The Fate of the German Russian Community During the Russian Civil War


Background  to the Civil War


Kerensky Government

After the February Revolution of 1917, which overthrew the Czarist regime, Alexander Kerensky became the leader of the revolutionary, democratic forces and the newly formed Russian Provisional Government. On 7 November, the Lenin-led Bolsheviks overthrew his government in the October Revolution. Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik party promised  “peace, land, and bread” under a communist system.

The immediate precipitating factor in the regime’s defeat was the virtual disintegration of its army. A lack of discipline, caused by acute war weariness, had led to the desertion of an estimated two million men by the autumn of 1917. Kerensky’s government in Petrograd had almost no support in the city. Only one small force, a subdivision of the 2nd Company of the First Petrograd Women’s Battalion, also known as The Women’s Death Battalion, remained loyal, but it was overwhelmed by the numerically superior pro-Bolshevik forces, defeated, and captured. It took fewer than 20 hours for the Bolsheviks to seize the government.

voices from the gulag
Alexander Kerensky reviewing troops 1917

Underlying the disarray of the military, however, was the huge economic stress caused by the country’s involvement in the War. Kerensky had honored Russia’s commitments to its Western Allies despite the dislocations of total mobilization. Some problems were partially offset by vital supplies from France and the United Kingdom which would have been eliminated in the event of a withdrawal from the War. The dilemma was great and not helped by Kerensky’s inconsistent and impractical policies which further destabilized the army and country at large, such as dealing with a an independent Ukraine, alienating conservative forces in Russia, and thus lousing their support against the Bolsheviks.

The Bolshevik Revolution

Weak central government control, food shortages and general anarchy permitted the rise of the Bolsheviks in the towns of rural Russia as well as among the urban proletariat, particularly in St. Petersburg and Moscow. By the summer of 1917, most district capitals were under the control of the workers and peasant soviets. The inability of the Kerensky government to deal with land reform while continuing a very unpopular war rapidly increased Bolshevik support. As regards, the German colonists, they were basically conservative, with a strong commitment to private property and traditional religious values, but German mill workers, for example, tended to support the Bolshevik party.
Of special importance to the German Russians was the Bolshevik government’s proclamation of the “Declaration of Rights of the People of Russia” which promised:

1. Equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Russia
2. The right of the nationalities of Russia to secede and establish independent states
3. Suspension of all nationalistic and religious privileges and restrictions, and
4. Unrestricted (cultural) development of the national minorities and ethnic groups populating the territory of Russia.

On seizing power, Lenin proposed an immediate armistice with the Central Powers and a peace without annexations or indemnities. This was signed with the Central Powers in December1917. The Bolsheviks then decreed the confiscation of large, private estates and their division among landless peasants supervised by the district Soviets of peasant deputies. Only small plots belonging to peasants and Cossacks were exempted.7 This action by the government created widespread mutinies in the army against its officers plus mass desertion, virtually bringing to an end Russia’s war with Germany and Austria. (The conflict was formally ended by the signing of the Treaty of Brest Litovsk in March 1918).The land confiscation decree caused nation-wide chaos in the country side leading to looting, violence and occupation of estates. Members of the opposition, comprising the officer class, aristocracy, industrialists, clergy and middle classes were terrorized, killed or imprisoned, without regard to legal process, by the new secret police, the Cheka, under its first leader, a fanatical communist, Felix Dzerzhinsky.

voices from the gulag
Lenin speaking in 1919

Overview of the Civil War

The Russian Civil War began in the Winter of 1917/1918 when the Red Army defeated the forces of General Kornilov in the First Kuban campaign and ended with General Wrangel’s retreat from the Crimea in November 1920. Between these two dates, the White Armies – supported by most of the former Czarist officers, land owning class and bourgeoisie – fought the Red Army in many campaigns, but at the end the Bolsheviks always prevailed. General Denikin, with his “volunteer” army of Cossacks, occupied and lost the Ukraine; Admiral Kolchak formed a dictatorship in Siberia and attacked the Bolsheviks from the Urals, retreated and was defeated in Western Siberia; and General Yudenich, with his Army of the Northwest, threatened St.Petersburg but was repulsed.

