Following you will find a brief introduction to the history of the Planer colonies from the founding in 1823 to the end in 1943. 120 years of history summarized in short chapters shall give you a good overview. In the future this part will be expanded with detailed and of course citeable information about the history, language, religion and culture of our ancestors.
After the initial manifesto of Catherine the Great in 1763, Alexander I renewed the privileges of colonists in 1804. The main privileges were:
- Freedom of religion
- Freedom of debts for 10 years
- Freedom of military and civil service
In 1818 - 1819 many families from West Prussia decided to follow the invitation as they were sick of years of war (Napoleonic wars) and drought, which in 1816 especially was caused by an eruption of an Asian volcano which covered Europe’s sky with ashes and therefore there was no harvest in that year.
When the colonists arrived in South Russia, they found land which was not suitable for farming and not prepared for their arrival either. They decided to reside in the Mennonite settlements, which were established there years before. It was the easiest way to find work and meanwhile step into talks with the government about better land. It took 4 years to persuade the government that better land was needed, which then was found in the Mariupol area. This land previously was part of the Greek settlements but was only used as a pasture. In 1823 the six Catholic colonies Eichwald, Göttland, Kaiserdorf, Neuhof, Tiegenort and Tiergart were founded. The first years were terrible for the colonists, as their harvest was bad and the winters were harsh. Yet, still they managed to build a parish church beginning in 1826, where the first service was held in 1830. From the beginning on there was also a school in each village. The teachers were elected and paid by the village community. The colonists managed to establish a certain level of welfare.
In 1871, all of the privileges set up by Catherine the Great and Alexander I were abolished and the colonists became normal Russian citizens. From this moment on, a russification took place. They were drafted into the regular army and paid taxes equal to all Russians. Villages were renamed and Russian became the main language in school. After there was no longer additional privilege to stay in the colonies, many young families searched for work in the Russian and Ukrainian villages in the Mariupol and Donbass area. Many new German settlements were founded close to coal mines and other industry. As a first daughter colony Bergtal was purchased from the Mennonites, who as a whole community emigrated to Canada.
The land reforms by minister Stolypin brought new opportunities for land and welfare in Siberia. In 1906, a movement to Siberia began and new colonies were founded in the Omsk area and what today is Northern Kazakhstan.
At the same time many of the colonists wanted to avoid the military service and decided to emigrate. They were welcomed by the Canadian and South American governments, as these countries were in need of workers and farmers. So even before WWI, there were essentially new daughter colonies in Siberia, South America and Canada.
WWI was the first war to which the German colonists in Russia were drafted. Many of them fought or dug trenches in the Caucasus, so that they were not able to get in touch with German military and switch sides. WWI was one of the peaks of anti-German sentiment among the Russian citizens and government.
After the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Communists in Russia, the situation got better for the Germans. Since 1919 there as an autonomous German raion on the Volga river. There, in 1924, The Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was declared, the first region with state-structures for the Germans in Russia. Between 1925 and 1939, there was also a German national raion in the Planer colonies with its center in Rosowka (Rosenberg). The raion was named after the communist leader Rosa Luxemburg and has nothing to do with the people from Luxembourg.
The whole decade of the 1930s was terrible for Ukraine and the Planer colonies especially. First the Holodomor took place, when by governmental mis regulation Ukraine suffered hunger. Many of the Planer colonists died because they had nothing to eat or tried to preserve their food for the younger generation to survive. Since 1933, Soviet citizens were forced to join kolkhozes (collective farms) and all of their land and property was confiscated by the government when they had more as dictated by the Soviet government. Many Germans lost their property during collectivization or were even exiled to Siberia. Only a few of those who were affected by these rules managed to stay close to their home place, but they still lost everything they had. In 1937, thousands of Germans were shot by the Soviet government. They were accused of collaborating with anti-revolutionary (anti-communist) organisations. While the parents were shot in this sad period of Germans in Russia history, their children were brought to orphanages. Their names and birthdates were changes – their German identity erased.
After Nazi Germany declared war on the Soviet Union on the 22nd of June 1941, the Soviet government got suspicious of all Germans living within the country and on the 28th of August 1941, the Soviet government published propaganda, which declared all Germans to be collaborators of Nazi Germany and therefore they all had to be deported to Central Asia and Siberia. First this propaganda was aimed at the Volga Germans, but soon all Germans in the European part of the Soviet Union were deported to the East as well. The colonies in Ukraine were in a special situation, as the area was occupied by the German Wehrmacht very quickly. The Soviet government did not manage to deport all people of German ethnicity and so they were under occupation among the others. By the German government they were treated differently as they had preserved their German heritage and culture. The Third Reich saw a possibility in them to establish new local administrations led by German people and therefore to strengthen the loyalty of the areas to Nazi Germany. From 1941 to 1943, these Volksdeutsche continued to live in their home places. With the defeat of Nazi Germany and the beginning of the Wehrmacht’s retreat many of the Volksdeutsche fled to the inner Reich as well. They were naturalized and brought to places, where they should settle. With the Red Army conquering East Germany, many of those former USSR citizens were brought back to the Soviet Union, accused of collaboration with the Nazis and sent to camps in Siberia.
Meanwhile all men (15-45 years) and women (16-45 years) who were deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia in 1941 were forced into labour camps all throughout Siberia. They had to work as wood cutters, coal miners and in all other important industries, under miserable conditions. All other people of German heritage were under special control – they were not allowed to leave the villages they lived in without permission and they had to sign monthly, verifying that they still live in the villages that they were brought to.
After Stalin’s death in 1953 and the visit of the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to Moscow in 1955, all the restrictions against Germans were abolished, but they still were not allowed to move to their former places.
In the 1970s, the first families managed to emigrate to the Federal Republic of Germany reuniting with family members, who stayed there in WWII. After glasnost and perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachev and the fall of the Soviet Union, most of the Germans in the former states of the Soviet Union emigrated to Germany.
Today the Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland e.V. (Germany), AHSGR (USA) and Wiedergeburt (former Soviet Union) are the representative organizations of the Germans from Russia.
The Planer colonies existed officially from 1823 to 1943 and though there are no Germans there anymore, many of the villages still exist to this day.
Text by Peter Aifeld, published in July 2020