ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2010 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 56, No.1 - Spring 2010
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas

Book review:

John Hiden. Defender of Minorities. Paul Schiemann, 1876-1944. London: Hurst, 2004. 314 pages, with 8 plates. ISBN 1-85065-751-3. 

Born to an established Baltic German family in March 1876 in Mitau (Jelgava), Paul Schiemann led a remarkable life indeed. Educated at several different German universities, he was eventually promoted to doctor of law at Greifswald. Thereafter he worked as a journalist with Revalsche Zeitung and, later, Rigasche Rundschau, where he showed himself just as happy dealing with theater criticism as political comment. During the First World War, he was active in the Russian Army, but had to flee to Germany during the Bolshevik revolution. In 1919, he returned to Riga, where he engaged once more with Rigasche Rundschau, which certainly by this point was one of the most important German-language newspapers published outside Germany. As an editor, he was drawn into just about every significant event that affected Latvia, Germany and the Baltic German community. If this was not enough to guarantee Schiemann a whirlwind life, he also forged a political career. He served in the Latvian parliament as a member of the Baltic German faction, but also became active internationally. That is to say, he developed links with other ethnic Germans scattered across Central and Eastern Europe (although especially Estonia and Romania) and tried to construct a sense of unity among these people. To this end, he promoted the goal of cultural autonomy and the idea of the “anational state” among ethnic Germans and, it seems, may have influenced Gustav Stresemann into the bargain. Schiemann’s intellectual energy also helped motivate the construction of the European Nationalities Congress after 1925. 

Always a man of tremendous moral courage, Schiemann opposed the rise of Nazism on principle, speaking out in especially memorable style to the Association of German National Groups Abroad in the summer of 1932. This biting critique ensured that, as the 1930s progressed, he was gradually marginalized from the conduct of politics among Germany’s minorities. It was in character that he absolutely refused to leave his homeland even when Hitler’s government negotiated the resettlement of Baltic Germans in autumn 1939. By the time of the German occupation of the Baltic, he was old and in ill health, not to mention existing under conditions that amounted almost to house arrest, until his death in June 1944 at Atgazenes. Nonetheless, he managed to save a young Jewish girl from the Holocaust by employing her as a servant. This action ensured he was later honoured by Yad Vashem as one of the “Righteous among Nations.” His life has also been the subject of scrutiny by both Germany’s Baltic German historical community (although not to the extent that might have been expected) and the Latvian Academy of Sciences, the latter holding a major conference in 2000 to honor his memory and achievements. 

An outstanding achievement of this biography is the fact that it does justice to such a complicated, multifaceted life. John Hiden manages to convey the detail of Latvian party politics, the subtlety of bickering and backbiting among ethnic German nationality politicians, and the zest of the intellectual debates of the time. Although clearly there are so very many balls to juggle, the biography maintains distinct narrative drive and appropriate senses of balance and significance. It never loses sight of “bigger pictures.” 

Understandably under the circumstances, a review could single out a number of themes for special comment, but it is probably the quality of Schiemann’s intellect and ideas that emerge with particular force from the pages of this book. The biographer’s liberal use of quotations makes manifest the fact that Schiemann had a mental “edge” over the vast majority of people, and also that he set it to good use developing ideas with a timeless quality. Hence Schiemann distinguished the national community (Volksgemeinschaft) from the state community (Staatsgemeinschaft) and insisted that it was possible to be a constructive, dutiful member of both. In this connection, he defined politics as “work for the good of the place one inhabits” and added that any “diversion to other ends is suicide” (p.144). In this connection, Schiemann likened nationality to religious affiliation. That is to say, people could worship how they wanted to (or live according to the dictates of their particular national culture), but it should be possible for different groups to coexist on this basis and for them all to evidence loyalty to the state in which they lived (which, after all, provided at least some common functions for them all – p. 132). By uncoupling nationality from the state in this way, Schiemann was able to provide an alternative model to that of the monolithic nation state so popular in the Europe of his time. Here were the foundations of the “anational state.” 

Schiemann’s critique of National Socialism was also particularly trenchant. He dismissed its claim to “Germany for the Germans” as completely unoriginal. In Eastern Europe, he said, there were plenty of calls for “Latvia for the Latvians!” “Poland for the Poles!” He thought the party had “no principles whatsoever in the social and economic sphere.” In fact, Schiemann thought its competence so much in doubt that victory of the National Socialist revolution was likely only to accelerate the arrival of Communism. With Hitler’s politics stylized in so many unambiguously negative ways, Schiemann was left to define the only thing that it was offering, namely anti-Semitism. Of this, he wrote: ”It is possible to wreck a state with pogroms, but certainly not to construct one” (p. 180). In other words, he was certain from an early point that Hitler was a dead end. 

By the time Schiemann died, his world was in ruins. The Baltic Germans had been resettled, the minorities questions so near to his heart had become irrelevant in the face of Hitler’s massive demographic plans for Eastern Europe, and the German occupation of the Baltic had steamrollered his conception of anational politics. It is all to John Hiden’s credit that he has not only retrieved Paul Schiemann’s life and reputation from the ashes of that time and place, but that he has done so in such a vital, readable way. The biography should become a required text for anyone wanting to grapple with nationality questions in Central and Eastern Europe.

Martyn Housden
University of Bradford