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.


After Collectivization: How Stalin’s Agricultural Policies Affected German Farming Settlements


Background to the Soviet collectivization of agriculture

With the end of the Soviet civil war in 1920, the German communities in the Soviet Union were in dire straits, as was the rest of the country. Agriculture was virtually destroyed.  Added to this catastrophe was the famine of 1921.  US food aid helped to alleviate the famine but still 300,000 ethnic Germans died of starvation in the period 1921-1925, as well as well as 6.4 million Russians.

Lenin’s New Economic Policy, NEP


The collapse of Soviet agriculture forced the Soviet Government to reconsider its communist policies. The result was the introduction of Lenin’s pragmatic New Economic Policy in March 1921. Basically it realized that inducements had to be given to the peasants to produce. Confiscations were ended and replaced by a tax on production. It introduced capitalist incentives allowing the peasants to plant, harvest and market their production without being forced to sell it to the government at artificially low prices.  Although it came too late to avoid the worst of the famine, by 1923, harvests in the Volga settlements improved. Slowly, the German Russian farming communities recovered from all the anarchy, violence, and uncertainty of previous years and a general well being began to develop. Nikolai Bukharin, a senior Soviet leader, and Politburo member, is reported to have said, “enrichissez-vous”.

Under the NEP, farmers were allowed to sell their production on the open market; they could hire farm workers to help with the sowing, harvesting and other normal agricultural work; they regained control over their own land, and could lease or purchase new land without being persecuted as kulaks. Production increased rapidly, and by 1924/1925 the Volga German settlements were again exporting grain.51  Concurrently with the liberalization of agricultural production, German farmers founded producers’ cooperatives, and credit unions, which helped them buy farm machinery and, generally, finance production.  On the other hand, one of the first state farms (Sovkhoz) was established at this time on the estate, in the Black Sea region, of the Sattler family (one of the largest German landowners) The family’s property was confiscated during the Civil War.

In February 1924, shortly after Lenin’s death, the Soviet Government transformed the Volga German Commune into the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, ASSR.  At the time of formation, the population comprised about 65% ethnic Germans, 22% Russians and 13% Ukrainians. The German population was estimated at some 400,000 in 1924.   The Republic had the formal appearance of an autonomous administrative entity, but in reality all decisions were made by the Communist Party. The capital was Engels (Pokrovsk) near Saratov on the Volga River. Although it was the single largest concentration of ethnic Germans in the Soviet Union, the majority of the Soviet Union’s 1.3 million Germans at that time, lived outside of this ASSR.

The New Economic Policy continued to 1928, but by that time Stalin was the undisputed ruler of the Soviet Union. In November 1927, at the tenth anniversary of the Communist Revolution, Stalin announced  the first five year plan. That was the beginning of the forced collectivization of agriculture, and the effective end of the NEP. On December 27, 1929, Stalin called for the liquidation of the kulaks as a social class. And that was the beginning of a reign of terror.    


Years of Fear and Terror

For the German community in the Soviet Union, the 1930s were characterized by one calamity after another. First, the forced collectivization of agriculture in which many German farmers were identified as wealthy peasants, kulaks and deported to Siberia. This was followed by the famine of the early 1930s. Although drought was a recurring natural phenomenon in Southern Russia, the accompanying famine was caused in part by reduced harvests due to the collectivization of agriculture: Perhaps more importantly, it was Stalin’s opportunity to wipe out the remaining opposition to collectivization, particularly in the Ukraine. The famine, as expected resulted in great loss of life. Lastly, in the course of the 1930s, Stalin imposed a Russification policy on the national minorities while at the same time eliminating all organized religion of the ethnic Germans, and all Russians for that matter, in the Soviet Union. This period was also known as the “Great Terror” whereby Stalin purged not only all opposition, but any suspected opposition as well, in order to consolidate his power, with tragic consequences for the German minority.


Collectivization of Agriculture


The forced collectivization of agriculture began under Stalin’s first five year plan (1928-1932). Ostensibly, it would introduce communist principles to agriculture, by eliminating private ownership of farm land, with everyone working on a collective farm (kolkhoz) for the common good. The real purpose, however, was a ruthless transfer of wealth from agriculture to the rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union, by imposing high production quotas and work norms on the farms and price controls on their agricultural output, resulting in systematic underpayment to the farms.  Collective farmers received no wages as they were considered owners. Theoretically they all shared in the surplus created by their labor, with payment determined by the type of work they did and number of hours worked. All overhead expenses were deducted from this surplus, leaving the individuals usually with scarcely enough money to feed themselves and their families. 

To enforce this rapid collectivization on an unwilling peasantry, Stalin introduced class warfare by pitting poor, usually landless peasants, against the better off or well to do peasants.In December 1929,  Stalin publicly demanded the elimination of the rich peasants, the so- called kulaks, which was the beginning of a reign of terror.  The farmers were divided into three classes:

  • Poor peasants who possessed no land and few farm animals and were generally disposed to join the collective farms
  • Farmers who were somewhat well-off possessing land and farm animals. These farmers were very reluctant to join the collectives.
  • Affluent and well-off farmers having sizable land holdings and numerous farm animals. As a group they opposed joining the collective farms. They were labeled kulaks’ , but in reality all farmers except those in the first category were considered kulaks and became victims of Soviet repression.


Communist activists, supported by the police – and sometimes even by the Red Army- went to the villages aggressively promoting and enforcing collectivization of the farms. Opposition was not tolerated, and any sign of refusal to join a collective was met with arrest and deportation. Peasants and their families who opposed these measures were branded as kulaks and sent to concentration camps in Siberia and Central Asia. Even relatively poor peasants who owned only a little land and few farm animals were considered kulaks, in line with communist class warfare principles. In a period of two months, January and February 1930, more than one million peasant families became slave labor in the Gulag, working in mines, factories and forests.

Other sources state that over two million kulaks and their families were exiled in the years 1929-1931. The majority of the kulaks reportedly came from the Ukraine. The secret police, OGPU directives classified the kulaks into three categories: 1 – those considered counter revolutionary activists were sent directly to the concentration camps in the GULAG or even shot. Family members were sent to the “special camps ” the special settlements. 2 – well to do farmers were sent to the special settlements in Siberia or Central Asia. 3 – all others were initially kept in their area of residence but were not allowed to join the collective farms. As they had no means of support, eventually they also ended up in the “special settlements”.

(The Soviet secret police. OGPU –  State Political Directorate, a department of the   NKVD.  OGPU – All Union State Political Board became the successor of the   GPU in 1923 and  was placed directly under the control of the Council of People’s Commissars. In July 1934 the NKVD became the senior security service in the Soviet Union, known as the All-Union NKVD. It was the executive organ of the MVD, Ministry of the Interior.)

The first kulak deportees went to camps in the Northern Krai (administrative regions) in North European Russia, on the White Sea.  Others were sent to Siberia, Kazakhstan and the Northern Urals. Many were forced to work in forestry or fishing industries, while some were sent to the mines, mainly coal and copper. Kulaks were also placed in special settlements under the supervision of the secret police. With no preparation made for their reception in these remote areas known for their harsh winters – and subjected to high working norms with minimal nourishment and health services – the death rate was exceedingly high. In the period 1932 to 1940, the secret police, OGPU and NKVD, recorded 389,521 deaths in the special settlements or 9.79% of their inhabitants.  

Russian earth dwelling a Zemilyanka, of the type Kulaks had to build when exiled to the Gulag special settlements.

By September 1931 the mass deportations ceased and the Politburo resolution of July 20, 1931, stated that the dekulakization process had been successfully completed and all future deportations of kulaks should only be done on an individual basis. Earlier, in June, 1931, the Communist Party had announced that the collectivization of farms had been accomplished in the major grain growing areas of the Soviet Union. 


Explanation of the Gulag System

 Gulag;(Main Camp Administration), a department of the Soviet MVD, Ministry of the Interior,  has become synonymous with the entire repressive system of the Soviet Union from arrest to interrogation, transport to the camps by cattle cars, forced labor under appalling conditions, destruction of families and ultimately the suffering and death of the prisoners. The purpose of the camps was not necessarily to kill the prisoners but to work them as forced labor.  Although the labor camps existed in the early days of the Soviet Union, established as re-education camps through labor, it is in the early 1930s that Stalin decided to give the camp system a new, more important function and use slave labor to spur the industrialization of the Soviet Union, such as increasing mine production. The camp population expanded greatly in the 1930s, first with the arrest and incarceration of the kulaks and then with the massive arrests during Stalin’s Great Terror. The camps continued to grow during World War II, with the deportation to the camps of the German Russians and people from the Baltic lands and Poland occupied by the Soviet Union, and later, with the many Caucasian ethnic minorities who were accused of helping the German occupation army.  There were 470 labor camp complexes in the Soviet Union and each one had many sub-camps.

A number of different categories of slave labor camps existed. The katorga were the most severe and strictest labor camps, performing the heaviest work and having the poorest living conditions. It was a camp for the most important enemies of the Soviet regime and had the highest mortality rate.  The corrective labor camps were the standard concentration camps, and the destination of most of those condemned to the Gulag system. The special settlements were prisons without walls, located in remote areas of Siberia or Central Asia, where the prisoners were forced to work in timber, fishing or mining industries. Families there could live together albeit in very primitive conditions. All three types of camps were under the supervision of the secret police.


Soviet gulag prisoners


According to the writer Anne Applebaum, the total number of prisoners in the    camps at any one time was about two million. By 1953 when Stalin died, it is estimated that eighteen million people had passed through the Gulag system. Another six million were sent into exile in the special settlements, deported to Central Asia or the forests and mines of Siberia. The number that died in the Gulag between 1929 and 1953 is estimated 2.7 million, but this figure might be an underestimation as it does not include those, for example, who died while under arrest in prisons or on the transports to the camps. It also does not include those executed by the secret police which is estimated to be 786,000.   Although the number of camps were reduced after Stalin’s death, they did not entirely disappear. Many were maintained to imprison Soviet nationalists, dissidents and other non-conformists. Although conditions were not as harsh as during Stalin’s time,  they were still  run as corrective labor camps, and the inmates forced to work on Government projects. It was not until 1987 that Gorbachev began to dismantle this system. 

