Victor Doenninghaus. Revolution, Reform und Krieg: Die Deutschen an der Wolga im ausgehenden Zarenreich. Essen: Klartext Verlag, 2002. 315 pp. EUR 21.00 (paper), ISBN 978-3-89861-090-2.
Reviewed by Renate Bridenthal (Department of History (Emeritus), Brooklyn College, The City University of New York)
Published on H-German (April, 2003)
Renewed Interest in Germans from Russia
Renewed Interest in Germans from Russia
With the fall of the Soviet Union, a great influx of people from Russia into Germany ensued, claiming citizenship on the basis of German descent. Many generations removed from the original German colonists of the late- eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, they are perceived as culturally indistinguishable from Russians and are hardly welcomed as co-ethnics. They are descendants of widely scattered groups, once resident mainly in the Volga and Black Sea regions but now dispersed across Russian territories and in the world at large by force of economics and war.
Most of the studies on Germans from Russia focus on their difficult and ambiguous position during the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, with the notable exception of Dietmar Neutatz, Die 'deutsche Frage' im Schwarzmeergebiet und in Wolhynien: Politik, Wirtschaft, Mentalitaeten und Alltag im Spannungsfeld von Nationalismus und Modernisierung (1856-1914) (1993) and Ingeborg Fleischhauer, Die Deutschen im Zarenreich: zwei Jahrhunderte deutsch-russische Kulturgemeinschaft (1986). This book by Doenninghaus is one of two he has published in 2002, the other being Die Deutschen in der Moskauer Gesellschaft: Symbiose und Konflikte (1494-1941). In this study of the Volga Germans, he has zoomed in on a very different social group, mainly peasants and workers, in a wider region and a much narrower period, mainly 1905-1917, which was a critical turning point in their history, when modernization, war, and revolution transformed their living conditions and consciousness. This focus enables him to dig deeply into the link between the economics and politics of Stolypin's agrarian reforms as experienced locally by the German colonists settled in the Volga region since the eighteenth century.
Doenninghaus' original research in the Russian State Historical Archive, the state archive of Saratov district and the former Russian Central Party Archive (now a state archive for social and political history), has resulted in a meticulous study of the change in property relations and their effects on the Volga Germans. Detailed tables provide exact numbers of the number, size and population count of farms that privatized out of communes in the German settlements. His central question for this laboriously accumulated data is: did the German colonists differ from their Russian counterparts in their reactions to the new policies and, if so, why and how?
Approximately half a million Germans lived in about two hundred colonies in the two main districts of Saratov and Samara on both sides of the Volga, descendants of colonists first invited by Russian Tsars to pioneer more modern techniques of farming. On the eve of the 1905 revolution they made up between seven and eight percent of the region, where they differed little from the Russian majority in practicing communal land ownership and suffering general land hunger in the face of a growing population, high taxes, poor harvests and a high burden of debt. The Russian nationalist press of the time wrongly resented their presumed greater prosperity, apparently mistaking the Volga with the Black Sea Germans, who did indeed do better than their surrounding Russian peasantry. When the revolution broke out, rather than fight for new rights as did Russian peasants, the Volga Germans, still seeing themselves as "guests" of Mother Russia and fearing to be branded disloyal, chose flight: to the cities, to Siberia, to the New World. Those who stayed remained conservative, loyal, and obedient to the authorities, from whom they passively awaited reforms. Few supported national autonomy; at most, they asked for local reforms and self-government in their settlements, a small step in broadening their political horizon.
Doenninghaus persuasively shows that what really began to turn the Volga Germans around politically was the Stolypin land reform of 1906, which allowed peasants to privatize their share of communal land. German agriculturalists were excluded from the land banks that were supposed to help in the transition, because they were deemed "settler-owners" rather than peasants and because of anti-German discrimination. As a result, few converted to private ownership until a new law allowed entire settlements to dissolve. The economically weakest farmers scattered, beginning a diasporic movement that heralded the eventual dissolution of German ethnic homogeneity, so carefully nurtured by its clergy in the past. Those remaining resisted privatization less fiercely than the Russian peasants who refused surveyors and engaged in mini-civil wars between seceders and mir-ists. Soldiers' wives especially opposed seceders breaking up communes, as they could hardly manage a farm alone (p. 209).
Doenninghaus emphasizes that the emigrations of this period reflect mainly economic motives and not draft dodging, an accusation sometimes made even by fellow-ethnics who then had to supply larger numbers of able-bodied villagers to the army. An estimated 50,000 Russian Germans served in World War I (p. 185), although mainly on the Turkish rather than German front, as their loyalty remained suspect (p. 226). As the war dragged on, discrimination increased and, as in the United States, the German language was prohibited in speech and writing. Finally, German landed property was decreed for liquidation, and even the obedient Volga Germans reached the end of their rope. Enthusiastically, they welcomed the February revolution of 1917.
This meticulously researched study does much for our understanding of the widely known but little understood Volga Germans. The afore-mentioned interest in the posture of Russian Germans in World War II has called more attention to the Black Sea Germans and their complicated relationship to the invading Nazi armies. One could, however, have hoped for a bit more on the politics of the urbanized, partly proletarianized Volga Germans. It would have been instructive to see the contrast between the Volga and Black Sea Germans, some of whom eventually fought alongside the Whites. For example, the industrial flour miller, Friedrich P. Schmidt, who Doenninghaus says was suspected of aiding the Germans with food exports, is claimed by a source close to events also to have headed the Saratow stock market and, in 1917, the local revolutionary Central Committee. However, that is a quibble. This is a very fine contribution to the field.
. Johannes Schleuning, Mein Leben hat ein Ziel: Lebenserrinnerungen eines russlanddeutschen Pfarrers (Witten: Luther Verlag, 1964), p. 345.
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Renate Bridenthal. Review of Doenninghaus, Victor, Revolution, Reform und Krieg: Die Deutschen an der Wolga im ausgehenden Zarenreich.
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Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.