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Die Deutschen aus Bessarabien: Eine Minderheit aus Sudosteuropa, 1814 bis heute

Germans from Bessarabia: a Minority in Southeastern Europ, 1814 to today

Book review by Christian Sachse, Berlin, Germany

Schmidt, Ute. Die Deutschen aus Bessarabien: Eine Minderheit aus Südosteuropa, 1818 bis heute. Böhlau Verlag GmbH & Cie, Cologne, Germany, 2004.

Translation of original German to American English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado


In the German-language encyclopedia Brockhaus, Bessarabia is described as a "historical area." In the very same encyclopedia this designation is also given to fourteen world-wide areas, Palestine, Franconia, Livland, Gondvana and Thrace being among them. Frequently associated with a "grand" history, none of these at times not so small areas can be seen as congruent with any current state. But there are some similarities. In those areas, ancient regional or even cultural streams tend to collide. A constant cycle - sometimes year by year - of mergers and conflicts, of privilege and discrimination must have engendered an identity consciousness among the residents that is independent of formal membership of a (mostly foreign) nation. Living at the periphery of the extant political sphere of influence, they were quickly forgotten in times of calm, but were usually among the first to be affected during times of conflict or war.

In her study of the Germans from Bessarabia, Ute Schmidt does not -as it may appear at first - simply look at a localize history of a small German group of immigrants. The area near the Black Sea, though economically thriving, but politically peripheral, in the 20th century turned into a place in which contrasting European interests came to be felt like seismic waves even in everyday life. Invited to the country by Catherine II and specially protected well into the 19th Century, the German colonists after WW I became the unloved Germans of the Romanian nation. The draconian Romanianization policies toward the Bessarabian ethnic group, which were carefully observed by the governments in Berlin, London and Paris, did have a real background: Bessarabia had become a potential war front region for its Bolshevist neighbors. After Romania had turned back any and all movements toward independence via simple annexation, the region was to be integrated as quickly as possible into the central state. Looking on from the other side, most Bessarabian Germans settled for the Romanianization efforts as the lesser evil compared with threatening Sovietization.

The status of the Germans kept varying in rhythm with the manner in which Romania, while struggling against internal Fascist movements, might turn toward either toward Germany or toward the Western powers. The careening nature of this course had its basis in the ever more destabilizing conditions of foreign relations within Europe. The Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 once again changed drastically the status situation for the Germans in Bessarabia. Of course, people in Bessarabia could not be aware of the secret agreements of that pact, yet they were directly confronted with its effects: border disputes, mobilization activities, and moving troops around. With diplomatic backing from the German Reich, the Soviets in 1940 demanded ULTIMATIV from the Romanians the ceding of Bessarabia (and Northern Bukovina). Only a few days later the red Army marched into the requisitioned region. At that moment it became apparent that the two befriended deathly enemies, Fascist Germany and the Socialist Soviet Union, were capable of constructive cooperation in the small when common political interests warranted it.

While the Soviet secret policy, having arrived along with the Red Army, was beginning to search the population for supposed or real foes, killing some, deporting others, establishing collectives and dispossessing businesses, the local Germans - as appeared to have been the plan - would largely (and with only a few exceptions) remain spared of these repressions. Responsibility for these actions rested, among others, with Ivan Alexandrovich Serov, who would later also be given responsibility for the "integration" of Eastern Polish areas into the Soviet Union and, in 1945, would be given command over the secret services in the Soviet occupation zone of Germany. A few weeks following the occupation [of Bessarabia], a Soviet-German commission began to tax the properties of the German Bessarabians, whose deportation had been stipulated by Hitler. Faced with a choice between [staying and] being dispossessed and repressed or [leaving and] - with at least some hope for compensation - going into an uncertain future, by far the majority of them decided to give up their then homeland. A factor [in this decision] was certainly also the illusion of escaping (in Germany) their minority status or perhaps even to take advantage of new occupational opportunities.

