The Banat Swabians are an ethnic German population in Southeast Europe, part of the Danube Swabians. They emigrated in the 18th century to what was then the Austro-Hungarian Banat province, within the Kingdom of Hungary, which had been left sparsely populated by the wars with Turkey. This once strong and important ethnic Banat Swabian minority has been much reduced in number following World War II.
Most of its members were expelled to the West by the Soviet Union and its subsidiaries after the war. Others left for economic and emotional reasons after 1990 and the fall of the Soviet Union and its republics.
At the end of World War I in 1918, the Swabian minority worked to establish an independent multi-ethnic Banat Republic; however, the province was divided according to the Wilsonian Principles of self-determination (the wish of the majority population as registered in voting), by the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, and the Treaty of Trianon of 1920. The greater part was annexed by Romania, a smaller part by former Yugoslavia, and a small region around Szeged remained part of Hungary.
Banat and the Danube Swabians
The Banat colonists are often grouped with other German-speaking ethnic groups in the area under the name Danube Swabians. Besides the Banat, these groups lived in nearby western Bačka in Vojvodina, Serbia, in Swabian Turkey (present-day southern Hungary), in Slavonia, (present-day Croatia), and in Satu Mare, Romania. All of these areas were under Austrian rule, when the Crown recruited German immigrants, particularly farmers. It wanted to repopulate the lands newly recovered from Turkish occupation and to revive agriculture in an area that had been frequently overrun by war.
Origins and recruitment
Immigrants were encouraged to settle in the Banat by the Austrian emperors in the 18th century to repopulate a frontier province bordering the Turkish empire, and to add ethnic European Christians to the population of the newly regained region. The Germans were offered free land and the privilege of keeping their language and religion. The Crown was seeking Roman Catholic immigrants, as were the Italian and the Spanish colonists who had come to the region. Most of the German settlers came from Alsace-Lorraine, Austria, Bavaria, Franconia, and the Palatinate. A small group can be traced to Middle Germany. However, comparatively few came from the Swabian regions of what was then known as Further Austria. It is unclear how the group came to be called the Banat Swabians, but it is probably because the majority registered and embarked from the Swabian city of Ulm. They were transported on the Ulmer Schachteln (barges) down the Danube to Budapest or Belgrade, whence they set off on foot for their new homes.
The colonists were generally the younger sons of poor farming families, who saw little chance of success at home. Under Maria Theresa, they received financial support and long-term tax relief. Many of the earliest immigrants never married, since few German women traveled among them. Craftsmen were financially encouraged, as were teachers, doctors, and other professionals. Over the decades and more, the German spoken by these colonists became separate from that developing in Germany, particularly after its unification. It became known as Danou-Swabian, an archaic form of the language.
Those who came from French-speaking or linguistically mixed communes in Lorraine, maintained the French language (labelled Banat French or Français du Banat), as well as a separate ethnic identity for several generations.
Beginning with 1893, because of the Magyarisation policies of the nationalistic Hungarian State, Banat Swabians began to move to Bulgaria, where they settled in the village of Bardarski Geran, Vratsa Province, founded earlier by Banat Bulgarians. Their number eventually exceeded 90 families. In 1929 they built a separate Roman Catholic church after disagreements with Bulgarian Catholics. Some of these German-speaking families later moved to Tsarev Brod, Shumen Province along with a handful of Banat Bulgarian families, to another Banat Bulgarian village, Gostilya, Pleven Province.
Between 1941 and 1943, 2,150 ethnic German Bulgarian citizens were transferred to Germany as part of Hitler's Heim ins Reich policy. These included 164 Banat Swabians from Bardarski Geran and 33 from Gostilya.
Banat Swabians 1920-1944
The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian rule and its replacement by Romanian rule over the Banat after World War I had some benefits. In the late 19th century, Hungary had undergone a period of rapid Magyarization, during which it attempted to assimilate all of its minorities. Schools were required to teach only in the Hungarian language.
Under Romanian rule, Banat Swabians could have German-language schools again for the first time since 1868. Banat Swabian culture flourished. A German-language theatre operated in Timişoara, and across Banat, German-language newspapers were established. In 1921 a cultural association called the "Verband der Deutschen in Rumaenien" (Union of Germans in Romania) was founded.
Economically, however, things did not go well. The Crash of the Stock Market on Black Friday and the subsequent financial crises of the Great Depression in the 1930s hit the Banat hard. Many Swabians left to work in Argentina, Brazil, and the United States, never to return.
After 1933, the Nazi Party gained some influence among the ethnic Germans of Eastern Europe, including the Banat Swabians. During the Second World War, many ethnic Germans were conscripted into the Romanian Army and served on the Eastern Front. After 1943, a German-Romanian treaty allowed them to serve instead in the Wehrmacht, without having to give up their Romanian citizenship. Initially, some were virtually forced to serve in the 7th SS Volunteer Mountain Division Prinz Eugen, fearing there would be sanctions against their families if they refused. After August 1941 the Germans instituted involuntary conscription of Banat Swabians into the SS. Towards the end of the war, some Banat Swabians openly opposed the Nazis, who in retaliation executed a group of them in Jimbolia (Hatzfeld).