voices from the gulag
Admiral Kolchak reviewing troops, 1919

The Red Army, ably led by Leon Trotsky, was centrally organized and disciplined. He imposed a very tough system of discipline and control. Officers found guilty of cowardice or treachery were executed while men who showed initiative and courage were promoted rapidly. At times of crisis, Trotsky readily assumed personal command of areas under threat, inspiring and encouraging the troops to greater efforts, and to eventual victory


voices from the gulag
Leon Trotsky haranguing the Red Guard, 1918

In 1918, at the start of the Civil War, the Bolsheviks controlled the key central area of Russia between Petrograd and Moscow. This gave them a number of key advantages. Most of Russia’s railways were in this area which made communication between the various battlefronts much easier and Trotsky was able to move troops and supplies rapidly to areas under attack. As Commissar for War, he visited the battlefronts in his armored train, and took personal command. In effect, the Red Army fought from interior lines of communication based on the major Russian cities, and controlled the railway network.
The Bolsheviks also controlled the large population centers in the major cities in this central area and it was a key recruiting resource for them. The Red Army thus greatly outnumbered the White forces. Furthermore, much of Russia’s industry and raw materials was located in this area, making it possible for the Bolsheviks to keep their troops supplied and equipped with weapons, ammunition and supplies.
As a totalitarian movement the Bolsheviks enjoyed several advantages; once the Civil War had started, the Bolsheviks banned other political parties and arrested their leaders. There was no opposition. They also closed down newspapers which did not support them and suppressed any opposing views. Finally, the Cheka – the Bolshevik Secret Police hunted down and arrested anyone who was suspected of opposing the Bolsheviks.

The White Army also had several advantages: Their leaders were experienced military commanders; they controlled huge areas of Russia; they initially had the Bolsheviks surrounded; and they had the active support of foreign countries, Great Britain, France, the United States and Japan, which intervened in the Civil War on their behalf.
However, as the Civil War developed, the White Armies began to face major problems and difficulties in organizing their campaigns. Against the drive and ruthless energy of the Bolsheviks, their campaigns faltered and they faced defeat and failure. By the end of 1920, the Bolsheviks were close to achieving total victory.
Most important, the Red army was a unified force and thus was able to fight the White Army piecemeal, as the latter was geographically widely dispersed; it did not have a central command structure but consisted of highly personalized forces under their various commanders.
No one leader was in charge of the White forces. Whereas the Bolsheviks had Lenin, and Trotsky, the Whites had several rival leaders, such as Yudenich, Wrangel, Kolchak, Denikin, all vying for control. They were all ambitious men, each determined to take control of Russia for himself. As a result, there was virtually no co-operation between the various White Armies – they fought independently, making it easier for the Red Army to defeat them one by one.
The sheer size of Russia also worked against the White Armies. They had to move their forces and supplies over huge distances, making it difficult to maintain effective control. The lack of railways was an added complication to the existing communication difficulties.
Eventually, the White Armies also suffered from low moral. The Bolsheviks were fighting for a very definite cause – the establishment and survival of a Communist Russia. The Whites, however, had problems motivating their troops and building support. Why should soldiers face death simply to make Kolchak or Yudenich master of Russia? As time passed, more and more soldiers deserted from the White Armies.
The White government also suffered from corruption. Governments set up by the Whites in areas they controlled often became corrupt and inefficient. For example, medical supplies sent by foreign countries to aid the anti-Bolshevik forces often ended up being sold on the black market rather than being used to help their soldiers.
White Army forces often behaved with great brutality and cruelty in areas they controlled. Towns were burned, property destroyed or stolen, peasant farmers’ crops and livestock taken by force. If people objected, they faced torture and execution. Inevitably, the Whites became hated and feared and Bolshevik propaganda homed in on this. Given the choice between the Bolsheviks or the Whites, it was not surprising that Bolshevik support increased dramatically.

voices from the gulag
White Russian troops marching, March 1920

Basically, whereas the Communist saw this struggle as a class war of the workers and peasants against an aristocratic oligarchy – socialism against international capitalism – the White forces  opposed social reform and the national aspirations of the various people of Russia, They wanted to reinstate the Czarist regime and  were thus never able to gain any popular support outside of their basic social classes.