German women pulling a plow on a collective farm, in a special settlement



Collectivization of the German farming communities


Although the mass deportation of the kulaks was based on social and not ethnic criteria, the German Russian settlements probably suffered more than any other community. About 1.2% of the Soviet population was classified as kulak and deported to the Gulag, based on a total Soviet population 147 million, according to the 1926 census.. The number of ethnic Germans sent to the camps as kulaks was around 50,000 out of a German population in the Soviet Union at the time of the same census of 1.239 million or about 4%. The Germans were not the only ethnic group deported in large numbers during the collectivization drive, as many ethnic Poles also suffered the same fate. But the Germans were the single largest foreign minority in the Soviet Union that was sent to internal exile. There appeared to have been a deep prejudice against German communities as many Soviet officials considered all German farmers kulaks, no doubt because they appeared better off than the average Russian peasant.  

In a letter written in 1933 to relatives in the United States, the writer, a member of a collective farm, sums up the Soviet attitude to ethnic German villagers:

The commandants of our collective have told us, “Now  … you will see that wherever you destructive insects have settled in our land,  …  that no God will drop manna from heaven to help you, and nowhere will anyone hear your miserable complaints. Hangings, shootings, starvation and freezing-all of those will be done to you if you don’t work to exactly meet the requirements of the predetermined Plan.”

At the time of the farm collectivization, no large landed estates were owned by German settlers. The few which had existed, mostly in the Black Sea area, had already been confiscated during the Revolution. No German farmer, whether in the Southern Ukraine or Volga region had more that 16 dessatines of land, or 43 acres. Though not wealthy, by virtue of hard, disciplined work they were generally comfortably off, but as they strongly rejected collectivization, they were automatically all labeled as kulaks.


Those who refused to voluntarily join the collective were heavily taxed. If the farmers were able to pay the tax, the amount of the tax was then increased, to such a level that the farmer could no longer pay it. At the same time, they were required to make grain deliveries to the State. At the point where the farmer could no longer pay the tax, his house, furnishings and all farm animals and implements were confiscated and became property of the State. The farmer and his family were then expelled from the community and deported to the East. The German community considered these actions simple plundering by the communists of their property, all under the guise of class warfare against the kulaks.8


The deportations began in the spring of 1929 with the village leaders and more well to do farmers who were strongly opposed to collectivization . They comprised the first classification of the secret police. They were taken to the closest railway station, shoved into box cars – which often had a sign displayed on them saying, “Voluntary Resettlement” – and sent to the concentration camps and special settlements to work as slave labor in the forests of Northern Russia (forestry products were one of the major exports of the Soviet Union) or the mines of the Ural Mountains. Many thousands died of exposure, malnutrition, disease and mistreatment.

The German kulaks were sentenced without trial to forced labor with a minimum of three years, which was considered a light sentence, to 25 years. They were accused and convicted of sabotage, opposition to collectivization or just for being a kulak. One of the major projects they worked on was the Moscow-Volga canal, connecting Moscow with the Volga river and built with forced labor. It took five years to build, working under the most difficult conditions, particularly in winter when the ground was frozen. As the prisoners received a starvation diet and were scantily clothed, it was not surprising that many died of hunger and cold.

By 1930 over 78% of the private lands in the German Volga colonies had been collectivized as a result of drastic coercive measures. Interestingly only 11% to 22% of other farms in the same region at this time were in collectives, and overall, in the Soviet Union, the figure for 1930 was 24%.  By the following year, however, about 86% of the land in the Volga colonies had been placed in collective farms, certainly one of the most successful collectivization drives in the Soviet Union.  Some ascribed this success to the fact that their farms were smaller than those of the other German settlers, particularly in the Southern Ukraine. But, by the end of 1931, most farms ended up in a collective, kolkhoz, and those that didn’t, particularly the larger estates, became state farms, the sovkhoz

Volume 41 of the 1939 edition of the Large Soviet Encyclopedia has the following comments about the relatively rapid collectivization in the German Volga region:

“During the first and second Stalin Five-Year Plans, in the periods of the all-out Socialist offensive against the capitalist elements of town and country, the Volga-German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was the foremost in carrying out collectivization in the countryside, and effectively mechanized its agriculture. Industry also developed. . .. The future development of the national economy and culture of the Volga-German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, its rapid progress towards a better, still more joyous life, and towards Communism, are guaranteed by the Stalinist Constitution, by the resolute Stalinist leadership of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the limitless devotion of the working people of the Volga-German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic to the cause of Communism.”

(Source: Robert Conquest, The Nation Killers: The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1970)

On the other hand, Premier Nikita Khrushchev, in his famous speech to the Twentieth Communist Party Congress on February 25, 1956, exposing the terror of Stalin’s reign and his cult of personality, told a different story. He said that Stalin was headstrong in carrying out his objectives at any cost. Because of his “capricious and despotic character” he used “brutal violence” to collectivize agriculture.

Khruschev reported that in 1930 he visited a collective farm near Samara about 200 miles northeast of the Volga German colonies, He stated later: “We spent only a few days at the collective farm and were appalled at the conditions we found there. The farmers were starving to death ….They literally begged us to give them food.”  

Regarding conditions in South Russia in 1932, he said: “I’d left the Ukraine in 1929 … when it had pulled itself up to prewar living standards. Food had been plentiful and cheap. Yet now, we were told, people were starving. It was incredible. ” Pointing out the confiscatory production  levies, he charged: “This quota was established arbitrarily … not on the basis of
how much we really could produce, but on the basis of how much the State
thought it could beat out of us. The quota system was really a system of extortion … I was getting letters from collective farm workers and from their chairmen … who wrote: ‘Well, Comrade Khrushchev, we have delivered our quota to the State. But we’ve given everything away. Nothing is left for us.”

Khrushchev also said that Stalin did not know what was going on in the collective farms and knew “the country and agriculture only from the films,”: many of which “so pictured kolkhoz life that the tables were bending from the weight of turkeys and geese” and that he actually thought this was true.


Women, even little children working on a collective farm

The Famine of 1932 – 1933 (Holodomor)


The Ukrainians, who bore the worst of the famine, called it Holodomor famine-extermination, indicating that it was not only caused by nature but also by man’s action.  In many ways it was a repeat of the famine of 1921 with the same tragic loss of human lives. But it differed in several aspects. There was no famine relief from abroad, although it was offered, because the Stalin government opposed any foreign interference in its internal affairs. Additionally, the famine enabled the Government to enforce collectivization of agriculture, particularly in the Ukraine, where there was still substantial opposition.  Stalin also used this famine to eliminate any remnants of Ukrainian nationalism, arresting and sending to the Gulag many suspected nationalists, including even members of the Communist party.    

There was a drought again in 1931 and 1932 over a wide area of the Ukraine, lower Volga and North Caucasus. Grain harvests in the collective farms were sharply reduced. The government nevertheless insisted that the delivery quotas be strictly adhered to, in order to feed the workers in the cities and the Red Army and maintain grain exports (one of the major sources of foreign exchange for a rapidly industrializing Soviet Union). This led to very aggressive grain requisitions in the producing areas. Because the government cadres not only confiscated the seed grain from the collective farms but also their daily food needs, famine was inevitable. Stalin considered failure to deliver the grain quotas opposition to the regime, even plotting by Ukrainian nationalists.

Drought no doubt was partially responsible for the poor harvests, but peasant resistance to the forced collectivization leading inevitably to low productivity was just as responsible. Additionally, the new administrators of the kolhkoz were usually not farmers but Communist party bureaucrats. The peasants on the collective and state farms were earning hardly enough to live on. The saying was, “They received too little to live, and too much to die”. Peasants also slaughtered their animals in order not to have to give them to the collective farms, leading to a great decrease in livestock.

These conditions were exacerbated by the government’s brutal grain and food requisitioning. Rather than reducing required delivery quotas because of the drought, the grain quota for 1932 was increased by 40%. Those collective farms that could not produce the required grain, had to fulfill a meat quota, which proved to be just as difficult. Peasants were accused of stealing from the collective farms, of hiding the grain and charged with being saboteurs and kulaks. In the so-called “law on gleaning”, of August 1932, all food production was deemed state property and any unauthorized collection of food would be a criminal act punishable by prison or death. 

Thus, by late summer, 1932 there were no grain reserves left in the Ukraine, Volga region and North Caucasus  but government grain exports continued. In the 1931/1932 harvest season, the Soviet government exported 4.8 million tons.  In the 1932/1933 season, at the height of the famine, the USSR exported 1.6 million tons of grain.    

The German villages in Ukraine and Volga region also suffered greatly from the famine. With increasing hunger, the starving peasants began roaming the country-side and entering towns and cities looking for food. Their condition deteriorated to such an extent that the Soviet government in early 1933 sealed off the famine areas to prevent people from fleeing . In January 1933 internal passports were introduced for all city dwellers. Peasants fleeing to the cities were not eligible for a passport and were expelled. Starvation decimated the villages. A letter from a Volga German village relates,


“Everything we had [in Splavnukha (Huck)] is destroyed, and the government took everything away. Many people have to die of hunger … There is much fruit in the store rooms, but the state doesn’t let any of it out. We will, it appears, starve to death… The state took away the last pud (unit of measurement like a pound) of bread from the people, and the last potatoes. All the cattle are gone, and no one can protect himself from all this; the Soviet has the power, no one
has enough to eat. Whoever works for the state gets his share, but the family can starve to death …And here we sit in the worst famine that Russia has ever known, and they say to us that the government is taking care of us ? Now I think they want to violently execute us, but it would be better for us if they would take a canon and mow us down. Then we would be freed from our misery all the sooner,” 

A number of international and national organizations attempted to organize relief efforts, including the Catholic Church in Europe, and two German welfare organizations, “Brothers in Need” and “Union of Germans Abroad” who did manage to send the equivalent of about US$240,000 ($1= 2.5 Reichsmark) to the German ethnic communities. Those Germans who distributed this aid in the settlements were arrested, about 4,000 individuals, accused of espionage for Germany and sent to the Gulag.  Nevertheless, all offers of assistance were rejected by the Soviet government stating that there was no famine. 