No later than by the time they found themselves in resettlement camps, in which some spent several years, did reality catch up with the Bessarabia-Germans. There they made the acquaintance of National Socialist Germany, which intended to transform them into "real" Germans and took a certain interest in their "racial-politically" valuable heritage. Subsequently, they were by far for the most part used as a mass of pawns to be shifted around and sent to the Polish "Warthegau," thus serving the to establish a "new German ethnic body" there. And there they watched passively - for the most part without objection - as Polish owners were chased off their farm properties, only a short while later to be driven off themselves from the properties that were not even their own. They finally settled in Germany, which only gradually became their new homeland. A bitter irony of this history of displacement is pointed out by the author in a separate chapter: Bessarabia-Germans who had [finally] settled down in Mecklenburg and who, on the basis of agrarian reform, were by now owners of their third set of properties within just twenty years, in the 1950s were directly impacted by the agricultural collectivization that they had fled from in 1940. The topic of Bessarabia-Germans in the DDR [Deutsche Demokratische Republik - German Democratic Republic, namely, East Germany - Tr.] is of such great importance simply because it will take a long time to break open the 45 years without their own history, which had clearly been dictated from above.

In reconstructing these historical happenings, one must rule out of hand questions that lead to the meta story with a title "The Perpetrators" or "The Victims." The Bessarabia-Germans had at least on the form of it "returned" voluntarily to the Reich. Many had even promoted their own settlement in [German-]occupied Poland (Wartheland). However, they were indeed objects of political forces the intentions of which they not even begin to get to the bottom of. Thirdly, the spectrum of behavioral attitudes that the Bessarabia-Germans developed in the hardly predictable situation in Poland is extremely wide. Ute Schmidt avoids posing such generalizing questions by combining two methodologies with another that are often considered incompatible: a political-structural approach oriented toward institutions and a narrative, biographically oriented approach. This combination proves to be a very productive one.

In the first part of her study the history of the Bessarabia-Germans is presented in its European context. Their applicable juridical status, their self-administrative organs, the organization of the communes, their business and farming methods, cultural institutions (school system, church) , their relationships with other minorities and with the dominant state (nation) are all considered in this study. This approach is sued for all historical stages (Russian, Romanian, Polish, and German). Additionally, the author evaluates, besides the relevant secondary literature, available documents from state, regional, city and church archives of predominately German origin. Serving as further sources were materials of the Landsmannschaft der Bessarabiendeutschen plus archives of the Assistance Committee of the Ev.-Luth. Church of Bessarabia as well as private archives.

The second part looks at the attitudes developed by contemporary eye witnesses within the so easily describable situation and conditions. Since each of the phases carries its own SOZIALISATORISCHE impacts or also traumatic experiences, Ute Schmidt sets apart three generations whose conscious experiences had their onset during different points in time, but which were also socialized secondarily by a previous phase. In this manner, for each statement of the interviewed contemporary eye witnesses she provides a coordinating system into which memories and assessments from hindsight can be entered.

The items from the 90 contemporary eye witnesses, it appears, have been produced, by iterative process, from the materials she studied. This material confirms a plethora of individual themes of everyday life, occupational life, family life and cultural backgrounds. A second, extensive set of questions deals with biographical occurrences (e.g., resettlement, transition camps, Polish settlement, expulsion, and renewed settlement), and a third set addresses values, attitudes ([e.g.,] the Protestant work ethic), and retrospective assessments.

At various points, the book actually raises more questions than it answers. The fact that Ute Schmidt interviewed only Bessarabia-Germans and used predominately German sources means that she was able to assess only the inside views. Of course, given this study that already takes up 570 pages, anything else would have been a huge effort. Still, questions of a view from the outside do present themselves. Consider that the majority of those interviewed claimed in retrospect to have treated humanely the Polish families who had been driven off their farm properties, and to have accepted the strangers’ properties only reluctantly and with a guilty conscience. This is confirmed by examples of gratitude and at least some friendly contacts that have endured to this day. Of course, things may actually have been that way. However, one hears here the usual legitimizing strategies that might need to be verified. Answers to these questions may, hopefully soon, be provided by Polish or Moldovan colleagues.

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

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