Finally, this Civil War was complicated by the foreign intervention of British, French and United States forces in Murmansk and Archangel and US and Japanese forces in the Russian Far East. The purpose was to keep Russia in the War against Germany, (and overthrow the Bolshevik government). Upon declaration of the armistice of November 1918, the Allies, who in the meantime had also sent troops to the Crimea and the Caucasus, slowly began to withdraw them.  A Czech Legion of 40,000 former prisoners of war, stranded in Siberia, initially helped the White Armies with some success against the Red Army, but eventually negotiated with the Soviets their repatriation by sea from Eastern Siberian ports.


voices from the gulag
US troops marching in occupied Vladivostok, August 1918

By the end of the Civil War in 1921 the Bolsheviks had succeeded in securing their grip on power in Russia. The White Armies and the foreign powers fighting on Russian soil had been defeated. Just as importantly, rival political parties had been outlawed and, thanks to the Cheka secret police, dissenting voices were permanently silenced.
Another notable success for the CHEKA had come early in the Civil War. The Bolsheviks had captured Tsar Nicholas and his entire family in February 1917 shortly after the Tsar’s abdication. On July 16th, under the control of CHEKA, the Tsar and his family were executed by firing squad in the basement of a house in the Soviet-controlled city of Ekaterinburg. The Romanov era was definitely over and the potential threat of a future monarchist uprising had been ended.



voices from the gulag
General Nicolai Yudenich


voices from the gulag
Map of the Russian civil war in the West

The German Russian Settlements in the Period of Anarchy and Civil War

The German Volga Colonies
The new Bolshevik government came to the lower Volga in November 1917, when Saratov, the capital of the Volga German district, was occupied by the communists. Taking at face value Lenin’s proclamation on the right of nationalities for autonomy the Volga Germans sent a delegation to Moscow, in the name of the Union of Volga German Socialists, established during the Provisional Government, requesting self government and political autonomy, including authority to create local self defense units. In response, the Soviet government established the Commune for Volga German Affairs in Saratov in April 1918. Lenin stated that this new government agency was necessary to “combat the big landowners and counter-revolutionaries in the German colonies”.
A policy of cultural autonomy, as proclaimed by the Bolshevik Declaration of Rights of the People of Russia, permitted the German communities full use of the German language in schools, local administration, legal matters and cultural life, including publication of their own German language newspapers with contents dictated by the communist party, of course – but only Soviet trade unions and Soviet youth organizations were permitted. German non-communist newspapers, however, ceased publication, church schools were closed and church property confiscated. Education in the German language ended about 1938, continuing only in the Volga Republic, the successor of the Volga Commune, until it was liquidated in 1941 with Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union.
The principal function of the Soviet administration in the German villages was the imposition of communist rule. Class struggle was promoted by confiscating land from the richer peasants and giving it to the landless, thus securing their allegiance. The Saratov Commune, in one of its first actions, authorized the local Soviets to expropriate large landowners without compensation and to divide the land among landless peasants. These expropriations began in the Volga region in May 1918. The Soviets not only expropriated large German properties (there were very few in the Volga region) but also many medium sized and small ones as well, with devastating effects on food production in the German Volga settlements.