On the contrary, the Government insisted that the crisis was caused by recalcitrant peasants mainly in the Ukraine. In a December 1932 decree, the Politburo stated that the failure of grain requisitions in both the Ukraine and the North Caucasus was due to Ukrainian nationalist resistance.  Stalin severely criticized Ukrainian kolhkoz leaders and communist party members for not pursuing food confiscation vigorously enough. In November 1932, 1,623 kolhkoz leaders were deported to the Gulag.  In 1932, a total of 30,400 peasants and communists were sent to the concentration camps and in 1933, this number increased to 142,000, mostly from the Ukraine.  

It is estimated that 150,000 ethnic Germans died from starvation during the famine. This represented about 12% of the German population as per the 1926 census. It is also estimated that 7.2 million died of famine in the entire Soviet Union in the same period, slightly less than 5% of the total population according to the same census. It is clear that the famine disproportionately affected the German ethnic group. This was ascribed to the fact that proportionally, a larger number of them lived in the rural Southern Ukraine, lower Volga and other farming regions affected by the famine.  Khrushchev is quoted as having admitted (after Stalin’s death) that the famine of 1933 was an act of murder by the government.  For Stalin, however, the famine of 1932-1933 achieved two important objectives; the first, collective farming became irreversible and now accepted by every one, however reluctantly, in the Soviet Union, and secondly, the last vestiges of Ukrainian  nationalism,  actual or perceived, were eliminated.  

Famine victims at Buzuluk cemetery, Volga region near Saratov

The 1933/34 harvests improved but had to be brought in by members of the Red Army, communist party cadre and students, as there were not enough peasants to do it. At the end of 1933, certain benefits were given to the peasants on the collective farms, because the regime finally realized that some incentives were required to raise production. Each member of the kolkhoz was now permitted a small personal plot on which to raise vegetables and fruit and maintain a cow, pigs and other farmyard animals.  In time production from these private plots, which could be sold on the open market, came to represent an increasingly important source of food production in the Soviet Union. 

Source: Text and footnotes from chapters IV and V, “Voices from the Gulag: the Oppression of the German Minority in the Soviet Union, AHSGR, Lincoln, Nebraska,2015



The German Russian Communities in the Age of Stalin’s “Great Terror”

Stalin’s “Great Terror”-Background

From 1930 onwards, the Communist Party and security police officials feared the “social disorder” caused by the upheavals of forced collectivization of peasants and the resulting famine of 1932–1933, as well as the massive and uncontrolled migration of millions of peasants into cities. The threat of war heightened Stalin’s perception of marginal and politically suspect populations as the potential source of an uprising in case of invasion. He began to plan for the preventive elimination of such potential recruits for a mythical “fifth column of wreckers, terrorists and spies.” 

Stalin’s pretext for commencing the purges was the assassination in December  1934 of Sergey Kirov, the head of the Communist Party in the Leningrad   region, and a member of the Central Committee of the Party. Kirov was known as a pragmatist, and put forward a policy of reconciliation within the Communist  Party. No doubt Stalin saw him as a competitor for Party and State leadership leading many to believe that it was Stalin himself who had ordered Kirov’s death. Stalin’s terror involved a large-scale purge of the Communist Party and government officials, repression of peasants and the Red Army leadership, widespread police surveillance, suspicion of “saboteurs”, “counter-revolutionaries”, imprisonment, and arbitrary executions.  

“Josef Stalin at the time of the Great Terror”

The Great Terror was started under the NKVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs (USSR),  chief Genrikh Yagoda, but the height of the campaigns occurred while the NKVD was headed by Nikolai Yezhov, from September 1936 to August 1938, hence the name Yezhovshchina.( see Note 2: Chronology of Soviet Secret Police Agencies)  The campaigns were carried out according to a general Communist Party political line, and often by direct orders, of the Party Politburo headed by Stalin. Nikolai Yezhov, was himself later killed in the purge. Most prisoners were shot without trial , but mobile gas vans were also used to execute people.

Stalin insisted that the Kirov assassination was part of a larger conspiracy, led by Leon Trotsky, within the Communist Party against the Soviet government. This led to the first show trial of “Old Bolsheviks”. In August, 1936, Lev Kamenev, Grigori Zinoviev, Ivan Smirnov and thirteen other Party leaders were arrested, found guilty of conspiring with fascist and capitalist powers and executed. They were labeled the “Leftist Counter Revolutionary Bloc”, led by Trotsky who already was in exile in Mexico and later assassinated on Stalin’s orders in 1940. 

In January 1937, Karl Radek and sixteen other leading members of the Communist Party were put on trial and accused of plotting with Trotsky to conspire against the Soviet Union with the assistance of Nazi Germany. Thirteen were shot and the others, including Radek, were sentenced to long terms in the forced labor camps where they subsequently died. In all these cases, Stalin was able to force a confession from the accused. 

Stalin then decided to purge the Red Army, because it was one of the remaining institutions which could be a threat to him. In June 1937, Marshall Tukhachevsky and seven other leading generals of the Army were charged with conspiring with Germany. All eight were convicted and shot. In all 30,000 members of the armed forces, about 50% of the army officers were executed.

The last major show trial took place in March 1938. Known as the “Trial of the Twenty-one,” its first victims included Nikolai Bukharin, the former head of the Communist International , ex-premier  Alexei Rykov, and other leading Bolsheviks, including the former head of the NKVD, Genrikh Yagoda, who was responsible for carrying out the previous purges. . They were accused of attempting to assassinate Lenin and Stalin, and other absurd charges. They were all found guilty and either executed or died in the Gulag. 

The last stage of Stalin’s terror was the purging of the purgers, the NKVD in order to eliminate all those who knew too much, starting with its new head, Nikolai Yezhov. Stalin replaced him with Lavrenti Beria who then led the execution of all senior heads of the security service. Also arrested and executed or imprisoned during Stalin’s purges were leading intellectuals, writers, scientists, members of the clergy  and other members of the intelligentsia, such as the poet Osip Mandelstam and the writer Isaac Babel. Even returned kulaks (rich peasants sent to GULAG camps) were re-arrested and sent to the labor camps, as well as other anti-Soviet elements such as former Czarist civil servants, White Army officers, members of former non-communist parties, etc. The secret police were given deportation quotas to fulfill , and if they could not find sufficient “enemies of the people”, they arrested any suspicious person on the streets in their police sweeps and deported them all to the Gulag. 

Confessions were always extracted from the accused. It is now known that the confessions came only after great psychological pressure and torture had been applied to the defendants. From the accounts of former OGPU (NKVD) officer Alexander Orlov and others, the methods used to extract the confessions are known: such tortures as repeated beatings, simulated drownings, making prisoners stand or go without sleep for days on end, and threats to arrest and execute the prisoners’ families. For example, Kamenev’s teenage son was arrested and charged with terrorism. After months of such interrogation, the defendants were driven to despair and exhaustion. Zinoviev and Kamenev demanded, as a condition for “confessing”, a direct guarantee from the Politburo that their lives and that of their families and followers would be spared. This offer was accepted, but when they were taken to the alleged Politburo meeting, only Stalin, Kliment Voroshilov, and Yezhov were present. Stalin claimed that they were the “commission” authorized by the Politburo and gave assurances that death sentences would not be carried out. After the trial, Stalin not only broke his promise to spare the defendants, he had most of their relatives arrested and shot.

Lavrenti P. Beria: Head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, MVD and of the  NKVD. Marshal of the Soviet Union

According to Soviet archives now available for research, in 1936-1938 the NKVD arrested about 1.5 million individuals of which about 682,000 were shot. The balance was sent to the Gulag where many did not survive. Many experts believe, however, that these figures were purposely understated by the Soviet security services and that actual figures were much higher. 


( Robert Conquest, The Great Terror, Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties, The Macmillan Company, London, 1968)


The five Soviet Marshals in 1935. Marshal Tukhachevsky is on the left;front  row

 A list of victims of the Great Terror, signed by Stalin, Molotov, Voroshilov, Kaganovich and Zhdanov

 Stalin, Yezhov, Molotov and Voroshilov  inspecting the White Sea Canal.. After Yezhov’s execution his picture was air-brushed out of the photo.

The Gulag

 Gulag;(Main Camp Administration)  has become synonymous with the entire repressive system of the Soviet Union from arrest to interrogation, transport to the camps by cattle cars, forced labor under appalling conditions, destruction of families and ultimately the suffering and death of the prisoners. The purpose of the camps was not necessarily to kill the prisoners but to work them as forced labor.  Although the labor camps existed in the early days of the Soviet Union, established as camps for  re-education through labor,  it is in the early 1930s that Stalin decided to give the camp system a new, more important function and use slave labor to spur the industrialization of the Soviet Union, such as increasing mine production. The camp population expanded greatly in the 1930s, first with the arrest and incarceration of the kulaks and then with the massive arrests during Stalin’s “Great Terror”. The camps continued to grow during World War II, with the deportation to the camps of the German Russians and people from the Baltic lands and Poland occupied by the Soviet Union, and later, with the many Caucasian ethnic minorities who were accused of helping the German occupation army.  There were 470 labor camp complexes in the Soviet Union and each one had many sub-camps.

