Siberia as a Mental Map in German Imagination, 1850—1990


From the late nineteenth century until nowadays Siberia as a “Land of Extremes” (Beauty and Thrill) has left its deep impact on German literature and autobiographies. To begin with, the ethnographic travel and adventure novel with Siberia as the exotic scene of a dramatic action complies with the thirst of German bourgeois society for sensations. Long before the two world wars that deeply shaped German-Russian relations in a negative sense, Germans in the 1880s were curious about the Russian tsardom and Siberia, Russia’s “eastern wilderness” and it is not surprising that Siberia was often compared with the legendary American Wild West.

In “Fur Hunter and Cossack” (Zobeljaeger und Kosake), Karl May, German famous writer of adventure novels, put the two landscapes of the American West and Russia’s Wild East into one story. In the Wild West the three friends Sam Hawkins, Dick Stone and Will Parker are chasing after a criminal who escaped to Siberia. The heroes embark in San Francisco for a trip to Vladivostok. After their arrival in Vladivostok, they travel to Transbaikalia which appears to them als the “wildest place” in Russia. In Karl May’s story sibiriaki, especially the Buriats are always drunken and involved in crimes. Siberia appears here like the American Wild West as place of violence and disorder [1].

Karl May set a tradition that was taken up by other writers like Egon von Kapher. In Egon von Kapher’s novel “The Settlers in Siberia. The Story of Backwoodsmen” (Die Ansiedler in Sibirien. Eine Hinterwaeldlergeschichte) that predominately appealed to young readers, the beauty of Siberian landscape is described. The “backwoodsmen” are Russian hunters who live faraway from civilization, instead they live in a narrow symbiosis with the animals of the taiga and that experience with nature make them similar to the way of living of native peoples. The two foreigners — a German and a Swedish — who accompany the hunters are very astonished that the Russian hunters show no racial prejudice toward the native tribes. For example, the German named Brackel criticizes that one hunter wants to marry an indigenous woman, and he considers such a marriage as an unwished mixing of a “superior race” (the white Russian man) with an “inferior race” (the indigenous woman) what he calls “Rassenschande” [2].

For many foreign travelers, visiting Siberia voluntarily or as war prisoners against their own will, the encounter with a rough landscape presented a kind of odyssey with adventure and pain. In “Night over Siberia” Paul Coelestin Ettighoffer describes how a German professor escaped from an arrest by the Tsarist okhrana. The Russian tsardom and especially Siberia as its wildest part appear to the reader as a fairyland. Whereas the Tsar is dining at golden tables, Siberian cossacks and Tungus of “Wild Siberia” are eating bear meat. The professor’s escape to Siberia is a pure comic scene that has nothing to do with the real life of exiles. In the beautiful taiga the German scholar succeeds like a Robinson Crusoe in surviving the strong Siberian winter. After the revolution the professor does not return home, instead he continues his travel via Siberia to China and Japan. In the vast wilderness the professor compares his isolated life with that of an insect that thrown in mid of a vast ocean clutches at a straw. Siberia symbolizes by its vastness and roughness an ocean where life of individuals becomes vague. The novel “Night over Siberia” by Paul Coelestin Ettighoffer was so popular in Germany that it had its twelvth edition in 1942 [3].

These are fictitious descriptions of Siberian life, with World War I more autobiographies appeared on the German book market and they changed German images of Siberia. The story “Beloved Siberia” narrates the exile life of the Baltic German Traugott von Stackelberg who was banished during World War I to Siberia. As physician Stackelberg gains contacts to Russian peasants and the indigenous population. In his Siberian exile he much reflects on “Western civilization”. In contrast to Europe, Stackelberg finds life in Siberia more natural, but he also reveals a darwinist thinking when he writes that “in Siberia there are living fewer people who suffer from diseases, because the laws of nature are still intact by selecting out the weak and crippled.” [4]

Despite his deportation by the Tsarist administration, Stackelberg admires the beauty of the Siberian landscape. The vast sky, the beauty of the river Enisei, the sparsely populated hinterland symbolize for him unlimited freedom. He writes that in view of prostor he became conscious that his destiny is not certain, but the beauty of the Siberian landscape would give him the strength to look optimistically ahead [5]. Stackelberg’s autobiography contains valuable information about ordinary life and culture of Russian peasants and indigenous tribes alike. He notices that in view of a rough landscape and uncertainty of human life in natural environment sibiriaki are seeking a hold in traditional religion [6].

