by Rustam Alasgarov
The German page of Azerbaijan’s history is one of the more interesting. The founding of the first German colony in Azerbaijan, life therein and relationships with local people, the deportation of Germans by the Soviet Government during World War II and other episodes were key elements. We published Rustam Alasgarov’s article on the establishment of the first German colonies in our January- February 2010 edition. He now continues the story....
As we reported, 500 families of landless German peasants accepted the invitation of the Russian tsar, left their native German princi pality of Wurttemberg at the beginning of the 19th century, and found shelter many thousands of kilometres away in Azerbaijan, which was then part of the Russian empire.
In 1819 began a period in which their new native land would prove to be a general blessing, but this was only be achieved by hard work. In that year the new settlers formed the first German colony, which they named Yelenendorf. A little later other settlements appeared: Annenfeld, Georgfeld, Grunfeld, Aigenfeld, and finally, Traubenfeld. The settlers did not work solely to their former German regime, they soon adopted certain methods from their Azerbaijani neighbours and put them into useful practice. They began to cultivate rice and tobacco, they planted large areas of olive trees and cotton and also produced oil from sunflower seeds. The colonists were not wholly concentrated on agriculture, they were also magnificent artisans. And while the 1820s were mainly a question of simple survival for the colonists, then in the 1830s their position gradually stabilised and at last the birth rate exceeded mortality. From the mid 1840s it seemed that the settlers had fully adapted to the new climate and land conditions. However, the breakthrough came only in the second half of the century, with specialisation in viticulture. Although grapevines were cultivated from the very beginning, until the 1860s they were mainly for their own consumption.
All this resulted in a strengthened differentiation both within and between colonies and also between immigrants and local residents in the early 20th century.
Growing through the grapevine
Only twenty years after foundation, Yelenendorf already had eight cobblers, four high-class tailors, eight smiths, four joinery workshops and carriage workshops which delivered their products to all corners of Russia. After the colonists had organised wine-production at the beginning of the 20th century, they also arranged for the manufacture of the best oak casks. The first German wine-production and other co-operative societies were soon formed.
Including their branches, more than half of the privately-run German colony businesses in the South Caucasus were concentrated in the Yelizavetpol province. A huge part of this business belonged to the trading houses of the Vohrer and the Hummel families. The history of the Vohrer house goes back to 1847 when Christoff Vohrer planted vines on one hectare of land. Constantly short of money, he was compelled to work simultaneously as a shoemaker, a postman and a coachman until 1860 when he worked solely on vine growing. In 1862 he founded a joint-stock company and then, in 1868, he built a brewery in Yelizavetpol province which, however, was fated to remain an ‘auxiliary trade’. In 1870 the private family company, Christoff Vohrer and sons (from 1892, Vohrer Brothers) was established with his four sons. By the outbreak of World War I, the company was selling 350 thousand litres of wine annually through the Vohrer Brothers’ Trading House (1913), and also running several distilleries and cognac factories, an alcohol distillation factory, a water-mill, a brewery and a horse-breeding centre.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the company had 6 wine cellars holding 100 thousand buckets, by 1910 there were already 30 cellars for 750 thousand buckets.
In 1892 two modern distillation plants with a daily production of 100 buckets were put into operation. In 1896 a new cognac distillery was constructed. This distillery not only helped to overcome a crisis related to overproduction from 1895-96, followed by a fall in the price of wine, but it also strengthened their monopoly position; by 1906 over 6 thousand buckets of cognac were sold to 38 Russian provinces.
The enlarged storage and processing capacities allowed the company to expand beyond its own harvest and to process surplus grapes and young wine from other colony winegrowers and local residents; this provided a third of the Vohrers’ trade turnover.
The wine cellars were supplemented by installations for the production of distillate and in 1905 the company constructed a storage and processing facility at the Yelizavetpol city railway station.