A Number of different categories of slave labor camps existed. The katorga were the most severe and strictest labor camps, performing the heaviest work and having the poorest living conditions. It was a camp for the most important enemies of the Soviet regime and had the highest mortality rate.  The corrective labor camps were the standard concentration camps, and the destination of most of those condemned to the Gulag system. The special settlements were prisons without walls, located in remote areas of Siberia or Central Asia, where the prisoners were forced to work in timber, fishing or mining industries. Families there could live together albeit in very primitive conditions. All three types of camps were under the supervision of the secret police.


According to the writer Anne Applebaum, the total number of prisoners in the camps at any one time was about two million. By 1953 when Stalin died, it is estimated that eighteen million people had passed through the Gulag system. Another six million were sent into exile to the special settlements, deported to Central Asia or the forests and mines of Siberia. The number that died in the Gulag between 1929 and 1953 is estimated at 2.7 million, but this figure might be an underestimation as it does not include those, for example, who died while under arrest in prisons or on the transports to the camps. It also does not include those executed by the secret police which is estimated to be about 786,000.

Although the number of camps were reduced after Stalin’s death, they did not   entirely disappear. Many were maintained to imprison nationalists, dissidents and   other non-conformists. Although conditions were not as harsh as during Stalin’s   time,  they were still  run as corrective labor camps, and the inmates forced to work on Government projects. It was not until 1987 that Gorbachev began to dismantle this system’

 ( Anne Applebaum, Gulag, A History, Anchor Books, New York, 2004) 

The Destruction of the ethnic German society

 The German Russian communities were based on two cultural pillars. The first was  language, which continued to thrive because of their German school system, and the second was their churches, Protestant and Catholic.

The Communist anti-religious campaign.

In the initial Soviet period after the revolution, as a part of the government’s anti-religious policies of state sponsored atheism, all church properties were confiscated and religious education restricted. The Lutherans, however, were permitted to open a theological seminary in 1925 in Leningrad (the Lutheran seminary in Dorpat University was now in independent Estonia) and elected regional Lutheran councils and bishops continued to function. In 1926 there were still 36 Catholic priests active in the Volga region and 64 priests in the German Black Sea region, supervised by three German speaking apostolic administrators.  The Catholic theological seminary in Saratov, however, was closed in early 1922 when the Bolshevik government came into conflict with the Catholic Church and all its bishops were expelled from the Soviet Union.

In the application of the official Communist anti-religious policy of state atheism, in the late 1920s the Communist Party created an organization called the “Union of the Godless” to disseminate anti-religious propaganda. By 1930 it claimed over five million members (mostly from the Communist Party) but had no following in the German settlements. Because of its relative lack of success, the government passed a law in 1929, “Laws on Religious Association”, which further restricted religious practice by strictly circumscribing the action of ministers and priests and giving the government the legal authority to arrest them and close churches. 

This action was followed by an intensive propaganda campaign against celebrating Christmas, Easter and the other religious holidays and by the early 1930s, the persecution of the clergy began. They had heavy taxes imposed on them and were evicted from their parish homes and arrested. They were accused of collaborating with the White Army or Nazi Germany, imprisoned without trial and sent to the labor camps. Churches were closed and converted to movie or community houses or to other utilitarian purposes. Many had their bells and steeples destroyed, as these were a symbol of their belief.  The lay clergy, who assumed responsibility for the congregations after the arrest of the priests and ministers, were subsequently also arrested and sent to the Gulag.

The highpoint of anti-religious persecution in the German settlements came in 1934. Of the 246 Lutheran churches still in service in 1932 only a few remained by 1939.  The Soviet government arrested and sent to the labor camps 89 senior members of the Lutheran Church during this period.  In the Catholic Diocese of Tirasopol, the government arrested all the parish priests and sent them to the camps. The remaining priests in the German Black Sea region were subject to a show trial in 1935 and condemned to lengthy imprisonment in forced labor camps.  The ethnic Germans, however, except for a few, did not give up their religion, practicing it in secret and saying and singing the traditional prayers and hymns.   


A report from the German Black Sea colonies illustrates Soviet persecution of the churches:


Stalin began his fierce persecution of the Church in 1929, at the time of the collectivization and the liquidation of the Kulak class. The persecution brought about the death of thousands of spiritual leaders. They were considered a worthless element, foreign agents, inimical to the State and were, therefore, practically without rights. The pastors of church congregations were assessed an immense tax which was virtually unpayable. The priest of the congregation at Speyer, one day, received a note from the Village Soviet which simply said, “You have forty-eight hours in which to pay a tax of 2,500 rubles.” If he did not pay, it meant he was in danger of being arrested or even having the church closed for further services. So the priest went to the members of his congregation and, actually, was able to collect the proper amount. The Village Soviet had not anticipated this, they thought to have virtually buried the priest. However, a few days later, he received another note which stated, “You have forty-eight hours to pay another 2,500 rubles.” The persecution of the churches and pastors continued until 1934, by then almost all spiritual leaders had been arrested and the churches closed.


(Source: John Philipps, The Tragedy of the Soviet Germans (A Story of Survival), Richtman’s Printing, Bismark, ND, 1983)


The Russification of the German school system

Lenin’s national – autonomy policy, korenizatsiia, introduced in the early days of the Soviet regime, permitted a rapid and vigorous expansion of the existing  educational system in the German settlements, both in the Black Sea region and in the lower Volga. By 1926 there were 496 public schools in the Ukraine, in which the language of instruction was German and 115 schools where departments of the schools taught only in Germans. Additionally, there were three teacher training colleges in the Ukraine, with one located in Odessa. In the Volga Autonomous Republic 421 public schools, with 126,000 pupils, gave instruction only in German. German was also the sole language of  four teacher training colleges, three medical schools, three agricultural schools and even a music academy.    

Despite these positive developments for the Community, the German schools, like many in the Soviet Union, faced many difficulties. A permanent shortage of trained teachers of German, trusted by the Soviets added to a continuous pressure by the regime to promote the communist system –  particularly anti-religious propaganda which angered and demoralized teachers, pupils and parents. Shortages of school buildings, text books (many of which still had to be imported from Germany in the 1920s) and teaching equipment further impeded progress.    

By the middle of the 1930s, however, the Stalin government moved away from  korenizatsiia, and pursued a policy of intense nationalism, including Russification of the educational system. The Soviet regime increasingly came to associate German Russians with the new Nazi government in Germany. The Polish and Finnish minorities in the Soviet Union suffered similarly from this new nationalism. Because of the world situation, the Soviets feared that these non-Russian nationalities could serve as a fifth column for their ancestral homelands in case of conflict.  At this time a wave of patriotism, even chauvinism, also swept through the cultural life of the Soviet Union. Books and films praised former Czars – including even Ivan the Terrible – and historical military leaders, celebrating everything truly Russian and discarding everything foreign. Themes from Russian history were reflected in music, opera and drama to the exclusion of all else.      

Stalin began to close German cultural institutions in the Ukraine and elsewhere, except in the Volga Autonomous Republic, For example, in 1934, the Soviet Government closed eight of the fourteen German newspapers in the Ukraine. Between 1934 and 1938 all German language schools in the Ukraine were merged with Ukrainian public schools. By 1938 German was only taught as a second language in certain Soviet schools. Finally in 1938 an edict of the Politburo forbade the teaching of German as a language of instruction except in the Volga Republic, where German schools were finally abolished in August 1941 with the deportation of the Volga Germans.  At the same time, the eleven national autonomous districts established for the German minorities mostly in the Ukraine were dissolved and – together with their administration – consolidated with Soviet districts.  By these measures in the 1930s, the ethnic Germans in the Ukraine and other regions in the Soviet Union progressively lost their culture and sense of community.    

The Impact of Stalin’s purges of 1936-1938 on the German communities

  In the course of the 1930s, Stalin became increasingly paranoid regarding any opposition, both real and imagined, plotting to overthrow his government. His objective was to gain absolute control over the Soviet Union by instigating a pervasive climate of fear where one’s only salvation lay in complete obedience to him. In the realm of possible international conflicts, Stalin continued to fear foreign attacks on the Soviet Union. This led to the mass deportations of certain ethnic groups. He considered Soviet Poles, Germans, Koreans and others to be of doubtful loyalty and potential security threats.  For example, despite a non-aggression pact signed with Poland in July, 1932, he still feared a Polish incursion in the Soviet Union particularly in the Ukraine. Starting in 1934 and ending in 1936, in a “Polish Operation”( see Note #1), about 120,000 ethnic Poles were deported from the Western border regions of the Soviet Union to Kazakhstan. According to the  historian,  J.Otto Pohl, however, they were all shot by the Stalin regime.

When Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Nazi Germany in November 1936, relations with Japan deteriorated whereas previously they had been stable. Also, with the conversion of Manchuria into a Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, a conflict developed with Mongolia, a puppet state of the Soviet Union. In a battle between Soviet and Japanese forces at Khalkhin Gol on the border between Mongolia and Manchuria, in August 1939, the Soviets, under the later Marshall Zhukov, decisively defeated the Japanese army. Nevertheless, Stalin was very suspicious of the loyalty of the Korean minority in the Soviet Union, and considered it a potential fifth column for the Japanese Empire. In August 1937, the Soviet Government ordered the deportation of the entire ethnic group, about 171,000 people living in the Soviet Far East border regions, to camps and special settlements in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Although considered “administrative exiles” and not special settlers, they received the same treatment from the NKVD in these Gulag settlements.  

Stalin’s greatest mistrust, however, was directed toward the German minority, because of the rise of Nazi Germany. He considered the Third Reich the greatest foreign threat to the Soviet Union, and therefore suspected the entire German ethnic group of being potential traitors. He accused them of being “fifth column” communities. The anti-German operations began in 1934 when the NKVD, by order from the Central Committee of the Communist Party, made lists of all ethnic Germans living in the Soviet Union for the purpose of deporting the entire group in case of war with Nazi Germany.  Ingeborg Fleischhauer and Benjamin Pinkus, in their book, The Soviet Germans Past and Present,(St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1986), report the following incident:

our knowledge (of the creation of these lists) can now be filled, thanks to the personal testimony of Professor Evgeniia Evelson, a jurist who practiced law in Moscow for many years. Living in the West today, she does research on what are called economic crimes in the Soviet Union. While a student in Moscow, Evgeniia Evelson took part in planning and drawing up the lists. The last quarter of 1934, she says, was when this was done, a dating which appears justified in the light of German-Soviet relations at the time…at the end of 1934 the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had before it the most precise data on the numbers and occupations of all the Germans living in the Soviet Union.