In his autobiography “As Hostage taken to Siberia” (Als Geisel nach Sibirien verschleppt) written by Philipp Menczel, editor of “Czernowitzer Allgemeine Zeitung” (Czernowitz Daily) during World War I, Russia appeared as an apocalypse that comes from Asian heartland and now destroys the Habsburg monarchy, symbol of occidental civilization. In dark colors Menczel describes the plundering of his hometown Czernowitz by Ural cossacks and Kirgiz [7]. After his capture Menczel was banished to Narymskii krai. His impressions of Siberia are very ambivalent: on one side he, familiar with the work of American journalist George Kennan on the Siberian exile system, views Siberia as a “vast prison without roof”, on the other hand for Menczel the construction of the Transsiberian railroad means a new chapter in Siberian history as the railroad will open the region to the world commerce. Menczel prophesies that the railroad would bring Siberia an economic boom with the result that the sibiriaki will become richer and more independent from European Russia. That would mean the end of arbitrary autocratic rule and would offer Siberia the chance ot become a “Second America” [8]. During his exile in Siberia Menczel had a lot of talks with Russian peasants and he notices that the ties of sibiriaki with motherland Russia are very loose. The author mentions that because of life in exile sibiriaki have a different character from European Russians as they feel more independent and self-confident. In this view exile became an important factor that shapes people’s mentality. Faraway from European Russia, their exile in vast Siberia does not only mean a geographical distance from European Russia, but rather a mental distance. Siberia became an isolated place where exiles become critical of autocratic rule. For Menczel exile appears as a process of human maturity in the wilderness, in Siberia human beings find back to nature and they are beginning to reflect on civilization. For Menczel, Siberia represents a kind of mental periphery of the civilized European. In his autobiography the exiles rebelling against autocracy became the true heroes, whereas Menczel describes Siberian officials, the representatives of the Tsar on the frontier, as somewhat mentally retarded [9].

Prisoners’ memoirs of World War I are predominately written by men, but nevertheless in these years many German civilians, women and children, were deported to Siberia and life in exile became not less formative for their mentalities. At the age of six and ten the sisters Hildegard and Elisabeth Sczuka who had grown up in the East Prussian village Popowen were displace together with their father to Siberia. On their long and arduous travel to Russia’s East they began to write a diary. The children’s diary reveal that the girls handle their destiny with more composure than adults, although they notice thoroughly their environment and adults’ behavior [10].
Children adapted themselves easier to life conditions in exile and captivity as they described Siberia as a fairyland. For example, their look at the starry sky near Krasnoiarsk let them hope that they will soon return to Germany [11]. In spring 1915 their father, Johann Sczuka, founded a school in the prison camp of Krasnoiarsk where he taught German, history and natural sciences. One and a half year later, the camp administration allowed civilians to settle outside of the camp in Russian villages along the Enissei. The children felt happy in the village and describe Siberian peasant life in their diary as calm, not touched by the horror of war. It is remarkable that the children scrutinize bad assessements and prejudices of German adults against Russian culture: “With a certain bad feeling we came to Russia and Siberia, fostered the widespread opinion of Germans, that Russians are in general dirty and lazy. But this was a mistake, Siberian peasants’ huts are very clean and comfortable, they give a very good impression. Siberian peasants are very kind.” [12]

Most impressive for the children were the deep belief of Siberian peasants in god and in the good of man, their intimate hospitality toward foreigners. After the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk the Sczuka family was allowed to return home, on their way to Germany via the Transsiberian railroad they became involved in the Civil War in Siberia that abruptly ended the peaceful atmosphere of peasant life. The diary of the sisters presents a very important and moving document of children’s crossing borders and cultures’ experiences.

