The Danube Swabians seen in Claudio Magris' book "Danube"

Reviewed by Nick Tullius

I read this book last year, in preparation for a river cruise on the Danube. The French newspaper Le Monde describes the book as “a synthesis of history, geography, literature, political philosophy and intelligent tourism”. I was hoping that the story of the Danube Swabians would not be missing from such a work. And I was not disappointed.

Early on in the book, the author writes “…the latter days of the Hapsburg Empire, a tolerant association of peoples understandably lamented when it was over, not least when compared with the totalitarian barbarism that replaced it in the lands of the Danube between the two World Wars1…. “

An interesting episode in the Swabian settlement of the lower Danube regions is reflected in the story of “….the “Moidle-Schiff”, the merry vessel bearing the 150 Swabian and Bavarian girls whom Duke Karl Alexander of Württemberg sent in 1719, following the Peace of Passarowitz, to the non-commissioned officers who had stayed behind as German colonists in the Banat, so that they could marry and thereby establish that Swabian presence in the Banat which did indeed become one of the central elements in the history and culture of south-eastern Europe2….” According to the author, the source of this story is the book “Navigation and Rafting on the Upper Danube” by the engineer Ernst Neweklowsky. It is interesting to note that the story of the Moidle Schiff is also found in the novel “Der große Schwabenzug” by Adam Müller-Guttenbrunn.   

The main colonization efforts are described as follows: “….Others who set off from Ulm, on the old longboats known as “crates from Ulm”, were the German settlers on the way to populate the Banat, those “Donauschwaben”, Swabians of the Danube, who for two centuries, from the time of Maria Theresia until the Second World War, were to make a basic and important contribution, now erased, to the culture and life of the Danube basin3….”

The situation of Hungary-Germans during the years of the Dual Monarchy and during the Third Reich is described as “….very complicated. The German-National movement of the German-speaking group in Hungary, led by Jakob Bleyer, did not identify itself with Nazism, in spite of Bleyer’s ideology of the Volkstum; while Hitler, on his part, watched after the interests of the German minority, but made no attempts to annex the area in which it lived. At the same time Hitler’s ally Horthy, leader of the Fascist (or para-Fascist) regime in Hungary pursued a nationalistic policy which came down hard on all minorities in Hungary, including, of course, the German one4….”

An interesting example of banditry is presented in the story of the false Czar Ivan (or Iova), the “terrible black man” who with his army of 600 bandits had terrorized the area between the Temes and the Tisza around the 1520s. Ivan, whose real name was Ferenc Fekete, switched his allegiance between Emperor Ferdinand of Hapsburg and John Zápolya, the Voivode of Transylvania, both pretenders to the Hungarian crown, following the loss of the battle at Mohács (1526) against the Turks5.

The author goes on to describe the settlement process after Passarowitz: “It is a fact that after the reconquest of Temesvár, which Prince Eugène took from the Turks in 1716, General Mercy, a wise and enterprising governor, drained swamps and repopulated deserted plains by bringing in immigrants from many countries. In 1734 the town of Becskerek was full of Spaniards, who had there founded a New Barcelona. The largest group of colonists was German, summoned in the eighteenth century by Maria Theresia and Joseph II. Most of them came from Swabia, the Palatinate or the Rhineland, descending the Danube on the Ulm barges. They were tough, hardworking peasants who transformed unhealthy marshlands into fertile soil. Swabia, one of the heartlands of old Germany, was thus transplanted to the Banat; and even today, in the areas now in Rumania, one can in certain villages hear the Swabian or Alemanic dialects, as if one were in Württemberg or the Black Forest6….”

The crucial issue of nationalities living together is not ignored: “….At Pancevo, even at the end of the nineteenth century, there were Székely villages, while Becskerek does not remember that it was once a Spanish town. Until the middle of the nineteenth century one cannot think of nationalism or nationalistic movement. When Governor Mercy called in those German farmers, he did not intend to “Germanize” those lands, but simply to populate them with skilful peasants and artisans who would come to the aid of enlightened progress. As Josef Kaltenbrunner observed, these German immigrants could well be Rumanians or Slavs, just as long as they had learned, and were therefore in a position to broadcast and diffuse, the industry and diligence which was typically German6….’

