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Vom Zarenreich in den amerikanischen Westen: Deutsche in Rubland und Rublanddeutsche in den USA (1871-1928): Die politsche, sozio-konomische und kulturelle Adaption einer ethnischen Gruppe im Kontext zweier Staaten

Book review by Frederik Ohles

Janssen, Susanne. Vom Zarenreich in den amerikanischen Westen: Deutsche in Russland und Rublanddeutsche in den USA (1871-1928): Die politsche, sozio-konomische und kulturelle Adaption einer ethnischen Gruppe im Kontext zweier Staaten. 1997.


In this Berlin dissertation, Susanne Janssen has made a good effort to get beyond the uncritical filiopiety and chronicling that all too often have pervaded published accounts of Russian Germans in the United States. 1

Two aspects of her approach are particularly successful. She compares the Black Sea Germans in Russia and North Dakota and the Volga Germans in Russia and Nebraska. That four-sided framework allows her to draw out what was distinctive about each community's experience in each setting. She also uses interviews, some that she conducted with now elderly children of immigrants, others that had been carried out earlier in local history projects.

Janssen's approach is social scientific. A few chapters are divided into numbered, subnumbered, and sub-subnumbered parts. The introduction briefly acknowledges the work on American immigration history by Kathleen Neils Conzen and Oscar Handlin and the work on ethnicity by Andrew Greeley. Its main focus is the model employed by John Goldlust and Anthony Richmond on immigrants' adaptation processes, which Janssen tests in chapters on political, socioeconomic, and cultural (largely religious) adaptation. A final chapter analyzes the coercive effects of World War I on Russian Germans in both of their adopted homelands.

Even before the anti-German war fever of 1917, American legal and cultural norms compromised the efforts of these immigrants to replicate on the Great Plains the exclusive settlements they had maintained in Russia. Despite their economic success in Russia, there had been compelling reasons to leave. During 1871-1874 the Russian government withdrew their privileges, notably exemption from military service. By then there was also too little land for their burgeoning numbers. In addition, the influential Pan-Slavic movement cast them as unwelcome, alien separatists in Russia. The United States seemed a good place to escape the new threats to their way of life.

It was, except: American homestead law prevented their settlement in closed villages with common landholding. The missionary zeal of Protestant churches among them and the linguistic limitations (no German) of Irish Catholic priests assigned to them upset their presumption that ethnicity and faith were bound together. Public schooling defied their effort to preserve use of the German language by successive generations. Nor could they stand forever apart from the political process, whence came the laws on property, churches, and schools.

Those forces, of course, pressed upon all immigrant groups on the Great Plains and in other regions of America. This circumstance is something Janssen addresses intermittently. She makes comparisons especially with Norwegian settlers in the Dakotas, but she establishes few links to the larger experience of immigrants adapting to a new land.

For American students of immigration and assimilation, Fred Koch's The Volga Germans (1977) remains an accessible and useful avenue into the history of this exceptional immigrant group. Janssen's work is illuminating for its use of interviews and its systematic, topical treatment of external influences that reshaped the lives of Germans in Russia and Russian Germans in the United States during a turbulent, trying half century.

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