The Germans From Russia

Who Are The Germans From Russia

The Germans from Russia are an identifiable ethnic group of people whose movements as a group are traceable within historical context. These movements began in the Rhineland territories of present day Germany and France--the provinces referred to as Alsace, Rhineland-Pfalz, Baden and Wuerttemberg. The political and religious turmoil surrounding the Seven Years' War in Europe, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era resulted also in severely depressed economic conditions for the German villages along the Rhine River during the last half of the 1700's and the early 1800's. This coincided with an era of an expansionist Russia acquiring territories from the Mongols along the Volga River, and from the Turks in the Black Sea region. Beginning with Catherine the Great in 1763, and continuing with her grandson, Alexander I in 1804, Russia instituted a colonization program to develop and populate these new territories by attracting German farmers to these areas with a program of economic, religious and political incentives. More than a hundred thousand Germans made the 1700 mile trip to various districts in South Russia, founding more than 300 villages along the Volga River, along the Black Sea Coast, and in Crimea. My direct ancestors were among those referred to as "Black Sea Germans", settling in the Kutschurgan region. The Mercks lived in Elsass, the Eberles lived in Mannheim, along the Kutschurgan Liman.

My ancestral families lived in South Russia for about one hundred years before emigrating. My grandfather, Joseph John Merck, had been required to serve in the czar’s army for four years between 1879 and 1884. After marrying Katherine Eberle and establishing a family, he did not want his sons to have to serve in the military. He emigrated first to Brazil but left there for Argentina after only a few months when they determined the homesteading region undesirable. In 1912 Grandfather brought his family to Karlsruhe, North Dakota, where his brother-in-law Felix Eberle had previously settled. They found it comforting to be in a region where most of their neighbors were also immigrants from South Russia, were of the same religion and spoke the same language.

But their friends and relatives who stayed behind in Russia were destined to endure even greater turmoil and even more relocations. Those who survived the strife of the Russian Revolution, and the resulting Civil War, the famine of the 1930's, and the purges of 1937 and 1938 were forcibly uprooted en masse from their villages during World War II. The Volga and Crimean Germans were exiled to Siberia by Stalin at the beginning of the war. The Black Sea Germans were ordered by Hitler in 1944 to abandon their homes and make the three and one-half month trek north and west to holding camps in Poland. As the Wehrmacht collapsed in 1945, millions of displaced Europeans fled before the advancing Red Army, trying to make their way into Western Germany. At the war's end, Stalin reclaimed all former Russian citizens according to the terms of the Yalta Agreement. Russia repatriated 350,000 ethnic Germans who had been living between the Dnieper and Dniester Rivers in present day Ukraine, and exiled them to prison labor camps in Siberia. They were shipped like cattle in rail cars out of Germany beginning in May 1945.

These Germans spent ten years (1946-1956), along with hundreds of thousands of other Russian citizens, in forced labor camps, in isolation from the rest of the world. Krushchev's Amnesty finally allowed for limited mobility within Russia, but prevented them from returning to their original pre-war villages. After enduring the winters of Siberia, many of these Russian-Germans chose the warmer climate of Kazahkstan, encouraged also by the USSR's efforts to establish agriculture on the semi-arid Asian plains.

The years since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 have seen a flood of applications as German people from the former USSR applied to immigrate into the Democratic Republic of Germany. A few have even returned to their original pre-war villages in Ukraine. Our Merck family is very fortunate that Joseph John Merck had the courage and foresight to bring his family to the United States and join thousands of other Germans from Russia who settled in the Dakotas by the early 1900s.

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