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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Homeland' Turns on Volga Germans

BERLIN -- Germany is struggling with record unemployment, a stagnant economy and a ballooning federal deficit.

So why, the leader of the political opposition asks, should the country grant automatic citizenship -- and all the welfare benefits that entails -- to more than 200,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union each year, just because they come from German stock?

The question, posed last month by Social Democratic Party chairman Oskar Lafontaine, unleashed a tempest of criticism, illustrating the sensitivity of the subject of immigration in Germany, where a surge of anti-foreigner violence that followed unification in 1990 has only recently subsided.

Critics from across the political spectrum accuse Lafontaine of resorting to demagoguery in the hope of winning votes in Sunday's local elections in three important states. But Lafontaine insists he's only facing facts.

With a jobless rate of more than 11 percent, "we just can't bring more and more workers to Germany,'' he said in a newspaper interview last week.

A recent poll found 70 percent of Germans supported Lafontaine's call to limit the flow of "Aussiedler,'' ethnic German immigrants from the former Soviet bloc.

The German-born Empress Catherine the Great invited German farmers and craftspeople to Russia in 1762 to help modernize the country, granting them land, religious freedom and other special privileges.

During World War II, Stalin ordered all ethnic Germans in the lower Volga region deported to Siberia and Central Asia as potential traitors. Thousands died in labor camps or coal mines.

Because of that persecution, West Germany's postwar constitution included the right to automatic citizenship for Aussiedler. Most, however, were trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Until the late 1980s, only about 20,000 or 30,000 a year actually made the trip, usually after West Germany paid a "ransom'' to the Soviet-bloc governments.

But as communism crumbled, the numbers jumped. More than 2 million have arrived since 1988, most from the former Soviet Union. The government estimates another 2.2 million are eligible to come.

Pia Hermann, 71, and her 74-year-old sister, Julia Jaufmann, arrived in 1994 from Kazakhstan, where Hermann says ethnic Germans had to hide their language and culture and do jobs no one else wanted.

"We never felt like Kazakhs,'' Jaufmann said. "We were German.''

In towns like Lahr in the Black Forest, where a former Canadian military base has been converted into a large Aussiedler settlement, friction between the Russian-speaking Aussiedler and locals occasionally erupts into fights. "No Russians'' signs hang at some bars and discos.

"In the Soviet Union they were derided and abused as Germans,'' said A. Cramme-Trojan, who runs the shelter for 150 people. "They come here and suddenly they're Russians.''

The federal government spends about $2.2 billion each year on Aussiedler for everything from housing to language and job-training courses.