Personalities: Being Volga German in an Anti-German World

Dec 2, 2016

The August Coup led by Communist leader Boris Yeltsin
Credit Michigan State University Soviet History Archives

The "Germans from Russia" story continues with Drs. Tim Kloberdanz and Harry Delker, experts in German anthropology and heritage. Radio journalist Chuck Anderson's interview with these men expands on the Volga Russian experience during WWII, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the American experience for German-Russian immigrants.

Tim and his wife, Rosalinda, visited Volga Germans near the port town of Saratov in August 1991, during a coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. 

The August coup was a Communist-led attempt at usurping Gorbachev and removing his democratic reforms to the Communist regime. It was not a safe time to be anyone other than an ethnic Russian. So Tim and Rosalinda, Americans living with Volga Germans, began to craft their exit strategy.

They traveled hours to find a telephone that could connect them to their loved ones back home. Moscow's airport was over 700 miles away and it was in the center of all the chaos. The future was uncertain and Tim and Rosalinda's stay began to look long-term.

The Kloberdanz couple then understood the unease of being helpless in a powerful macro-political game.

Volga Germans relocating in 1941
Credit AltHistory Wiki

Tim revisited the subject of Volga German deportation and its effect on Volga Germans during the Soviet collapse. The fear and sadness of the early 1940's was still fresh in their minds, and so the collapse was just. Granted, they appreciated Gorbachev's aim for religious freedom, but Russia needed significant change from the inside out.

What the Volga Germans remembered was a Russian government who saw the Volga River as a vulnerable place during Nazi invasion. They told the Volga Germans that the deportation was for their "safety." 

Cemetery in Rothammel, an ancestral Volga German town of Tim and Rosalinda Kloberdanz
Credit Asociacion Argentina de Descendientes de Alemanes del Volga

When Tim and Rosalinda were in Russia, their Volga German friends invited them to see their former villages, destroyed by Communists. This series of experiences led to the title of their book, Thunder on the Steppe.

Children in front of an anti-German sign
Credit Credit Chicago Daily News, Source: Library of Congress

Dr. Delker brought to light his anti-German experience in the small town of Eureka, SD, reflecting that even democratic nations like the United States couldn't shake ethnic bias.

He added that newspapers were required to be written in English (a Postmaster General had to approve German publishing and generally did not) and German ministers would have to mortgage their property to purchase liberty bonds (war bonds). Tim said that German town names were anglicized, German hymnals were burned, and German people would have to kneel and kiss the American flag.

American signage reflecting the forced Americanization of German-Americans during World Wars I & II

Keep in mind that these mandates were never actually law. They were enforced through popular opinion and federal agents acting in accordance.

Tim added that ministers of German communities, who typically had great clout, were hesitant to fight the mandates because America didn't completely trust anyone of the Old World.

In 1918, in the heat of ethnic bias, four Hutterites in Parkston, S.D. experienced a significant clash of church and state. 

From all this, we can conclude that injustice can pervade any type of government. Struggles for earning basic rights happened not so long ago and continue today, almost 23 years after the interview. If you are able to speak your language and practice your lifestyle freely, look to your ancestors with gratitude.

For the full interview, listen here:

Be sure to supplement this interview with Chuck Anderson's first interview on how the Volga Germans came to America.