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Sibirien-Deutsche in den Zwanziger und Dreissiger Jahren: Ein neues Buch

Siberian-Germans in the Twenties and Thirties: A New Book

Review by Harry Loewen

Brandes, Detlev and Andrej Savin. Siberian-Germans in the Twenties and Thirties: A New Book. Essen, Germany: Klartext Verlag, 2001.

Translation from German to English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado


Readers of this publication [the reviewer is referring to the Mennonite Boten, in which the review appeared] will certainly know something about the Mennonite colonies in South Russia. The mother colonies of Chortitza and Molotchna and the Evangelical Lutheran and Catholic colonies in the Ukraine were the first settlements of the German and Mennonite immigrants to Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Less familiar are the German settlements that were established toward the end of the 19th century and during the beginning of the 20th century in Siberia and Slavgorod and along the Trans-Siberian railroad in Asia. Prior to 1929, about 75,000 German farmers lived in West Siberia. Of roughly 36,000 German farmers in the district of Slavgorod, the largest settlement, about 70 percent were Mennonites. (p. 419) It is estimated that half of the German population of all of Siberia were Mennonites.

The new book, Die Sibiriendeutschen im Sowjetstaat 1919-1938 [Siberian-Germans in the Soviet State 1919-1938], by Detlef Brandes and Andrej Savin is a valuable scientific contribution to the history of the Germans in Russia. A summary of its contents follows.

Siberia was finally conquered by the Red Army in 1920. The German farmers were taxed by forced contributions to the state in the form of wheat, meats, and other foodstuffs. All those of faith were especially alarmed by the introduction of the new communistic spirit in the schools. Party men arrived in the villages and produced propaganda in favor of the collectivization of agriculture. Quite active in these activities were German and Austrian prisoners of war who had stayed behind after World War I.

Their knowledge of the German language and their communistic consciousness did exercise a certain sway over the youth in the villages. However, communities were generally successful in retaining the faith of their youth via meetings devoted to Bible reading and singing.

Even in the schools the communities were somewhat able to have their way during the [19]20s. They employed their own as teachers as long as they were able to do so. When the central government replaced the German teachers with their own, German villagers generally boycotted the schools. But as time went on, especially toward the end of the [19]20s and the beginning of the [19]30s, Siberian-Germans were gradually forced to give up their opposition to the government.

Forced contributions to the state and crop failures in the 1920s contributed to famine and general poverty. Only through support from foreign assistance groups, notably the American Mennonite Relief Organization, was it possible to keep alive many of those in need. The authors show that the Mennonites suffered less because of material aid from their brothers in faith in the Ukraine, and also because they were generally somewhat better off economically than the other Germans.

"For various reasons, among the rural German population," the authors write, "the Mennonites played a special role, due on the one hand to their agricultural achievements and their traditional confessional solidarity, and on the other hand because they had been able to establish in the Ukraine and in Russia, a self-sufficient, economically viable assistance organization, the 'All-Russian Mennonite Agricultural Association'." (p. 415) In time however, this association, too, waned in effectiveness and finally had to be abandoned.

Collectivization of agriculture, dekulakization, and prosecution of the faithful strongly led to an emigration wave in the [19]20s. About 21,000 Mennonites immigrated to Canada. In 1929 a kind of panic flight to Moscow took place. However, only 5,700 Germans, most of them Mennonites, succeeded in obtaining travel passports in the capital city and in immigrating to Germany. The remaining ones were sent back and oppressively branded as so-called "kulaks." Preachers and teachers in particular were commonly persecuted and dragged eastward.

What is not so well known is the fact that Siberian Mennonites actively defended themselves against the excesses of the Soviets. For example, on July 2, 1930, an "attempt was made to demand the release of a brother in faith after taking as hostages the GPU members who had carried out the original arrest." An armed unit from the city of Slavgorod was sent to subdue this "kulak rebellion." (p. 422)

By the middle [19]30s the Soviet state held even Siberia firmly in its grasp. It is well known that the Stalinist Terror reached its heights during that time. Thousands of husbands (and wives too) of Germans and Mennonites were lost through deportation or execution. ([The reviewer's] father and grandfather, too, were shot in 1937 by the NKVD.) What is not generally known is the simple fact that in 1937/38 Germans in Siberia mourned proportionally twice as many victims, or twice as much loss of life, as the Germans in the Ukraine. (p. 424)

This book is both objective and interesting, and I highly recommend it. From it, we learn much that is new about the Germans and Mennonites in Siberia. We are very grateful to the authors for their painstaking work.

[Reference:] Detlev Brandes, Andrej Savin, Die Sibiriendeutschen im Sowietstaat 1919-1938 (Essen: Klartext Verlag [publisher], 2001), ISBN 3-88474-975-7, hardcover, 495 pages.

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

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