Germans in Kazakhstan: Part of the Bright Multi-Ethnic Fabric

I read with interest The Astana Times  interview of Mr. Alexander Dederer, chairman of the Public Association of Germans in Kazakhstan.  I had written my doctoral dissertation on the Saga of the Volga Germans and recall Mr. Dederer’s connection to “Wiedergeburt,” a German ethnic union association.

Germans came en masse to Kazakhstan and Siberia in the fall of 1941 as a result of the 28 August 1941 decree by Joseph Stalin, which abolished the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of the Volga Germans.  Because of the perfidious attack of the Nazis in June 1941, German speakers were distrusted and considered a 5th column.  By 25 Dec. 1941, it was estimated that 856,000 Russian-Germans had been exiled to Siberia and Kazakhstan.  Most of the men had been sent to work in factories and mines in the Urals.  Those traveling east via cattle cars were the elderly, the women and children.  An estimated 50% died en route.

The Russian-German ranks later included survivors of the siege of Leningrad.  Their ancestors had come to Russia during the reign of Peter the Great.  Not all German settlers came to Kazakhstan after the 1941 exile.  Some came earlier because of diminishing land or because of forced collectivization in the late 1920s.  The Kazakhs themselves suffered under forced collectivization in the 1920s and 1930s.  Between 1926 and 1933, it is estimated that almost two million Kazakhs perished.

Several other groups, such as the Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Finns, Turks and Kalmycks were also labelled “voluntary re-settlers.”  Only Crimean Tatars and Volga Germans were not permitted in the 1950s to return to their regions of the Soviet Union.

Hundred of thousands of Russian Germans were also “repatriated” after WW II.  These came primarily from Volhynia and the Black Sea areas of Ukraine and had been evacuated by the retreating Wehrmacht. The Germans refer to this post war movement to Siberia and Kazakhstan as “die Verschleppung” – the dragging away.  At first the Western Allies aided this repatriation, as per the Yalta Agreement, but then refused for humanitarian reasons.  Also, among the “repatriated” were millions of Ukrainians, mostly women, who had been slave-labourers in the Reich.

In 1957, the German Federal Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, sought a renewal of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, and through an agreement with Nikita Khruschev, arranged for over 20,000 Russian-Germans to emigrate to Germany between 1955-1970.  By the 1990s, the number had risen to 9,000  “Spaetaussiedler’ or immigrants a month.

Between 1989 and 1997, close to 2.4 million “ethnic Germans” had returned to Germany.  Attempts to establish a Volga German area on the Volga River (1992) ad earlier in Kazakhstan were opposed and defeated.

Mr. Dederer spoke of the 18 German centres in Kazakhstan, as well as the language camps, newspapers, an inter-government commission and a business association.  These are all a good foundation in building bridges between Germany and Kazakhstan.

However, living in another diverse country, I wonder do Germans living in Kazakhstan think of themselves as German-Kazakhs?  In the U.S., people often identify themselves as German-American, Korean-American, etc.  (After generations, some groups are so mixed, they run out of hyphens.)

Is there a wish among the various peoples of Kazakhstan “to return” to their ancestors’ lands?  No doubt that choice depends on the equality of opportunities in education and jobs.  If one looks around and sees only partially opened doors, one will not assimilate or “hyphenate.”

Sometimes people speak of tolerating others.  That is quite lame.  Does anyone really want to be tolerated and not respected and included?

I was in Kazakhstan in 2013 and visited Astana, Karaganda and Almaty. I remember sitting in a food court in Astana and being impressed with the diversity of the families around me. I think that is one of the unique elements of Kazakhstan.

With such a diverse population, each group has its story, which can be told as Kazakhstan does in its Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan.  Each group learns of the tenacity, faith and courage of the others.

The author holds a Doctorate of Literature from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, and taught as an adjunct at Drew University, the County College of Morris and the College of St. Elizabeth in New Jersey, all in New Jersey.

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