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Civil Disobedience, Protest and Resistance by the German-Russians in the Soviet State (Part 4)

Verweigerung, Protest und Widerstand der Russlanddeutschen im Sowietstaat (Teil 4)

Krieger, Dr. Viktor. "Disobedience, Protest and Resistance by German-Russians in the Soviet State (Part 4)." Volk auf dem Weg, May 2007, 28-29.

Translation from the original German-langauge text to American English provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado


Religiously Motivated Civil Disobedience and Resistance during the Inter-War Period

Subsequent to the "October Revolution," the Soviet powers demonstrated a fundamental attitude that was very hostile to religion, which was manifested by the government decree of January 23, 1918 "On the Separation of Church and State and of the Schools and the Churches. The edict would cause lasting damage to the churches, particularly due to the confiscation and nationalization of the entirety of their properties. They were henceforth barred from pursuing charitable, scholastic or cultural efforts -- a ban which would, however, not be strongly enforced during the 1920s. The Constitution of 1918 classified priests and religious as "servants of the bourgeoisie" and stripped them of the right to vote.

Aloysius Kappes (1885 - 1937). Volga-German Catholic priest, arrested in 1930 along with 19 other Catholic clerics; on April 20, 1931, he was initially sentenced to death by shooting, but then received a "reprieve" in the form of ten years in a penal camp. In 1937 he was arrested again on Solovki Island and, following a brief trial, was shot to death on November 1, 1937.
Adam Bellendir (1989 - 1937) was one of the 19 Catholic clerics who were arrested along with Father Kappes. On April 20, 1931 he was sentenced to ten years in a penal camp and in 1937 was arrested on Solovki
Island and, following a brief trial, was shot on November 3, 1937
.
During those restrictive times and religious persecution, the free-church communities of Mennonites, Baptists and other Christian faith orientation demonstrated a relatively high degree of adaptability and flexibility because they were not tied down by ecclesiastic hierarchies and ordained pastors, they had a number of educated preachers from their own ranks, they showed great care for their youth and often exhibited missionary zeal.

During the 1920s a number of representatives of the German Communist sectors and of local party and Soviet organs complained that the formation of Communist youth organizations (Komsomol cells) was dragging on very slowly, while religious education of the youth and extracurricular activities of the brotherly commentates proceeded rather successfully.

The Congress of Mennonite Communities in the County of Slavgorod, in a declaration of August 17, 1926 -- entitled the "Dirksen Memorandum, after the chair Josef Dirksen -- demanded "the unrestricted right to hold any and all religious gatherings and talks in prayer houses, for adults as well as children; plus the right to organize -- specifically for children and the youth -- any and all gatherings of a religious nature, choirs, and religious instruction. The school must be recognized as neutral territory on which one dedicates oneself exclusively to scientific endeavors, whether in a religious or anti-religious sense ..."

The development of the New Economic Policy, the transition to forced collectivization, and the accelerated industrialization process occurred hand in hand with a frontal assault on religion and the Church. The law on religious communities (April 8, 1929) further seriously restricted the already modest rights the church communities had been left with. In place of the constitutional guarantee of "freedom of religious and antireligious propaganda [sic]" there was now a stipulation for "freedom of religious confession and anti-religious propaganda." During the same year, the "Association of the Godless" morphed into the "Association of the Militant Godless," and it soon claimed millions of adherents. From it emanated certain "initiatives," such as disturbing religious services, storming and damaging churches and houses of prayer, and harassing and mocking the clergy and the faithful.

Early on, there was some active resistance. For example, in June of 1930 thousands of the faithful protested in Marxstadt against the closing of the local Lutheran church, but the authorities did not hesitate to apply administrative measures or even raw force. Thus, by 1935 only 8 Lutheran pastors still held their positions, while 49 had been banished, and 46 had been forbidden to exercise their profession altogether. As early as 1929, the secret police (GPU) had begun with reprisals against all religious communities, and although these measures lessened for a time during subsequent years, they were implemented to a much sharper degree during 1937 and 1938.