The immense scope of this work can best be judged by the 1939 Soviet census reporting that the German population in the Soviet Union stood at 1,427,000. This list was followed by an additional listing of all German Russians who had any connection with their families in Germany or in North America, either by letters or by receiving packages. They were in great danger of suspicion and arrest by the secret police.  

A Mennonite family from the Chortitza colony in the Ukraine relates the  following:

On December 17, 1937, several armed police officers came to our door. They knocked. Why they didn’t simply break down the door is a mystery. They always
knocked. All the men in our village of Chortitza were waiting for the knock. They always came at night. When they searched our house, they found several letters from
Canada in a dresser drawer. They had been written in the late 1920s and the 1930s. My mother always kept those letters in this place. All the letters had foreign addresses and stamps. This was
the reason they used to arrest our father. We watched him go and never saw him again. We never found out what happened to him.

(Source Ruth Derksen Siemens, Remember Us; Letters from Stalin’s Gulag (1930-1937) Pandora Press, Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, 2007)

In the fall of 1934, the Politburo formulated a new regime for its western border regions This regime created yet another border category, the “forbidden border zone”, into which no one could enter without special NKVD permission. This zone was officially only 7.5 kilometers deep, but in Leningrad it ran as deep as ninety kilometers along the Latvian and Estonian borders. A variety of security measures accompanied this decree. One of them was ethnic cleansing.

Between February 20 and March 10, 1935, a total of 8,329 families (about 41,650 individuals) were deported from the border regions of Kiev and Vinnitsya oblasts to eastern Ukraine. Although Germans and Poles made up only a few percent of the local population, they represented 57.3 percent of the deportees. This limited initial action against “unreliable” elements was expanded in the course of 1935. In July 1935, Kiev officials wrote the Ukrainian Central Committee that “the number of households deported and resettled had not completely cleansed the Polish raion of anti-Soviet elements, They asked for and received permission to deport three hundred additional Polish households. In October 1935, the Ukrainian Central Committee petitioned Moscow for permission to deport still another 1,500 Polish households. In response, NKVD chairman, Genrikh Yagoda, wrote Molotov that the spring deportations had “significantly cleansed the border regions, especially Kiev oblast, from counter-revolutionary nationalist (Polish and German) and anti-Soviet elements … [but] in the border regions of

Vinnitsya oblast there remain significant cadres of counter-revolutionary Polish nationalist  elements.”

In January 1936, before this third deportation had even been completed, the order was given for a massive new deportation of 15,000 German and Polish households, now to Kazakhstan rather than eastern Ukraine. In Kazakhstan, they were quickly reduced to the same status’ as the formerly deported kulaks ie slave laborers. These deportations, however, still remained partial. Not all Germans and Poles were labeled counterrevolutionary and deported. The deportations of 1935-36 included approximately half the German and Polish population of the Ukrainian border regions. No one outside the border regions was deported. However, the Germans and Poles who remained in Ukraine saw a gradual abolition of their national institutions.

A more aggressive cleansing of ethnic Germans began with Stalin’s “German Operation” in June 1937 to rid the Soviet Union of spies and saboteurs.  The head of the NKVD now Nikolai Yezhov directed this action. In this process many German writers, journalists, artists, doctors and other professionals including party leaders were arrested, then shot or deported.

The “German Operation.” which was an integral part of Soviet ethnic cleaning of the 1930s and especially 1937-38, began on 20 June 1937, with Stalin’s note that “all Germans [working] in our military, semi-military and chemical factories, electric plants and constructions, in all regions all to be arrested. Five days later, immediately upon receiving Stalin’s note, Yezhov signed NKVD operational order No. 00439 “to immediately arrest all German citizens”. As a result of these orders, it is estimated, somewhere between 750 and 820 German citizens were arrested and expelled to Germany. However, at least 200 of them never found their way home and ended up somewhere in the Gulag system or shot.

Unlike other ethnic operations, the German Operation was first intended to affect only Germans citizens residing in the Soviet Union, for example, German members of the Comintern in exile from Hitler’s Germany. It only later escalated into a full-blown ethnic operation which affected many Soviet citizens of German descent. Although the procedures of the German operation were similar to the Polish Operation and even based on the latter, the German Operation of the Great Purge in its full-blown version that included Soviet citizens of German descent lacked any clear-cut decree authorizing its beginning. The first mention of this operation appeared only on February I, 1938 after the  order No. 233, signed by Yezhov, was issued to extend the operation (already underway for at least three months”) to April 15, 1938.

As was the case in many Soviet NKVD operations, the goal of the German operation was to cleanse the USSR of spies and saboteurs. Hence the operation first concentrated on the border regions and regions with “the most industrial concentration” and included various parts of Ukraine (Donbass, Dnepropetrovsk, Odessa), Crimea, Black Sea region, West Siberian regions and Kazakhstan, and such strategically important places as Moscow and St. Petersburg. Several categories of Germans fell under suspicion and were arrested immediately, although the list of those to be prosecuted was expanded to include Germans almost at random. The six categories of Germans arrested first included former German nationals (former citizens of Germany who now possessed Soviet passports, most of whom were engineers and workers who immigrated to the Soviet Union in the late 1920s to early 1930s; there were also some German Communist exiles in the Soviet Union; Soviet Germans who were in contact with foreign Germans; Russian soldiers and officers who were POWs in Germany during World War I; Germans who at one time or another worked for German companies in Germany or Russia; wives of Germans already convicted; and Germans who were accused of espionage for the German government..

 It is estimated that in all about 69 -70,000 ethnic Germans were arrested, deported to the Gulag or killed in the 1934-1938 purges. Of these, about 40,000 were arrested in the “German Operation,” with 29,000 executed, and over 20,000 arrested in the kulak operation. Persecution continued after 1938 and it is estimated that at least 100,000 Germans were deported to Siberia and Central Asia or shot prior to 1941, although their number may have been much higher..

A German Mennonite from the Mariupol colony on the Sea of Azov, remembers the following NKVD actions in the Spring of 1938:

One morning, early in 1938, when I was still in bed, my sister-in-law and her young
daughter came to me. Both cried a great deal. It became obvious to me that Peter (his brother) had disappeared. At three o’clock in the morning the landlord, who was usually a member of the secret service, knocked on their door and demanded they open up. Peter opened the door. Three NKVD-men entered without saying a word. They produced a piece of paper with the words “You are under arrest!” Peter could not ask any questions. Conversation with family members was prohibited. A rigorous, three-hour-long search of the home followed. Then the order was given, “Take along a wooden spoon, a bag with some underwear and roasted bread, nothing else! Come!” So, he had to leave with the agents never to return. On the death certificate issued 10 June 1958, below the place of death is written: unknown.

That is how it was every night, in every town; thousands were forced to leave their
families. It was especially bad in the European part of the USSR and probably the worst in the Ukraine. Of my closer relatives, descendants of my Grandfather Isaak Hildebrandt (born in
1859), 18 had been arrested by Stalin’s secret agents during 1937-38. We never again had any sign of life from most of these unfortunate people. For about a year, however, we were allowed to stay in touch with some of our relatives who had been arrested. At the prison we stood in line for days and nights in bad weather; outside in the open air, in freezing temperatures to hand over clean underwear and the few morsels of food we possessed. Only one piece of paper at a time, on which not one private word was written was allowed to be enclosed. It was only a table of contents. A conversation with our relatives was inconceivable. I can remember only one exception: My Uncle Dietrich in Chortitza, an engineer with a PhD, had already been in a Kiev prison for a full year. His wife was allowed to visit and talk with him. For this purpose he was brought into a larger room. Five meters (approx. 16′ 6″) distance had to be maintained between the two. A NKVD guard sat between them. My aunt reported that her husband was miserable, thin, and very frightened. He could (more correctly was allowed to say only that he was a public enemy and had wanted to murder Stalin.)

To her timid objection, “But, Dietrich, you are talking nonsense! Have you been tortured so much that you talk like this about yourself?” He only let his head hang down. This once strong, self-assured, vivacious man wept quietly. “End of the visit, back to your cell!” shouted the NKVD guard. Due to a petition addressed to Khrushchev, we were informed of the fate of our missing family member 24 years later. At the same time, Dietrich Hildebrandt, who presumably had been shot to death in 1938, had been in a jail in Kiev, was now officially rehabilitated.

Something unusual happened, however, in this bitter, difficult, and sad time. In 1937, my
father was detained in jail of the city of Artjomovsk, the former Bachmut, in the Don district. On a cold day in fall, during an ice-cold storm, he was led from jail to the NKVD head office by two NKVD men in uniform, who, as usual, kept their loaded weapons pointed at him. The NKVD was going to submit him to yet another interrogation. They had to walk about 500 meters (approx. 0.3 mi) through the streets of the town. My father had great difficulty walking on his two wooden crutches. They passed a vegetable store. A large pile of potatoes was heaped in front of the store and long lines of several hundred people were waiting patiently to buy potatoes. When my father and the guards had almost reached the vegetable store, loud voices became audible from among the lines of waiting people. Suddenly, stones were hurled at the guards, accompanied by cursing and swearing. The guards both ran away.

My father stopped, turned to the waiting crowd, took his cap off and nodded with his
head. A woman put a piece of bread in his coat pocket. Everybody knew that all arrested
persons suffered severely from hunger. Father slowly walked to the big house of the NKVD headquarters while eating his bread. There, he saw his two guards. One of them wiped his face with a bloody handkerchief. These two young men were also innocent victims of the NKVD, who had to do their duty. After three hours interrogation, my father was led back to the prison by a secret agent in plainclothes. In the future he was only accompanied by guardsmen in plainclothes.