The enterprise also expanded its marketing network in Russia. In 1913 the Vohrer Brothers’ Trading House had branches not only in Yelizavetpol, Tbilisi and Baku, but also in Batumi, Ashkhabad, Merv, Kars, Aleksandropol, Tomsk and Krasnovodsk. Their products were presented at international fairs in Paris and London and won awards. Thus the quality of their wine and cognac was fully up to European standards.
While the Vohrer family had an eagle and wine cask logo as the symbol of their successful business, the other family of businessmen, the Hummels, adopted a slightly more modest symbol - bees and a grapevine; this, however did not at all belittle their position in the Caucasian wine and alcohol trade.
The Hummel family was regarded as one of the leading families in the colony and thanks to a skilful conclusion of marriages, 5 further enterprises were attached to the family. In 1878 four brothers bought 10 dessiatinas of land and planted additional vineyards. In 1883 a cellar was constructed for wine to be sold in Baku and Tbilisi. The cooper’s shop not only supplied its own cellars, but also brought in additional income, providing the means for the further acquisition of land. In 1895 the Hummel brothers, as well as this craft industry, had several other vineyards in the parent colony and a vineyard of 6 dessiatinas and a cellar with a capacity of 15 thousand buckets in Yelizavetpol.
However, the true economic breakthrough came only at the turn of the century. The construction of cognac factories in Yelenendorf in 1895 and the establishment of purchasing points in the province convenient for the Baku – Tbilisi railway promoted the efficiency of the enterprise. The Hummel brothers, like the Vohrer family, did not restrict themselves to supplies from German colonists, but bought increasingly from people in Goychay and Shamakha and processed them. Hummel Brothers cognacs and wines were of such high quality that they were awarded prizes at international exhibitions in 1899 and1900. The opening of an inn at the resort of Hajikend in 1898, 12 km from Yelenendorf, was not very successful and it closed in 1906. In 1900 a decision was taken to integrate within the Hummel Brothers’ Trading House all stages of manufacture, that is: cultivation, processing and sale. This decision allowed the company not only to purchase new land, but also to cultivate areas previously considered unfruitful, where both foreign and local varieties of grapes were planted. Modern processes of selection and pest control were employed and this paid off with a substantial growth in income. New cellars were constructed and supplied with larger casks in wood and concrete, and new extraction and cooling systems improved the quality of the wines.
The Hummel family’s business, like that of the Vohrers’ company, sold much of their wine, ethyl and fruit alcohol, as well as cognac, through dealers in 39 provinces of the Russian Empire.
These companies created a monopoly which affected small wine-growers, and not only in the colony. A large number of winemaking co-operative societies were established in order to resist the dictation of prices but, first of all, to cope with the growing demands of technology, following the example of the family enterprises.
The first associations in 1904 included Hilfe (Help), producing wine and cognac and Einverständnis (Consent) producing vodka in Yelenendorf; the Hoffnung (Hope) association appeared in Georgfeld and was devoted to the manufacture of magnificent wine. This land was the Germans’ friendly homeland for twelve decades; here they developed a successful local economy, amassed great fortunes and achieved high status. Azerbaijanis in neighbouring villages and in Ganja city accepted the immigrants with open hearts and, in the beginning helped as they could, especially during the first, most difficult winter, when they were all overtired because after their long journey. The immigrants were settled as families in the houses of local residents until spring. Most of the German families endured deprivation at first, but then they established and developed successful businesses and trade.
The German settlements profited notably from their adaptation to their new life. Thus the second colony, Annenfeld, grew into a large settlement and consisted of three long streets built straight as an arrow and strictly parallel. At one end of the third street was the market where agricultural products from neighbouring villages were sold on Sundays. Tailor’s workshops, barbers’ shops and hairdressing salons were located near the market. The oil-fired baths adjoined the market.
As well as Annenfeld, the colonies of Georgfeld (nowadays Chinarli), Grundfel (now Vurgun near Agstafa), Aigenfeld (Irmashli near Shamkir), Traubenfeld (Tovuz), Yelizabettal (Khatai near Agstafa) and others were also renovated and extended. This indicates the rapid development of individual settlements which soon became large, wellpopulated German colonies.
