1918 Uprising in Köhler
[This is an excerpt from the book Verschollene Heimat an der Wolga by Edmund Imherr. The translation was done by Joe Gareis. Special thanks to Ed Gerk for sharing it with the CVGS site.]
The uprising in Köhler erupted on 18 July 1918. This was surely not a
spontaneous event as has been suggested in several chronicles of the time,
since uprisings began at exactly the same time in the colonies of
Leichtling, Köhler, Hildmann, and Semenovka.
(Heavy Volga dialect) On Monday night they started the killing, until Tuesday evening. I saw it with my own eyes. My father was hacked to death in the church yard. When I got there, I saw Fr. H. struck. With an iron bar, he was hit twice more. And many stood by his murder: Ulrich Peter and his sons, Hokor, Hanes, Plaze Krocher, Herich Jaschka. I took my father, held him, and the marrow and blood flowed onto my lap.The name of victim referred to above is Martin Siebert, Köhler's mayor at the time of the uprising.
There exists a deeply moving account of the uprising that is both detailed and credible. It was written by Alexander Schmidtlein of Köhler, who at the time of the uprising was a teacher in nearby Hildmann. Schmidtlein wrote this account after leaving Russia, a step removed from the passions of the day. Although he lost an initial draft of it during the Second World War, he wrote it down again in 1964. To be sure, one may question some of his account. Witness that it repeatedly refers to the given name of the commissar of Köhler then as Andreas Beren while all other sources refer to him as Peter.
With the fateful start of the First World War and the decisive defeat of the
Russians in East Prussia (at Tannenberg), came scattered reports to
households on the Volga that their sons had fallen. Complaints and mourning
began. Village elders prophesized "The end of the world is at hand." Today
in hindsight we know that they were right in a way. Although the world did
not exactly come to an end, the world we knew was certainly torn apart.
Soon after that, around afternoon tea-time on a Sunday in May, when without warning came loud gunfire and two or three hand-grenade explosions. Red guards entered from two directions and occupied the village. It was a Strafbataillons (disciplinary force) under the command of war-commissar Orlow, or least that is what he called himself. The Strafbataillons units were formed to punish disobedient village soviets and bring them to their senses. If you were to take a closer look at these forces, however, you would see that it was made up of criminals released from prisons and stuck in the guard. The Russians said of them, "Takaya schwalye [Such a rabble]!"
As a result, the proletariat immediately took control of the soviet in Köhler. The 12 members of the dismissed soviet were all locked up. Villagers were called to an assembly at which the war-commissar read out the names of 33 men who must replace them in the new village soviet. These were of course drawn from the ranks of the proletariat who had demonstrated loyalty to the Bolshevik regime. Another seventeen of the most zealous troublemakers in the village were appointed red guards and given weapons. The red guards were responsible for keeping order, suppressing any resistance to the soviet, and, if necessary, shooting counter-revolutionaries. Wealthier villagers, as a group were, ordered to pay a penalty of 40,000 rubles and to come up with that amount within 2 hours.
The Bolsheviks from Kamyshin arrived with approximately 20 wagons. While commissar Orlov did his business at the schoolhouse, red guards drove to farms identified by the village proletariat and loaded up everything they could find: wheat, rye, flour, ham, bacon, fat, butter, eggs, and other stores. They barged into homes and granaries without leave, stealing peoples' supplies. In some homes they emptied out flour bins completely, leaving housewives with nothing to bake.
Their wagons filled to capacity with loot, the Bolsheviks gathered by the schoolhouse. Meanwhile, the 40,000 ruble fine was collected and delivered. The Bolsheviks pulled out in the evening, since it would be unsafe for them to remain overnight in the village.
In the 150 year history of our village, nothing like this had every happened before. The women, especially, were scared to death. All were embittered, particularly since it was some of their own neighbors who'd delivered their village to the robbers. The villagers vowed revenge, but for now their clenched fists were to remain hidden. The terror in the village had begun.
