From the late Middle Ages up until the Second World War, Germans and Jews as diaspora groups and minority populations in different parts of Eastern Europe constituted a formative economic and cultural leaven.[1] A comparative study of the two socio-culturally and religiously distinguished groups has yet to be undertaken.[2] The historical role of both groups as imperial or post-imperial minorities and their temporary historical entanglement remained largely ignored in the shadow of the holocaust and in the context of the politics of history during the Cold War. It suggests itself, for instance, to research the history of the colonization and the inland colonization in East-Central Europe as an entangled history. This also applies to the settlement of the black soil regions in the Russian Empire since the reign of Catherine II and the related inland colonization of the territories of “New Russia” (Novorossiya). Similarities and historical parallelisms between Germans and Jews were noticeable not only in the Tsarist Empire, however. Independently of the self-concept of those who spoke it, German as the language of the civilized and educated world served as a communications medium for enlightened ideas in places as different as Riga and St. Petersburg, Lemberg and Odessa, Lodz and Czernowitz, Posen and Budapest, Bratislava and Prague.[3] The extent to which one perceived the Jews of Eastern Europe as representatives of German culture became apparent not least during the First World War, when, for instance, the Russian Army Command’s decision to expel Jews as well as Germans from a security zone behind the front was clearly informed by this perception. Not only were both groups sweepingly considered as disloyal, Jews and Germans featured as cultural aliens in the notions of other population groups. While the Germans were seen as the “chief representatives of the modern era” in the Tsarist Empire, the Jews were about to replace the Germans in this respect in parts of the Russian Empire as they had done before elsewhere in Eastern Europe.[4]

The history of Germans and Jews as minorities in states with a majority of people of different faith who spoke a different language also continued after the end of the First World War in the post-imperial nation-states. German and Jewish politicians from Eastern Europe cooperated in the course of the Congress of European Nationalities to assert that respect be accorded to the minority rights they had been assured of in the Paris Peace Conference. The reinstalled Polish state accommodated significant Jewish and German minorities that had a political, cultural, and economic life of their own after 1918. In the early Soviet Union, one promoted, under the banner of communism, the cultural autonomy of Jews and Germans until Stalinization began in the 1930s. In 1924, a Volga German Republic was established while the territorial component of the cultural autonomy of the Jews was to be realized only towards the end of the 1920s in the Autonomous Region of Birobidzhan (Birobidžan), in the Far East of the Soviet Union. The genocide of the Jews committed by the Germans and the deportations of the ethnic Germans in Stalin’s Soviet Union brought the historical role of Germans and Jews in Eastern Europe to a sudden end. This was also true for East-Central Europe and South-East Europe from where a significant part of the German population fled, was expelled, or deported.

In the light of these events, it becomes clear that not only the beginnings of the history of Germans and Jews in Eastern Europe, in the form of the so-called colonization of the East, were closely interwoven, but so was their end in the early 20th century, too.[5]

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, there is a newly awakened interest in the transnational history and the heritage of these multi-ethnic cultural landscapes of Eastern Europe. It was particularly the immigration from the states of the former Soviet Union which confronted German (as well as Israeli) society - in the form of German and Jewish immigrants - with the conditions of life in the Soviet and post-Soviet reality.[6]




[1] Kappeler, Andreas, Osteuropäische Geschichte, in: Maurer, Michael (Hrsg.), Aufriß der historischen Wissenschaften, Bd. 2: Räume, Stuttgart 2001, p. 213.

[2] As a first endeavour: Grill, Tobias (Hrsg.), Jews and Germans in Eastern Europe. Shared and Comparative Histories, Berlin et al. 2018 (New Perspectives on Jewish Histories; 8).

[3] Braese, Stephan, Eine europäische Sprache. Deutsche Sprachkultur von Juden 1760–1930, Göttingen 2010.

[4] Slezkine, Yuri, Das jüdische Jahrhundert, Göttingen 2006, p. 136; Pinkus, Benjamin, The Jews of the Soviet Union. The History of a National Minority, Cambridge et al. 1988, p. 83.

[5] Armborst-Weihs, Kerstin, Ablösung von der Sowjetunion. Die Emigrationsbewegung der Juden und Deutschen vor 1987, Münster et al. 2001.

[6] Panagiotidis, Jannis, The Unchoosen Ones. Diaspora, Nation, and Migration in Israel and Germany, Bloomington (Ind.) 2019.


Dr Alexis Hofmeister

Published on October 17, 2019