German Settlers

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German traders and missionaries began settling on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea during the thirteenth century and eventually became the exclusive nobility in the region. The Germans ruled over the native Estonian and Latvian peasants and converted them first to Catholicism and then, after the Protestant Reformation, to Lutheranism. They were responsible for establishing merchant and artisan guilds in urban areas and feudal manors in rural areas. The Baltic Germans retained their privileged status even after Sweden decisively conquered the region during the 1620s. In 1721 the Russian Empire acquired the territories of Estland and Livland (equivalent to modern-day Estonia and northern Latvia) from Sweden. Germans became influential and loyal members of the Russian government and army, with some serving as generals, administrators, and diplomats. Baltic Germans fought simultaneously against the Bolsheviks and the Latvian nationalists during the late 1910s but did not succeed in establishing a permanent German-ruled state in the Baltics. The number of Germans living in the Baltics steadily decreased. Following a pact signed between the foreign ministers of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin in August 1939, almost all of the remaining Baltic Germans moved to German-ruled Poland over the next two years.

Germans arrived in the Russian Empire in several additional waves of immigration between 1763 and 1862. The areas in which these Germans initially settled included the Middle Volga Area, southern Ukraine, the Crimean peninsula, Bessarabia, Volhynia, and the Caucasus. Their religions included Lutheranism, Catholicism, and Mennonitism.

On July 22, 1763, the Russian Tsar Catherine the Great issued a manifesto that offered foreigners the opportunity to settle in Russia. The newcomers were promised land, self-governance, religious freedom, exemptions from taxes and military service, and other privileges. The manifesto particularly appealed to Germans, who had suffered during the Seven Years' War (17561763), a time of rampant famine and forced military conscription. From 1763 until 1767, approximately 25,00027,000 Germans resettled in the Middle Volga river valley in 104 colonies in the provinces of Saratov and Samara, which later developed into 192 towns and villages. Most of the Volga Germans engaged in agriculture, harvesting such crops as rye, sunflowers, potatoes, and sugar beets, but some worked as tanners, sausage makers, millers, and craftspeople. Tsar Alexander II began drafting them into the Russian army in 1874. During the following decades, some Volga German families moved to Siberia, while others immigrated to the United States, Canada, and other countries. Volga Germans were afflicted by severe famines in 18911892, 19211922, and 19321933, the last one caused by Stalin's forced collectivization of farms. While the Volga Germans had been granted their own autonomous republic in 1924, it was abolished by Stalin on August 28, 1941, in the aftermath of Nazi Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union, and the Volga Germans were deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia and forced into slave labor.

Between 1783 and 1812, the Russian Empire annexed former Ottoman and Crimean Tatar territories on the northern Black Sea coast. In 1787 Germans began to settle in New Russia, which later became the provinces of Kherson, Yekaterinoslav, and Tauride. In 1813 Tsar Alexander I invited Germans to Bessarabia and offered them many privileges. The first German settlement in Bessarabia was founded in 1814, and in the following years, until 1842, many more Germans arrived and formed numerous other colonies. Many of the Bessarabian and Ukrainian Germans specialized in farming and grape growing, but others worked in trades like weaving, blacksmithing, shoemaking, and carpentry. Germans also founded factories and mills. Bessarabia became part of Romania in 1918, and its Germans departed in 1940.

The Russian Germans were very conscious of their identity, operating their own schools and churches and teaching their children the German language. Tsar Alexander III's Russification policies in the 1880s and 1890s made Russian the language of all schools and abolished the Germans' right to self-government. During World War I, with Germany an enemy of Russia, German organizations and newspapers were shut down by the Russian government, preaching in German was outlawed, and Germans from Volhynia were exiled to Siberia (1915). During the Soviet years, increasing numbers of young Germans became fluent in Russian rather than in German.

Whereas from the 1950s to the 1970s few Soviet Germans were allowed to immigrate to Germany, during the late 1980s and 1990s a much larger number of Germans did so following the gradual easing of restrictions beginning in 1987. As of the 1989 census there were at least two million Germans living in the Soviet Union, but the majority of them left within a decade.

See also: nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist


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Giesinger, Adam. (1981). From Catherine to Khrushchev: The Story of Russia's Germans. Lincoln, NE: American Historical Society of Germans from Russia.

Kern, Albert. (1998). Homeland Book of the Bessarabian Germans. Fargo, ND: Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries.

Koch, Fred C. (1977). The Volga Germans: In Russia and the Americas, from 1763 to the Present. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Long, James W. (1988). From Privileged to Dispossessed: The Volga Germans, 18601917. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Pleve, Igor R. (2001). The German Colonies on the Volga: The Second Half of the Eighteenth Century, tr. Richard R. Rye. Lincoln, NE: American Historical Society of Germans from Russia.

Kevin Alan Brook