The new village administration consisted of 33-man soviet plus another 17 villages who had sold out. The new soviet mistreated the people, starting with the well-to-do farmers. Keep in mind that in our village there were no truly rich people, such as one might find in Saratov for example. One who worked could shape his situation but only to a degree.
The soviet issued slips of paper (ration coupons) telling us what and how much we could eat. If the soviet needed money, it would be collected by threat of force. Red guards patrolled the village with guns un-holstered by day, ready and aimed by night. They had to be very careful of the possibility of a revolt. They all knew very well that what they were doing ran contrary to the customs and norms of the colony, and that their cause was unjust. Among those with a conscience, pangs of guilt began to be felt.
Under the Bolshevik system, the church was to be separated from the state and from schools. Orders were issued forbidding religious instruction in the folk-schools and barring priests from the classroom. The teachers were divided on the issue of religious instruction. Some were opposed to having clergy in the classroom. They argued that the Bolshevik order be carried out and had no difficulties with the official policy. Other teachers continued offering religious instruction while hiding any evidence of it from the official, public curriculum.
In the midst of the debate came a pastoral letter from Bishop Joseph Aloisius Kessler of Saratov. This letter would become a decisive in explaining the events that followed. The Bishop wrote it after receiving alarming reports from the Catholic villages, pleading him for both advice and action. He warned in the letter that any people taking up the communist cause or even tolerating it risked excommunication. The letter was to be read from the pulpit by all the priests in the diocese.
Our pastor was the young Father Klemens Weissenburger from the village of Selz. At first he hesitated to read the bishop's letter, fearing that it would cause a riot. He did nevertheless read it at the Church on 11 July 1918. The result was as if a bomb were dropped in the village. It split even the Bolsheviks in the village. Leftists who were unwilling to deny their faith wanted nothing more to do with the communists. The more radical of the village soviet factions were unaffected by the announcement.
On the next Sunday, the 18th of July, at 8:30 a.m., red guards occupied the entrance to the church yard, denying people access to Mass that day. The pastor was to preach to an empty church. To be sure, a large crowd gathered at the doors of the church demanding entry. However, the red guards had strict instructions from their leader Andreas Berin to deny access to the church, even to shoot in the event it was necessary.
One of the red guards' own, "Springhannes" (likely John) Mildenberger, refused to be denied access to the church. Mildenberger was a very poor man who had sided with the Bolsheviks for practical reasons, yet he remained true to his faith. With these courageous words, "You're not going to prevent me from going to Mass on account of the Bolshevik system," he approached the church yard entry. Alerted to his approach, two red guards Peter Klein ("der Alte") and Peter Klug ("Balulja") barred him from passing with their rifles. Mildenberger grabbed Klein's gun, pushed it aside and moved to pass by. Klug quickly turned his gun around and shot Mildenberger, who within a few minutes lay dead. The people reacted with horror, and called, "For God's sake, now they just shoot men dead!"
The men in the crowd took a threatening stance, as additional red guards hurried in and moved to disperse the crowd. "Go home or else you'll all be shot," yelled Berin. In the meantime Berin had sent a call for help to the war commissar at Leichtling named Josef Schneider. Schneider was a native Leichtlinger and nephew of Father Johannes Schneider.
Reinforcements from Leichtling arrived to find a crowd of people who had stayed on to see if anything more would happen. The "Almighty One in the Area," as Berin saw himself, yelled to any who came too close, "Just be glad that I wasn't there when it happened, or there'd be more than just one lying there now. Instead there'd be a whole bunch! And you, too!" As he circulated among the Köhler red guards, he asked them "Why didn't you just go into the church and shoot the priest down from the altar. Then you'd have had quiet right away. If," he continued to the crowd, "you don't move out immediately and go home, I'll have you all shot." He himself was armed with two revolvers. Eventually the crowd gave way. People returned to their homes with bloodied hearts.
Peter Weissenburger and I left early that day for Hildmann. Weissenberger went to meet with Father Johannes Schönberger and to hold Sunday service and Vespers; I was to speak with the director concerning religious instruction in the schools. Father Schönberger had hidden himself, at the time, because the Bolsheviks wanted to bring him in. They blamed him for hindering the formation of a soviet in the village. In addition to that, Schönberger read the pastoral letter as soon as he had received it.
