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History

Ernst Reuter: A German on the Volga

During the Berlin Blockade in 1948, Ernst Reuter became famous as the mayor of West Berlin. What is less known about Reuter is that Stalin personally sent him on a mission to convert Volga Germans to communism.

In April 1918, the young German Ernst Reuter reached the Russian city of Saratov. The enthusiastic communist was dressed like a Russian peasant.

Joseph Stalin, who was the commissioner for nationality affairs at the time, had personally sent Reuter to the city where Volga Germans, many of them crop farmers, had settled in nearby villages. In his role as commissioner for German affairs, Reuter was to turn them into good communists on behalf of the Bolsheviks who were preparing to wage a civil war against anti-communist opponents.

Born in 1889, Reuter himself came from a middle-class household. His father was horrified to learn that his son had become an engaged socialist during his studies - and later stopped sending support payments. That didn't keep his son, however, from becoming even more attracted to left-wing, pacifist ideas.

Taken prisoner by the Russians

In 1915, a year after the outbreak of World War I, Reuter was drafted into military service. But his military service didn't last long. In 1916, he was severely wounded and taken prisoner by Russian troops.

Old photo of poster with Volga Germans

Volga Germans believed in self-governmance - but their reality ended up looking different

The Bolshevik revolution broke out a year later, and the new communist authorities quickly realized the potential of the young German for dealing with his fellow countrymen in the Volga River region.

Germans had already begun to settle in the area east and west of the Volga River in the 18th century. Russian Empress Catherine the Great vigorously supported the immigration of industrious Germans.

At the onset of World War I, however, the nearly 600,000 Volga Germans were viewed as potential traitors. No wonder the majority of them supported the revolution, even if these conservative-minded small farmers harbored little sympathy for Bolshevism. They hoped their demands for a land reform would gain momentum in Moscow.

Ernst Reuter did a great job in the Volga region, zealously tackling his tasks. Although the public administration had largely collapsed in the chaos of the civil war, he was able to restore order in a relatively short time. Under his leadership, a certain level of normalcy returned to the lives of Volga Germans. A soap factory began producing soap again, for instance, and butchers were back at work supplying meat products.

Converting to communism

Reuter's superiors in Moscow and St. Petersburg were satisfied - even though the German had fought "ensuing looting missions by Russians in the Volga region" who wanted to steal food, a member of his staff later said.

His second task - converting Volga Germans to communism - proved much more challenging, however. His words fell upon deaf ears. At best, Volga Germans were neutral to the communist ideas of the Bolsheviks.

Old photo of Volga Germans gathering at trains

Volga Germans suffered under the communist revolution

But Reuter didn't have much time to complete that task. In November 1918, he returned to Germany after the November Revolution had overthrown the monarchy. These were difficult times for the Volga Germans. The communists took whatever food they could, and famine resulted, with tens of thousands of deaths.

After that, Ernst Reuter abandoned the communists and became a Social Democrat. "Reuter is brilliant but a bit too independent," Lenin once said, offering his own explanation for the German's change of mind.

Reuter encountered his former patron, Stalin, after the war. As the mayor of West Berlin, Reuter defended Berlin during the blockade in 1948 against Stalin in his role as Soviet dictator.

Reuter won that confrontation, and many Volga Germans survived Stalin's brutal politics. Today, many of their descendents continue to live in Russia.

DW.DE