The Red Army gradually occupied the Volga German villages and a Soviet of Workers and Peasants was designated for all settlements. In June, 1918, a congress of Soviets met in Saratov and proclaimed Volga German autonomy. In July 1918, Lenin followed-up by officially decreeing a Volga German Commune, appointing two German communist prisoners of war (there were few reliable Volga German communists) to supervise it. Ironically, one was Ernst Reuter, later, after World War II, West Berlin’s strongly anti-communist mayor. Shortly before his death in 1924, Lenin transformed the Commune into the Volga German Autonomous Republic, the first such autonomous republic formed in the Soviet Union. Commentators thought that by this preferential treatment of the Volga Germans, Lenin hoped to show the Reich Germans and the German Communist Party – in a revolutionary stage at the time – the benefits of communist rule over their kinsman in the Soviet Union. There was a widely held view, at that time, in the Soviet Union, that Germany would be the next country to have a communist revolution.
The lawlessness caused by the Bolshevik dictum of class warfare had a devastating effect on the lives of the Germans in the Volga colonies. The individual villages were ruled by a handful of dedicated commissars under the guise of “Workers and Peasants Power,” who were ruthless in stamping out any opposition, or even suspected opposition based on the social class of the German farmers. The authority of the communist rulers was backed by the Cheka, and when necessary, by the Red Army. Any opposition was immediately repressed with violence. For example, in one German Volga community, Warenburg, fifty of the leading men in the village were executed in retaliation for the murder of three communist officials who had been terrorizing the community.
The German farmers of the Volga region were certainly not rich in the contemporary Russian sense, where large landowners predominated. They were well- off, however, due to many generations of hard work and frugality. They certainly had a better standard of living than the average Russian peasant, and this came back to haunt them, heightened, no doubt, by envy of this comparative wealth.
A contemporary report from the Volga colonies illustrates this situation: ( Source: Fred C. Koch, The Volga Germans in Russia and the Americas, From 1763 to the Present, The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, Pennsylvania, 1978)

“One of the local commissars came into our home, without knocking, one afternoon, walked to where my mother was seated and yanked the chair out from under her, and with foul language in effect
charged: ‘You’ve sat on this long enough. Now it’s my turn.’ With that he confiscated not only the chair but also whatever else he wanted in the house. He was one of our own people-from our own village!” Indeed, he was a distant relative of the family to which he now was applying Lenin’s instructions, “Rob the robber. You peasants, you workmen, were robbed by the wealthy people: now get back everything that you have lost; take everything you see and do not care about what you do”.

In 1918 Bolsheviks proclaimed a policy of “War Communism” which continued until 1921. In practical terms it meant the forceful confiscation, without compensation, of food supplies which they destined for the urban proletariat and the Red Army. In the Volga colonies, grain confiscation began in May 1918 and continued with increasing severity until 1921. In 1918 the German communities still had considerable stocks of grain to sustain them for the periodic drought years, but by the Spring of 1919 these had all been taken, except for a small supply for food and seed.
The Bolsheviks sent food requisition teams of industrial workers, sometimes supported by Red Guards, to the farming areas, raiding villages and requisitioning and confiscating food supplies. Armed bands invaded the Volga colonies, arresting the leading members of the community and holding them hostage, until the required food supplies were delivered. The worst communist food requisitioning bands were reported from the industrial city of Tula. The Tula workers and Red Guards would arrive at a German village and give the villagers a limited time to deliver up to 20 pounds of flour per head or the hostages would be killed.
This tactic of occupying a village, and giving the inhabitants a time limit to produce a set food quota was widely practiced. When delivery did not occur, because by that time people were generally destitute, homes and barns would be searched until the required supplies were found or in other cases, the inhabitants would be incarcerated under inhuman conditions until they produced the food. This ruthless behavior even shocked many communist leaders in the German colonies, who clearly realized that the villagers had to keep a food stock for their needs as well as for seed grain.
A letter dated November 28, 1920 from the Volga colonies relates the following atrocity by the commissars: (Source: Samuel D. Sinner, The Open Wound: The Genocide of German Ethnic Minorities in Russia and the Soviet Union, 1915-1949 and Beyond, North Dakota State University Libraries, Fargo, North Dakota, 2000)