As we were eating lunch at the Rectory, a messenger arrived with news of a call to military service from the district army command in Kamyshin, mobilizing those born between the years 1892 and 1896. Across the colonies, those affected by the mobilization assembled to protest to village soviets. "Why are we now being called into service," they asked? "Didn't Lenin himself say that from now on we would not be required to bear arms against our wills. Only those who believed in the Bolshevik ideas would voluntarily pick up arms to defend that cause."
The order came from the top. They could do nothing, was the answer they got from the local soviets. That wasn't an acceptable answer to the protestors. "You guys are committed Bolsheviks. How come you don't go to the front (instead of us)?" And further, "You just want to get rid of the best men so you can do what you please with our elders and women." In Leichtling, the response to the draft was equally defiant.
When war commissar Schneider returned to Leichtling from Köhler, the soviet reported to him on the threatening attitude of the reluctant draftees there. Schneider invited the assembled men to a discussion of the matter at the new schoolhouse. When they got there, though, he locked them up and declared them prisoners. His order was clear: "Anyone who tries to escape will be shot like a dog!" The schoolhouse was across from the district office and was closely watched by the Red Guards.
Not all of the soldiers accepted the district commissar's invitation. When they found out what had happened, they went from door to door informing villagers. Unrest grew. Throughout the streets and yards, people assembled and angrily discussed what was happening.
Schneider and his followers were at the district office, lying just beyond the edge of the village, right next to the Lawl River. They debated how many villagers they would have to shoot to restore order. Schneider wanted also to go after the draftees who had escaped. When he heard what had come to pass in the village, he immediately jumped up taking red guards with him and raced through the village shouting, "Everyone from the streets! If you don't beat it right away, you'll all be shot into a heap." As usual, the commissar and his red guards offered nothing but threats for the villagers.
That night ended quietly in Köhler. The reds had the upper hand. The colonists had a dead man to bury.
Meanwhile in Hildmann, the mayor allowed the men in the village to assemble for meeting in the schoolhouse, where the young men affected by the mobilization order had already been gathering. The mayor was an honest, hard-working, and god-fearing man, although he was not at all rich. He was ordered by the war commissar to post three armed red guards at the schoolhouse. The draftees and the red guards began to quarrel and came to blows. The reds were beaten half to death and held under lock and key. When the war commissar heard of this, he fell on the village with a fury. Not knowing what to do, the people from Hildmann stood in front of the schoolhouse and waited not knowing what would happen next.
At that moment, a man from Köhler arrived and reported on what had just happened there. All were alarmed by the news. Had things gone so far that hard-working people could not even be sure of being able to practice their religion?
Soldiers returning from the front often brought their guns home with them. Fearing that they would be used in an insurrection, the Bolsheviks confiscated weapons from various villages and took them to Kamenka. The Bolsheviks threatened to bring anyone owning guns or munitions to the Kriegsgericht [war court] where they would meet a pre-determined end. One of the boys in Hildmann who had been called to military service, suggested that they all ride to Pfeifer, and then men from both villages would proceed to Kamenka and take the arms and munitions that had recently been collected there.
This plan was accepted. Several wagons were prepared and the soldiers drove off. The older men accepted the task of surrounding the village and guarding it to ensure that no one escaped. The plans were withheld from Köhler or Leichtling, to reduce the chances that the plan would be betrayed to the enemy.
As we arrived in Pfeifer, we came across another gathering that had taken place over the question of the mobilization. The priest in Pfeifer then was Nikolaus Meier, who had been pastor in Köhler until 1913. The young soldiers in Pfeifer embraced the Hildmann plan enthusiastically. The gathering from both villages then proceeded to Kamenka. On the way, we cut the telegraph lines linking Kamenka and Saratov. Upon arriving in Kamenka, we occupied the post office, which included the telegraph station. A single clerk manned the soviet office there. He played dumb, claiming no knowledge of munitions stores. Some men from Kamenka came and they made some progress with the clerk, until he eventually pulled out the key to the basement. There we found only a part of the confiscated weapons. Where the others were hidden, we would never find out.
