“I Think Ur A Contra”: Forced Migration During The First World War

by  Sam Yu
(Note: The part of my title in quotes is a song by Vampire Weekend from their 2010 album Contra.)

This story began as just a simple assignment given to me by my HIST 373 eastern Europe professor. The assignment was simple: explore some aspect of the First World War set in east Europe that directly involved or impacted east Europeans. What it led to, however, was an unintentional discovery of an instance of human injustice that has not, in my opinion, gotten enough attention or research considering the magnitude of what happened. The human injustice I am referring to is that of how Germans and Jews living within the Russian Empire at the time of the First World War were unfairly labeled as unreliable, problematic, inherently suspect, and the like and were subsequently forced to emigrate from their lands. In essence, these innocent people who had no real relations to the main players involved in the First World War were accused by people with power in the Russian Empire to be aiding the enemy nations and were deported without any due process. Those Germans and Jews living in the Russian Empire weren’t the only subject to this kind of forced migration. The people living in the areas where the Russian army occupied were also at risk of being forcefully expelled from their land if they were thought to be aiding the enemy nation in any way, shape, or form. Essentially, the story I plan to tell is one where innocent people had to pay for the crimes of individuals, where innocent people were wrongfully labeled as problematic, and where innocent people were deported without any compensation or reason.

The status of Germans and Jews before the War.

The first source that I found that basically put this whole bloody story into motion was a scholarly article written by Cynthia M. Vakareliyska which centered on the forced relocation of Russian-Germans during the First World War by the Russian Imperial Government. The article is aptly titled “Due Process in Wartime? Secret Imperial Russian Police Files on the Forced Relocation of Russian Germans During World War I” (Nationalities Papers, Vol. 37, no. 5) and can be found here. In this article, Vakareliyska discusses how before the war began, the Germans living in the Russian Empire enjoyed a rather positive reputation. In fact, she explicitly states how the Germans were admired by the Russians for their “industriousness, initiative, success in agriculture and business, loyalty, and political conservatism.” (590) As for the Jews living within the empire, they didn’t enjoy the same admiration that the Russian-Germans had, but they were at a minimum tolerated and allowed to remain in the Russian Empire.

http://www.glasgownecropolis.org/profiles/joseph-f-gomoszynski/

http://www.glasgownecropolis.org/profiles/joseph-f-gomoszynski/ The area shaded light green is Russian Poland, an area where both Russian-Germans and Jews resided and an area that would eventually become a battleground during World War I

The shift from positivity and toleration to unreliability and suspicion

The main event that essentially triggered this change in Russian attitudes towards Germans and Jews was the atmosphere created by the First World War. In his book entitled Nationalizing the Russian Empire: The Campaign against Enemy Aliens during World War I (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), Erich Lohr gives a great, quick, concise description behind the motives of the Russians with respect to how they viewed Germans and Jews. He states how the main operations that the Russian government took concerned mainly “security issues raised by the nature of total war” and how the government wanted to prevent enemy subjects, especially Germans, from joining their respective armies (121). These security issues with respect to the Germans in the Russian Empire were essentially the belief that the Germans were not to be trusted and would turn against the Russian state, so the Russians had to beat them to the punch and deport them before the Germans could turn on them. With respect to the Jews living in the Russian Empire, Lohr writes how the Russian state and army “convinced itself that Russia’s Jews were unreliable, that they had close ties to their kin abroad, they they were more attracted to the Austrian and German cultures than to the Russian, and… engaged in spying and espionage on a broad scale.” (137)

Other sources also echo Lohr’s assertion that with the onslaught of the First World War, the Russian Empire began to look towards Germans and Jews under a very suspicious light. For instance, Peter Gatrell writes in his article entitled “Refugees and Forced Migrants during the First World War” (Immigrants & Minorities, Vol. 26, March/July 2008, pp. 82-110) that “prolonged war disposed states to engage in mass deportation of civilians who were believed to threaten military freedom of manoeuvre and to undermine the war effort more broadly.” (82) A specific example that Gatrell cites in his article is that when the Russians occupied Galicia and Bukovnia in 1914, “Russian military commanders deported local notables and many of the remaining Galician Jews into the Russian interior, citing the need to ‘protect’ the non-Jewish population from the consequences of collaboration.'” (84)

These issues are also supported and highlighted in an entry written by Peter Gatrell titled “Resettlement” in the online International Encyclopedia of the First World War (http://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/Resettlement, last accessed 3 Dec 2014). In this encyclopedia entry, Gatrell discusses how the “anti-Semitism of Russian commanders… singled out Jews as dangerous ‘elements'” eventually leading to the mass deportations of Jews both in the Russian Empire and in Russian-occupied territories such as Galicia (Gatrell, “Deportations and Organised Labour drafts on Enemy-Occupied Territory”). Additionally, when the Russian forces occupied East Prussia during the war, they expelled “15,000 German government officials and other civilians, men, women, and children were deported” on the grounds that they were “spies or to prevent them from serving in enemy uniform.” (Gatrell, “Deportations and Organised Labour drafts on Enemy-Occupied Territory”)

