Danube Swabian History
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Banat Swabians, Danube Swabians and Their Future
From “Österreich und die Banater Schwaben” published by Hans Dama, Wien (2005)

by Dr. Hans Gehl
Translated by Nick Tullius, 2006
 

1. Conditions in the settlement communities

Identity and standards of behavior of a community are determined by existing economic and political conditions. The initially significant German population of the cities in Hungary had been subject to Magyarization since the second half of the nineteenth century, and was gradually being absorbed into the Hungarian middle classes. A large part of the Danube-Swabian population lived in century-old village communities, and developed hierarchic rules and standards of behavior that were taken over and maintained by succeeding younger generations.

Every individual had a place in the hierarchy of the village, determined by the size of his property. Property was not measured in money or various material goods, but rather by his land and houses, meaning that his proper worth was valid only in a given place and in a given community. Almost all gains and savings were reinvested in domestic animals, land, and sometimes the extension and modernization of the house. Compared to these investments, the value of money was secondary; often it could not even be spent. Money was earned only through the sale of domestic animals and agricultural products that were occasionally also used to pay for the services of the blacksmith and other village tradesmen.

The preservation of the established traditions was especially important in the everyday life of the village community. These traditions included the system of inheritance, the yearly cycle, and certain eating habits. Families and their division of labor had a determining role. This structure shows similarities with the villages in Germany, where the expelees arriving after WWII found them to be already in decline. The strong coherence of Danube-Swabian villages was also due to the fact that until the 20th century the whole population of a village was connected by family bands. Marriages with partners of other nationalities and religions were almost nonexistent and partners from outside the village came at most from neighboring Danube-Swabian villages (especially daughter-villages). In addition to family bands, important factors for the cohesion of the village were its specific dialect, its religion, and its festive days, but most of all the rural way of life and its inherent system of values.

The way of living imposed by a Danube-Swabian village on its members was a disciplined one. It included getting up early in the morning and going to sleep early in the evening, and concentrated work from spring to fall. The means for recreation and entertainment were relatively limited and they were adjusted to the cycle of work in the fields. Even with this rigorous way of living, advancement within the community was possible only within narrow limits. An increase in property did not bring any significant relaxation of the way of living, because the accumulated wealth was not used to buy luxury articles and a vacation was just simply unthinkable. The money was used to acquire more land (add yet another Joch to the existing ones), and to buy more agricultural machines. To show off wealth, one could always embellish the house and buy festive clothing for the daughters. Only the richest farmers could afford higher education for a child to become a priest, lawyer or medical doctor. On the other hand it often happened that children disadvantaged by the inheritance system had to apprentice for a trade, or they had to study to become an empoverished village teacher. Villagers were sceptical about those attending higher schools, because the resulting ‘city slickers’ were usually lost to the village and likely to become Hungarians. German-language higher schools became increasingly available only toward the end of the 1930s. After 1945 trade schools and higher education became the only alternatives for the expropriated ethnic Germans in Hungary and Romania. That situation led to the dissolution of the traditional village community and, during the last decades, to the shifting of the remaining centres of German settlement to the surrounding cities, and integration into a non-German environment.

2. Assessment of the Banat Swabians

The one-sided, often egocentric self-image of many Danube Swabians was developed by their cultural representatives and was uncritically accepted and passed on by the homeland literature. Starting from earlier characterizations of the Germans in Hungary, Hans Hagel1 develops a thoroughly positive character image, tending towards idealization. He attributes their great strength in overcoming all the hardships of their history, as well as their physical and spiritual vigour, to the mixing of the various German tribes (and occasionally with other nationalities, H. Gehl) which resulted in an essentially uniform language and folklore. After an initial homogenization within the villages, there is a second one within the settlement areas or within parts of settlement areas that are interconnected (by economic, religious, etc. ties). This process could not be completed in the relatively short settlement period of only 250 years. Their largely Catholic, but also Evangelical and Reformed religion acted as a barrier separating the Germans from the Orthodox Romanians and Serbians. A common religion caused an earlier approach to the Hungarians and supported the pressure of assimilation (especially in Hungary and the Sathmar region).

