Germany: The Lost Sheep

Most of the German immigrants in West Germany aren’t from East Germany.

When the children of medieval Hamelin, in Lower Saxony, were led underground by the legendary Pied Piper, they reemerged a thousand miles to the southeast, deep in the Carpathian Mountains, not far from the Black Sea. The fable, immortalized by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the brothers Grimm, and Robert Browning, has historical roots in the twelfth-century German colonization of Transylvania, which was then in Hungary and is now in Romania. Summoned by the Magyar King, Géza II, to protect Hungary’s eastern flank against the Byzantine Empire, the German immigrants in Transylvania founded what came to be known as the Siebenbürgen, or seven cities. To this day these fortified towns—despite the Romanian appellations on international maps—are known to all Germans by the names the settlers gave them: for example, Kronstadt (Brașov), Klausenburg (Cluj-Napoca), Hermannstadt (Sibiu), Schässburg (Sighișoara). Such was the impression left on visitors by these dour, hardworking German immigrants that when Jonathan Harker, in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, travels east through Transylvania to Count Dracula’s castle, he naturally is said to alight at a town whose name is rendered not as Romanians or Hungarians would have it but rather as Germans do: “Klausenburg.”

Ethnic German youths in Romania served in large numbers in the Waffen-SS as German forces swept across Eastern Europe during the Second World War. One ethnic German from Romania I spoke with last year remembers the early years of the war, when she was a young girl, as a time of “no poverty, of a protected social structure.” She says, “We had a nice house and garden in Kronstadt, a very bürgerlich [bourgeois] life-style. My father sang in the church choir. We put on our own Wagner operas.” The “breaking point” in her life, from good to bad, she told me, came in 1945, after the Nazis withdrew from Transylvania.

Russian soldiers, bayonets drawn, entered her home, taking her father and fifteen-year-old brother away to forced-labor camps. Her brother escaped. Her father died soon thereafter, while working in the mines of the Donets Basin, in the southern Soviet Union. Only in 1973 was the family officially notified of his death. The years between, under the Communist Romanian government, saw an upsparing procession of suffering. The woman and her relatives were evicted from their house and made to share a single room for fourteen years, with no private kitchen or bathroom. There were chronic food shortages. The Germans’ culture and dialect were suppressed. In 1979, after much official harassment, the woman, her husband, and their two sons were allowed to emigrate, without any possessions, to West Germany; the government of West Germany for years paid Romania more than $4,000 for each exit visa that it granted to an ethnic German. “Believe me, I know what it is to be German,” the woman, nearly in tears, said to me.

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Multiply her story by 3.5 million and you will begin to grasp the significance of a variable that could powerfully influence the evolution of West Germany—and of Germany as a whole. For obvious reasons the world’s attention has recently been drawn to the exodus of hundreds of thousands of East Germans to West Germany, to the tearing-down of parts of the Berlin Wall, and to the suddenly brighter prospects for some sort of future German unification. The existence of large numbers of ethnic Germans beyond the borders of either of the Germanys is a quieter issue, but among Germans everywhere it possesses great emotional force, and it figures large in West Germany’s domestic politics and foreign policy.

The largest number of ethnic Germans outside Germany—some two million of them—live in the Soviet Union; many are descendants of settlers lured to Russia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by Catherine the Great and Czar Alexander I to populate regions conquered from Turks and Crimean Tartars. Hundreds of thousands of these Russian Germans now live in Siberia and Central Asia, to which they were brutally evacuated from European Russia and the Volga region by Stalin’s secret police after the Nazi invasion. Today they and their offspring live side by side with ethnic Uzbeks and Tadzhiks in grim, crowded apartment blocks. I interviewed several ethnic German refugees from the city of Dushanbe, in Tadzhikistan, not far from the Afghan border. They spoke good German, albeit with a distinct Russian accent. By speaking only German at home with their children, and regularly attending Catholic Church services with other ethnic Germans, they had been able to preserve their cultural identity.

Outside the Soviet Union there are a million Germans living in western Poland, in what were the Reich provinces of Pomerania and Silesia until Poland was displaced westward after the Second World War. And Germans are scattered throughout Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and what used to be East Prussia (now northeast Poland and Soviet Kaliningrad).

These ethnic Germans have a proud, unambiguous sense of national identity, one that has been tempered by the experience of exile and persecution. And many of them are coming home. “The lost sheep are being brought back to the Promised Land,” observes Ingeborg Fleischhauer, an expert on German minorities who lives in Bonn. “The ethnic-German exodus from the Soviet Union is running larger than that of the Jews in the 1970s. It is the biggest legal emigration in Soviet history.” Last year 377,000 ethnic Germans emigrated to West Germany from the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries other than East Germany—30,000 more than the number who emigrated from East Germany during last year’s celebrated influx.

“We should thank God for these people,” Fleischhauer says, “It is as if they come from heaven. They are a solution to all our problems.” Until recently the Federal Republic’s population, now 61 million, was declining; France, with 56 million people, was poised to overtake West Germany by the turn of the century. But the immigrants have stabilized West Germany’s population. The newcomers will help solve the manpower problem that the Federal Republic’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr, was expecting to face in coming years. They will fill blue-collar jobs that West Germans don’t seem to want. And their desire to work and to consume, after years of communist torpor, will, according to some experts, sustain West Germany’s already long postwar economic boom.