(Source: Georg Hildebandt, Why are you still alive? A German in the Gulag, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Library, Fargo, North Dakota, 2002) (Permission to print of the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries, Fargo, North Dakota: 

.A Russian German writer who witnessed these events, explains what happened to the German Communist exiles in the Soviet Union;

When Hitler took over power in 1933, many prominent communists fled to the Soviet Union, especially to the (German) villages of the Black Sea area, the Crimea, the Caucasus, and the Volga Republic. They received leadership positions in the German universities, technical schools, and intermediate schools. As teachers and professors, they were also named as party and government officials. The German communists, who had struggled for communism in Germany, were arrested by the NKVD during the purge of 1937. They were accused of having been sent into Russia by Hitler as fascist spies and informers, seeking cover in our glorious Party as an anticommunist element. Also, these communists were sent in cattle cars to all parts of the gigantic realm as political prisoners and used as slave laborers.

(Source: John Philipps, The Tragedy of the Soviet Germans (A Story of Survival), Richtman’s Printing, Bismarck, N.D.,1983)


In addition to these arrests, an additional number of returning German kulaks, (who had completed their sentence) were arrested again and sentenced to hard labor as part of Stalin’s on-going national cleansing purges. Their families often received the following horrific communication from the secret police: Your husband ——-, age –,has been re-sentenced and deprived of the right to correspond.


The following report relates how Stalin’s purges effected several German Black Sea settlements;


In November 1937, almost all officials of the Karl Liebknecht Rayon (district) were arrested, among them the Party Secretary Berijaslov and the Komsomol Secretary Falkenberg. The professors of the Landau Agricultural School were routed from their beds at night and arrested, among them Johann Becker, Sebastian Bartsch, Joseph Dietrich,and Adam Wolf. Almost all the teachers of the German villages were arrested, Hannes Jungkind, Nikodemus Becker, Johann Baumgaertner, Johann Gaertner, Jakob Paul, Georg Koop, and many others.

 During the night of November 7, 1937, the NKVD came into the Thaelmann Collective. First, they went to see the chairman, Anton Ehret, and laid a list before him and told him that these are national enemies and fascists whom they have to arrest. Chairman Ehret said to them, “You are insane, these are my best collective workers and have almost no education.” He was shouted at, “Shut your mouth (Halt dein Maul) and come with us.” First, the teacher Franz Jobe and his wife Linda were routed out of bed and arrested. Their house was searched to see whether they weren’t in association with fascist Germans. They looked for papers and letters, found none, but the two were nevertheless taken away, leaving their three children, ages eight to fourteen, behind. Whether the children would be cared for was of no concern to the NKVD. My uncle,
George, took the children into his home. In the same night, they also arrested my cousin Franz Philipps, Jacob Dukardt, Michael and Eduard Hoerner, Philipp and Joseph
Wanner, Rafael, Michael and Hilarius Messer, Christian Makelki (only sixteen years old), Michael Burkhardt, and many others. After all these people had been arrested, the
NKVD said to the chairman, Anton Ehret, “Now, we’re going to your house.” They searched his house and arrested him too.

(Source: John Philipps, The Tragedy of the Soviet Germans (A Story of Survival), Richtman’s Printing, Bismarck, N.D.,1983)



  • Stalin’s terror regime resulted in the destruction of the culture and cohesion of the German settlements in the Soviet Union
  • It installed fear and obedience to the Soviet system in German Russians
  • It was a foretaste of what was to come for the German communities should there be war between Germany and the Soviet Union.


(Source: Ulrich Merten, Voices from the Gulag: The Oppression of the German Minority in the Soviet Union);

Note 1: The Polish Operation:

A series of mass operations of the NKVD was carried out from 1937 through 1938 until the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 targeting specific nationalities within the Soviet Union, based on NKVD directives against the so-called diversionist element, according to the notion of the “hostile capitalist surrounding” as defined by Nikolai Yezhov. The Polish operation of the NKVD was the largest of this kind. Over 111,000 of arrested Poles were executed. Their wives and children were dealt with by the NKVD Order № 00486. The women were sentenced to forced labor for 5 or 10 years. Their minor children were put in orphanages. All possessions were confiscated. Extended families were purposely left with nothing to live on, which usually sealed their fate as well, affecting up to 200,000–250,000 people of Polish background depending on size of their families. The NKVD national operations were conducted on a quota system using album procedure, as explained.. The officials were mandated to arrest and execute a specific number of so-called “counter-revolutionaries,” compiled by administration using various statistics but also telephone books with names sounding non-Russian. The Polish operation claimed the largest number of the NKVD victims: 143,810 arrests and 111,091 executions according to records. Reliable sources estimate that at least eighty-five thousand of them were ethnic Poles. The remainder was ‘suspected’ of being Polish, without further inquiry


Note 2: Chronology of Soviet Secret Police Agencies

  • Cheka(abbreviation of Vecheka, itself an acronym for “All-Russian Extraordinary Committee to Combat Counter-Revolution and Sabotage” of the Russian SFSR)

February 6, 1922: Cheka transforms into GPU, a department of the NKVD of the Russian SFSR.

November 15, 1923: GPU leaves the NKVD and becomes all-union OGPU under direct control of the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR.

  • OGPU– “Joint State Political Directorate” or “All-Union State Political Board”
    • Dzerzhinsky (November 15, 1923 – July 20, 1926)
    • Vyacheslav Menzhinsky(July 30, 1926 – May 10, 1934)

July 10, 1934: NKVD of the Russian SFSR ceases to exist and transforms into the all-union NKVD of the USSR; OGPU becomes GUGB (“Main Directorate for State Security”) in the all-union NKVD.

  • NKVD– “People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs”

February 3, 1941: The GUGB of the NKVD was briefly separated out into the NKGB, then merged back in, and then on April 14, 1943 separated out again.

  • NKGB– “People’s Commissariat for State Security”
  • NKVD– “People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs”
    • GUGB– “Main Directorate for State Security”
    • NKGB– “People’s Commissariat for State Security”
      • Vsevolod Merkulov (April 14, 1943 – March 18, 1946) (NKGB reseparated from NKVD)

March 18, 1946: All People’s Commissariats were renamed to Ministries.

May 30, 1947: Official decision with the expressed purpose of “upgrading coordination of different intelligence services and concentrating their efforts on major directions”. In the summer of 1948 the military personnel in KI were returned to the Soviet military to reconstitute foreign military intelligence service (GRU). KI sections dealing with the new East Bloc and Soviet émigrés were returned to the MGB in late 1948. In 1951 the KI returned to the MGB.

March 5, 1953: MVD and MGB are merged into the MVD by Lavrentiy Beria.

  • MVD– “Ministry of Internal Affairs”
    • Lavrentiy Beria (March 5, 1953 – June 26, 1953)
    • Sergei Kruglov(June, 1953 – March 13, 1954)


March 13, 1954: Newly independent force became the KGB, as Beria was purged and the MVD divested itself again of the functions of secret policing. After renaming, the KGB remained stable until 1991.

In 1991, after the State Emergency Committee failed to overthrow Gorbachev and Yeltsin took over, General Vadim Bakatin was given instructions to dissolve the KGB.

In Russia today, KGB functions are performed by the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), and the Federal Protective Service (FSO). The GRU continues to operate as well.


Germans in the Caucasus: A slice of Germany in Georgia

The video below shows a former German village from the time of Alexander I who granted in 1815 land to German colonists in what today is the Republic of Georgia

Germans in the Caucasus; Helenendorf, the first German village in the region, now in Azerbaijan



From the Revocation of the Special Privileges in 1871 to the First World War

On June 4, 1871, Czar Alexander II (1855-1881) revoked the privileges that had been granted to the German colonists by the manifestos of Catherine II and Alexander I. The colonists now had the same legal status as Russian peasantry, and were subject to the same laws and obligations. The basic purpose of this action was to integrate the German settlers into the Russian empire.

The Revocation of the Special Privileges

By the time Alexander II came to the throne, anti-German sentiment in Russia was increasing The nobility resented the extraordinary influence of the German Baltic aristocracy in public affairs. Many Russian peasants and merchants envied the special privileges of the German settlers, their extensive land acquisitions and increasing prosperity. The pan-Slavic movement, which had many adherents in the nobility and intelligentsia, became suspicious of the German colonists’ true allegiance to Russia rather than Germany. They considered them a possible threat to Russia, a consideration which became more acute with the unification of Germany in 1871. Russians did not want the German colonies to become an extension of the new German Empire5.

These reasons explain in good part Alexander’s abrogation of the Colonial Code which listed the rights and duties of the German colonists. An additional reason, undoubtedly, was to place the German farmers on an equal legal and social level with the recently freed Russian peasants. The decree of June 4, 1871. repealed the colonists’ right to local self-government, abolished the Kontor and the Fürsorgekomite, and incorporated the German colonies into the zemstvos system.6 Subsequently, in 1876, Germans were no longer designated as “colonists” but as “settlers-landowners”7

The 1871 law also stipulated that all village or town business, as well as all court proceedings, had to be in the Russian language. To be a village or town leader, therefore, one had to be fluent in Russian, a condition that did not exist before 1871.