 Hagel emphasizes the clear intuitive power and the sharp memory of the Banat Swabian as preconditions for his receptiveness and adaptability. These are demonstrated by his early use of new agricultural machines and procedures, and by his acceptance of modern forms of houses and furniture. The family is the centre of social life. That is why the Swabian is willing to make sacrifices as a marriage partner, and is tender to his children and respectful to older people. The Swabian is usually serious, but enjoys a merry group of friends; he is at the same time cheerful, funny, and even ironical. Quite distinct from the poorer inhabitants of the alpine Banat (Banater Bergland), at whose festive occasions harmless gaiety prevails, the richer Banat farmers compete with each other on the size of their property, the condition of their house, and the clothing they wear. And they may be critical and dogmatic both within their circle of relatives and within the village society. Despite all that, they keep their inner balance even when excited, so that swearing and verbal abuse are rather rare events.

2.5 The power of public opinion as a system of keeping order

Important statements about the Danube-Swabian way of life were made by Hans Weresch2 and Ingomar Senz3 from their own observations. Weresch emphasizes that in the first half of the 20th century the villagers’ work produced a strong bond between the villagers and their homeland. Another characteristic was a strong sense of community that established the principle “One for all and all for one”. It is true that every villager’s first concern was his own farm, but he had a strong sense of justice. His rule was: ”Whoever does not work has no right to eat”. But one had to differentiate: If a family experienced hardship and it was not their own fault (such as a becoming a widow  through a husband’s death) it was the responsibility of the extended family to provide help. Even the simplest villager understood the hardship and work of those who worked the fields as he did.

 But over and above the will of the individual stood public opinion, developed from traditional concepts of right and morality. It determined most of  the issues affecting the village. The villagers knew each other well, and they knew what actions a person took and what his circumstances were. Many a bad intention was not carried out because of fear of public opinion. If somebody did something unworthy, the whole village would turn against him, and he would get talked about for a long time. That would have many negative consequences. An important role in village life was played by the sense of obligation or “duty”. It was high praise when it was said about a deceased person that he always did his duty. On the other hand, this attitude was considered self-evident. The ethical behaviour of overwhelming majority of Danube Swabians rested on their religion. Their moral impulses were founded in God and were therefore very secure. They took care of their church and did not hesitate to make sacrifices for the care of their church and school2. That is how the German denominational schools in the Banat could be maintained amidst great difficulties until after WWII. It also explains how contributions by the population made possible the building and operation of a pedagogical institution and theological seminary - the “Banatia” in Temeswar.

In a similar manner I. Senz3 points out that to the Danube Swabians their world with its Christian, agricultural, and nature-connected structural elements made a great deal of sense. The principle to live by was “Serva ordinem et ordo servabit te” (Serve order and order will serve you). Human life therefore took place not so much in a safe world as in an ordered world and every order has its hardships. Today’s individualism questions that order, as it places self-fulfillment above everything else, and sees it threatened by many constraints. But contemporary man does not realize that he cannot avoid a multitude of constraints from his workplace and from the social administration of his government, that were unknown to the villager, as he freely organized his work and his “flex-time” schedule. He simply followed an ordered sequence of events, remaining free of stress and able even to enjoy his time. Custom and usage provided a nonrational peaking of every-day life that guaranteed a series of festive occasions with many enjoyable happenings. Senz notices that this life defined by work, order, and peaking events, was able to provide experiences of contentment and wellbeing: It enabled a state of tranquility and collection of thought, it infused peace and created contentment, radiating wellbeing. People living under those conditions were able to experience a high degree of enjoyment and satisfaction, no longer known to modern man.

The economic and trade system of the Danube Swabians was highly efficient and enabled a large number of people to reach a standard of living that was high for their time. It had the characteristics of a largely self-regulating system, that discharged its tensions outwards, by means such as expansion of cultivation to the fields of other nationalities, or the waves of emigration to America around the turn of the century. Such basic characteristics could develop from a moderate position to an extreme one, under the influence of the village authorities such as priests and teachers. Under the exemplary leadership of conservative teachers and priests, many villages of the Batschka, Banat, etc. remained largely unaffected by liberalistic, materialistic, and later nationalistic trends. But liberalism succeeded, with the additional influence of prosperity and technology, in getting a negative development going. The newly comfortable life lead not only to a serious deterioration of health from overeating and excessive consumption of alcohol, but the excessive materialism also resulted in an often radical limitation of the number of children. While at the turn of the century many young women had to pay with their lives for an interruption of pregnancy, this was no longer the case with the following generation. The operating physicians were able to save the lives of the women, but they could not prevent them from becoming sterile. Many marriages – especially those of rich farmers – remained childless; or, if a child was born, it was pampered and spoiled until it became demanding but not really fit for living. Similar damage was done by the drinking habit, which pointed to an inability to master life and to the loss of life’s meaning, and could lead all the way to suicide. Fortunately these remained restricted to isolated cases that could not detract from the overall image of the Danube Swabians.