The great poet Nikolaus Lenau is characterized as “….an outstanding poet of solitude and suffering. His character was at one and the same time charming and eaten away by nothingness, by a cosmic sadness experienced throughout every fibre in a sensitive nature that was ultra-musical, neurotic and self-destructive. His Faust, negative and desperate as it may be, is one of the great Fausts written since Goethe, when the classicism of Goethe, loyal despite everything to the notion that human history had some meaning, was subverted throughout European culture by a profound crisis, the conviction of meaninglessness and nullity. His Faust, who kills himself because he feels that he is no more than a vague dream dreamt by God, or rather by an Everything that is as indistinct as it is wicked, is a work of great poetic merit, in which the errant multi-nationality of Lenau overflows into a universality innocent of any Danubian local colour7….”

The ambiguous attitude of the Danube Swabians during the revolution of 1848 is discussed in connection with the process of Magyarization that got underway at the same time. “….In the upheavals of 1848 the Swabians of the Banat [….] did not know how to act: they did not know who they were. With a leaning towards loyalty to the Hapsburgs, and surrounded by Hungarians, they were on the face of it threatened by the Hungarians, and therefore their enemies8….”

“In Temesvár there were in 1902 twelve German newspapers, twelve Hungarian, and one Rumanian. However, the process of Magyarization made deep inroads into the German presence. Adam Müller-Guttenbrunn describes the increasing loss of nationality, the shrinking of the German schools, the Magyarization of first names and surnames, and the way that portraits of Francis Joseph gradually vanished from the walls of Swabian houses. [….] In an amusing controversy in 1916, the burgomaster of Temesvár challenged Müller-Guttenbrunn and his claims for the rights of the German minority; but the burgomaster who championed Magyarization was a Swabian9.”

About the post-WWII years, the author notes that “….In 1972 Ceausescu himself officially condemned the forced transportation of Serbs and Germans and the expropriation of their lands – measures decided on by the Rumanian government years before10….” In the following years, there was what turned out to be a last flourishing of German writing in Romania: “….More than a hundred works of literature were published between 1944 and 1984, and poetry in dialect has taken a new life11….” Part of this literature were the works of Herta Müller. In closing this little book review, here are the comments of Claudio Magris on these works: “…. Herta Müller writes about the village, like so many earlier writers of the Banat, but her village is the place of absence, in which obscure things, strung out senselessly in sentences lacking in predicates, speak of the oppressive alienation of the world and also of the individual from himself. Owing to the new, alienating “village literature” flourishing in Austria with Bernhard, Handke or Innerhofer, Herta Müller explores its dark, sensitive roots in an original manner. When she theorizes about it, she occasionally falls (like her models) into a stereotyped attitude not without a dash of arrogance12….” 

The book was written before the fall of Ceausescu, so that the subsequent exodus of Banat Swabians from Romania is obviously not covered. Should he ever consider a new issue of the book, I am sure that Claudio Magris would deplore that course of events as much as the writer of this short review.

Magris, Claudio: Danube; Collins Harvill, London 1990; ISBN 0-00-272074-4:

1 p. 30

2 p. 65

3 p. 74

4 p. 281

5 pp. 283, 284

6 pp. 294, 295

7 p. 300

8 p. 307

9 p. 307

10 p. 305

11 p. 306

12 p. 306

Biographical Note

Claudio Magris is a scholar and critic specializing in German literature and culture, who has been teaching at the University of Turin and the University of Trieste. He has published works of literary criticism and translations of works by Ibsen, Kleist, and Schnitzler. His book “Danube” has been translated in every major European language. NT

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Last updated: 26 Aug 2020