During the 1930s, a widespread form of passive resistance, which had a palpable affect on the Soviet powers, consisted of directing to foreign organization various written pleas for assistance. Even though people were aware of the danger of taking up any foreign contacts, numerous German farmers turned to the churches and charitable organizations in Germany, to the Ev.-Lutheran Missionary Association in Basel, to the European Central Office for Ecclesiastical Assistance, to Mennonite organizations in North America, and certainly to relatives and countrymen all over the world. According to some estimates, the German Evangelical Church alone received around 100,000 (!) letters from all German-Russian settlement areas; all demonstrating deep religiosity, the most basic needs for existence, and apocalyptic images.

The well-known British historian Robert Conquest called these letters "practically the only witnesses of the time stemming directly from people who were actually suffering from famine as they were writing." By means of these letters, the world community learned of many cases of persecution of clergy, of people practicing their faith and of simple farmers, and gained a realistic picture of the true extent of the famine within the Soviet Union.

The primary victims of criminal sanctions were the courageous pastors and preachers who in their church commentates actively supported the writing of such pleas for help, who smuggled them to foreign representatives, and who distributed incoming material assistance and monetary donations. A typical example is the criminal process directed against Prelate Josef Kruschinsky, Deacon Raphael Loran, Curate Johannes Thauberger and other Catholic priests who during a show trial in Karlsruhe on April 28, 1935 were sentenced to ten years' banishment or penal camp. The central accusation was "Organizing mass requests directed to Fascists centers in order to ask for 'care packages,' which occurred via letters with provocative content sent to foreign countries."

With grandiose and propagandistic effort the Stalinist leadership staged a "popular discussion" of a proposed constitution that was accepted in December of 1936. It proclaimed civil rights for all; direct, free and secret elections; equal rights, freedom of conscience, and the lifting of discriminating measures.

Some of the faithful attempted to put former clerics and preachers up for election to various soviets, or to re-establish dissolved church communitites. However, these efforts were branded as the work of kulaks and of "bandit elements," and their originators were subjected to criminal prosecution.

This also happened to sexton Kremer of the village of Bettinger in the Volga-Geman Republic. In September of 1937 he organized a registration effort and collected signatures from 793 faithful, by means of which he intended to achieve recognition of his community and eventually to bring about the return of the church building. As soon as the organs of state power became aware of this, the regional party committee ordered the arrest of Kremer and a meticulous investigation of his actions in order to "identify and single out the ringleader of this
Excerpt from a list of arrested Catholic and Lutheran clerics; the list was compiled by the German Embassy in Moscow on April 24, 1930.
counterrevolutionary action by the class enemy."

Despite massive atheistic propaganda efforts and the ever increasing persecution of and discrimination against the faithful, the majority of the German population, at least until the war broke out, adhered to their Catholic or Protestant self-image. The census of 1937 was the first and last instance when data on membership in religious faith were recorded.

Even if the results in this context are to be accepted with some caution, one can still determine that more than two-thirds of Germans over 16 years of age stated that they were religious. An informative piece of data shows that only 10 percent of registered Protestants -- including Germans as the majority, but also Finns, Estonians and Latvians -- were illiterate. Within other confessions, those unable to read and write were in the majority (Muslims and Buddhists) or constituted a third of the membership (Orthodox, Jews).

By the end of the 1930s the Church as an institution ceased to exist at all. Most of the faithful, fearing repression by the state, had withdrawn to their private sphere. However, the traditions of the Protestant brotherhoods were never entirely extinguished. In fact, they would survive deportation and even the penal work camps. Even after the war, and especially subsequent to the repeal of the special reporting and control status of Germans, the active life of numerous German prayer and brotherhood circles became a sign of the spiritual independence and of the religious determination of the German-Russians.

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

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