“The new settlers will change Germany just as the millions of other immigrants from the East changed Germany after World War Two,” predicts Hartmut Koschyk, the general secretary of Der Bund der Vertriebenen (The League of Expellees), the most important of several pro-immigration lobbying organizations in West Germany. In the war’s aftermath some fourteen million ethnic Germans fled from their homes before advancing Soviet armies, or were driven from them by angry, vengeful local populations. They were condemned to plod west, through winter snows, across hundreds of miles of devastated Eastern European landscape. Two million Germans perished, mainly women and children. Given that many ethnic Germans collaborated with the Nazis, compassion for the refugee “Volksdeutsche” was lacking in the late 1940s. Their displacement, however, represented the largest movement of population in European history. It was the arrival of at least 12 million of these people in West Germany, many economists believe, that gave the West German economy a crucial jump start.

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The economic implications of the newest wave of immigration, however, remain a matter of debate; the influx of East German refugees late last year and the uncertain character of West Germany’s relations with its fraternal neighbor, among other things, cloud the picture. In any event, few in West Germany doubt that the social and psychological consequences of the immigration will be as important as the economic ones.

Simon Wiesenthal, a Jewish concentration-camp survivor and the Vienna-based hunter of Nazi war criminals, believes that the new wave of immigration can only fortify West German democracy. He looks back at the way a war-smashed Germany gave succor to 12 million refugees from the East. A refusal or inability to do so, he observes, would have caused enormous and protracted problems (consider, he says, the consequences of the Arab refusal to embrace refugee Palestinians); but Germany extended its hand, and came to a moral turning point. It was an act of generosity was largely automatic, and was offered by a population that lacked the means to feed and clothe even itself, let alone hordes of newcomers.

More problematic, the new immigrants—including the recent East German arrivals—are living proof to West Germans that “Germany” is a concept that extends far beyond the borders of the Federal Republic, or even of West and East Germany together. The ethnic Germans are bringing West Germans face to face with a troublesome past. They use words that went unspoken in the homeland for decades, because of their association with the Nazis: words like Volk (people, nation, or tribe) and Reich (empire). Old maps seem to have emerged from nowhere. One sees them not only at the immigrant associations but also in West German government offices and border-police headquarters, and even foreign embassies. Germany on these maps is a fearsome bulge of territory stretching from France to Lithuania. It includes all of West and East Germany, and most of western and northeastern Poland; gray islands throughout Eastern Europe denote ethnic-German settlement areas. Handing me several such maps, Hartmut Koschyk, of the League of Expellees, made sure to emphasize the existence of “German lands inside the present Polish state.” Another league official refers to East Germany as “Middle Germany,” explaining that the “real Eastern” Germany is in Poland and the Baltic states. Detlef Kühn, the president of the All-German Institute, in Bonn, says, “For decades the Cold War cut us off from the East, but now Germans are resuming their interest.” Kühn notes that “there was never a formal peace treaty after the war, and the German Reich as it existed in 1937 still constitutes the just and legal boundaries of Germany.” He adds that the Federal Republic’s Bastic Law of 1949, which established the boundaries of West Germany around the American, British, and French occupation zones, was meant to be only “temporary.”

Technically, Koschyk and Kühn are right. But as other Germans have pointed out, arguments like theirs promote a state of affairs that, given the legacy of Nazi rule, is simply unacceptable to the outside world. In an interview shortly before his death, Hoimar von Ditfurth, who was a professor at the University of Heidelberg and an active supporter of West Germany’s left-wing Green Party, told me that he saw people like Koschyk and Kühn as representing “a core of reaction that is unable to learn anything from history.”

Nevertheless, the immigrant associations are emblematic of a certain drift in West German politics. They occupy the right flank of Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s right-of-center Christian Democratic Union. And as nearly everyone in Bonn will tell you, it is rightward that Kohl is headed, in order to steal the thunder of the Republicans, a new extremist party vaguely reminiscent of a neo-Nazi movement. The Republicans won 7.1 percent of the German vote in last year’s European parliamentary elections. It is thus no accident that Kohl’s CDU pampers groups like The League of Expellees, giving them money to publish more books, brochures, and maps. Wolfgang G. Gibowski, a Mannheim-based political pollster, says that “national feeling in West Germany is stronger than you may want to believe.”

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The Germans from the Soviet Union, Romania, Poland, and elsewhere will be more important than the East German refugees in determining the future character of the new nationalism in Germany. The East Germans are escaping communism; the ethnic Germans are escaping not only communism but also discrimination against them as Germans. They have a much better developed sense of German nationalism than the East Germans do, and their lobbying mechanism in Bonn has been in operation for four decades.

The eventual reunification of East and West Germany is already taken for granted by many. The big question remaining is whether that enlarged future Germany will be neutral or part of an expanded North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But Germany’s relationship—both political and psychological—with its lost territories to the east will take longer to work out. Even after the current migration of ethnic Germans slows, between one and two million of them are expected to remain in Eastern Europe. And their immigrant relatives in West Germany will make sure that Bonn—or Berlin—doesn’t ever forget them.