Germany's New Immigrants

By Morpurgo, Horatio | Contemporary Review, November 1999 | Go to article overview
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Germany's New Immigrants

Morpurgo, Horatio, Contemporary Review

'Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch.' (T.S. Eliot: 'The Waste Land')

The hostel at Theodor-Heuss-Str. 9, in a suburb of Cologne, was hastily erected ten years ago for refugees arriving from the German Democratic Republic. It comprises two simple, identical buildings, both of cinder-blocks with a wooden frame, which can together accommodate 184 people. In July of this year a wall started to lean alarmingly and this was traced to a crack in the floor of one of the upstairs shower-rooms: water had leaked through and rotted one of the wooden cross-ties underneath. A whole section of the building was on the point of collapse by the time the maintenance men got round to repairing it.

The hostel took in many Poles of German descent in the early Nineties as they began to return in large numbers, but it is the immigrants arriving from the former Soviet Union - the so-called Russlanddeutschen - who have kept this hostel open for much longer than was ever envisaged. There are others like it: just in Cologne there are 3,500 immigrants living in such hostels. The city is home to the federal government office dealing with applications for German citizenship, and it is also in Nordrhein-Westfalen, which has the biggest population of any federal state and therefore takes the largest quota (21.8 per cent) of the new arrivals.

There have been nearly two million of these since 1987, though the numbers are now falling back. The history of this German minority in Russia is a disturbing and complex one, as is the story of their 'return home', and I shall be looking at both.

To begin at the beginning: Peter the Great (1689-1725) first invited Germans into Russia to help with the construction of a modern state: craftsmen, businessmen, doctors and military men took up the offer. The really large-scale migration of German settlers though dates to the later eighteenth century and was usually connected with upheavals in Germany - political, economic or religious. The present situation cannot be understood without reference to this history so here are the bare outlines. The Seven Years' War (1756-1763) left southern Germany devastated: a majority of those who responded at that time to Catherine the Great's offer of a new start out east were from Hessen, one of the worst affected areas. These settled along the Volga. When Poland was partitioned between Russia and Prussia (1772, 1793 and 1795), many pacifist Mennonites found themselves under a Prussian administration which took a dim view of their religious scruples. Catherine offered them land along the Dnepr and exemption from military service - an offer they accepted in large numbers. In 1783, during Russia's continued expansion southwards, the Crimea was seized from Turkey and enormous areas of thinly inhabited land around the north of the Black Sea also came under Russian control. The Germans meanwhile, during and after the Napoleonic Wars, were suffering forced conscription, poor harvests and (especially) religious persecution. For all these reasons the offer of land in the newly acquired southern areas of Russia was attractive. The German settlements there as elsewhere were usually of a single denomination - Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist or Mennonite. It is worth re-iterating here perhaps that the Germans were invited. Catherine, like Peter before her and Alexander II after her, was well aware of how much Russia stood to gain from their industriousness.

Hence it comes that the Germans now returning from the former USSR are bringing with them Hessian and other old dialects not heard for a century or more in their homeland. They also arrive, the older ones mostly, with a fiercely held pietistic faith which is unfamiliar to modern Germany, even to its church congregations.

The growing influence in Russia of pan-Slav ideas during the nineteenth century changed the position of these immigrants. The privileges they had been granted as incentives to settle in Russia were one by one withdrawn.

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