As I write this in the aftermath of the seventeenth anniversary of 9/11, I count my blessings that I am here to write this article. To be sure, this is no patriotic orgy of thanking the military and bowing to the U.S. government security apparatus that is, in theory, hard at work keeping me safe while I sleep at night. No, this is a cautionary tale of the dangers of placing your trust in government, the disruptive impacts of unbridled imperialistic warmongering and the perils of nationalistic fervor as told through the history and experiences of the Volga Germans in the mid 1800’s.
Imagine being presented with an opportunity to move to a new land, ostensibly provided at no cost and with travel expenses to be paid by an outside entity. Imagine, in an era of inevitable conscription and assured death, an opportunity to be exempted from military service. Imagine an assurance of freedom of religion, a guarantee to be able to maintain common practices and a thirty-year exemption from taxes. Even by today’s standards, this is a very enlightened and generous offer. In 1763, at the end of the Seven Years’ War, this very offer was given by Catherine the Great to many people throughout Europe (Catherine’s Second Manifesto). Although many were given the offer, the focus was to the German people and many did come to settle on the lower Volga River basin, about 450 miles Southeast of Moscow. My ancestors were among the people who took this offer, an offer they would ultimately regret and one that would have dire consequences.
Having grown weary of the fighting and tax burden associated with the Seven Years’ War, it was appealing for many Germans to take the offer and start life anew. In 1766, many began the year long journey and began the process of establishing or expanding agricultural settlements in numerous locations throughout the lower Volga River basin. In the beginning, relations among the Russians and the settlers were generally decent and there was relative stability in an area that was somewhat isolated from Imperial Russian control. Indeed, achieving stability in an area prone to roving bandits was a primary, albeit quietly stated, goal for the Russian Empire. Eventually, tensions began to mount between the German settlers and their Russian neighbors on account of the initial German farming successes and the special privileges that they had been granted. Throughout the 1800’s, many ethnic Germans continued to see economic successes in a number of industrial trades and many had become large landowners. Anti-German sentiment would begin to worsen with the rise of Russian nationalism in the late 19th century, a time which, as described by the Norka-Russia website, “the Slavophile movement in Russia cast all ethnic Germans as their mortal enemy and the Volga Germans as a serious threat to the security of the empire. The Slavophile press consistently scapegoated the Volga Germans and other German communities in the Russian Empire.” It was inevitable that a scapegoat was created and it is one of the primary tools of class warfare: pit one faction against another, keep the masses distracted and consolidate power in the process. Indeed, some things never change.
Alas, as go so many government promises, the guarantees from Catherine’s Manifesto began to be stripped away with the stroke of a pen. In the 1870’s Tsar Alexander II issued imperial decrees that instituted compulsory military conscription for the Volga Germans and revoked the right of self-government. Many were sent to war, never to return. Imperialist states always need warm bodies for cannon fodder. In response to these decrees, many Volga Germans began to emigrate to the United States, Canada, Brazil and Argentina, beginning in 1875. Despite the loss of privileges, many Germans did choose to remain and would continue to see economic successes as Russia began to industrialize in the latter part of the 19th century. But, those who did stay would come to know the era of lost privileges to be the proverbial canary in the coal mine of future turbulent times. After 1881, Russian language education became compulsory and anti-German sentiment would swell once again with the rise of the newly unified and increasingly powerful German nation state under Kaiser Wilhelm II.
It’s important to pause and reflect on the latter part of the 19th Century with regards to geo-politics and war. There were long simmering tensions beginning to boil over between Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (among others) due to each empire’s imperialist ambitions. In the late 1890’s there was the internal explosion on the USS Maine and the jingoistic yellow journalism that prompted the beginning of the Spanish-American war and ostensibly, the beginning of the American Empire. Circling back to Russia, there was the Russo-Japanese War from 1904-1905, which grew out of rival imperial ambitions of the Russian Empire and the Empire of Japan over Manchuria and Korea. This failed war with Japan was largely viewed as indicative of the failure of the Russian Empire writ large and contributed to the turbulent era of revolution in Russia, ultimately leading to the execution of Tsar Nicholas II. Finally, the outbreak of WW1 in 1914 wrought upon the world an era of warfare and destruction, the ripples of which can still be felt to this day.