In all of Gnadendorf, only two German wagons are left. Everything, absolutely everything was taken away from the people, and whoever refused to turn over everything was punished with death. All the people who had grain which would have lasted for two years are now so destitute that they don’t have enough to last a single day. Whoever still has a cow has to give out 5 pounds of butter per month, whether there are 2 or 10 persons in the family. Whether or not the cow gives milk is beside the point. Whoever can’t meet the requirement, the cow is just taken away.
It is merciless here. One can no longer travel freely, complain or seek relief, nothing, nothing …
When my brother Friedrich was still in Katharinenstadt, several hundred men were sentenced to death. Because there were too many to shoot, they were then placed together in groups of ten and had to pick lots. On whomever the lot fell, that person was shot.

Incompetence and mismanagement of village agriculture by Soviet bosses was also typical of the errors of communist centralized planning and direction. The following is an example from this period of the waste produced by poor management: (Source: Fred C. Koch, The Volga Germans in Russia and the Americas, From 1763 to the Present, The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, Pennsylvania, 1978)

The following operation was related by an eyewitness who succeeded in escaping to Germany. From miles around, cattle were driven in winter to central points on the Volga and after days of impoundment without fodder or water were butchered in improvised slaughterhouses; then the carcasses were heaped in huge piles and permitted to freeze preparatory for transport to the cities. But spring came before the commissars got around to shipping them, whereupon the mountains of meat thawed and spoiled. The newly created administrators had neglected the fact that railroad and river transportation were almost at a standstill, that motor trucks always had been and still were a rarity on the Volga, and
that horses were scarce. Vast stores of vitally needed meat were thus lost. Worse-herd after herd of cows had been slaughtered, totally disregarding the need for breeding stock to meet the nation’s future meat and dairy requirements.

Soviet excesses drove many German colonists to self defense and active resistance. Home defense forces were formed which engaged not only Red Guard units but also the many marauding bands spawned by the civil war. Confrontation with the Bolsheviks, because they were much better armed, usually ended in defeat for the German farmers. Opposition was then crushed by the Red Army and a terrible revenge taken on the inhabitants of the German towns.

German and Russian anti-Communists hunted and killed Soviet commissars whenever the opportunity arose. Special vengeance was taken on German Russians who joined the Bolsheviks and ruled over and oppressed their villages. In one important confrontation, in March 1921, five to six thousand poorly armed, hungry German men and boys converged on the town of Balzer on the Bergseite – the regional headquarters of the Communist administration and Red Guards – to implore them for assistance and if not, to force them to give them relief from regime excesses. On reaching the town, they were machine gunned, followed by an attack of red cavalry, killing hundreds. The survivors were then shot by Red Guard infantry, taking no prisoners. In all, this massacre cost the German settlers innumerable dead. It was reported that “the field before Balzer was littered to the horizon with dead and wounded”.

To suppress the opposition and end the defiance to Communist rule in the German Volga colonies, the central authorities sent the Red Army in force. Special military courts were established in the colonies to try and condemn the rebels. Many were summarily executed. In the town of Mariental on the Wiesenseite, which decided to resist the Red Army, 230 men were killed in the ensuing battle and a further 270 men were executed by the Bolsheviks, including the parish priest. This and similar actions by the Red Army brought to a bloody end any further armed resistance to Communist rule in the German Volga colonies. Finally, a general amnesty was declared in the summer of 1921, permitting many of those arrested to return to their villages.