All the munitions that could be found were loaded onto wagons and driven back to Hildmann. Couriers were sent to Volmer and Husaren inviting those villagers to join the uprising and proceed to Köhler and Leichtling. Word was to pass from village to village as far out as Balzer.
The size of the rebellion grew considerably as it proceeded, even though its leaders tried to move quietly. In Kamenka, we heard some more grim news: Two days earlier in Yekaterinburg, the Bolsheviks murdered Tsar Nikolaus II and his family. The war commissar there, named Yakubovski, ordered the shootings. It was done, he claimed, as the whites under Admiral Koltschak and the Czech legion under the command of Colonel Syrovy approached. Yakubovski feared the whites would free the Tsar and his family. This also meant that white armies had moved close to us, right up to the banks of the Volga. That explained the sudden need to mobilize. The Bolsheviks wanted to pit us against the whites! Southwest of us, General Deniken's troops crossed the Medvediza, a tributary of the Don and neared the rail line connecting Balaschow - Netkatschowo - Kamyshin. On top of that, the lines with the Cossacks remained only about 60 kilometers away. We decided that, early the next day, we should send a request for help to the Cossacks.
In Hildmann, we were told that everything was still quiet. Two non-commissioned officers took command. Since we had too few guns for all the rebels, those equipped to shoot would be positioned in front. Approximately 30 to 35 men were armed with infantry rifles, the rest with pitchforks, axes, and clubs. In the dark, it was hard to estimate, but it appeared that there were about 200 of us, perhaps more.
On the way, as an advance guard approached Köhler, those armed with guns moved ahead as the others stayed in reserve, until the fight moved to close quarters. So as not to alert the Bolsheviks in Köhler, only whispers were allowed in the march and smoking was strictly forbidden. These precautions were important since the highway along which the column moved was not far from Köhler.
About two kilometers before Leichtling, the advance guard found 3 men outside the village. More men affected by the mobilization. They reported that everyone was still awake as War Commissar Schneider continued to search throughout the village for draftees.
We planned to strike first at Schneider's district soviet in Leichtling and then march on Köhler. At 1:00 a.m. outside the village of Leichtling, all was quiet. A password - "Key" - was used to prevent us from shooting ourselves in the crowd. At a sign from the non-commissioned officers, we advanced along 3 streets running through the village towards the district office (Kreishaus). As the first of us arrived there, or so it was later told, the door soon opened and there was Schneider. He ran out down the steps, armed with a revolver in each hand, shouting in Russian, "Who's here? I'm the war commissar!"
Soon many shots rang out. The commissar slumped and fell sideways off the steps. A bullet had gone through his throat. He groaned loudly, bled awfully, and lay there in his last throws. He took one of our younger men with him in death, one armed with only pitchfork. The poor boy had failed to obey the order to stay back until later and paid for the mistake with his life.
A clerk in the district office, who had again locked the door, eventually opened it after we promised him that no hair on his head would be wrinkled. He informed us that other soviet members escaped out the back door, as they left denouncing as counter-revolutionaries all those in the district including the villages of Köhler, Leichtling, Hildmann, Göbel, and Semenovka who had participated, and vowing that they would be shot.
Schneider himself had been waiting for the Bolsheviks in Kamyshin. They were supposed to enforce the military call up and put down the rebellious solders with force. When he stepped out of the district office, and shouted in Russian, "Who's here? I'm the commissar!" he must have mistaken the rebels for the reinforcements from Kamyshin.
Soon we freed those who had been locked up in the Leichtling schoolhouse. The reds that were supposed to guard them had fled. Shortly after releasing the draftees, we heard voices from the other side of the river, from the direction of the brook at "Steintumpel." Our scouts reported immediately that it was men from Semenovka. They too wanted to see commissar Schneider, with whom they had a score to settle and regretted very much that they had come too late.
