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Ethnic Germans in the Banat:
Forgotten—Yet Timely—History

By Stefan Bastius

© The Barnes Review, Volume IX Number 1, January/February 2003, page 13-15. 
Magazine issue was sent to Jody McKim 12 Dec 2003, with permission to republish at DVHH.org.

Stefan Bastius, born 1926, is of Danube Swabian (Germanic) descent. He lived through the Tito partisan tyranny and survived a Soviet concentration camp. After five years of slave labor, he was released in 1949 in East Germany, where he studied chemistry in Dresden. In 1959, he escaped to West Germany. Dr. Bastius is dedicated to exposing the persecution of the German ethnic minority by the communists.

The Banat was a fertile and mineral-rich belt of land located in northern Romania and included strips of Serbia and Hungary, settled centuries ago by ethnic Germans. It was a highly progressive area, more so even than Germany proper. But at the end of World War II, the land was devastated and shamefully depopulated by the Allies. Many Banat Germans were even placed in extermination camps—a fact you will never hear about from establishment historians.

My native village, Kudritz, lay near the easternmost extent of the Banat, at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. It was entirely German, but has been “ethnically cleansed,” as the popular expression now terms it, and its history either forgotten or suppressed. The history of the area is worth retelling in summary form. “Multi-ethnic” is a mild word for the diversity of its population over centuries: Hungarians, Serbs, Jews, Bulgarians, Gypsies, Romanians, and Ger mans. The German immigrants served first and foremost as a bulwark against the advance of the Turkish power.

The Turks, who defeated the Hungarians at Mohacs in 1526, stayed in the Banat until their expulsion in 1717 by the army of Prince Eugene. The land, economically ruined and almost depopulated, was to be resettled, above all, in order to keep the Turks away from Vienna.

What induced German farmers, craftsmen and southeastern Banat miners to leave their homelands? They wanted to escape serfdom. The “Colonization Patent” of Emperor Leopold I (1658-1705) in Vienna contained tempting inducements which made it easier to give up the old homelands and to depart: tax exemption for three years, free land and the right to build. They were exempted from serfdom of any sort. Some were lucky, but others were disappointed. The work of the settlers was repeatedly disrupted by invading Turks and by roving and plundering rabble (mainly of Hungarian and Romanian nationality). The first settlers came to Banat after 1719. Among the first established settlements were Werschetz, Weiss kirchen and Kudritz, with settlers from Lorraine and the headwaters of the Moselle River. The so-called First Swabian Trek under Karl IV (1711-1740) lasted from 1723 to 1726. The new settlers were not only German farmers, but also many demobilized soldiers of Prince Eugene’s army; later also prisoners from the Seven Years War as well as Italians and Spaniards. The latter is documented by the fact that Betschkerek was originally called New Barcelona at the time of settlement.

The first large-scale invasion by the Turks occurred in 1738. The last invasion, which destroyed the settlements in the southern Banat, occurred in 1788. Emperor Joseph II of Austria himself was the cause of this because he, as an ally of Czarina Catherine II of Russia, declared war on Turkey when Russia and Turkey were contending for control of Crimea, which was Turkish at the time.

This brought hard times again for Kudritz and the city of Werschetz. The Turks streamed across the Danube. As Felix Milleker reported in his History of the Temesvar Banat, the Romanians from the neighboring villages used the occasion to enrich themselves at the expense of the German settlers. The following is stated in a report about the Cuirassi Regiment No. 7: 

On September 30, 1788, Capt. Hoffnungswald and Lt. Kotechel, with 60 cuirassiers [armored cavalrymen], near Kudritz, met 300 marauding Romanians, killed 130, captured 45 and dispersed the rest. On October 10, with Lt. Mazkievitz, in a skirmish near St. Mihaly and St. Janosch, with 40 cuirassiers, they caused 100 spahis and janissaries to flee and pursued them as far as the Long Entrenchment near Alibonar. 

In Werschetz, Jacob Hennemann, together with 50 faithful and brave citizens, including seven Serbs, prevented the Turks from capturing the city. These events are commemorated under the name of “The Werschetz Deed,” which has been documented by a wall painting in the Catholic church in Werschetz, built in 1860. The following inscription is beneath the painting: “Dedicated to Jacob Hennemann and his faithful, the defender of the community and its church in the Turkish War of 1788.”

Hard times, wars and sicknesses (the plague, cholera and swamp fever) were overcome. The Temes Canal (1723) and the Bega-Berzowa Canal (1768) were constructed; Germans drained the swamps and turned them into fertile, arable land. Around 1790, the charcoal burner Matthias Hammer found hard coal near Steierdorf. They started again to work the ore mines around Reschitz, Steierdorf, Anina and Orawitza which had been known since Roman times. Some of the silver coins of the monarchy were coined with silver from the mines of the Banat. The silver ore, mined and concentrated in the Banat, was transported at the time as far as Schemnitz (today Banska Stiavanica) in Moravia, northwest of Pressburg, for melting. The enormous distance was covered first from Orschowa on the Danube and then in Moravia by land.