Background to the Civil War in the Ukraine

In the Black Sea German villages, Communism was not able to assert itself until late 1920. The Ukraine was a battlefield between landowners and peasants, between the “red” and “ white” armies; between Ukrainian nationalists and Russian communists and between anarchists and common, roving criminal bands fighting everyone else. The German communities were caught in this maelstrom of violence and death. The Ukraine was not brought under full Bolshevik control until the final defeat and evacuation of the White armies under General Wrangel from the Crimea in November 1920.
Following the close of World War I, anarchy and armed confrontation ruled in the Ukraine. A series of conflicts took place between Ukrainian nationalists, Bolsheviks, the White Armies, anarchists and bandits, together with intervention by foreign nations, Germany, Austria and Poland.
As a result of the Kerensky revolution of February 1917, the Ukraine declared its autonomy but maintained close ties to the Russian Provisional Government.(Kerenski government). With the Bolshevik revolution, in November 1917, however, the Ukrainian government, the Tsentralna Rada (Central Council) in Kiev, declared its full independence. The Bolsheviks set up a competing Ukrainian government in Kharkov, in the Eastern Ukraine. The better armed Communist forces were repeatedly able to defeat the independent Ukrainian armies. In desperation, the Central Rada called on its old enemies, Germany and Austria, for help against the Bolsheviks. Following passage of the first peace Treaty of Brest Litovsk on February 9,1918 between the Ukraine and the Central Powers, German and Austrian troops defeated the Red Army and occupied the Ukraine. In the following month, the Bolsheviks signed the second treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers, ending Russia’s war with Germany-Austria. Reluctantly, the Soviets recognized an independent Ukraine which remained in the German sphere of influence.


voices from the gulag
Map; Borders resulting from the Brest Litovsk Treaty


Nevertheless, fighting continued in the Ukraine. In the South, Nestor Makhno, an anarchist leader, fought White Russian forces and then allied himself with the Bolsheviks. In the Eastern Ukraine, in the Donets Basin, the Communists were active in opposing the German occupation. Ukrainian White forces, with the support of the German army, overthrew the Rada government in Kiev in April 1918 and introduced a counter-revolutionary regime. German occupation came to an end in November 1918 when an armistice was declared between the Allies and the Central Powers, and the German army was forced to leave the Ukraine.     


A Ukrainian People’s Republic was formed under the leadership of Seymon Petliura.  Together with the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic, established in the former Austrian Province of Galicia, it came into conflict with the newly established Polish Republic which also claimed this territory. The Ukrainians were defeated by the Poles in October, 1919, who then annexed Galicia to Poland. The 1919 Paris Peace Conference granted this province to Poland. 

In a new offensive, the Soviets took the Ukraine and installed the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in Kiev in March 1919.  A further enemy arose in the Spring of 1919 when a White Army under General Denikin conquered Central and Eastern Ukraine. By the Spring of 1920, however, the war front was reversed and the Red Army reconquered all of the Ukraine, except for the Crimea. It also defeated the armies of its old ally, Nestor Makhno.

A  White Army, under General Wrangel, taking advantage of renewed Soviet warfare with Poland, started a new offensive against the Ukraine which forced the Soviet government to seek a truce with Poland in October 1920. As a result of the peace treaty with Poland, signed in Riga on March 18,1921, the Soviets recognized Polish control over the Provinces of Galicia and Western Volhynia while Poland recognized Soviet sovereignty over the Ukraine. 

Having made a truce with the Poles, the Red Army could now concentrate all its forces on the defeat of General Wrangel. The Ukraine was reconquered and General Wrangel forced to retreat to his last bastion, the Crimea. Defeated there by the Red Army, he abandoned the Crimea with his troops, of over 145,000 men and some of their families, for Istanbul, Turkey, in November, 1920, under the protection of French warships. The civil war had come to an end. There was one last invasion of the Ukraine, however, when the former head of the now defunct Ukrainian People’s Republic, Seymon Petliura attacked Western Ukraine with an army of 23,000Ukrainian nationalists in November 1920 but was defeated by the red Army later that month. In December 1922 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was proclaimed.

The Impact of the Civil War on German settlements in the Ukraine

The German colonies suffered great depredations both from the Red Guards as well as from irregular bands. The motivation for attacking the settlements, however, was different in each case. For the Communists, the Germans were “enemies of the people” because they were relatively well off, conservative in their outlook and anti-communist.  The anarchist bands, such as those under their leader Nestor Makhno, plundered the German villages not so much for social/political reasons but because they were relatively prosperous and offered good booty.