Banat Swabians who served in the Prinz Eugen Division gained notoriety for crimes against Jews and Serbs during the Banat (1941–1944) period. They became alienated and were under suspicion by their non-Banat Swabian neighbors. This was one of the reasons Tito's Yugoslavia decided to incarcerate and starve all Banat Swabians who lived in Yugoslavia.
Life after 1944
The Kingdom of Romania, formerly Nazi Germany's ally, joined the Allies on August 23, 1944. Overnight, all Banat Swabians in Romania became regarded as potential enemies of the state. The approach of the Red Army caused a flood of refugees to flee to the safety of Hitler's Germany.
By January 1945, Romania was completely under Soviet control. Early in 1945, under Stalin's orders, many Banat Swabians were expelled or deported to labor camps in the Soviet Union, where thousands of them died. Those who remained, as well as those who fled, lost their citizenship and their property was seized. In 1951 more than a thousand Banat Swabians were displaced to the Bărăgan Steppe of southeast Romania, where they founded new villages. Almost all were allowed to return home in 1956, but some were kept interned by force until 1963.
Some Swabian families from both Romanian and Yugoslavian Banat managed to flee to Germany in the immediate postwar years. Others were helped by French Prime Minister Robert Schuman to settle in France as Français du Banat.
In the 1960s, however, the political atmosphere relaxed. The policy of disfranchising and dispossessing alleged Nazi collaborators within the German-speaking minority ended. Banat Swabians were extended the full rights of Romanian citizenship. But, many Banat Swabians chose to use the looser conditions to emigrate to Germany, as they no longer trusted Romania's communist government. The Transylvanian Saxons, who had lived in the region since the Middle Ages, made a similar decision. Even though the Swabian families of the Danube and Banat Swabians had lived there for ten generations or more, and their cultures had developed quite differently from Germany's, they no longer felt safe.
In 1965, Nicolae Ceauşescu came to power in Romania. At first he opened the country to the West, but by the end of the 1970s, he had become ultra-nationalistic and an opponent of all ethnic minorities. Under his rule, any Banat Swabian who chose to emigrate had to pay a bounty of more than a thousand marks (depending on age and education) for a permanent emigration visa. But, thousands of Banat Swabians left each year well into the 1980s. An economic crisis of the communist state, as well as a rumor concerning a village destruction project, caused 200,000 to flee Romania.
After Ceaușescu's fall in 1989 and German Reunification in 1990, almost all the remaining Banat Germans in Romania left for Germany. As a consequence, the ethnic German population in Romania is greatly reduced. Some are returning, generally entrepreneurs with economic ambitions supported by the German non-returnable grants for development projects outside Germany. Some former Banat Swabians have a renewed desire to return to their long-term home, but most had sold their properties when they emigrated and have no home to return to.
Of the 750,000 ethnic Germans who once lived in Romania, less than one-tenth of that number remain today. Only in cities with large populations is there still a functioning German cultural life, usually aided by uninterrupted Romanian State subsidies and help from ethnic Romanians. Still, the Allgemeine Deutsche Zeitung is a thriving weekly paper. The German State Theater in Timişoara (Deutsches Staatstheater Temeswar), subsidized by the Romanian government, produces permanent theatre shows. In Timişoara and Arad, there are German-language primary and secondary schools, attended mostly by Romanian students. The remaining ethnic Germans (including Banat Swabians) in Romania are represented in politics by the DFDR or Demokratisches Forum der Deutschen in Rumänien (Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania).
While the Swabians from other areas of Yugoslavia were lucky enough to escape, or were simply expelled, the destiny of Banat and Bačka Swabians was less fortunate. Due to the high level of military conscription of males, mostly women, children and elderly people remained in the villages, and they were unwilling or unable to flee. Following the Red Army invasion in October 1944, women were subject to indiscriminate rape by Red Army soldiers. Later, Swabians who had been in any way involved – or were suspected of having been involved – with the military administration were placed in provisional internment camps. Many were tortured, and at least 5,800 were killed. Others were used as forced labor. After Christmas 1944, about 30,000 younger people, chiefly women, were transferred to labor camps in the Soviet Union by train, escorted by Partisans.
In the framework of agricultural reform, partisan families – mostly migrants from war-torn Bosnia, Lika and Montenegro – took over the abandoned Swabian farms and houses. In March 1945, the surviving Swabians were ghettoized in "village camps", later described as "extermination camps" by the survivors; the death rate ranged as high as 50%. The most notorious such camp was in Knićanin (formerly Rudolfsgnad), where an estimated 11,000 to 12,500 deaths occurred. Children, by then mostly orphaned, had their own sections in these camps; most of them were later transferred to state homes and families. They lost their ethnic identity by being raised as Serbs. In 1947, the situation improved, as foreign humanitarian aid reached the camps, and their regimes were loosened. The camp system was closed in March 1948, and the inmates were conscripted for work in the army or industry. Their flight was usually tolerated. By the end of the 1950s, around 300,000 Yugoslav Swabians had emigrated to Western countries, including the United States.