3. Do the Danube Swabians have a future?

This existential question is gaining increasing importance as time goes on, with the departure of the vast majority of Danube Swabians from their central-east European areas of settlement and their dispersal in many countries of the world. What will happen with the Danube-Swabian inheritance after integration into the receiving societies and after the demise of the generation that experienced these events?

3.1 Integration after resettlement

The three essential pillars of integration – language, workplace, and home – have elementary importance and priority in achieving the goal, but are not sufficient for a full and complete integration. The following are important for social integration: Reinforcement of self-confidence, clarification of the historical background – with regard to improving acceptance -, reinforcement of the proper cultural identity. A confident, unbroken relationship to their history and culture, and the safeguarding of their own identity, are fundamental to a successful social integration. To create and maintain this important foundation, initiatives and instruments for the safekeeping and care of their culture are necessary. What is involved here is the “invisible luggage brought along”, the formative memory of the lost homeland, that has a long-lasting effect on the attitude and reorientation of the refugees and resettling persons. Knowledge of their history, way of living, language and customs in the settlement areas of the Danube Swabians in south-eastern central Europe, contribute to a large extent to a successful integration. [….]

The place of origin, in a larger sense the homeland, of those affected, are of particular importance in the delicate task of finding a new identity in a new and unfamiliar environment. The meanings of the much-discussed and much interpreted notion of homeland can be summarized as follows:

  1. Lived-in and experienced space;

  2. Experienced and endured time, or memory;

  3. Work and workplace; and

  4. Communication, acquaintance, friendship, and love.

Each individual must clarify in his own mind his understanding of homeland and what it really means to him. To the Danube Swabians, homeland means a history experienced together, the memory of which lives on in the collective memory of the group. They are often reminded of the Great Swabian Settlement, because the knowledge of a common origin provides a sense of inward security and outward solidarity. The strongest determining community for the expellees was the one from which they had been torn. That community – most often a village – remains to this day an important element of their perception of homeland, because its custom, its way of living and its hierarchy determined the entire life of the villagers. The approach to life acquired there determined their behavior in their new country. The traditional community, to which they were connected by familiar traditions, provided a sense of security: As a member of the community, one could count on its help when it was needed. Such help was free and provided as a matter of course by the community when building a house (especially to victims of a house fire), rendering animals, husking corn, stripping feathers, preparing a wedding and other extensive work. It was always understood that the received help would be returned at the first opportunity. On the other hand, this integration into a village community could also lead to a sort of imprisonment, because it was very difficult to escape from the inherited environment. The possibilities for change were practically nonexistent; women were hardly able to leave the beyond the borders of their home village for any extended period of time.

Even without the expulsion of the Germans after WWII the traditional social and economic structure of the Batschka or Swabian Turkey would have dissolved, as happened in the Banat and Sathmar Region after the complete expropriation of their German inhabitants, their deportation to the Soviet Union, and the addition of Romanian colonists from other parts of the country. Many expellees are not conscious of this fact, so that later an idealized image of the homeland was created. The loss of the homeland was even more painful because people did not only loose all their material belongings, but also had to radically change their human system of reference. János Mayer correctly observed that the experience of expulsion did not impair the positive image of the homeland. Many inconveniences were forgotten and the image of the homeland was transfigured because it was connected to many pleasant memories of youth. For the expellees of the first and second generation, the bonds of family and the hierarchy established back home remained intact, as can be observed at the many village reunions held in Germany. Those of the third generation, which did not witness the expulsion or were too small to remember it, show little interest in such reunions. They are nevertheless largely interested in the origin and life experience of their parents and grandparents. 

3.2 Homeland as a ritual of remembrance

Many Danube-Swabian village associations in Germany maintain Heimatstuben (“village living rooms”) for the purpose of nurturing the collective memory of the lost home village. For the group, the exhibited objects have a considerable emotional importance: They reinforce the memory of and record the pride in the home village. To maintain these positive memories, past history must be smoothed over and problematic aspects such as relations with the newly moved-in non-Germans, conflicts between German farmers and farmhands, and events connected to National Socialism must be overlooked. The events of the past have not been fully assimilated, and references to the new beginning and the dialog with the new homeland are only partially present [….] These village living rooms cannot be held to the scientific-rational criteria applied to ordinary museums. They should rather be seen as emotional references to the village of origin, by means of which the affected people are seeking to overcome the loss of their village and gain some self-confidence for the present.

