How did the Swabians come to Hungary?

History in the flow. Rivers as European places of remembrance

Karl-Markus Gauss

Karl-Markus Gauß, born in 1954, lives as a writer, essayist and critic in Salzburg. The books were published last Down the Danube, Haymon Verlag, Innsbruck 2009, In the forest of the metropolises. Paul Zsolnay Verlag, Vienna 2010 and Afternoon glory. Paul Zsolnay Verlag, Vienna 2012. The original version was published in 2006 in the Swiss magazine YOU. We would like to thank the editors for their kind permission to reprint.

They climbed the "Ulmer Schachteln" in the hope of a better life in the east. They got to know nationalism late. Nevertheless, they were expelled from the Batschka, Slavonia, Syrmia and the Banat after the Second World War. Today they live all over the world.

Escape of Danube Swabians with German and Romanian soldiers from Romania in July 1944. (& copy Bundesarchiv, Bild 1011-144-2311-19 Photo: Bauer / 1944 Sommer)

My grandpa

My grandfather Michael Herdt, who was born in Futog in 1880, a community that has long been incorporated as a suburb of the provincial capital of Novi Sad, then called Neusatz, only went to school for six years. But he spoke five languages. He was the child of poor people, but as a skilled hatter he became the owner of the largest department store in the southern Batschka, which invested its wealth in fields and vineyards in accordance with the farming traditions of his ancestors. He was a loyal subject to the Habsburg emperor, and when the k.u.k. Monarchy disintegrated in 1918, a loyal subject to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

He earned his first money in Austrian crowns and hellers, but the currency of his business success was the Yugoslav dinar. When he fled the approaching partisan units with hundreds of thousands of Danube Swabians in 1944, he took a suitcase full of money with Hungarian pengo with him. After the Wehrmacht invaded Yugoslavia, the Batschka and the Banat, which traditionally stretched over Hungary, Romania and Serbia, fell to the Hungarian allies of the Third Reich, and they also carried out the conquest in terms of monetary policy. He still had the suitcase with him when, after a long odyssey, he finally landed in a Bavarian hamlet called Garching an der Alz, which was expanded into a small town by a few thousand Danube Swabian refugees, true to the blueprint of their abandoned Pannonian settlements: dead straight the dusty streets, which were arranged like a checkerboard; one house very similar to the other, and each with a living room that remained unused and whose furniture, fitted with protective covers, was only used to show off; between the houses are the gardens, where the last bit of space was used extensively to grow beans, plant tomato trees, and plant lettuce beds. I grew up in Salzburg, about fifty kilometers away, and when I had to visit my grandparents in Garching with my brothers as a child, the village seemed so boring to me that I always sank into nameless grief over it. Without exception, the Danube Swabian women still wore their traditional costumes in Germany at that time, those black, puffed-up skirts, and none of them would have been seen on the street without a headscarf, unmolested by the challenges of modernity. The only exciting thing in the desolate place was Grandpa's suitcase, which we pull out from under the bed, open it and rummage through: We threw the bundles of Pengo around our heads, which testified to the futility of earthly striving. Grandfather had left all his wealth behind in the Batschka, and what he had dragged with him through all stages of his escape, the suitcase with the money, was no longer worth anything. The Tata, as we called Grandpa in Hungarian, was sitting at the window, looking perplexed into the distance, and in the twenty years that he was still alive, he remained silent.

To the distant "Hungarland"

There are many rumors about who the Danube Swabians were, how they got into the Balkans and why their story ended irrevocably after more than 200 years. The first has already materialized in her name. Because the Danube Swabians were not Swabians at all, or more precisely: the Swabians were only a minority in those groups that were only given the common name Danube Swabians shortly before their historical demise in the 20th century. From the end of the 17th century, there were Franks, Palatinate, Hesse, Aargau, Alsatian, Lorraine, Luxembourgish, Thuringian and emigrants from many Austrian countries who came deep into south-eastern Europe in a few large waves, the later so-called "Swabian trains" . They came to a deserted area where, after a seemingly endless series of battles between the Ottoman and Habsburg empires, the bones of fallen, murdered generations were rotting.

After the victories with which the imperial armies under Prince Eugene of Savoy finally threw the Ottomans back from Central Europe, the Habsburg administration approached it with bureaucratic zeal and tried to systematically repopulate the almost deserted country; a country that, thought in the state categories of today, comprised the south of Hungary, the east of Croatia as well as large parts of Serbia and Romania and at that time belonged entirely to the Danube Monarchy.