Whereas the memoirs of deported German children are written in the spirit of an understanding of Russian culture, even in harsh and often inhuman times of war and revolution, this cannot be said of the diary of Erich E. Dwinger, one of the most prominent German war prisoners of World War  I. His memoirs “Between White and Red. The Russian Tragedy” was reprinted at the eve of World War II in more than two hundred thousand copies and had a deep impact on the image of Russia and Siberia in the public of the Third Reich. According to Dwinger, the civil war in Siberia was the incarnation of “Asian atrocity”. Dwinger denies the European character of the Russian people, although one might wonder if it is fair to say that Asians are brute. My paper has not the room to discuss persistent European stereotypes of Asian bruteness. Nevertheless, Dwinger compares the Bolsheviks’ figthing in Siberia against Kolchak with the hordes of Chingis Khan when he, for example, says: “When Red Russia will succeed in devouring Asia, this will result in the creation of a dangerous Asiatic-Bolshevik fortress which will isolate Europe with the consequence that millions of Europeans will die of hunger. This is the heritage of Mongols once sweeping Europe. Chingis Khan revives! History repeats, that means the final struggle of human mankind: christianity or huns — Occident or Orient.” [13] In Dwinger’s book Siberia is presented as a borderland, a frontier where the clash between European and Asian civilizations will take place and according Dwinger Russia belongs to Asia. With his work Erich Dwinger has decisively influence the German image on the alleged “Asian face” of Russia. For the National Socialsits Dwinger was respected as authentic observer of Bolshevik mass murder in Siberia.

Nevertheless, public opinion in Germany showed a very ambivalent attitude to Siberia before World War II. On one side, Siberia symbolized Asian destructiveness as the reports on civil War reveal. On the other side, the Siberian mystery in German mind had also a fascinating facet. Since the late twenties Germans were attracted by Stalin’s great industrial experiment that took place in Siberia. Here, in the backward hinterland technological progress of human mankind encounters a harsh and merciless nature. Germans considered the industrialization, the foundation of coal and steel towns in Russia’s Wild East like the Kuzbas, Komsomol’sk-na-Amure as impressive, people believed that the Soviet worker became a here of technical progress, some authors argued that a heroic spirit was seizing the masses in the Soviet Union and hoped the same for Germany after the economic crisis, the conquest of nature and space by men would start a new chapter in the history of mankind [14].

In 1926, Georg Cleinow, who later started a military career in the Third Reich, undertook a travel to Siberia and his report was published two years later. In the late 1920s the frontier theme became very popular in Germany, the widespread imagination awakened that the gorgeous east would have enough space to be developed by industries and agriculture. Georg Cleinow’s book entitled “Sibkrai. New Siberia. A Study on the Soviet marching up in Asia is the story of the Siberian frontier from the decline of the Tsarist empire to the construction of the Ural-Kuznetsk Combine [15]. In the author’s view the exploration and exploitation of Siberia’s rich resources was more the deed of mighty emperors — from the tsars to Stalin — then of the Russian colonists [16]. He compares the conquest of Siberia by the Russians with the foundation of the Roman empire, moreover he attributes the newest development of Russia’s Wild East to the strong personality of Stalin who would mould in Siberia a new Russian nation. At least, with the possession of Siberia the Soviets would gain a strong foothold in Asia [17]. Georg Cleinow describes the history of Siberia as a permanent heroic struggle of the Russians against Asians — the Chinese and Japanese — and against the indigenous population. He also believes that struggle is a destiny of Siberians and prophesies that there will be wars on the Central and East Asian borders that will involve Siberia in the very near future [18].

World War II as a raging inferno became a martyrdom for thousands of German war prisoners as for example Heinz Hoehner writes on behalf of his generation in his memoirs published in 1994: “I will never be able to forget the most painful event in my youth in which a brutal war has plunged me — the captivity in Siberian labor camps has changed my further life [19]. The deportation of Russians, numerous nationalities of the Soviet Union, German and Japanese war prisoners turned Siberia as a place of forced labor, disease and starvation into a border and culture crossing landscape of human suffering. In the West Siberian labor camp at Ivdel Heinz Hoehner meets the Russian camp doctor who performs her service not voluntarily, but has been deported together with her husband during the chistka in the late 1930s [20]. Hoehner feels his transfer to a small town in the Urals in 1946 as the arrival in civilization. Like the convicts of the nineteenth century he considers the Urals as a divide between European civilization and Asian wilderness. For him, the Stalinist labor camp is not the product of European civilization, but of Asian bruteness: “We are breathing freely when having left the West Siberian wilderness with its labor camps and special zones. As the Russians say, we escaped from the Gulag. We were now arriving in a civilized Russian city in the Urals.” [21]

