Culture, Travel & Sport

The Danube Swabians: A story of cultural loss and revival

The little known story of the ethnic German minority in Hungary is one of great tragedy and even greater resilience. It tells a narrative of a unique hybrid culture that stretches back four centuries, and the hardships endured to preserve it. 

Beginning in the 17th century, a migration of German peasants to Hungary along the Danube River saw the development of a unique identity. The Danube Swabians, as they later became known, possessed an ethnocultural rather than a national belonging, with historian John Swanson describing it as neither German nor Hungarian but possessing hybridity. 

This minority population enjoyed a secluded lifestyle in the southwestern parts of Hungary and over the course of the next three centuries, developed a distinct culture and dialect. However, as World War Two neared its end, the world for the Danube Swabian minority was turned on its head. 

The Potsdam Conference of 1945 between Churchill, Stalin and Truman dictated that “the transfer to Germany of German populations, or elements thereof, remaining in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, will have to be undertaken.” The reasoning behind this is varied, many scholars citing the threat that an ethnically diverse state posed to cohesive nationalism. This is drawn from the notion of the German fifth column as a proponent of the war. Others state that it tapped into the enduring attitude that a war against Hitler was a war against all Germans, projecting collective guilt onto the Danube Swabian minority. A more practical reason was the acquisition of large peasant properties to provide housing for those coming into Hungary, as well as the communist party’s land distribution reforms. 

Whatever the reason, or combination of reasons, the agreement led to a shocking 10 million ethnic Germans being deported into the newly configured German borders. Around 500,000 of these were Danube Swabians, with the Hungarian statistical office stating that in 1941 there were 533,045 ethnic Germans and in 1949 just 22,455. The Danube Swabians, who had lived in Hungary for centuries, were forced out of their homes with few belongings and shoved onto trains bound for Germany. Reports from the time state that as the train left the platform, they began to sing the Hungarian national anthem, a poignant reminder of their sense of belonging to their homeland. 

The discovery of a Danube Swabian’s diary details the pain felt as a result of the deportations, “The greatest injustice any man can do to another is to take away his freedom, his house and his property. Our German ancestors settled in Harta in the 1750s. For over two hundred years, Hungary was our home. Our ancestors lived here in freedom, working hard and living their lives. Now a world war has ended all of it.” (John Knoddell, January 22, 1948) 

Those who were deported to Germany founded a discord with its people, culture and language and the Danube Swabians struggled to grip onto their unique cultural identity. Many subsequently immigrated to countries like the US, Canada and Australia and established small communities, while others attempted to overtly assimilate. Many of those that remained in Hungary were frightened to outwardly express their cultural identity, which was further repressed under communist rule. 

Prior to 1989, there were small steps taken towards the protection of the Danube Swabian culture. A 1950 decree ended the expulsions, yet citizenship to Hungary was difficult to gain and many encountered barriers to returning. The 1956 revolution saw some minority legislation, yet it wasn’t until 1968 that a minority policy recognised the Danube Swabians. The 1972 revised constitution again bettered the situation by declaring minorities as ‘collective bodies’ yet no substantial change occurred until the fall of the communist regime. 

In 1990 an office was established for ethnic minorities within the Ministry of Justice and in 1993 a minority legislation was passed granting individual and collective rights. With this, Danube Swabians finally gained cultural autonomy and a wider scope to define their Germandom. However, it wasn’t until 1996 that the government apologised for the expulsions in a symbolic attempt to repair the strained relationship. 

Now, despite decades of repression, the Danube Swabian minority has shown great success in preserving their culture. Various bodies have been established to give the minority a voice and assist in further conservation. For example, the Association of Hungarian Germans (Verband der Ungarndeutschen) attempts to reverse the effects of decades of Hungarian assimilation by fostering the teaching of the German language in the younger generations. Moreover, an elected body called The National Self Government of Germans in Hungary (MNOÖ) closely cooperates with educational institutions and cultural organisations. 

In spite of these hardships, there has been a revival of the Danube Swabian culture, as German language radio shows, cultural festivals, theatre productions and German-language newspapers are increasingly enjoyed by the population. Between the 2001 and 2011 censuses, there was a sharp increase in those identifying as ethnically German, showing increasing comfort with proclaiming their identity.  Danube Swabian villages, predominantly in the Baranya and Tolna counties now enjoy traditional celebrations and way of life. For example, the village of Vokány situated at the northern slope of the Villány Mountains boasts a German folk dance group and choir. The village also celebrates Putzkorb or the Trinity Sunday feast, which is a traditional German festival. 

This recognition of Danube Swabian culture by these villagers is key to its preservation, and while the history of the Danube Swabian’s is rife with complexity, there is an overarching narrative that prevails: that of a group that has managed to preserve their unique cultural identity, against all odds.