The expelled Hungary-Germans felt a stronger bond to their home country than the Danube Swabians from the other successor states, because they had lived continuously in the same country and did not see themselves as Danube Swabians to the degree as those from Yugoslavia. It was called a double identity: Loyalty to both the Hungarian home country and to the German culture. It is significant that in several villages those declared “traitors of the fatherland” sang the Hungarian national anthem when their trains departed for Germany. Having this double identity engrained in their consciousness made their identification with Germany and their incorporation into the German state more difficult. In contrast with the Yugoslavia-Germans or Banat Swabians, the Hungary-Germans did not consider their common region of origin to be important when compared to the village community or the home country. Interest for the history of other communities in the region was restricted to a layer of intellectuals, but the Heimatbuch of their village could be found at almost every family.

Many factors determined the relation of the German expellees to their new homeland. It is very important that the integration of the expellees took place during the economic upswing of West Germany, which produced rapid financial aid and social security and helped to suppress the past. In fact, the expellees played the role of a catalyst in the German economic miracle. The various legally mandated compensations resulted in a better material position of the expellees, which in turn improved their acceptance by the indigenous German population. By the mid-1950s the expellees started building houses (with the reciprocal help of their countrymen), which led to recognition, and sometimes envy, from the locals that initially called them “Hungarians” or “Hungarian gypsies”. The expellees from Romania also felt the designation “Romanians” to be an insult. But their innate Swabian habit of “saving and building little houses” soon allowed many refugees to feel at home again, for the first time in a long while. Objects such as pictures of saints and handicraft wall savers from back home made the new homes even cosier. Helpful to integration were the children growing up in Germany and, less often, indigenous marriage partners. Regular visits to the native community and get-togethers with friends and relatives were of great importance to the emotional well-being of the expellees, as were the missed food, drink and even the climate of the native land. In time, money was collected for the support of people, churches, and cemeteries in the native communities. After 1989, support for building of monuments to commemorate the victims of war and deportation was also provided. [….]

The first couple of generations maintain the connection with the home community through periodic visits. Partnerships between German and Hungarian communities were set up. Such partnerships were not possible with Yugoslavia, because only splinter groups of ethnic Germans remained, and they could get organized only partially, after 1990. The advanced and irreversible assimilation of the remaining ethnic Germans in Hungary, and the massive emigration of ethnic Germans from Romania after 1989, visibly narrow down the connections to the old country, unless newly-created economic connections are continued, independent of the nationality of the partners. Those of the third generation consider themselves to be simply “German”. For them and the succeeding generations, the attraction and importance of their origin decline. For the offspring of emigrants to America, because of the long separation in time and space, an interest in their family history may lead them once again to their eastern central European roots.

3.3 Self-identification through associations of compatriots

Even after half a century the self-identification of the expellees and late emigrants was neither an easy task, nor was it their first priority. It turned out that the integration of the expellees in Germany, Austria and other countries could not be separated from their education and the system of values that they had brought along. This “invisible luggage” cannot be ignored and it remains with them for a long time. The mentality passed on through generations had a special role, but for the development of a new sense of home, the level of integration and especially the economic and social conditions played an important role. The first and second generation, despite their satisfactory economic condition, rarely found their place in West German society and felt themselves strangers in their new place of residence. The expulsion was a break in the life of all generations, but the changeover was easier for the young than for the old. Most could never get over the loss of their homeland, because many did not accept the hard facts, or they did not have the time to work on it, as success in the personal career was the first priority4. In addition, there was the age and the emotional attitude to the events that had radically changed their lives. The inner integration of the expelled Danube Swabians took much longer than their relatively uncomplicated economic and social integration, and for many it has not been completed to this day.

Great help in the process of integration was provided by the Landsmannschaften (associations of compatriots) and Heimatortgemeinschaften (associations of home communities). They organized get-togethers of the widely scattered members, often with presentations, choir- and dance recitals, or Kirchweih festivities, cementing the cohesion of old village communities. But the Danube Swabians are also trying to integrate into the social structure of their surroundings and are participating in various associations and cultural groups. The continuation of the choral tradition by the Banater Landsmannschaft is remarkable. [….]

The generous donations of expellees pay for parcels of food and medications that are being distributed to needy in the old homeland, for old folks’ homes, for maintaining German schools and cemeteries, and for renovation of churches and monuments. [….]  The many well-attended events organized throughout the year demonstrate the survival of tradition, piety, local dialect, and sense of family. These traditional values have ensured the survival of the German minorities in the old settlement areas, despite manifold attempts of assimilation; they are the foundation of the collaboration between those expelled and those left behind. [….]  The cultural heritage of the home region is thus preserved as an integral part of German and European culture … and the traditional values are passed on to the young generation.