Not less painful is the story of Ilona Wagner, one of thousands of Volga Germans having been deported to Siberia after the German attack on the Soviet Union. Although faraway from the German-Soviet front, the war intensified the resentments of the Siberian population toward the Germans. Ilona’s mother, although teacher by profession, has to work as a cleaner in the workers’ dormitory [22]. In view of the manifold humiliations, sufferings from hunger, the mother tries to take her daughter’s mind of worries by telling about the former good life on the Volga that let the girl sinking into dreams. For the girl Ilona, the Mother Volga embodies the good character of the Russian people, its hospitality, but Siberia is nothing more than a rough, foreign place [23].

In June 1941 the young Jewish girl Margit Bartfeld, born in Czernowitz, has been deported by the Red Army to faraway Siberia. She describes the acting of the Soviet troops as brute. Although the deported Jews escaped the Holocaust, they were suffering from unbelievable pain in Stalinist labor camps. Margit Bartfeld describes her arrival in the Siberian labor camp with a feeling of hopelessness and uncertainty that only ends when she gets to know Niura, a Russian urchin whose parents have been deported and died in Siberia some years ago. These children experienced that with the arrest and death of their parents their childhood ends [24]. It was the janus-faced character of Stalinism that the system attracted with spectacular propaganda young people to the east for the construction of cities like Komsomol’sk-na-Amure, on the other hand it created a flood of urchins by deporting their parents [25]. Not before Stalin’s death normality turned back into Margit Bartfeld’s life. After the dissolution of the labor camps, Margit married and stayed with her family in Siberia that became a new home. In 1990 she emigrated to Israel. It is worth-mentioning that Margit’s life and that of other deported Jewish juveniles in Siberian labor camps was so isolated that they did no hear of the Holocaust before 1957 [26].

My essay has started with nineteenth century German adventure literature on Siberia and it will end with the same genre for the late twentieth century in order to make clear the persistance of the image of Siberia as a place of wilderness on German mental map. Heinz  G. Konsalik was one of the most prominent authors of German light fiction. Born on May, 28, 1921 in Cologne he studied at first medicine, then German literature at the universities of Cologne, Munich and Vienna. In World War II Konsalik became war correspondent of the Third Reich in France and on the eastern front. His experiences in the German-Soviet war, his injuries had a strong impact on his writing as he associated Russia and Siberia as a place of suffering. His book “The Doctor of Stalingrad” was published in 1956 and became with 3,5 million copies a bestseller in post-war Western Germany. Less well known are Konsalik’s novels of a Siberian theme like “The Condemned of the Taiga” (Die Verdammten der Taiga, 1974), “A Cross in Siberia” (Ein Kreuz in Sibirien, 1983) and “The Wild Land” (Das Wilde Land, posthumous in 2003). All three novels indicate from their titles that Siberia is a “wilderness” where “condemned people” had bear their cross. Through this Siberian prism Russia/the Soviet Union appear to be outside of civilization. Konsalik popular catchwords are “wonder”, “destiny”, “survival”. The novel “A cross in Siberia” paints — against the background of Cold War and the geopolitical rivalry between Communist dictatorship and Western democracy — Siberia as the “largest prison” of the Soviet Union — even 25 years after the dissolution of Stalinist labor camps. In Konsalik’s words Siberia is a landscape of watchtowers [27]. Even the sun is merciless in this vast landscape [28]. Konsalik also make use of stereotypes as he describes sibiriaki with “wild faces” [29]. In “The Condemned of the Taiga” the vastness of the Siberian frontier presents as a force that shapes human destinies over centuries: “Whoever sees Siberia, will think in centuries.”30 In the last novel “The Wild Land” grandfather Lukan Bakunin sells an old cross that history is dated back to the sixteenth century, the times of wars between Russian cossacks and Siberian Tatars. The end of the story is that in 1912 Grand Duchess Maria took hold of it — as a present from Rasputin. Thereby Konsalik links the history of the Siberian cross with the destiny of the Romanovs.31