In 1690, when the Turks reconquered Belgrade, which had been liberated in 1688, many Serbs, under the leadership of Patriarch Cernojewitsch, fled across the Danube and settled in the Banat and as far north as Raz-Keve near Budapest. The Orthodox Serbs remained with their priests an independent group. They received permission from the emperor to stay in Banat until their homeland—Old Serbia of today—was liberated from the Turks.

Around 1790 discontent among Slavs started to grow. That of the Croats increased under Jelacic and that of the Serbs under the Patriarch Rajecic until the revolution started in 1848. Encouraged by the monarchy, Serbs were fighting for the preservation of their nationality. Their political movement—Illyrism—represented the beginning of everything that happened after the revolutionary days. In the beginning, the Serbian refugees were cattle breeders and nomads. Around 1742 they were settled in military villages inside the military border area of the southern Banat (the Illyrian border regiment was dissolved in 1881). They represented the first armed line of defense against Turkish attacks. Moreover, during the 1848 revolution they were an armed group who valiantly fought on the side of the emperor against the Hungarians and against the German settlers in the Danube area, but very soon also for their own national aims.

Nevertheless, under Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II, the settlement of the Banat during the Second (1763-73) and Third (1781-86) Swabian Treks made enormous progress. In spite of heavy reverses, after a few years the imperial Banat became the granary of Europe.

Adam Müller-Guttenbrunn, the most important native poet of the region, described in his novel The Great Swabian Trek (1913) what had been the intended aim of the colonization by Germans, as seen in the Vienna Court and as described in secret memoranda. He wrote: “to germanize the kingdom, or at least a part thereof, and to temper the Hungarian tendency toward revolution by Germans and to encourage their hereditary king to steady loyalty.” However, at the end of the 19th century, everything German got into great difficulties due to Hungarian nationalism.

At the time of Napoleon’s Continental Blockade (1809-14), the Banat was already a chief supplier of grain, coal, ore (iron, copper, silver) and wine. By a few years later, Werschetz had become the biggest wine producer of Europe, even the world. From the mining area of Anina, a railroad was built (1846-56) to Bazias on the Danube and in 1857 a railroad from Szeged to Temesvar. The first German railroad, from Nuremberg to Fürth, was built in 1835.

A telegraph office was built in 1855 in Temesvar and Orsova in 1857. Temesvar already had gas lighting, long before most cities in Europe. The first steam mill of the Banat was built in 1861 in Werschetz.

In the former homelands of the emigrants, in the west of Germany, there were also increasing demands by the people for a parliament elected by the people. In March 1848 there was a revolution in Vienna. Prince Metternich was overthrown. After the revolutionary fighting, however, Emperor Francis Joseph II, still young at the time, allowed Metternich’s old absolutist form of government to continue until 1867. During the revolutionary fights of 1848 in Werschetz, Pantschowa, Weisskirchen and also near Temesvar until the defeat of the rebellious Hungarians at Vilagos on August 13, 1849, the Swabians were on the side of the Hungarians—thus, against the Austrians. Vienna, obviously afraid of Hungarian nationalism, preferred to take the Swabians as allies, without discerning the consequences that would follow. But the Swabians in the Banat did discern them. Their warnings, for instance the Bogarosch Swabian petition, were not accepted by Vienna. The Serbs were even regarded by the election of a wojwoda (tribal prince). The imperial decree of 1849 granted to the Serbs, particularly the border guards in the military border area, equal rights and freedom. Nobody was thinking anymore about the return of the Serbs who had come under Cernojewitsch. They ignored the days of terror which Serbs, under Archbishop Rajecic, had perpetrated in Weschetz and Weisskirchen after the withdrawal of the Hungarian redcaps. This was the first time to grab German houses and fields, but only in 1919 did the Serbs finally succeed in gaining political power in all the Wojwodina (Srem, Batschka, Banat). [It needs to be recalled that the Jesuit order in Austria—several times—tried to forcibly convert the Serbs to Catholicism.—Ed.]

Already in 1788, Empress Maria Theresa had yielded to Hungarian demands and handed over the Banat to the administration of Hungary. Until then the Banat had been imperial territory. The “magyarization” of the Banat Swabians had begun. Whoever wanted to be successful in life became a “magyarone.” Gross became Nagy, Klein became Kis. The craziest results were created whenever the authorities used Hungarian spelling when writing down German names. The Hungarian spelling of the name “Sorge” was “Szorge.” Likewise, my name “Bastius” was spelt “Basztiusz” in Hungarian church books. In my case, no disparagement was possible. But Sorge had serious difficulties when applying to the German Naturalization Office for citizenship, because they thought “Szorge” was a Polish name.  

The Hungarian restraints on German endeavors to improve themselves economically were allowed to increase, particularly after the compromise with the Hungarians in 1867. Already between 1876 and 1892, the Hungarian language was introduced for teaching in all German elementary schools. In this manner the Germans were to be made into Hungarians. Hungarian was considered to be distinguished. Embracing the profit motive, many Swabians became victims of magyarization.