One of the principal privileges revoked in the June 1871 decree was the exemption from military service. The German colonists were exempt in perpetuity from military service by the manifestos of Catherine II and Alexander I. The German colonists’ rejection of this revocation was so strong that they received a ten year grace period during which time they could be permitted to emigrate . Although the German settlers finally acquiesced to compulsory military service, apprehension about their future in the Russian Empire grew and spread. This fear was borne out by the mass mobilization of reservists at the time of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) which caused a considerable, illegal German emigration from Russia.11

voices from the gulag

Picture #9: Photograph circa 1893 of German Russian officers in Czarist military uniform. They appear to belong to a guards infantry regiment. Source: Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries. (Photograph permission of the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries, Fargo, North Dakota;

“Russification”and the Pan-Slavic Movement

The latter part of the 19th century saw the growth of a pan-Slavic movement among the Russian upper classes and in certain imperial court circles. The chauvinistic press and organizations such as the Slavic Society provoked resentment among the non-Russian minorities.13 The motto of the pan-Slavic organizations was “Russia for the Russians,” a parallel development to the increasing nationalism in 19th century Europe and America. Russian nationalism was, undoubtedly, also influenced by increasing unrest among the country’s minority Polish, Finnish, native Baltic and Caucasian populations.

Since Peter I, the Russian Czars had relied heavily on the German Baltic nobility to fill important positions in many ministries, high military commands, and at the senior levels in higher education, and scientific and medical institutions.14. At one time, for example, all members of the St. Petersburg Academy of Science were of Baltic German origin.15 German officers also had a disproportionately large role in the Russian Army. In the Napoleonic War of 1812, it is estimated that 7% of all Russian Generals were Baltic German nobles. It is also a fact that at this time and in subsequent years, the number of higher army officers of German origin was close to 40%. 17 Baltic aristocrats owed their success thanks in part to their Lutheran Church, with its stress on duty, hard work, and obedience, as well as to the 18th Century Enlightenment in Northern Europe. They were thus much better educated than their counterparts in the Russian provincial nobility.16

Czar Alexander III reacted strongly to the resentment caused by the privileges and increasing wealth of the German colonists. He is reported to have said that he would “squash the German colonists like a handful of India rubber”. In the nationalistic press of that time in St. Petersburg and Moscow, officials and others wrote that the colonists were a threat to the nation’s security; that they were subsidized by the German Reichsbank in order to transform the region of their settlements into a German possession. 18 They were also accused of promoting pan-Germanism in their schools and churches as well as disloyalty to the Czar and teaching hatred of Russia to their children.19 Although these charges were publicly repudiated by the Russian governor of Saratov province, that failed to silence these comments and intolerance continued to spread.20

Alexander III’s russification policy was intended, first, to eliminate the German Baltic nobility from its dominant position in the army, higher government positions and the diplomatic service and, second to place the German school system under Russian government control. In 1892 all schools, whether they received government financing or not – and the German schools did not – were subordinated to the control of Russian government school inspectors. They had absolute authority over the school system; chose the teachers; and enforced the plan of studies set by the ministry of education in St. Petersburg. They made Russian the teaching language in the village schools as well as in the Zentralschulen, to the detriment of German. Only religion and German (as a second language) were taught in the language of the settlers. Consequently, about two-thirds of a school day’s instruction was taught in Russian. 21 The Czar also changed the language of instruction of the University of Dorpat (Estonia) from German to Russian.The russification of the school system created deep anxiety in the German communities. The Russian government’s takeover of the schools not only created the fear that their German language would be relegated to second place but, as the school system and church were tightly linked, they feared that the Russian Orthodox religion would be forced upon them. As best they could, however, the German colonists resisted assimilation in order to keep their ethnic identity.22

It must be mentioned that, until World War I, the Russian government’s russification policy directed at the German population was not as ruthless or extreme as that directed at the Poles, Jews and Finns. The Germans were intimidated and subject to discrimination, but they were never subjected to violence.

Emigration to North America

The revocation of the special privileges, particularly the exemption from military service and the russification of their school system, caused many German Russians to seriously consider emigration. They did not think, however, of returning to their ancestral homeland in Germany, but rather of going to the United States and Canada, where agricultural land was plentiful and cheap or even free. From the 1870s to prior to WWI, about 300,000 settlers came to the United Staeas and Canada..

The Revolution of 1905

In October 1905, Czar Nicolas II (1894 – 1917) ceded to popular demands and appeared to introduce a constitutional monarchy. He issued a manifesto granting basic civil liberties, such as freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment without trial; freedom of speech and association; freedom of the press and opinion; and universities free of government interference. He also promised the institution of a free, popular vote to elect a national assembly, the Duma, which would have to approve all legislation. All these rights of a citizen were later incorporated in the new, Fundamental Laws of the Empire, a form of constitution. 34

Nevertheless the Czar could convoke and dismiss the Duma at will and had full power of decision on issues of war and peace. He also controlled more than one-third of the state budget. He could govern by decree when the Duma was not in session and could appoint or dismiss state ministers without Duma approval.35

The effect of the revolution and subsequent reforms on the German communities were very different, as was their response to these new circumstances. For the first time, the various German settlements organized to form regional and even national associations. These societies were created to promote the interests of their constituencies on a higher level than just their villages. Their priorities were cultural autonomy, local self-government and moderate agrarian reform. . In Moscow, The German communities considered that the Czar’s 1905 manifesto guaranteed them their fundamental rights and therefore remained loyal to the Russian Crown.37

With these imperial reforms, anti-German measures were relaxed. The German Baltic barons were again welcome at the court and government and played an important role again in the higher ranks of the army, administration and foreign diplomatic service. They welcomed the provisions concerning religious and cultural freedoms, and were particularly interested in the reversal of the educational russification measures in their school system. In 1907 the requirement of Russian as the teaching language in the German school system was eliminated. In these years, many new secondary schools opened in the Black Sea region. Unfortunately for the Germans, they were closed or made into Russian schools in 1914, when World War I started. By and large, despite problems, the German Russians had achieved a fairly high level of well being by the end of the 19th Century .

World War I

By 1914 there were 1,621,000 Germans living in Russia. This figure does not include the Germans living in the Baltic provinces nor in Polish Russia or Bessarabia. The principal poles of German population were 600,000 living in the Volga region and 529,000 near the Black Sea in Southern Ukraine and the Crimea. The Russian Volhynia settlements totaled about 200,000 and in Siberian Russia about 102,000. The balance was in the Caucasus and in the major Russian cities.47

The new cultural and political freedom that the colonists enjoyed after the revolution of 1905 proved to be short-lived. As tension between Russia and Germany increased in the immediate pre-war years, the Russian government, the bureaucracy and the intelligentsia became less and less friendly to the Germans in Russia. Hostile articles in the press misrepresented and maligned them. They were forbidden to hold a planned all-Russian congress of Germans, in which the Baltic nobility and colonists could meet to discuss the development of institutions for the preservation of their common cultural heritage. There was a serious proposal in government circles as early as 1910 of a law forbidding Germans to buy or rent land in the three western governments of Volhynia, Podolia, and Kiev. Only the influence of the German members of the Duma succeeded in averting this attempt to restrict the economic rights of the German colonists. In 1912 the same men managed to prevent from reaching the Duma an even harsher proposal, one that could have been used to dispossess German colonists in Volhynia, Podolia, Kiev and Bessarabia. This was a portent of things to come.

The declaration of war against the German empire came as a great shock to all German Russians In spite of their demonstrated loyalty to Russia and the emperor, the Germans immediately became objects of suspicion and hatred to the Russian public. Leading newspapers vied with each other in the imaginativeness of their hate propaganda. Publicists, politicians and generals accused the Germans of generations of espionage activity and long-planned treason, although there as not a shred of evidence to support the charges. “It’s time to deal with the “inner Germans” became a popular slogan. The city mobs, their anger whipped up by such propaganda, more than once threatened direct action against Germans in business and industry. In May-June 1915 the situation got out of hand in Moscow, encouraged, it is said, by the reported German-hating governor-General Prince Yusupov. For three days a ferocious pogrom raged, the worst in Russian history. Hundreds of German shops, banks, factories and homes were looted and burned. There were many casualties and the property damage ran into the millions of roubles.

German Russians in the Imperial Army

It was incomprehensible to many Russians that the German Russians s, as a national minority, could be loyal to the Russian crown, and at the same time hold to their language, their religion, and most of their ethnic culture. However, this was an indisputable fact, and the incredulous surely should have realized that this duo-affinity could apply to the German colonists as well as it had to other nationalities in the Russian ethnic make-up Ironically, Russia’s Nationalists hated these people as Germans; Cadets (Constitutional Democrats) despised them as reactionaries; and the extreme left-the socialists and anarchists-detested them as monarchists, or pro the “establishment” (the Baltic Germans could be considered monarchists)Nevertheless, 250,OOO were to bear arms in the Empire’s declared “holy” war against the German Empire.

Russia plunged into the conflict inadequately organized, ill-prepared, and undersupplied. Her avalanche of manpower sometimes was led by inept commanders following questionable orders from higher commands. Surprisingly, shortly after hostilities began, the Russian army under General von Rennenkampf won an important battle at Gumbinnen that could have led to a drive on Berlin itself.

Failure to follow up on this victory proved to be one of the country’s
major military blunders. Meanwhile, Field Marshal von Hindenburg and
General Ludendorff, who had been transferred to the Russian front, virtu
ally destroyed General Samsonov’s Russian army at Tannenberg, in August 26-30, 1914 , thus dealing Russia a crippling blow from which she never fully recovered. Consequently Russia’s troops were driven back along the northern front and by the end of September they had evacuated East Prussia. The Germans pushed their offensive, and the first ten months of the conflict were to cost the Russian Imperial forces losses of 3,800,000 men.’

