Kazakhstan's ethnic Germans "returning" to Germany
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Feb 2 14:48:02 UTC 2005
KAZAKHSTAN: Special report on ethnic Germans
01 Feb 2005 15:21:08 GMT
ALMATY, 1 February (IRIN) - For Irina Geisler, a young ethnic German in
the Kazakh commercial capital of Almaty, 'returning' to Germany, couldn't
be more natural. "I feel German. It's my dream," the 19-year-old
linguistics student told IRIN. Her application for German citizenship
currently awaits approval.
"All my life I've heard about Germany. It's part of my life," she said
with a German accent heavily influenced by the Schwabian roots of her
ancestors. Such dreams remain strong for thousands of such ethnic Germans
in today's Kazakhstan, with many of Irina's friends torn between both
countries. "Half of the young ethnic Germans would like to return, the
other half don't want to leave Kazakhstan," Geisler conceded, describing
it as an individual decision many young people like her still face.
"I've thought about going to Germany but I've finished my education
already," 29-year-old Evgenija Mayer, an employee at the Fredrich Ebert
Stiftung in Almaty, told IRIN. "I worry I would have to start all over
again." But starting again is precisely what hundreds of thousands like
her have done already. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991,
more than 900,000 ethnic Germans and their families have emigrated to
Germany, the German Embassy in Almaty told IRIN.
HISTORICAL CONTEXT Their journey to this vast Central Asian nation a
quarter the size of Europe, is a largely untold story. According to the
international best seller 'Gulag' by Anne Applebaum, the Germans were
among the Soviet minority groups, whom Joseph Stalin either targeted early
in World War II as a potential fifth column, or else singled out as German
'collaborators' later on.
They were Volga Germans, people whose ancestors had been invited to live
in Russia at the time of Catherine the Great and the Finish-speaking
minority who inhabited the Soviet republic of Karelia. And while not all
Volga Germans spoke German at the time, nor all of the Karelian Finns
Finnish, they did live in distinct communities and had different customs
from their Russian neighbours. That was enough, in the context of war with
Finland and Germany, to make them figures of suspicion according to
"In a leap of reasoning which was convoluted even by Soviet standards, the
entire Volga people were condemned, in September 1941, on a charge of
'concealing enemies'," she said. The 'collaborators' included several
small Caucasian nations including the Karachai, Balkars, Kalmyks, Chechens
and the Ingush, as well as the Crimean Tartars along with other small
minority groups like the Meskhetian Turks, Kurds and Khemshils. A small
number of Greeks, Bulgarians and Armenians were also targeted.
DEPORTATION Although there had been earlier settlements of ethnic Germans
in Kazakhstan, it was the sheer number expelled to Kazakhstan and other
areas in the former Soviet Union that proved remarkable.
"The deportation was immense, a little over 800,000 in 3 weeks. A number
that soon became a million," a German diplomat in Almaty told IRIN.
According to Applebaum's book, by the war's end, there were 1.2 million
deported Soviet Germans, 90,000 Kalmyks, 70,000 Karachai, 390,000
Chechens, 90,000 Ingush, 40,000 Balkars and 180,000 Crimean Tartars, as
well as 9,000 Finns and various others.
The ethnic Germans were deported like cattle to the barren wastelands of
Siberia and Kazakhstan and transported overland by train to Kazakhstan's
north and central regions. They were taken to areas around the present day
Kazakh capital of Astana as well as the cities of Pavlodar and Karaganda.
Ethnic Germans interviewed by IRIN recalled simply being 'dumped' in the
barren steppes with little or no provisions for the first winter. "Fifty
percent died on route, while 40 percent of those arriving in Kazakhstan
died here," Alexander Dederer, president of the German ethnic union
association Wiedergeburt (Rebirth), told IRIN in Almaty. Everyone was
placed in labour camps on arrival, while children under the age of 14 were
put in orphanages then passed on to labour camps when they reached 14, he
claimed. With many of the camps still not constructed, first arrivals did
whatever they had to in order to survive, often digging holes as shelter
from the weather, Dederer said.
"Basically, they were kicked out of the train and there was nothing, with
many of them forced to live in labour camps for the next 10 years, with
the last labour camp closing in 1956," the German diplomat added.
According to one 1993 German Foreign Ministry report, the men were
separated from their families and sent to the gulag as "soldiers" of a
"working army". Only a few of them returned to their relatives. The use of
German language was strictly forbidden, there was no opportunity to attend
school and religious activities were banned. After a treason verdict
against the Soviet Germans was dropped during the Kruschev period, they
continued to be subjected to numerous restrictions, such as the ban on the
return to their native territories in the Volga and Ukraine.
