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The Czar's Germans: with Particular References to the Volga Germans

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Williams, Hattie Plum. The Czar’s Germans, with Particular Reference to the Volga Germans. Edited by Emma S. Haynes. Lincoln, Nebraska: American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, 1975.


This book, described in the introduction as the "first serious study of the Volga Germans in the English Language," was written by an Iowa-born, non German-Russian woman. She became aware, as a young college student, that some 4,000 Protestant German-speaking persons lived in the vicinity of her college town, Lincoln, Nebraska. Oddly dressed, they were labeled locally as Russians, but that clearly was not accurate because she noticed that they spoke only German. After a bit of questioning, she learned that they had come to Nebraska when the political climate had changed in Russia, which indeed had been their home area. Her interest piqued, her masters thesis, written in 1909, was called "The History of the German-Russian Colony in Lincoln." She followed this with a doctoral dissertation, published in 1916, "A Social Study of the Russian German." The thesis and dissertation led, eventually, to the writing of this book.

Hattie Plum Williams retained a lifelong interest in the people she called Russian Germans. Published posthumously, "The Czar's Germans" was based on her own early chapters plus other writing found among her effects, which included some books written in German. Some of the first members of American Historical Society of Germans from Russia performed the complex job of readying the book for publication. Adam Giesinger, best known as the author of "From Catherine to Khrushchev," did a final read-through of the manuscript.

Williams wrote before World War I, so the reader must always hold that perspective, not the 1975 copyright date, in mind. "The Czar's Germans" has the marks of careful scholarship, with footnotes that provide additional information, name sources, and point out problems. It is, however, not difficult to read. It flows from fact to fact, answers many questions frequently asked about the history of the Germans from Russia, and is full of archival black and white pictures. The book ends with a list of sources.

The book begins with an overview of the disjointed situation that existed in the Holy Roman Empire, the "Germany" that existed when the people of western Europe received the call to come to Russia. Williams clearly delineates the causes of the German emigration: 1. Poverty created by devastating wars, especially the Thirty years War, 1618-1648, The War of the Spanish Succession, 1701-1714, and the Seven Years War, 1756-1763. This last, she calls "The most disastrous of 18th Century conflicts..." 2. The stupid vanity and exactions of German princes. The princes of the city-states, in what then constituted Germany, felt their subjects owed them, and never tried to improve their people's lot or make common cause with them. Some built magnificent palaces for themselves while their people starved. For extra cash, they rented out their young men as soldiers. (Remember the Hessians, who played a part in the American Revolutionary War!) 3. The lack of a strong central government and national feeling. 4. Religious differences which led to cruel persecution. As areas flowed from the governance of one prince to another, forced religious conversions created deep discontent. These conditions continued into the second half of the 18th century.

She describes in detail Catherine II's efforts to recruit persons to populate the steppe. Germans were not at all her only targets, and early efforts failed disastrously. Williams uses the best sources she can lay hands on to determine numbers, names, and occupations. She paid impressive attention to detail.

The story of the voyage of the early German emigrants is full of tribulations. When they finally arrived in the area along the Volga, there was little match between the glowing promises of the Russian recruiters and what they found. They had been set up and couldn't do anything about it. The book contains this pungent quote: "When we had traveled a while longer (after leaving the last trace of a road) in a barren, sober waste, we came to a brook.... Our guides called 'Halt!' at which we were very much surprised because it was too early to put up for the night; our surprise soon changed into astonishment and terror when they told us that we were at the end of our journey. We looked at each other, astonished to see ourselves here in a wilderness; as far as the eye could see, nothing was visible except a small bit of woods and grass, mostly withered and about three shoes high...."

The newcomers spent their first winter in dugouts the local Russians taught them to make. "...all who came--many of them expecting to make a fortune without labor--were sent into the empty steppe to clear it, break up the soil, set up a farming establishment and raise crops of unfamiliar grains." Several years passed before they fully internalized the fact that this was to be their life and work from now on. False rumors that money was being collected to enable them to return to Germany slowed the adjustment. When they did finally build homes, wild animals, superstition, and attacks by Tartar tribes interfered with their development. (The attacks continued until 1860, when the government finally routed the bandit groups.) Only slowly, and not even in the first generation, did these settlers become a cohesive community, and once they began to prosper and multiply, the land quickly ran out. Some sources say Germans were citizens, others say they were not. Williams shows a mix due to people's coming and going, legal and otherwise.

In a section of the book titled "Economic and Political Life of the Volga Germans," Williams divides the time thus:

1. Period of Deterioration, 1765-1801. This was a time of demoralization and general failure while the settlers figured out what they had to do to prevail. 2. Period of Economic Progress, 1801-1850. During this time, they "developed in agriculture and trade." 3. Period of changing status in relation to the Russian government, 1850-1871. In this period, a group known as the Slavophils, sought "the redemption of Russia through a return to the ancient regime which existed before the introduction of western innovations by Peter the Great." There is some problem with exact date here. In 1871, says Williams, "All males without distinction of class were liable to military duty." Yet, she says that universal military service became law in January of 1874. When the status of the Germans changed, they were given 10 years, during which they would have the right to emigrate. "This was a great concession because Russia has never recognized the right of free movement either within or without the empire."

The trek to the west began with the Odessa Germans (who came into Russia in a second wave), followed by the Mennonites, then the Volga Germans, who seemed last to receive communications. In June of 1873, "150 families comprising over 400 persons, were ready to start for America." Though others had explored before and presumably some stayed, this was the first contingent to take up residence in Nebraska and Dakota. Mennonites, a separate group, came also, the largest number settling in Kansas but also in Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, and California." "On June 11, 1875, the first organized group of Volga German Protestants Left Saratov for the United States." In the U.S., all the land then considered fit for settlement had been taken. This did not include, to the minds of the settlers from the eastern United States, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, and the Dakotas. Into these open spaces moved thousands of Germans from Russia, both invited by the railroads and fleeing a situation that was becoming more and more untenable.

Williams goes into detail about the reasons why the Germans objected to military service. Conditions in the military, quite apart from any fighting, were terrible. Soldiers were beaten with heavy whips called knouts for even minor infractions. There was no help if a man suffered military disability. Mennonites were noncombatants by theology. There persisted an enduring feeling among the Germans that they were not Russian subjects. Germans had a deep sense that the Russian government had broken its contract with them, and would follow military service with withdrawal of other promises such as freedom of religion and the right to have their own language and schools. When rumors flew that there would be war with England in 1885, when Germans participated in large numbers in a war between Russia and Turkey in 1877-1878, and when more were called to participate in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, many fled. This reason to move was augmented by a hunger for land as it became increasingly scarce in Russia. The largest number came 1875-1879. In America, military service was also required, but except among the Mennonites, it seemed not so great a burden.

Because Williams is so strong on beginnings, this book is very highly recommended to all Germans from Russia who want to understand their history.

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