Historical representation of an "Ulmer Schachtel". License: cc publicdomain / zero / 1.0 / (Wikimedia Commons)
Such settlement work needed people, many people who were ready to leave their homeland. German national mythology later declared them to be bold Ostland travelers who wanted to plant German culture and morals in the soil of Southeast Europe, to defensive border country farmers who, as a German bulwark, sought to defend the West against the ever-threatening Islamic danger. But who were they really who set out on the arduous journey into the Pannonian Plain that was to bring death to so many of them because their overloaded ships, the so-called Ulmer Schachteln, overturned on one of the rapids of the Danube, them in the first ran out of food in cold winters or because epidemics dragged them off?

Back then, too, only those who left their home country saw no prospect of turning hardship and oppression within themselves. Those who set out on large treks into the distant "Hungarland" suffered from the arbitrariness of feudal rule, from princes who refused to allow them religious freedom and political participation; many of them were livelihoods that had been thrown off course, artisans who had to hire themselves out as day laborers, peasant sons who had received nothing from the division of the inheritance. They did not leave their towns and villages out of ideological delusion or a thirst for adventure, but because they hoped to gain the prosperity and freedom that were withheld from them in their old homeland, where they were initially strangers and would acquire their right to live by working.

Imported nationalism

Around 1900, when the various groups of emigrants had found their common identity as the "Danube Swabians" and these were considered the "youngest German tribe", they numbered around 1.5 million people. Until 1918 they were all citizens or subjects of the Danube Monarchy, whose structure, however imperfectly designed and however conflict-ridden it was, was supranational. The Danube Swabians lived partly as immediate neighbors of the Danube, partly further away from it, but always in the vicinity of other nationalities, Hungarians, Croats, Serbs, Romanians, Jews, Roma and half a dozen smaller peoples. Not that the coexistence of so many nationalities should be glorified into a peaceful people's idyll, but for almost up to the 20th century none of these nationalities are mentioned in the historical sources of national struggles; they lived more next to each other than together, but the prosperity of all was inextricably linked with the existence of each one of them.

The historical area was characterized by the coexistence of different peoples, and the carefully balanced equilibrium, which reached into everyday matters, was disrupted in the small and large businesses that were carried on in the village, in the city, between farmers and traders , meant endangering everyone's safety. In fact, the everyday meeting of the nationalities has gradually created something like a common "identity", to which all the inhabitants of Slavonia, Syrmia, the Batschka and the Banat, to name just these Danube Swabian regions, contributed theirs. As is usually the case in history, these similarities were only discovered and praised when their foundations no longer existed: as soon as their neighborhood was bloody destroyed, their common "Pannonianism", which transcended nationalities, was glorified by Serbs, Hungarians, Romanians and Danube Swabians , in poetry, but also in the memory of countless people. Nationalism, which few regions in Europe were as inadequate as this one, whose wealth and individuality was based precisely on diversity, was imported. It arose after 1866, when, through the state reform of the "Austro-Hungarian Compromise", the eastern half of the Danube Monarchy fell to the Hungarians - or more precisely: to the Hungarian magnates. The national pressure exerted by the now leading nationality was as great as the temptation to adopt it in lifestyle; Countless numbers of the educated urban upper class of the Danube Swabians in particular became Magyarized in the 19th century, they simply became Hungarians, which was evident in the Magyarization of their names.

The change of nation is, insofar as one may use this word for historical things, a "natural" thing, carried out a million times anew in every epoch. But the pressure of the ruling nation also creates the counter-pressure of the other nations, which it needs in order to perceive itself as right, and so, following the example of the Hungarians, the other Pannonians have gradually become members of a certain "nation". discovered. After 1918 the borders of three states crossed their territory, and in each of them, in Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania, there were many who, once citizens of a supranational empire, now found themselves members of a national minority. And the conflict of nationalities soon became tenacious over every single school; but it was still a long time before it became a "national struggle" under fascist auspices.

Collective suspicion

Why is my grandfather who had achieved something, precisely because, as a real child of the Danube, this transnational river, he knew how to do business in five languages, why is my grandfather, who was respected by Serbs, Hungarians and Romanians alike , actually fled as an old man? Couldn't he have stayed, who was not a Nazi and had not been guilty of anything individually?

After the attack by the Wehrmacht and the bombing of Belgrade, the Nazi special forces left an enormous trail of blood through the Balkans. The genocide of the Jews was organized with deadly efficiency. The Serbs were collectively suspected of being communists and of keeping up with the partisans, and the greater their military successes, the more cruelly the SS raged indiscriminately against the civilian population. There were also accomplices of the occupation troops among the Danube Swabians, although documents that have also been recognized by Serbian historians for a number of years suggest that there was more a Nazi co-ordination of the political elite than a fascization of the ethnic group itself.