At the end of the 19th century, Yelenendorf already had electricity, telegraph and telephone communications and even a system of water supply; these only appeared in neighbouring villages a hundred years later. By the beginning of the 20th century, there were over 13,000 German colonists.
War – trust broken
In the summer of 1914 Germany declared war on Russia. Russian government propaganda began to harry all Russian Germans, including the colonists. Scare stories about spies circulated and there were rumours about the possible deportation of all German colonies. This was despite the fact that there were more than 1,500 soldiers and 15 officers of German origin in the Russian army by early 1916, and more than 3,000 horses and 900 first-class vehicles of German manufacture were dispatched to the theatre of war operations.
Political attitudes towards all Germans changed abruptly. Thus, doubtful evidence was cited that on the eve of the war a large reconnaissance group, supervised by the German consulates in Tbilisi or Erzurum, had operated in the South Caucasus. Further, there was a case of frontline soldiers being poisoned by wine; this resulted in charges that the Vohrer Brothers were responsible. During the war the Russian Empire’s policy on German immigrants was exclusively concerned with the “social and political life of the Russian Empire” and was closely connected with all domestic and foreign policy decisions. In order to express their loyalty to Russia every German in the colonies was obliged to hang out the Russian flag and a portrait of Tsar Nicholas II at the entrance to their house. The clouds were gathering above the colonists.
On 2 February 1915, the Council of Ministers adopted several laws to abolish the agriculture and land tenure held by Germans in the Russian empire, including those in the South Caucasus. The traditional institutions of state enforcement were set in motion. The Swabian Germans were continuously accused of betraying the interests of the Russian Empire. Rumours were again widespread about impending deportations. In the meantime there were many very noisy demonstrations in St.Petersburg and Moscow, shops belonging to Germans were smashed. Reciprocal anti- Russian actions took place in Germany.
The government issued a document: approved by the Tsar on 13 December 1915. A special collection of amendments and addendums to the legalisation of 2 February 1915 by the Council of Ministers made on 13 and 23 September, 30 October, 13 and 17 November 1915. The agriculture and land tenure of citizens of states fighting against Russia, and also expatriates from Austria, Hungary or Germany and immovable properties outside city settlements and belonging to the inhabitants of the Yelenino [Helenendorf – ed.] settlement of the Elizavetpol district are subject to princi ple alienation.
The colonists viewed a report received from the Yelizavetpol provincial government with great anxiety. Negative attitudes towards Germans were seen at every turn. The imperial administration, consisting basically of the representatives of non-German nationality, displayed total indifference towards the destiny of Germans in the Caucasus; the inhabitants of Yelenendorf were accused of aggravating relationshi ps between the Azerbaijani and the Armenian populations. Defeats on the frontline were blamed on their “treachery”. The Germans were even accused of failing to exert a positive influence on the natives who, in the government’s opinion, remained at the cultural level of the previous century, and of a failure to Christianize them. Thus the Germans only deserved to live in the Siberia wastelands.
On 1 February 1916, the inhabitants of Annenfeld, disturbed by the possible expropriation of their lands, addressed Gabriel Albek, who was authorized to deal with civil criminal cases, asking him to raise a question about the Germans, who “fairly and honestly fulfilled their duties and all obligations in relation to the government”.
In June 1916, Yelenendorf was the venue for a meeting of representatives of the South Caucasus German colonies. An appeal was drawn up to rescind the decision of 13 December 1915. Approximately 200 inhabitants of Yelenendorf signed the appeal.
The question of self-management was considered at the first congress of delegates of ‘Russian citizens of German nationality in Transcaucasia’ convened on 14 May 1917. By that time the Russian Empire had suffered one defeat after another. The Great Power, which had just celebrated its tercentenary, was close to its end. Its demoralised army could no longer defend the old traditional ideals. The terrible agony began. Nicholas II abdicated the throne. The February Revolution had heralded dark days for the Russian empire. The territories won in the glory days of the House of Romanov began to break away.