To sum up, the Siberian mental map in German imagination had until the 1990s manifold facets, it began with the myth of a “Wild East”, analoguous to the legendary American West in German adventure and travel literature until World War  I. World War I and World War II, the experience of captivity in Siberia by German soldiers and deported civilians, among them a lot of women and children, changed the image of Siberia as a “exotic fairyland” to that of a “Stalinist hell”. At least, Siberian prison literature by German captives had deeply shaped the public opinion in Western Germany on the Soviet Union during the Cold War. I want to suggest that we cannot understand German-Russian stereotypes of “fascination” and “frights” without this “Siberian” perspective.

Dr. Eva-Maria Stolberg
Institute of East European & Russian History
University of Bonn, Germany


  1. Karl May, Zobeljaeger und Kosake, Band 63, Bamberg — Radebeul 1951, pp.7, 58.
  2. Egon von Kapher, Die Ansiedler in Sibirien. Eine Hinterwaeldlergeschichte, Leipzig 1942 (2nd edition), pp. 21, 128.
  3. Paul Coelestin Ettighoffer, Nacht ueber Sibirien. Ein Deutscher entrinnt dem Geheimdienst des Zaren, Guetersloh 1942, 12nd edition, p.273.
  4. Traugott von Stackelberg, Geliebtes Sibirien, Stuttgart 2001 (17th edition), pp.137-138.
  5. Ibidem.
  6. Ibidem, p. 341.
  7. Philipp Menczel, Als Geisel nach Sibirien verschleppt, Berlin — Wien 1916, p. 30.
  8. Ibidem, pp.102-103.
  9. Ibidem.
  10. Ulla Lachauer, Hildchen und Lisbethchen in Sibirien 1914-1920, in: Claudia Schmoelders (Ed.), Deutsche Kinder. Siebzehn Portraets, Reinbek b. Hamburg 1999, p. 279.
  11. Ibidem, p. 280.
  12. Ibidem, p. 289.
  13. Erich Edwin Dwinger, Zwischen Weiß und Rot. Die russische Tragödie, Jena 1941, pp. 106, 159.
  14. See the German introduction to W. Schischkoff, Pilger, Priester und Schamanen. Geheimnisvolles Sibirien, Leipzig 1934, p. 3.
  15. Georg Cleinow, Neu-Sibirien (Sib-krai). Eine Studie zum Aufmarsch der Sowjetmacht in Asien, Berlin 1928.
  16. Ibidem, p. 3.
  17. Ibidem, p. 6.
  18. Ibidem, p. 42, 48.
  19. Heinz Hoehner, Kriegsgefangenen in Sibirien. Erinnerungen eines deutschen Kriegsgefangenen in Russland, Aachen 1994, p.2.
  20. Ibidem, pp.124-125.
  21. Ibidem, p. 145.
  22. Ilona Wagner, Mein Laecheln fuer Sibirien. Kindheitserinnerungen einer Russlanddeutschen, Bamberg 1997, p. 14.
  23. Ibidem.
  24. Margit Bartfeld-Feller, Nicht ins Nichts gespannt. Von Czernowitz nach Sibirien deportiert. Juedische Schicksale 1941-1947, Konstanz 1998, p. 9.
  25. Ibidem, pp.31-32.
  26. Ibidem, p. 101.
  27. Heinz G. Konsalik, Ein Kreuz in Sibirien, Munich 1983, p. 130.
  28. Ibidem, p. 154.
  29. Ibidem, p.244.
  30. Heinz G. Konsalik, Die Verdammten der Taiga, Munich 1974 (here: reprint 2003), p. 267.
  31. Heinz G. Konsalik, Susanne Scheibler, Das Wilde Land, Munich 2003, pp. 295, 373.


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