians.
-In 1915, some 200,000 ethnic Germans were deported to Siberia from Volynia, Kiev, and Podul’ia.
-In 1916, about 13,000 more were forcibly removed from Volynia. German Balts in Riga were also deported and their land was expropriated.
-In 1915, Polish farmers were forced off their land and replaced with Germans. (The invading Germans played this game too.)
-During the harsh 1916 winter in Samara, “the local population attempted to drive 142,000 Germans out of the lower Volga region in order to reduce competition for food.”
-In 1916, “Prince Urusov proposed that the farms of German and Austrian settlers be handed to refugees.”
-There was a hard-edged popular feeling that the government had let in enemies when the Germans had been invited to settle. A belief held that Germans could not “be loyal members of the political community.” Rumors had it that Germans pointed out bomb targets to
invaders, and there was a report that Jews and Germans refused to be drafted.
-As early as 1914, the Russian High Command and Ministry of the Interior drew up plans to remove Germans from the western borderlands, but their whole plan was not carried out at the time.

From Gatrell’s book, the reader gets a sense of a whole population struggling to survive amidst war and dislocation, the situation exacerbated by a government that often made decisions without regard to an established body of laws but based them on ethnic tensions and hatreds rife in a population accustomed to scapegoating. In this mess, refugees and non-refugees were both in trouble because it was no simple matter to be a settled villager or farmer trying to cope with tens of thousands of needy civilians roaming the countryside. When the government finally set up programs to help them, it was difficult for even well-meaning officials to be sure what should be
done.

Yet, wherever the Germans landed, there was an impulse to normalize life. Though they were initially without aid or resources, German colonies rose in the Tomsk, Tobol’sk and Enisei oblasts. They found employment in flour mills, paper factories, and timber. In some ways, the displaced ethnic groups actually grew stronger because they had to band together to fight for survival. In the case of the Jews, movements against them (pogroms) became more difficult once they were dislodged from their compact communities.

Europeans of this century have had a penchant for making war on whatever peoples in their own borders have earned (or been assigned) a reputation as unworthy. There seems to have been little hesitancy to pick up whole populations and move them inland to Siberia and other desolate areas. Germans who had not emigrated to the west just a handful of years before World War I were caught in the middle. What happened to the Germans was a precursor to the even greater
deportations that took place during World War II. This scholarly book is most fascinating.

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