The logical outcome was the October Revolution and the subsequent shameful and crushing defeat on all fronts. The Bolsheviks seized power.
In the South Caucasus areas where most of the Germans lived, the national Republics of Azerbaijan and Georgia were created. As expected, the Germans’ destiny was tied up with the political events of the post-war period. Whereas they had been able to avoid property sequestration in 1916, during the independence of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic from 1918 to 1920, the first major changes in property relationships occurred. The Transcaucasian German National Council was organised in Tbilisi and Lorenz Kuhn, Swabian chairman, was an elected member of the National Council of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
With active participation and support from the young Azerbaijan government, which in 1918 declared its independence and secession from the Russian Empire, the All-Caucasian German National Council was established. With the consent of the Georgian government, German settlements in Georgia were also included. In Tbilisi the first German newspaper, the Kaukasisch Post (Caucasian Post), intended for the regions of Georgia and Azerbaijan, was published. The colonist-settlers improved their colonies, built schools, churches and establishments of vocational education and culture, and carried out educational and charitable work. Up to the First World War all the German colonies in Azerbaijan had played an appreciable role in the economy, and not only in their lands adjacent to the Caucasus. The children of rich and prosperous colonists, almost all of them from German families, were educated in Baku’s institutions of higher education.
In this context, the outstanding event during the life of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was the celebration of the centenary of German resettlement in Azerbaijan. Many visitors attended, from Germany and from the whole Caucasus. Because of the numbers, five German Lutheran pastors, conducted divine service simultaneously, not in the church but in an open area nearby. The celebratory procession went out onto the streets. Houses were decorated with garlands of flower and magnificent eastern carpets. Old Swabian carts and other items of the material and spiritual culture of the German trailblazers were sumptuously displayed in the procession. Men, women and children were dressed in traditional costume. A formal evening in the German Centre was a brilliant occasion; visitors from all the colonies of the South Caucasus danced to Yelenendorf’s wind instruments band and the centenary celebrations ended with a grand firework display.
Among the 120 deputies in the parliament of independent Azerbaijan, and along with representatives of other national minorities, there was also a popular German member, Lorenz Kuhn, the thirty four year old director of an oil refinery.
In 1920 Azerbaijan was occupied by the Red Army and Soviet power was established. The colonists’ private property, land and enterprises were expropriated and transferred to the state. The Bolsheviks dismissed the local government of the colonies. In order not to lose everything, the former prosperous families formed industrial and collective farms.
The Concordia collective and co-operative farm was so successful that, despite the most severe state restrictions, it had opened almost 160 shops all over the Soviet Union by 1929. The Concordia wine-making business produced not only high-quality wine, but also equipped schools, financed culture establishments and maintained a laboratory which, among other things, also produced agriculture pest control chemicals. The great success of the German colonists was a thorn in the flesh of the Moscow authorities. At the end of 1929, during the forcible planting of collective farms countrywide, all the German colonists’ wine-making enterprises were reorganised and forcibly included into collective farms. In 1935 the German collectives were even officially declared to be harmful! At the end of that year almost all Concordia’s high-level personnel were arrested. Three years later the teaching of German was forbidden. Government officials, especially Armenian functionaries, were placed in the houses and public buildings of arrested and banished Germans. All the colonies lost their German names.
So prior to the beginning of the Second World War, the German colonists were becoming desperate to emigrate to Germany. Some were able to leave in time. Those who did not and those who did not hide their plans to leave were declared to be counter-revolutionaries by the Soviet authorities, one and all were arrested and dispatched to Siberian camps, and some were even executed.
In October 1941, more than 20,000 German colonists were living in Azerbaijan, and almost all of them were deported to Siberia, Northern Kazakhstan or to the Soviet Republics of Central Asia, to harsh environments.
About the author: Rustam Alasgarov is a member of the State Historical Archive of the Azerbaijani Republic and deputy chairman of the National Revival Cultural Society of Germans of Azerbaijan.