After the peace treaties of Versailles and Trianon of 1919, the Germans in the southeast were no longer supported by Germany and Austria and were left to themselves. The victors of the First World War divided the Banat into a larger part, which was given to Romania, and a smaller part, given to Yugoslavia. Hungary retained only a small sliver south of the Maros River. It was an arbitrary border, slicing a prosperous country in two. Many people opposed it in vain.

For instance, my home village Kudritz lost most of its incorporated territory. The jobs in the mines and steel plants around Reschitz were beyond the border. The wine from Kudritz had no market because the nearest city, Werschetz, produced a sufficient quantity itself. Due to the increased tax burden which the new state of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes imposed on its German citizens, poverty spread. Nevertheless, the Swabians—or ethnic Germans—were diligent, and the economy slowly recovered again.

As a reaction and in order to increase the cohesion among Germans, the Swabian-German Cultural Association (SDKB) was founded in 1920. Although its character was, to start with, preponderantly that of a cooperative (“Agraria”) and cultural association, the Pribicevic government prohibited it at first—but then allowed it again. However, in the higher school classes only Serbian was used as the teaching language. Hardly anything was mentioned about German history but rather about the Serbs’ uprising under Karad jordjevic against the Turks or about the victory on the Salonica front over the Austrians during World War I.

After 1936 nationalism also spread gradually among the people in the Banat. German consciousness became particularly popular among youth groups. They were no longer willing to submit to Serbian provocations. Already Tito’s slanderous authors claimed to detect fascist attitudes among the ethnic Germans (“Volks deutsche”).

Most of our parents were not familiar with the Serbian language. In order to intimidate and irritate the Swabians, they were often asked in offices (post office, railroads, the courts) to speak Serbian: “Govori srpski, da te ceo svet razume!”—“Speak Serbian, so all the world can understand you!”

Nothing was left of the Habsburgs’ efforts to give equal rights to all their subjects. Rising nationalism, in its chauvinist variant, destroyed these beginnings and led the peoples of the southeast into the catastrophe after 1944.

The Balkan campaign of 1941 against Yugoslavia resulted in a confused new split-up of Yugoslavia. There were diplomatic struggles for the Banat between Horthy’s Hungary and Antonescu’s Romania. There was the danger that these two countries would go to war against each other to gain the fertile plain east of the Theiss River. In order to prevent such a war, the German government decided to place the Yugoslavian part of the Banat under military administration. The Germans in the Banat were highly satisfied to come under German administration after all.

However, the enthusiasm soon waned when, as of 1942, most men were forced to join the Waffen-SS Division Prinz Eugen as “volunteers.” Their participation in the war against Tito’s partisans with all its hardships for both sides supplied in 1944 the ground for the final expulsion and annihilation of the Danube Swabians from all of Yugoslavia. This had already been decided back in 1943 by Tito’s central committee in Jajca. In order to provide laborers in the fields and vineyards, Serbs were forced to work on German farms. There were many who cooperated in German houses, but there also were many others who felt they were treated unjustly, who refused to work and always had difficulties with the police. These Serbs returned to these houses in October 1944. They turned the lives of former housewives and of many others in the German villages into a living Hell. Many Germans were murdered and beaten to death, even before the aroused rabble and Tito’s partisans were torturing the Germans to death in labor and starvation camps in accordance with official instructions. Only those who had sufficient strength left were able to escape in 1946-47 from the camps to Austria and freedom. About 30 percent of the German population did not survive the camps. This happened after the war had ended. In the Banat, the terror by the partisans did not begin until the war had ended.

In closing, one should ask the following question: How could such catastrophe happen to us after 1944? As early as 1848, when the Serbs went on a plundering rampage, one could see what happens when the rabble rules. And when the demands of the expulsion of the Germans were repeated after 1919, could no one foresee the consequences for resettlement before the disaster of 1944 occurred? Much suffering and death of innocent people in the extermination camps (Rudolfsgnad, Werschetz, Kudritz, Moldorf, Gakovo, Mitrvica, Kruschewlje) could have been prevented. Most all the people in the Banat stayed at home because it was too late to escape. And even in the internment camps in the U.S.S.R., we still believed in the final victory as late as the beginning of 1945. The Germans from Dobrudscha and Bessarabia who were resettled to the Warthegau back in 1943 suffered the same fate as the Germans from Banat.

Today, our expulsion is history, too—forgotten history. Economically and politically we have been integrated in Germany, and nobody would think of returning to our ancestral Banat.

Image of Josep Broz Tito is not not include with this republished with this article.  Caption: Josep Broz Tito's tyranny and violence did not stop merely with abusing Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, but with the Banat Germans, as well.  His elimination of thousands of these Germanic speakers is one of the untold war crimes of World War II.

[Published at DVHH.org 09 Feb 2010]


© The Barnes Review, Volume IX Number 1, January/February 2003, page 13-15.  Magazine issue was sent to Jody McKim 12 Dec 2003, with permission to republish at DVHH.org.  Copyright by TBR Co, P.O. Box 15877, Washington D.C. 20003  www.barnesreview.org


 

 

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