Germans living in the South Caucasus came under the spotlight at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquarters in Paris on November 21, in an exhibition marking the 200th anniversary of German migration to region and settling in countries that includes Azerbaijan.
The event, co-organized by the Culture and Tourism Ministry of Azerbaijan and the country’s Permanent Delegate to UNESCO, provided insights into the life and experiences of Germans who arrived in Georgia in 1817, and Azerbaijan one year later.
"The exhibition once again confirms that your country [Azerbaijan] is multicultural,” Eric Falt, the Assistant Director-General for External Relations and Public Information at the UNESCO said at the exhibition. “It tells of the different people’s living in harmony, which is in line with UNESCO's message to humanity.”
Historical documents show that Germans first migrated to Georgia and Azerbaijan as a result of an initiative undertaken by imperial Russian General Yermolov in 1817. Yermolov called for a relocation of Europeans to the region.
By Yermolov’s time, the Russian empire had already annexed Georgia and Azerbaijan in 1801 and 1812, respectively, following the Russian empire’s military expansion into the Caucasus.
Tsarist rulers invited forty families from the Württemberg territory of Germany to the South Caucasus in 1817, with the purpose of bringing exemplary German lifestyle and working habits to the empire’s territories. Nine of the families stayed in present-day Ukraine, while 31 settled in Sartichala village, near to Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi.
Dr. Ikram Aghasiyev, a historian at the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences, explains that resettlement in what was then imperial Russian territories was an attractive option for some Germans, as they had been dealing with the Napoleonic wars, famine, epidemic diseases and disorderliness due to the absence of a single state authority in the territory of Germany.
“However, religious grounds played the main role in their exodus to the region. There had been religious separatism in Germany. Those who fled to Azerbaijan were seen as heretics of dogmas of the Lutheran church,” Aghasiyev told Caspian News.
“To escape persecution, punishment, and tortures of the church, they headed to various destinations, including the countries of South Caucasus. They believed these soils were sacred, where Noah’s ark dropped an anchor.”
Noah’s ark has long been believed to be located somewhere in region on top of a mountain, either in eastern Turkey or in Azerbaijan’s southwestern Nakhchivan region.
German settlers were welcomed warmly by Russian authorities and were granted land for building houses and farms. News about a peaceful and war-free lifestyle of Germans, free of Lutheran persecution, reached the ears of Germans back home, which triggered a second wave of migration that pushed Germans further south and into Azerbaijan.
This second wave, which came in 1818, was much larger than the first. Around 6,000 Germans from about 1,500 families exited central Europe; one third of them made their way to the South Caucasus while the rest stayed in regions that include Ukraine and Moldova.
“The Russian government ordered that 209 out of 500 families be located in Khanliglar village, nearby Ganja city, as well as Shamkir city in Azerbaijan,” Aghasiyev explained. “In Khanliglar village, a special colony was created for them.”
Ethnic Germans also established homes in Tovuz, Aghstafa, Gazakh, and Khanlar (current Goygol) regions of Azerbaijan. Today locals call them Azerbaijani Germans.
German adaptation and influence in the country resulted in the launching of new socio-economic activities, including veterinary services, and how to more effectively use agricultural equipment to increase yearly harvests.
German settlers in the South Caucasus are also best known for having introduced new methods of grape-growing and processing the fruit to make wine.
Things changed for German settlers in the South Caucasus, however, during the time of Soviet leader Josef Stalin, whose relocation policies came at a time when Germany announced a military campaign against the Soviet Union, in summer of 1941. The Soviet government took what it described as precautionary measures to prevent conspiracies by local Germans in support of the Nazi army, and ordered they be resettled in Central Asia.
“On October 8, 1941, the Soviet rulers ordered to move Germans from the South Caucasus to northern Kazakhstan. By that time the Nazi army had already reached the capital, Moscow, and there was a fear that Germans might support Adolf Hitler and his soldiers,” Aghasiyev told Caspian News.
“From October 15th to the 30th, all German ethnics were to be relocated to Kazakhstan.”
German contributions to the life, cultures, and economy of Azerbaijan was celebrated by the government of Azerbaijan last week. Exhibitions featuring photos, informational boards and other visual imagery about the life of Germans in the South Caucasus were held in the cities of Baku and Shamakhi in Azerbaijan.