"This fostered their desire for a life of freedom in Germany as the
country from which their forefathers had come a long time ago," the report
DISCRIMINATION Following years of forced labour, ethnic Germans faced
innumerable forms of discrimination, both direct and indirect, following
the Second World War. Though not a written law, speaking German openly was
discouraged, resulting in fewer people speaking the language, even at
home. Those who did so in public were viewed with suspicion or accused of
being Nazis or fascists, further fuelling prevalent anti-German sentiment.
After 1956, active discrimination against the group largely ended though
indirectly it continued. In post war Soviet films, Germans continued to be
stereotyped as villains, idiots or just lazy. Even as late as the 1970s,
ethnic Germans were not allowed to study at university in Moscow.
According to the German Foreign Ministry report, in 1970 only 0.9 percent
of all ethnic Germans had a degree. Following decades of oppression,
brutal deportation, compulsory collectivisation and a continued ban on the
German language, this was hardly surprising.
"The fact that, especially in rural areas, the ethnic Germans in the
Soviet Union were regarded as former prisoners of war who stayed behind,
made it even more difficult for them to fight for their rights as an
organised ethnic group," the report said. "They weren't supposed to speak
German, they couldn't get the education they wanted, and they couldn't get
the jobs they wanted," Dederer said. Additionally, ethnic Germans were
restricted to living in specified areas of the country, primarily in
central and northern areas where they had previously been held in labour
camps. Only later did some of them resettle in the south and east of
Kazhakstan. To counter these various forms of discrimination, many ethnic
Germans felt compelled to inter-marry, often with Russian women to make
their offspring Russian. Others, however, chose to stay together as
communities, maintaining their language, traditions and culture, as well
as building homes and villages in a style similar to ones seen in Germany
100 years earlier.
Pockets of ethnic German communities developed, frequently very close to
the Soviet gulags that had once incarcerated them. "The Germans that lived
in Kazakhstan kept their traditions and customs, their German songs or
holidays and celebrated them at home," Dederer said, noting the difficult
times they faced. Though negative Soviet propaganda about Germans
continued, those living in Kazhakhstan soon gained a reputation amongst
the local population for their industry and hardwork. Things they made or
did were simply better, many Kazakhs interviewed by IRIN maintained. "Just
look at the precision of the building work," one Kazakh woman told IRIN
proudly outside her home. "They sure don't make homes like that any more,"
Even today, Kazhaks in the desolate north of the country still
nostalgically recall how things simply seemed to work better when the
Germans lived amongst them. In a speech marking the 66th anniversary of
the socialists October revolution in 1983, former Soviet leader
Vladimirovich Andropov publicly acknowledged the economic contribution
made by the group. The address resulted in a gradual improvement in
cultural and education rights.
LACK OF INFORMATION Although some ethnic Germans managed to emigrate to
Germany during the Soviet era, bringing with them accounts of conditions
in Kazakhstan, there was little reliable information about the group as a
whole. In fact, official Soviet government statistics show no records of
an ethnic German population even existing in the census of 1979. "There
was absolutely nothing," Dederer said. "Not even the German government
knew." But with glasnost and a gradual rapprochement with the West under
the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachov, the first official mention of an
ethnic German population was made.
According to a 1989 census, more citizens of German origin lived in
Kazakhstan with a total of 957,518, than in the whole of Russia including
Siberia 841,295. This caught the German government by surprise. Not all
ethnic Germans however, had the courage to state their nationality to the
Soviet authorities, just as in previous censuses.
"Nobody knew about the huge amount of ethnic Germans in Kazakhstan. They
[the German government] imagined it was something like 50,000 to 100,000.
Secondly, they thought most were so integrated in Kazakhstan, they would
choose not to come," the embassy official remarked, noting that after
1991, they soon realised how wrong they were.
RETURN As part of the 'right to return' policy, following the collapse of
the Soviet Union in 1991, Germany vowed to assist and integrate all ethnic
Germans or 'Aussiedler' who wished to migrate. Initially Germany provided
qualified applicants and their families with flights, as well as
'integration money' and language training to resettle. What followed,
however, was a surge beyond Berlin's expectations. Some 900,000 ethnic
Germans of all ages and their families took up the offer most of them in
the first half of the 1990s.
The first to move were the largely German-speaking communities whose
emotional ties with their ancestral homeland were strongest. Many had
maintained a particularly strong sense of German identity, ethnicity and
language. Whole villages emigrated from the newly established republic
which was already struggling with the departure of other ethnic groups to
various points of the former Soviet Union. There followed individuals, who
had the ability to speak German and had proof of their ethnicity, who
dreamed of a better future in the country of their forefathers. They often
took their extended families with them.