Another fantastic article that reflects these notions of suspicions that the Russians had against Germans and Jews is found in Joshua A. Sanborn’s scholarly article “Unsettling the Empire: Violent Migrations and Social Disaster in Russia during World War I” (The Journal of Modern History Vol. 77, no. 2, June 2005, pp. 290-324). Sanborn states how the Russian army who were occupying territories during the war had “an intense, almost pathological suspicion of civilian populations right from the beginning of the war.” (303) Specifically, he notes that the Russian military men believed “all civilians were suspect, but some were far more suspect than others. Germans and Jews were basically irredeemable.” (303) What Sanborn attributes to this suspicion towards Germans and Jews is that “while the war was going on… The army was scared, vulnerable, and bordering on paranoid” which led the Russian army to have this “inchoate hostility” towards Germans and Jews leading to eventual “explicit policies of ethnic scapegoating and ethnic cleansing.” (304) For instance, when a fire broke in a village that the Russian army occupied, local residents spoke of how the Jews set it off in order to signal to enemy troops. When the Russian army heard of these claims, they “robbed, beat, and arrested” local Jews who were accused of these allegations (305). According to Sanborn it was these “ethnicized suspicions” that led to “implications for a more organized system of deportation.” (305) Basically, these notions of suspicion and unreliability that the Russian army had against Germans and Jews were heightened and exacerbated due to the nature of World War I which culminated to the point where the empire and army felt the urgent need to deport them.

In essence, the main theme that’s radiating from all of these sources is that the atmosphere created by the nature of the First World War helped in causing both the Russian Imperial Government and the Russian army to view certain minorities within their own empire and in areas they occupied with strong suspicion. In Russia’s line of reasoning, since they were fighting against Germans during the First World War, all Germans that they encountered were either against them or had the potential to turn against them since they belonged to the same ethnic group as Germans. Therefore,  the Russians had to do something about the Germans, which turned out to be forcibly deporting them, before the Germans turned against them. As for the Jews, the atmosphere of the First World War more or less solidified and heightened the already present bittersweet attitude against Jews. Before the war, the Russians weren’t the biggest fans of the Jews, but tolerated their existence nonetheless. But, once the First World War caught wind, the Russians began to act on their ill feelings towards the Jews and deported them along with the Germans due to fear of espionage, fear of collaboration with the enemy, or due to pure anti-Semitism.

What it meant to be “unreliable”: The criteria for being forced to migrate

With respect to the criteria that the Russian government and army used to determine who was at risk for deportation, Eric Lohr’s book, Nationalizing the Russian Empire: The Campaign against Enemy Aliens during World War I (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), again gives rich, pertinent information on this specific criteria. He writes how at first the criteria for Germans at first just included “all male subjects of service age” but later over time “the categories affected widened until they amounted to nearly all enemy subjects – including men of all ages, women, and children.” (121) Specifically for Germans, Russian military policy stated that “‘all male German colonists’ over fifteen years old” were to be deported from the Russian Empire (130). However, these deportations presented a struggle military officials who were carrying out these policies since it was difficult to determine who was “German” and what was meant by a “German colonist.” (131) This led to deportations that were taking place in “a haphazard manner” since military officials were often left to their own devices to determine who to deport due to the ambiguity of the policies (131). Some “army commanders and governors saw fit to deport the entire German colonist population” regardless of age and gender while other officials “limited the deportations to males over fifteen.” (131) What this section in Eric Lohr’s book brings to light is that it reveals the disorder of this historical even and the strong lack of due process that the Germans in the Russian Empire experienced. Although military policy stated that male German colonists over the age of 15 were to be deported, it never made clear what it meant to be German. The policy never specified if one had to have x amount of German relatives, be ethnically German by blood, or just identify as German in the first place. Additionally, the policy never stated whether other categories of German people (i.e. women and children) were exempt from deportation. This ambiguity behind the deportation policy illustrates how much disorder was involved with the military policy and how in essence, whole German populations were being forcibly expelled left and right due to the lack of clarity inherent within the policies themselves. In addition to being wholly ambiguous, the military policies involving the deportation of Germans never stated anything about whether or not the Germans in question had any due process at all. Nowhere in the Russian policies did they mention that the Germans would be given a trial or a chance to defend themselves before being forced to emigrate elsewhere. This clear lack of due process in the Russian deportation policies signify how Germans in the Russian Empire, and in subsequent Russian-occupied territories, during the First World War had no due process, no rights, and, in essence, no agency.