The Baltic German, General Rennenkampf was accused of treason to Russia but later absolved., Russia soon ran low on equipment, armament, ammunition, and supplies. Shortages frequently were the result of bungled transportation and faulty logistics. Great numbers of poorly trained recruits of all ages were thrown into the front lines as hurried replacements. Troops sometimes faced the enemy without weapons and had to rely on arming themselves with those dropped by their fallen comrades

German colonists served loyally in the Russian army during the war. Most German Russians, however, were not sent to the Western Front to fight against the German and Austrian armies, but to the Turkish fighting front in the Caucasus. Those that initially served in the West, were subsequently removed and also sent to the Caucasus.

voices from the gulag

Picture # 10:Russian soldiers in trenches on the Caucasus front, Winter, 1915 . It is interesting to note that the majority of the Russian soldiers do not appear to have arms. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In midwinter 1915-1916 the Army of the Caucasus launched an offen-
sive against the heavily fortified position of Erzurum in Turkish Armenia as part of the Commander of the Caucasus Front, Grand Duke Nicholas’ scheme was to drive all the way to Constantinople. The ancient Turkish stronghold, modernized and strengthened by Reich German military engineers, was ringed by at least eighteen outer forts and defended by some 350 heavy guns. Against these fortifications, which military authorities held to be impregnable, situated as they were in high, difficult, mountainous terrain, the rash, vainglorious Grand Duke threw great contingents of Volga German soldiers and other troops into a bloody two-week assault that began at the end of January . During one stormy night 500 soldiers are said to have been frozen to death in a single battalion. The loss of life was staggering as the struggling men were driven into murderous fire. At last several key positions were taken, largely by bayonet. The successful conquest of Erzurum itself followed.

Official casualty figures for this campaign were nebulous, approximate,
partial, or entirely lacking. However, Volga German assessment held that 40,000 colonists, sons and fathers, perished in these operations . Many German Russians believed that the Grand Duke had assigned them to storm at least three key outer forts, wantonly subjecting them to annihilation.

voices from the gulag

Captured Turkish flags by Russian soldiers in Erzurum

The first ten months of the war cost the Imperial Government losses of 3,800,000 men, killed, wounded and prisoners of war. The demand for troops became so great that most of the first class of the militia, ex-veterans from previous wars between the ages of forty and forty-three , as well as untrained and poorly armed twenty-one to forty three year olds whose lottery numbers had never been called, were also activated. Further, the government had to reduce the draft age to seventeen and extend military obligations to the age of fifty. Great numbers of poorly trained recruits were thrown into the battle, often without proper arms, waiting- it is reported- to receive a weapon only when an armed fellow soldier had first been killed or wounded.

The Expropriation of German land

As Russia’s war losses increased so did anti-German hysteria. They were made responsible for the disastrous course of the war; and were accused of being spies and saboteurs betraying Russia. The use of German in correspondence with soldiers was prohibited. German language newspapers and organizations were closed and the German language was forbidden in schools, even in the religious education of the colonists’ children. German was not even allowed to be taught as a second language. Using German in Church sermons was prohibited and infractions could end in deportation of the clergy to Siberia. All German Russian teachers were dismissed in 1915, even though they were government accredited, and replaced by Russians.53

Anti-German measures reached a nadir with the government’s so-called liquidation laws, of February 1915, to expropriate German properties in the Western border provinces. Compensation was envisaged in the form of 25 year government obligations. The laws were not immediately enforced, because the government feared the economic repercussions, this decree was left hanging over the colonists as a threat. Even the threat itself was seriously disruptive of the economy in the German areas. The presence of the decrees, however, caused great anxiety in many German villages, particularly in the province of Volhynia, resulting in panic sales or neglect of the land expected to be expropriated at any moment

It should be mentioned here that in a Council of Ministers’ meeting held shortly after the outbreak of the war, it was decided that the Russian state should liquidate all German landholdings along the western frontier. The underlying theme was to rid Russia of its “German yoke”, the expression used to describe the economic power of German Russians.

Not only did the central government enact such legislation, provincial governors, army commanders, and local superintendents of education insisted on doing their bit against the inner German enemy. The harshest measures were imposed in the west, where there was military rule, and in the south, where the governors were the most zealous enemy of Germans In the Black Sea region even German sermons in the churches were forbidden and the prohibition was enforced by deportation of clergy to Siberia. Anti-German Catholic Poles appear to have been especially active as informers. Even Bishop Kessler himself, who continued to preach in German in his cathedral at Saratov, was threatened by such over-zealous patriots in his flock. Similar persecution was visited on the German Protestant clergy of all denominations, for whom religious services were made almost impossible, since language and religion in their case were very closely linked.

This crushing military losses, the daily toll of other war dead, and the relentlessly approaching unknown hour of the impending mass banishment from their homes, farms, and villages plunged the stricken German populace deeper and deeper into despair.

Grand Duke Nicolas (at the time he was still commander in chief of the Western forces), after suffering serious defeats at the hands of the German army, decided to implement the decrees for the German Russians living under his army’s control, principally in Volhynia province. The lands were to be expropriated, and the owners deported to Siberia. This cruel and unjustified action was thought to be the kind
of morale booster that was needed to restore the soldiers’ will
to fight. Beginning on July 15, 1915, without warning, holding
hostages to assure good behavior, ignoring the niceties envisaged
by the Czar’s expropriation law, the’ army rounded up more
than 150,000 Germans in the province of Volhynia, packed them
on trains and shipped them eastward. The deportees had
to leave behind a ripe crop of uncut grain, their land, and most
of their movable property. Ukrainian peasants were moved in, to
take over their farms. The same fate was intended for all the Germans in European Russia. when the time was ripe.

One villager describes this scene:

Our entire village lay in deep sleep when about midnight we were
awakened by cries and shouts in the streets. Peering out of the
window, I saw heavily armed police storming into the homes. Then
three of them came to our house, ordering all to get out of bed and
prepare to leave at once for Siberia. “You are spies and criminals,”
they shouted; “you want to deliver our Fatherland to Kaiser
Wilhelm. We are going to prevent that by sending you to Siberia.
In one hour you will be ready.” … While the police were crowding
us to finish packing, they ransacked our cupboards, chests,
bins-and even the sacks and bags we already had packed. They
took anything that pleased them. Money and jewelry were particularly
sought after. They even seized our wedding rings.

voices from the gulag

Volhynia in the Western Ukraine



Also in 1915 and 1916,German settlers’ land was expropriated in the provinces of Kiev, Podolsk and Bessarabia An eyewitness account by a Lutheran pastor from Novogradvolynsk who was arrested at the time stated

“The expropriation of the German landowners in Volhynia and the uprooting of probably 200,000 colonists to Siberia had already been long planned by the Tsarist government. The tragic war against Germany offered a welcomed cause to carry out their plan. Whatever is German, it was said, is the enemy and is to be treated accordingly. 56

All eyewitness accounts of the ethnic-German groups deported in 1915-1916 reveal that the “resettlement operation” was carried out in the most brutal manner. Those expropriated and deported were often stripped of all possessions and were cursed as traitors and spies by soldiers and police, and treated accordingly.” For those who were simply expropriated, they were free to choose where to “resettle,” but often only with a few hours’ notice. The deportations were preceded by the arrest of village intelligentsia, pastors, lawyers, and other prominent leaders.” According to eyewitness Lutheran pastor Rudolf Deringer of Novogradvolynsk, who was arrested at this time: “The expropriation of the German landowners in Volhynia and the uprooting of probably 200,000 colonists to Siberia had already been long planned by the Tsarist government. The tragic war against Germany offered a welcomed cause to carry out their plan. Whatever is German, it was said, is the enemy, and is to be treated accordingly” The mortality rate from these deportations is estimated to have been 63,000 to 100,000, that is from 30% to 50%, but exact figures are impossible to determine.

A further liquidation law was passed in December 1915 extending the expropriation and expulsion of German settlers from their homes in the Baltic, the Black Sea, the Crimea region, and the Caucasus, with additional settlement areas to be added in 1916.Finally, in February of 1917, just weeks before the collapse of the Czarist government, Nicholas II decreed the expropriation and expulsion of German lands and their inhabitants from the remaining provinces of Russia, including from the Volga region.. The Volga Germans were given one year to sell their land to the Peasant Land Bank, which would then settle Russians on these properties. Thus the groundwork was therefore laid for a final
solution of Russia’s German problem. Although small groups, like the Hirschenhof colonists, were deported in 1916, the revolution came before the main deportations could be carried out


The March 1917 revolution and the Czar’s abdication later in March of that year put a stop to these measures and they were never carried out. The liquidation decrees were suspended by the Provisional Government. The new government issued a declaration of human rights whereby all national minorities, excepting the Germans, were given full equality.
The immediate and energetic intervention of German community leaders with the new government achieved a retraction of the discriminatory clause insofar as the southern colonies were concerned. Premier Kerensky explained that this article had been drafted through a misunderstanding. He refused, however, to repudiate the deposed Czsar’s final ukase calling for the banishment of the Volga Germans. For unfathomable reasons, this decree was only placed in abeyance instead of being revoked; For the Volhynians, unfortunately, the deliverance came too late. The greater part of the population had been deported, and although these colonists were free to return and endeavor to reclaim their former homes, it has been estimated that only about half of them succeeded in reestablishing themselves. Many found their houses destroyed or occupied by others. In some instances entire villages were obliterated, or taken over by Russians.

The German Catholic bishop of Tirasopol, Josef Kessler, had the following comments about the Czar’s liquidation decrees of the Volga German communities:

Upon the fall of the Tsarist government it was found that this order was
planned by the Tsarist government with the view to starving and driving
all of the German subjects out of the dominion of Russia. At the time of
the fall of the Tsarist government orders were in the hands of the army to proceed with forces into the colonies along the Volga to execute this
commandeering ukase. On that same day I had urged the boys in my
seminary of Saratov (because there were no men except old men at home) to pray for a miracle to save us from extinction, and on the same day, the revolution began in Petrograd. 1,800 mounted Cossacks were held in readiness at Saratov, to swoop down on the defenseless villages, to murder, to plunder and scatter the inhabitants. But on account of the revolution he order was never executed.”

In conclusion, R. J. Rummel, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii, argues that the casualties which resulted from the deportation of this ethnic German group should, in accord with standard legal definitions, be classified as “murder. Moscow German author Waldemar Weber remarks: “Therefore, genocide in relation to the Germans was no invention of the Stalin leadership, but had some previous models”.

Source: Voices from the Gulag: The Oppression of the German Minority in the Soviet Union