"For them it was really a release, a possibility of being free from
everything in Kazakhstan," the German diplomat recounted, noting those
arriving first in Germany integrated well, while those arriving later
faced greater challenges. Ethnic Germans originally settled into a broad
range of jobs, including teachers, while today more of them work as
craftsmen and lorry drivers, he added. Despite available language
instruction, some chose not to attend, making integration particularly
difficult. As a result, those who were not fully proficient in the German
language faced the greatest problems and according to the German Embassy
in Almaty, some even returned to Kazakhstan. "If you can't speak German,
you don't find a job in Germany," the German diplomat said.
DOWNWARD TREND Since the mid 1990s the number of ethnic Germans choosing
to return to their ancestral homeland has declined. According to the
German Embassy in Almaty, in 2003, about 29,000 applied to emigrate. In
2002, that number was 33,000. In a February 2004 report published by the
Washington-based Migration Policy Institute (MPI), Jochen Welt, the
federal government's Commissioner for Aussiedler Affairs, said he believed
that the coming years would see a further drop in the numbers. He
attributed the decrease mainly to Berlin's policy of helping to improve
conditions for ethnic Germans in their countries of origin. The policy had
"strengthened the Aussiedlers' will to stay" in the land of their birth
rather than move to Germany, Welt explained.
Echoing this view, the Germany Embassy in Almaty believes stronger
economic prospects in Kazakhstan, which has enjoyed a double-digit
economic growth rate over the last few years, has also had its effect.
Germany's migration policy now discourages massive 'return' of Aussiedler
and assists with vocational training, the establishment of cultural
institutions and hospitals, and works with the young in communities of
origin, the MPI report said.
"There is a need for us as a country to develop other strategies. There is
a need to show them other possibilities," the German diplomat added,
referring to the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans still in
Kazhakstan. In March 2004, an association of business enterprises led by
ethnic Germans, some of them quite prominent, met in Kazakhstan to discuss
ways of improving trade links with Germany and German institutions. It is
this sort of initiative the German Embassy would like to see expanded.
Such bridge building exercises between the two countries will be
instrumental in reducing further emigration.
The Kazakh government believes the 300,000 ethnic Germans still living in
the country give bilateral relations between the two countries a special
character. Astana views Germany as an important trading partner and
respects the wishes of those who want to emigrate. According to a Germany
Foreign Ministry website, the Kazakh authorities provide Berlin every
opportunity to grant special cultural, social and humanitarian assistance
to ethnic Germans in Kazakhstan. Even in the early 1990s immigration
quotas limiting the "return" of the Aussiedler and encouraging them to
stay put had begun to emerge. The quotas and measures may have been
related to the fact that during this period, Germany's unemployment rates
had risen, post-reunification euphoria had declined and with it the
public's enthusiasm for admitting more immigrants. Moreover, while the
total number of ethnic Germans from Kazakhstan and their dependents had
decreased, Welt said, integration problems had increased. He attributed
this in part to poor German language skills among those admitted under the
programme. This was particularly the case among extended families and
dependents that made up the majority of the immigrants at that time.n
language skills among those admitted under the programme. This was
particularly the case among extended families and dependents that made up
the majority of the immigrants at that time.
In 1993, ethnic Germans made up 75 percent of the immigrants with the rest
composed of family members. By 2003, only 20 percent of the immigrants
admitted under the Aussiedler programme were ethnic Germans, with the
remaining 80 percent being dependent family members, according to the MIS
Sufficient knowledge of German was a necessary precondition for social and
vocational integration, Welt believed, pointing to the situation of
juvenile Aussiedler. Such youths were "vulnerable to criminal activities
and drug abuse, not least because they failed at school because they
lacked knowledge of German and had reluctantly left their country of
origin and friends with their parents," the commissioner said, calling for
stronger immigration laws particularly on the issue of language. According
to the Germany Embassy in Almaty, older people are more hesitant to go
nowadays but still consider emigration a viable option for the future
prosperity of their children.
CONCLUSION While the flow of ethnic Germans from Kazakhstan may have
diminished over the past few years, the wish to emigrate for many remains
just as strong. Reconciling that dream with the reality of living in
Germany, will prove a challenge for both countries. "The ethnic Germans in
Kazakhstan want the same as everyone else. They want a good life, they
want security and a good job," Dederer asserted, noting such goals were no
different from more than 150 other ethnic groups found in the country.
Activists who spoke on condition of anonymity told IRIN that although the
Kazakh constitution guarantees equality to all Kazakhstani citizens,
including all ethnic groups, ethnic Kazakhs continue to enjoy advantages
Meanwhile, Irina Geisler, who learned German from her grandfather, keeps
her sights on the land of her ancestors thousands of miles away, while at
the same time, never forgetting who she is and where she came from. "Our
families and homes are here," Geisler said. "I will of course want to stay
in contact with my second country, which is and remains Kazakhstan."
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