If you were a Volga German during the seventy-year span from 1850-1920, there was a decision to be made: do leave the land that you and your ancestors had come to know as home for the last 150 years? What would it take for you to throw it all away and start over again? Consider that many became sugar beet farmers in a foreign land with a foreign language on the dusty plains of Nebraska and Colorado. Also, consider this quote from Russian General Polivanov, on order of Grand Duke Nicholas: “Russia’s Germans must all be driven out, without respect of age, sex, any supposed usefulness, or their many years of residence in the empire.” The writing was on the wall, but do you have the resources and connections required to venture to a new land halfway around the world?
War presents unparalleled opportunities for government to execute any number of nefarious plans, as evidenced by Russian Foreign Minister Sazonov who, again from the Norka-Russia website, “called for a “final solution” to the ethnic German problem in Russia, noting that the time had come…to deal with this long over-due problem, for the current war [WWI] has created the conditions to make it possible to solve this problem once and for all.” For those able to escape, this seems a fitting place to wrap this up with a happy ending. Unfortunately, there is none, for the Volga Germans were caught up in a nationalistic nightmare with hatred surrounding them on all sides. Nationalistic fervor had taken over and many Russians despised the ethnic Germans: the choice was to flee or face conscription and later, deportation. Alternately, one could flee to Germany and get caught up in the rise of newly unified Germany with assured conscription and fight against Russia. Some fled to the United States, only to find themselves facing intense resentment for being German and got caught up in the Teddy Roosevelt nationalistic fervor. The only way to prove loyalty and avoid persecution was to join up and go back and fight in Europe. The insanity was overwhelming.
All this was in the span of a lifetime for some and it only brings us to the WWI era. For those unable to leave, the nightmare was only beginning. WWI increased and propelled anti-German sentiment to unimaginable levels and from 1915 to 1916 approximately 200,000 ethnic Germans were deported to Siberia, all under the guise of outing spies, saboteurs, and well, just being German. The massive deportations continued in the aftermath of WWI and the magnitude is staggering. I began this article stating that I am lucky to be here writing this and here’s why: only about 25 percent of Volga Germans were able to escape and immigrate to the United States and other locations between 1875 and 1920. After the 1920, the Iron Curtain descended and the fates of the Volga Germans were all but sealed, as the Communists in the Soviet Union eliminated any possibility of leaving the country. President Wilson claimed to make the world safe for democracy, but what came of it? From the massive death tolls of WWI came the rise of communism and fascism throughout a large portion of Europe and another world war. So, what is trust when it comes to war and government? The only trust is government trusting that the populace will go along with every lie told and will march right off and commit any atrocity, under any pretense, for love of country and all that empty, nationalistic rhetoric.
The story of the Volga Germans is why I am anti-war. Government lies and nationalistic propaganda sent my ancestors and many others to certain death in the Siberian tundra. This was only made possible via the people enabling a massive nation state to exist. The trust placed in government to divvy up the spoils of taxes leads to inevitable division, hatred and plunder. The sheer magnitude of death destruction and lost opportunity from the 20th century way of war is unfathomable. The Volga Germans were lied to, but their story is not unique. There will always be another government cabal eager to fill the void and mislead the masses to assured death and destruction. We would be wise to stay vigilant and question everything. The only one really looking out for you, is you.
Short Bio: Nick lives in Denver, CO and writes a monthly article on www.denverlibertarian.com covering history, war and politics through the lens of libertarianism. The website includes a collection articles on events past and present: local, national and beyond, to challenge the mainstream narrative with meaningful, thought provoking analysis. The goal is to present, in a manner easily understood, how Austrian economics and libertarian philosophical concepts can apply to the local and voluntary experiences that occur everyday.
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