As for the deportation policies concerning Jews, Erich Lohr also writes in his article “The Russian Army and the Jews: Mass Deportation, Hostages, and Violence during World War I,” (The Russian Review, Vol. 60, July 2001, pp. 404-419) how the Russian army policy against Jews “followed a similar trajectory” as the policies against Germans during the First World War (406). With respect to the specific criteria of which Jews were to be deported, Lohr mentions how all the policy stipulated was that “‘all Jews and suspect individuals'” were to be deported from the empire as well as the “entire region of military activity where troops are present.” (409) These Jews who were suspected of foul play were then either formally deported meaning that they were boarded onto trains and taken somewhere far, far away, or they were informally expelled meaning that they were just told to leave their residencies “without specifying where the residents were to go and without providing transportation.” (409) Erich Lohr’s article on the treatment of Jews at the hands of the Russian army reveals how the Jews faced the same discriminatory policies that the Germans faced. Like the Germans, the criteria for determining which Jews to deport and which were allowed to stay were extremely loose. The policies against Jews had no specifics with respect to age, gender, occupation, and what it meant to be a “Jew.” This, naturally, gave much leeway for the Russian army to determine who to deport which led to the deportation of “entire Jewish communities when [the army] suspected any individual Jew of spying” for the enemy (409). Also, the policies against the Jews, much like the policies against the Germans, had no guarantees of a right to trial or clear evidence to back the army’s assertions of suspicion which essentially meant that the Jews were being deported without any concrete evidence and basically without any due process. This strongly conveys how during the First World War, basic rights were completely out the window for the Germans and Jews at the hands of the Russian Empire and army and how as the severity of the war increased, the fundamental rights of Germans and Jews slowly eroded.

So what? Why should anyone care?

The main reason why I feel this event is something that is significant in and of itself and ought to have more attention is exactly just that, this historical event has received little to no scholarship in the academic world. What is generally unknown is that this instance of forced migration that Germans and Jews faced at the hands of the Russian Empire and army is one of the very first instances of such mass deportation until the mass deportation of Jews during the Holocaust. Yet, the Holocaust has received massive attention and scholarship from historians and history students alike despite the fact that both historical events follow the same trajectory. Although the forced migrations of German and Jews by the Russian Empire and army were done on a lesser scale, like the Holocaust, it still involved innocent people who were deemed to be a problem that ought to be gotten rid of. This then led to these people being forced to leave their homes and lives against their will and be carted off to God knows where, and in most cases, never to be heard from again.

Another reason why this historical event ought to be looked more into is that this event clearly involves an act of human injustice. What essentially happened to the German and Jews by the Russian army during the First World War is that they were labeled as irrevocably unreliable, with no clear foundation of evidence, and subsequently forced them to emigrate elsewhere, again without any clear, concrete evidence. The fact that the Russian army were forcibly expelling people based on subjective feelings of paranoia and suspicion rather than on grounds of warranted claims and objective evidence. This clear lack of due process that the Germans and Jews experienced during the First World War is a strong example of a huge war crime against humanity. The allegations against the Germans and Jews by the Russian Empire and army were clearly unsupported as exemplified by the sources, the actions taken by the Russian army involved a radical erosion of rights for the Germans and Jews, and what became of the deported Germans and Jews is ambiguous at best. Some became war refugees, some were sent to internment camps, and some merely perished. What is known, however, is that the Russian Empire and army acted unjustly against the German and Jewish minority and for this reason alone, this historical event ought to have more attention and scholarship in academia so that those innocent lives who were affected by these forced migrations can still have their stories be remembered, honored, and not completely forgotten.

(http://online.wsj.com/ww1/migration-in-Europe) Although not a photo of the actual German and Jewish migrants, this image of WWI refugees is highly reminiscent of the conditions that the Germans and Jews probably faced after being forced to emigrate from their homes.

(http://online.wsj.com/ww1/migration-in-Europe) Although not a photo of the actual German and Jewish migrants, this image of WWI refugees is highly reminiscent of the conditions that the Germans and Jews probably faced after being forced to emigrate from their homes.

Bibliography

Gatrell, Peter. “Refugees and Forced Migrants during the First World War.” Immigrants & Minorities 112, no. 1-2 (March/July 2008): 82-110. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02619280802442613#.VIDOvKOa8RI (accessed 4 December 2014).

Gatrell, Peter. “Resettlement.” In International Encyclopedia of the First World War, edited by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, Heather Jones, Jennifer Keene, Alan Kramer, and Bill Nasson. Berlin: Freie Universität Berlin 2014. http://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/Resettlement (accessed 4 December 2014).

Lohr, Eric. Nationalizing the Russian Empire: The Campaign Against Enemy Aliens during World War I. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Lohr, Eric. “The Russian Army and the Jews: Mass Deportation, Hostages, and Violence during World War I.” The Russian Review 60, (July 2001): 404-419. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2679668 (accessed 4 December 2014).

Sanborn, Joshua A. “Unsettling the Empire: Violent Migrations and Social Disaster in Russia during World War I.” The Journal of Modern History 77, no. 2 (June 2005): 290-324. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/431816?origin=JSTOR-pdf (accessed 4 December 2014).

Vakareliyska, Cynthia M. “Due Process in Wartime? Secret Imperial Russian Police Files on the Forced Relocation of Russian Germans during World War I.” Nationalities Papers 37, no. 5 (September 2009): 589-611. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00905990903122842#.VIDREqOa8RI (accessed 4 December 2014).