There was hardly time for that alarm to be over when from the south, renewed shots and even hand grenade explosions were heard. This time we were all but certain that the Bolsheviks from Kamyshin had come and moved into position. But again an all clear would be sounded. It was the men from Göbel, who also wanted to get to the district war commissar. So, except for those in Köhler, who were still imprisoned by the soviet and locked in the schoolhouse, all of the rebellious forces in the district had gathered in Leichtling.
To this day, there is one issue that remains unresolved. Although no conspiratorial discussions had taken place, all the soldiers in the named colonies appeared in Leichtling at almost the exactly same time, on the night of the 18th of July, to square accounts with the tyrant Schneider. It appears to have been a coincidence.
On the 19th of July, the battle escalated. The mobilized soldiers searched for all of the Bolsheviks in Leichtling and there were more than 50 of them and beat them dead. In one house 2 heavily armed red guards offered stubborn resistance. The second-in-command to the now-dead war commissar, Kaspar Mehler, along with one of his men, took up a position on a rooftop and shot at anyone who approached the house. These Bolsheviks wounded two of our men. When they ignored our threats that we would burn them out unless they surrendered, our soldiers stepped to the task. Later we found the blackened bodies of the two reds. Only their heads escaped burning as they had buried them in a mound of bran as protection against the flames.
The men on the river, who were to against an attack from the Bolsheviks in Köhler, were ordered to hold fire. We wanted the Bolsheviks to come to us so we could capture them. But when they did approach, one of our men fired anyway, evidently without authorization, and other shots followed. The plan was bungled. The reds drove their horses around and fled.
As we took up the pursuit with the horse-drawn wagons, we met a man from Köhler who told us the inhabitants had fled and now stayed in open fields behind the "Gumnes" and in the cemetery. What happened? The Bolsheviks in the village had spread word that "Our people from Kamyshin will be coming and they will shoot the whole village." Panic resulted. The red guards that we were pursuing had in the mean time returned to plunder the village's wealth. They then fled toward the forest. That the stolen goods of the town later would become fateful is another story.
As we approached Köhler, we saw a swarming mass of humanity overflowing the area from the cemetery up to the windmills. The villagers had their prized possessions with, stuffed in wagons and wheelbarrows. Women and children cried in despair, some older women kneeled as if in church and prayed fervently.
Our arrival calmed things down considerably. There was great joy. We were everywhere greeted enthusiastically and treated as rescuers. Several of us carried white flags and escorted some people back to their homes.
During the course of the day, outside the gardens, before the forest, one part of the "pitchfork-war" was staged in our own home. All of the Bolsheviks in Köhler were herded together, "judged," and beaten to death. Some truly terrible scenes were played out. As a slain Bolshevik lay in the middle of the street, a woman came from her house carrying a brick, shouting (with heavy dialect), "What . . . you have no butter? Wanted to steal the butter did you?" She then threw the brick into the dead man's head shouting, "There, you've got your butter." This came from a woman who until then was known as an upright housewife. And that was certainly not the only such scene one would see that day.
Without making excuses, after dealing with the Bolsheviks, in just a short time the pious and orderly inhabitants of the village were turned into a mob. The soul of the people had been seized and wounded. Simple people had been stopped from going to church, even shot. Force breeds counter-force.
As of the 19 July 1918, a total of 32 colonies had sent forces to Köhler to help its inhabitants in the battle with the Bolsheviks. Alas, for reasons unknown to this day the Cossacks never came. Perhaps an armored train moving along the Balaschov - Kamyshin line, cut the supply lines and prevented them from coming. The armored train bombarded two towns near Kamyshin: "Spatzekutter" (Marienfeld) and "Schwobekutter" (Josefstal). The Kamyshin soviet pulled back on a Volga steamboat, and was covered by red guards.