According to a study conducted in 1961 by the German historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler, later supported by German emigrant organizations, about 7,200 Swabians were shot by the Partisans, another 2,000 were deported to the Soviet Union, and approximately 48,000 died in labor camps. About 16.8% of the Swabians in Yugoslavia died during and after the war.
The Serbian census from 2002 records only 3,901 Germans in Serbia, of whom 3,154 were in the province of Vojvodina. In December 2007 they formed their own minority council in Novi Sad, having gained the required 3,000 voter signatures to do so. The president, Andreas Biegermeier, stated that the council would focus on property restitution, and marking mass graves and camp sites. He estimated the total number of remaining Danube Swabians in Serbia and their descendants was between 5,000 and 8,000.
In Hungary fewer than 62,000 Danube Swabians remain, but they do have political representation. One city and several villages have German-speaking mayors. Expulsion of the Swabian minority from Hungary by the communist government, dictated by Soviet Union, took place between 1945 and 1948. Many have assimilated and changed ethnicity to become magyars as well in Hungary as former Yugoslavia and Romania.
Swabians in emigration
The Banat Swabians who emigrated to Germany are generally well integrated into the society in which they live. They keep contact through cultural organisations (Landsmannschaften). In Vienna and in southern Germany, where most Banat Swabians now live, some maintain their customs and dialect, and offer support to those who remain in Romania.
Banat Swabians in the United States, whose ancestors emigrated beginning in the 1950s, have also formed community associations, including one in the New York metropolitan area and the Cincinnati area.
Notable Banat Swabians
- Johann Böhm (historian)
- Geza von Cziffra, film director
- Helmuth Duckadam, football goalkeeper, winner of European Cup and current record holder for most penalty kicks saved in a shootout.
- Werner J. Fricker, President, United States Soccer Federation 1986-1990
- Franz Xaver Kappus (1883–1966), writer, poet, newspaper editor; Rainer Maria Rilke answered his request for advice with Letters to a Young Poet (1929)
- Stefan Jäger, painter
- Nikolaus Lenau, writer
- Herta Müller, poet, novelist and recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature; her books deal with the lives of Swabians in Ceaușescu's Romania
- Anthony N. Michel, American engineering educator
- Johnny Weissmuller (born Johann Weißmüller), American actor and Olympic swimming gold medalist
- Michael J. Wendl, American engineer
- Stefan Hell, co-recipient of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry "for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy"
- The information in this article is based on and translated from that found in its German equivalent.
- German-speaking Europe
- Banat Swabians in Bulgaria: Njagulov, Blagovest (1999). "Banatskite bǎlgari v Bǎlgarija". Banatskite bǎlgari: istorijata na edna malcinstvena obštnost vǎv vremeto na nacionalnite dǎržavi (in Bulgarian). Sofia: Paradigma. ISBN 954-9536-13-0.
- Smaranda Vultur, De l’Ouest à l’Est et de l’Est à l’Ouest : les avatars identitaires des Français du Banat, Texte presenté a la conférence d'histoire orale "Visibles mais pas nombreuses : les circulations migratoires roumaines", Paris, 2001
- *Johann Böhm (historian), Die Deutschen in Rumänien und die Weimarer Republik 1919-1933, (Ippesheim 1993) ISBN 3-928389-02-5
- Sretenovic, Stanislav and Prauser, Steffen. "The Expulsion of the German-Speaking Minority from Yugoslavia". European University Institute, Florence. p. 55.
- "Vojvodina Germans Seek Moral and Cultural Rehabilitation". Beta.
- Sretenovic, Stanislav and Prauser, Steffen. "The Expulsion of the German-Speaking Minority from Yugoslavia". European University Institute, Florence. p. 56.
- Laloš, Vesela (2007-09-05). "Zajednica brojnija nego što pokazuje popis". Danas.
- "Nemci osnivaju nacionalni savet". Glas Javnosti. 2007-03-27.
- "Nemci traže da im država vrati oduzetu imovinu". Građanski List. 2007-12-16.
- Hungarian census by ethnic groups, 2001 The category "Germans" includes mostly, but not only, the Danube Swabians
- Molidorf - The Forgotten Town
- Family Books of the Banat (English) / (Romanian) / (French) /(German)
- Danube Swabians Resources (English) / (Romanian) /(German)
- Cultural minorities in Romania: the Danube Swabians (Romanian) / (English)
- Cultural minorities in Romania: the 'Austrians' (Romanian) / (English)