3.4 Coming to grips with history and taking a position 

 [….] The question is: Do the Danube Swabians as a group or as a community have a future? The answer has preoccupied those affected for generations and was reinforced by the expulsion and persecution after Word War II, which took away their homeland in Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Romania. Wolfgang Gleich considered the relevant deliberations of his readers and expressed his own basic view on the subject in an article5 reproduced, in part, below.

“[….] The Danube Swabians are obviously not dying out! When they were persecuted, expelled and deprived of their rights after WWII, they lost almost everything. But two of their most valuable goods could not be taken away from them: Their unshakeable faith and their entrenched pioneer attitude. These proved to be their true assets, when our people, scattered across the whole world, started to build themselves new homes and families, gathered again in communities to create a new homeland for themselves – not by the sword, but through hard work, as results of their industriousness, their willingness to work, and their thriftiness. They worked their way up again from deprivation and homelessness to respected and valued citizens, in the old homeland, in all of Europe, in North- and South-America, wherever fate had taken them and had given them a chance.

[….] The men and women of the year 2000 are not the same as those that populated the villages and towns of south-eastern Europe. History and time have passed over them and brought new moral concepts, new conceptions of life and reality. But all Danube Swabians and their descendants everywhere in the world have their common roots in south-eastern Europe, and share the traditions, values, and concepts instilled in them by their parents and grandparents. It is part of this new reality that the world has become smaller in the past years and decades, geographic distances become unimportant, and in the virtual space of the Internet countless “virtual villages” are created. In the past there was the bench in front of gate, today we have the telephone, fax, letter, e-mail, and chat room [….]

The “Haus der Donauschwaben” in Sindelfingen must become a drop-in center, a contact exchange for all men and women across the world who feel part of, or connected to, the Danube Swabians, have Danube-Swabian roots or regard Danube-Swabian values and culture as part of their heritage. [….] For all of them, the “world center” should be open, an all-encompassing centre for services: concrete, practical, and touchable! [….] When somebody in the USA wants to find a place to study in Germany for his grandchild, or somebody in Germany is looking for a similar place in the USA, Sindelfingen should be able to provide the names of compatriots or associations that can help, the name of the appropriate authority or institution, or that of a professor with Danube-Swabian roots or affiliated with the Danube-Swabians. When an entrepreneur is looking for new business partners, why should the “world center” not be able to help him? The outcome of this kind of an establishment, carrying out this kind of activities, would be a global network of relationships, a community like the village back home! [….]

Dreams of the future? Illusion? Not at all! This is a realistic perspective for the future of the Danube Swabians as a global community. Will it become reality? It depends entirely on us to do it [….]”

References

1 Hagel, Hans (1967): Die Banater Schwaben. Gesammelte Arbeiten zur Volkskunde und Mundartforschung. Hg. von Anton Peter Petri. München, Verlag des südostdeutschen Kulturwerkes S. 10-16

2 Weresch, Hans (1985): Josef Gabriel d. Ä. · Josef Gabriel d. J. Ausgewählte Werke, Freiburg S. 18-23

3 Senz, Ingomar (1988): Die Schwaben in der Batschka. Geschichte und Kultur einer deutschen Volksgruppe zwischen Theiß und Donau. In: Die Donauschwaben. Deutsche Geschichte und Kultur in Südosteuropa. Sechs Vorträge, Hg. Horst Kühnel, Haus des Deutschen Ostens, München, S. 25-48.

 4 Mayer, János (1998): Heimat, Wohnort, Zuhause? In: Jahrbuch für deutsche und osteuropäische Volkskunde, Bd. 41, Marburg: N. G. Elwert Verlag, S. 101-126.

 5 Gleich, Wolfgang: Die Zukunft der Donauschwaben. Die Menschen wandeln sich mit den Veränderungen der Zeit. In: Der Donauschwabe, Jg. 59, Nr. 17 vom 13.08.2000.

Biographical Note

Dr. Hans Gehl is a native of Glogowatz (Banat) and a graduate in German Language and Literature and Romanian Language and Literature of the University of Temeswar/Timisoara. From 1987 to 2004 he worked as a scientist at the Institut für donauschwäbische Geschichte und Landeskunde (IdGL) in Tübingen. He has published numerous contributions on the history, life, and language of the Danube Swabians. NT


Permission to translate and republish was generously granted by Dr. H. Gehl and Dr. H. Dama,
Translated by Nick Tullius,
Published at DVHH.org 2006 by Jody McKim Pharr]


 

 

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