In total, there were then around 5,000 colonists in Köhler, surely more than there ever had been in the village's history. And these knew no mercy. In Köhler more than 50 red guards and sympathizers were killed, and in Leichtling no fewer were lost. Without judging and to repeat the fact once more: the force applied by the Bolsheviks produced a reaction in a village, which in its prior 150 years, had always been peaceful.
On the 20th of July greater uncertainty ruled. The members of the Bolshevik soviet were dead; a new soviet had not yet formed. No one knew for sure where to go from there, the less so since the villagers were divided among each other. It is very difficult for us now to understand, that at this critical moment most of the farmers returned to the fields to harvest their over-ripe crops.
The decisive turn came with the news that red guards were approaching from the forest. They rushed into the homes and took all the men with. As they poured into the village, the reds went directly after the men who had hurried from Leichtling in wagons to help the Köhlerites. They were immediately taken into custody, disarmed, and placed before the community assembly. This all took place before the new schoolhouse.
The commissar (it was again Orlov, the same one who had just plundered the village in May) was beside himself and shouted at the crowd of people, "Which of you counter-revolutionaries killed our comrades? We'll find out soon enough." He had all the men of the village gathered together and divided into two groups. In one group, the wealthier farmers were placed. From the group of poorer farmers, Orlov picked out 11 men and had them surround the same number of prisoners. He gave each of the farmers a bayoneted rifle and ordered them, "When I call out 'attack,' each of you is to run through one of them (the prisoners)."
Among the captured soldiers (prisoners) was a childhood friend of mine, Michael Messler, who stood opposite one of his good friends Jakob Tomann. Michael called in despair, "cousin Jaschka, is there no deliverance? In God's name, help us!" As the commander gave the order, Jaschka stumbled and fell to the ground. Confusion followed. Michael tried to run away but was caught by one of the red guards and stabbed to death.
Another prisoner had more luck. Using the general commotion as cover, he ran in the opposite direction into the village. The red guards fired after him, but missed. He reached the back yard of the village then ran through the front yard to the streets, where he spotted a horse-drawn wagon. He jumped into the wagon, ripped the whip and reins from the hands of a boy who sat in the carriage and drove past the red guards.
None of the 11 obeyed the command to execute their neighbors. All were killed by the red guards. Before moving on, Orlow had the village looted a second time. This time, however, not only did they take more provisions, but also dresses, valuables, pillows, bed clothing and anything else.
A family of teachers named Schönfeld happened to live in the village at the time. They had been evacuated to the village during the war. The wife had a golden, diamond ring on her finger that the Bolsheviks wanted. But when it did not come off smoothly, it was brutally ripped off, taking the skin from her finger.
After some time, another group of Bolsheviks rushed into Köhler. They told the people that they should now quietly return to their business. The war is now over and what was done is done. It has to stop sometime. So things stayed for about 10 days. But then the reds returned late in the evening looking for a targeted list of village inhabitants. With village soviet members acting as guides, they hauled people out of their beds and took them away. None of them were ever seen again. The terror grew: An eye for an eye.
The Bolsheviks investigated the uprising until they discovered that it all began in Hildmann. More suspected leaders (or instigators) were found, primarily, among draftees there. They searched for a certain Alexander Gallinger but couldn't find him. Also the priest from Pfeifer, Father Nikolaus Meier, was under suspicion but they didn't risk taking him into custody, at least not yet.
However, in the fall of 1918, the Bolshevik move against the priests began in earnest, the immediate excuse being the pastoral letter from Bishop Aloisius Kessler. Fathers Meier and Schönberger were forced to flee. Luckily they made it to Germany. As for Father Klemens Weissenburger, he was forced to give up. After having read the pastoral letter from the pulpit on the 11th of July, Weissenburger gave up his position as Vicar in Köhler and returned south to his home village Selz.
The red guards also searched for me that night, though I'd already left. A red guard warned my Father, that I should not try to flee to Germany: "he won't make it, the borders are much too closely watched."
- Imherr, Edmund. Verschollene Heimat an der Wolga. Stuttgart: Landmannschaft der Deutschen aus Rußland, 2001.
Coming soon . . .
Last updated 29 November 2013.