The German and Austrian occupation in the Spring of 1918 brought law and order back to the Ukraine. The entire Ukraine, including the Crimea, was occupied principally by German troops as far East as Rostov on the Don River. (See Map  of the German occupation of the Ukraine). The German Russians welcomed the troops, who spoke their language and were supportive of their needs. They protected them from the violence of marauding armies, Bolshevik, anarchist or common criminals. With the collapse of the German Army in the West, and the subsequent armistice of November 1918, the German and Austrian troops had to evacuate the Ukraine.  As there was no effective government, there was a  resurgence of violence and persecution of the Germans farmers.

In the late Autumn of 1918, Makhno conducted his first raids on the Black Sea German villages, after the German troops had departed. Houses were burned, resisters shot, villages plundered and burned. The killings went on for several weeks leaving over 100 people dead.  The German Russian writer, John Philipps wrote that, “ …the Bolshevik government allowed the Makhno raids to continue, unhindered: Hand in hand with these house searches, requisitions, and contributions, the most horrible and shameful deeds were committed against women and girls, bestial acts of murder were perpetrated against men who were slowly tortured to death, and in not a few cases, houses and villages were burned down.” Phillips further writes: “There was scarcely a German colony of the regions of Chortitza, Kronau, Prischib, Halbstadt, and Mariupol  where the Makhno bands didn’t rape, hack to pieces, or shoot women. The men were hacked to pieces, shot, or exiled. The possessions of the well-to-do farmers  and their farms were set in flames.” Ataman Nikifor Grigoryev, an anarchist like Makhno, also went over to the Bolsheviks. He carried out his plundering mainly in the German villages,” reports Philipps. In Sulz, Karlsruhe, Landau, Speyer, Rastadt, Katharinental, Krasna, and other settlements, the same author notes, “ The fighting male population was shot down, women raped, churches and schools plundered and entire villages burned down. The remaining women and children fled and sought refuge in the fields, in caves, and in neighboring settlements. Days after, when they had returned, they found their murdered men and sons, burned and plundered farms, storehouses, stables, and barns. Images of horror, like never before. Memories which will never leave the mind”  Eye witnesses reported that in almost every German village, 20 to 50 women, men or children were brutally tortured and killed by the Makhno bands. For the smaller villages, this represented from about 10% to 50% of the entire population.

(Source: Source: Samuel D. Sinner, The Open Wound: The Genocide of German Ethnic Minorities in Russia and the Soviet Union, 1915-1949 and Beyond, North Dakota State University Libraries, Fargo,North Dakota, 2000)

To defend against Makhno and the Red Guards, the German villagers formed a Home Guard, Selbstschutz units, in each village. Although they fought valiantly, at the end they were overpowered by the superior numbers of their enemies as well as by their better armaments.  The villages were also too scattered to construct a comprehensive defense line. By the Spring of 1919, Makhno and his army controlled all of the Ukraine East of the Dnieper River. General Denekin’s White Army moved into the Ukraine in June 1919 which gave some respite to the German settlers, some even joining his forces. Later in the following Spring, however, they were forced to retreat and the Red Guards and Makhno’s forces attacked the villages again.

The following is a report from a German farmer of those calamitous days in early 1920;

In the late spring of 1920, my father and I saw Red Guards suddenly come galloping across our fields from the highway. About twenty Red Guards entered our house, while the others went to various homes in the village. An officer gave my father an order, “Lasse was kochen, meine Rotgardisten sind hungrig.” (Make us something to eat, my Red Guards are hungry.) My father retorted, “What should we cook for you, you took everything from us. Only yesterday, the Red Guards took our clothes, our food, and above all, our smoked hams and lard buckets. They even took our horses and cattle with them.” It was then the officer gave his men the order to shoot my father. In that instant, a dark dust cloud appeared on the horizon in the direction of the town of Otschakov. A large number of riders were headed our way. The Red Guards got frightened and screamed, “Dowai, dowai (hurry, hurry) the Denikinzi are coming,” and they hurriedly rode away. The Denikin soldiers overtook the Red Guards and cut them down to the last man. A week later, the same drama was repeated, but this time the Denikin soldiers were the victims of the robber chieftain Grigoriev ‘. These incidents impressed themselves indelibly
into my mind.

