Special report on ethnic Germans

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.


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 Applebaum.

"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.


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.

President of the German ethnic union Wiedergeburt, Alexander Dederer

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. 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 said.


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," she quipped.

Even today, Kazakhs 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.


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.


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.


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.

Economic prosperity in the commercial capital Almaty

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.

According to a Germany Foreign Ministry website, 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.

The Kazakh authorities provide Berlin every opportunity to grant special cultural, social and humanitarian assistance to ethnic Germans in Kazakhstan, it added.

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.

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 report.

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.


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 and privileges.

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."