 (Source: John Philipps: The Tragedy of the Soviet Germans (A Story of Survival) Richtman’s Printing, Bismarck, North Dakota, 1991)

The German villages attempted to maintain a neutrality in the Civil War between the Red and White armies, but this was often impossible because of the aggressive requisitioning of food by the Red troops. One of the worst massacres occurred in the town of Selz. In the summer of 1919, a contingent of the Red Guard passing through the town saw a town meeting in progress. Thinking it to be subversive and without investigation, they drove 107 participants to the cemetery, and shot them after forcing them to dig their own graves 

The writer John Philipps recorded further war crimes by the Red Army:

The community of Krasna was persecuted and occupied by the Reds, so the inhabitants tried to find shelter in the village of Blumental. But it too, had been completely plundered. The Reds had taken furniture, clothes, food, horses, cows; they did not even leave one chicken behind. Any inhabitants caught were hacked to pieces, the bodies were left in the streets.

My mother, Regina  was born in Sulz. She, her parents, her brothers and sisters were there when, in 1919, the community tried to defend itself against the Reds. But they could not withstand the superiority of the Reds and Sulz was captured. The Communists demanded a contribution of one million rubles from the community. Since Sulz could not come up with this fantastic amount, thirty men were shot and the village went up in flames.

In Katharinental ninety persons were murdered by the Bolsheviks, sixty-two houses were burned … In Speyer the inhabitants tried to defend themselves with pitchforks and spades. Here also, many died and the homes of the rich went up in flames. It was the same in the community of Rastadt  The Bolsheviks raped women and girls. Over fifty women and men were shot in the streets and while at work in the fields. Also, seventy-eight houses were destroyed by fire. The Bolsheviks took everything, not even leaving a fork or a spoon.”

(Source: Samuel D. Sinner, The Open Wound: The Genocide of German Ethnic Minorities in Russia and the Soviet Union, 1915-1949 and Beyond, North Dakota State University Libraries, Fargo, North Dakota, 2000)


The result of all this violence against civilians was the total cowing of the German population both in the Volga Region as well as in the Black Sea colonies.. All thought of resistance to Communist rule in the German colonies was for all time eliminated by 1920. Civil War and the accompanying anarchy brought destruction, famine and ultimately death to the towns and villages of the German colonies in Russia. The ethnic group almost disappeared. It was in the front line of this battle, and the German settlers were, usually, innocent victims of events over which they had no control. It is difficult to know the exact number of German Russians who died from violence in this period. Reasonable estimates for the period, between 1918 and1921, are about 530,000/535,000 of which 300,000 were victims of the great famine of 1921 and 230,000/235,000 were killed during the Civil War.  Samuel D. Sinner, in his book, The Open Wound, reports that more German Russians were killed in the Civil War than were lost in World War I fighting for Imperial Russia.    

 There are no precise casualty figures for the Russian Civil War. It is estimated that about two million people died, either killed or died of injuries and sickness. The Cheka itself is reported to have summarily executed about 250,000. The White Army security forces were said to have executed a similar number. Nevertheless, the loss of the German population in the Civil War was disproportionately large. The Ataman Nikifor Grigoriev, at times ally and enemy of the Red Army and of Nestor Makhno, was executed by the Red Army later in the Summer of 1919. In August of 1921, Makhno’s forces were finally defeated by the Red Army and he was forced into exile, ending up in Paris where he died.   

Source: Voices From The Gulag: The Oppression of the German Minority in the Soviet Union, Ulrich Merten, American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2015.