Danube Swabians

The Danube Swabians (German:  Donauschwaben ) is a collective term for the German-speaking population who lived in various countries of southeastern Europe, especially in the Danube River valley. Most were descended from 18th-century immigrants recruited as colonists to repopulate the area after the expulsion of the Ottoman Empire.

The Danube Swabians are the most recently formed distinct line of ethnic German people.[1] They are made up of ethnic Germans from many former and present-day countries: Germans of Hungary; Satu Mare Swabians; the Banat Swabians; and the Vojvodina Germans in Serbia's Vojvodina, who called themselves Schwowe in a Germanized spelling or "Shwoveh" in an English spelling; and Croatia's Slavonia (especially in the Osijek region). The Carpathian Germans and Transylvanian Saxons are not included within the Danube Swabian group. In the singular first person, they identified as a Schwob or a Shwobe.


Danube Swabian men's tracht, from the historic house of the parents of Stefan Jäger, Hatzfeld (Jimbolia), Romanian Banat.


Beginning in the 12th century, German merchants and miners began to settle in the Kingdom of Hungary at the invitation of the Hungarian monarchy (see Ostsiedlung). Although there were significant colonies of Carpathian Germans in the Spiš mountains and Transylvanian Saxons in Transylvania, German settlement throughout the rest of the kingdom had not been extensive until this time.

During the 17th-18th centuries, warfare between the Habsburg Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire devastated and depopulated much of the lands of the Danube valley, referred to geographically as the Pannonian plain. The Habsburgs ruling Austria and Hungary at the time resettled the land with people of various ethnicities recruited from the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the Habsburgs, including Magyars, Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, Serbs, Romanians, Ukrainians, and Germanic settlers from Swabia, Hesse, Palatinate, Baden, Franconia, Bavaria, Austria, and Alsace-Lorraine. Despite differing origins, the new immigrants were all referred to as Swabians by their neighbor Serbs, Hungarians, and Romanians. The Bačka settlers called themselves Schwoweh, the plural of Schwobe in the polyglot language that evolved there. The majority of them boarded boats in Ulm, Swabia, and traveled to their new destinations down the Danube River in boats called Ulmer Schachteln. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had given them funds to build their boats for transport.


The first wave of resettlement came after the Ottoman Turks were gradually being forced back after their defeat at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. The settlement was encouraged by nobility, whose lands had been devastated through warfare, and by military officers including Prince Eugene of Savoy and Claudius Mercy. Many Germans settled in the Bakony (Bakonywald) and Vértes (Schildgebirge) mountains north and west of Lake Balaton (Plattensee), as well as around the town Buda (Ofen), now part of Budapest. The area of heaviest German colonization during this period was in the Swabian Turkey (Schwäbische Türkei), a triangular region between the Danube River, Lake Balaton, and the Drava (Drau) River. Other areas settled during this time by Germans were Pécs (Fünfkirchen), Satu Mare (Sathmar), and south of Mukachevo (Munkatsch).

After the Habsburgs annexed the Banat area of Central Europe from the Ottomans in the Treaty of Passarowitz (1718), the government made plans to resettle the region to restore farming. It became known as the Banat of Temesvár (Temeschwar/Temeschburg), as well as the Bačka (Batschka) region between the Danube and Tisza (Theiss) rivers. Fledgling settlements were destroyed during another Austrian-Turkish war (1737–1739), but extensive colonization continued after the suspension of hostilities.

The late 18th-century resettlement was accomplished through private and state initiatives. After Maria Theresa of Austria assumed the throne as Queen of Hungary in 1740, she encouraged vigorous colonization on crown lands, especially between Timișoara and the Tisza. The Crown agreed to permit the Germans to retain their language and religion (generally Roman Catholic). The German farmers steadily redeveloped the land: drained marshes near the Danube and the Tisza, rebuilt farms, and constructed roads and canals. Many Danube Swabians served on Austria's Military Frontier (Militärgrenze) against the Ottomans. Between 1740 and 1790, more than 100,000 Germans immigrated to the Kingdom of Hungary.

The Napoleonic Wars ended the large-scale movement of Germans to the Hungarian lands, although the colonial population increased steadily and was self-sustaining through reproduction. Small daughter-colonies developed in Slavonia and Bosnia. After the creation of Austria-Hungary in 1867, Hungary established a policy of Magyarization whereby minorities, including the Danube Swabians, were induced by political and economic means to adopt the Magyar language and culture.

Beginning in 1893, Banat Swabians began to move to Bulgaria, where they settled in the village of Bardarski Geran, Vratsa Province, founded by Banat Bulgarians several years prior to that. Their number later exceeded 90 families. They built a separate Roman Catholic church in 1929 due to conflicts with the Bulgarian Catholics. Some of these Germans later moved to Tsarev Brod, Shumen Province, together with a handful of Banat Bulgarian families, as well as to another Banat Bulgarian village, Gostilya, Pleven Province.

After the treaties of Saint-Germain (1919) and Trianon (1920) following World War I, the Banat was divided between Romania, Yugoslavia, and Hungary; Bačka was divided between Yugoslavia and Hungary; and Satu Mare went to Romania. Before World War II, the biggest populations of Germans in the Vojvodina were at Hodschag, Werbass, and Apatin.

There was approximately two million ethnic Danube Swabians in the region before World War II. In Romania, census of 1930 recorded 745,421 Germans; Hungarian Census of 1933 recorded 477,153; and Yugoslavian Census of 1921, 513,472. German estimations from the period place those estimations at 850,000; 600,000 and 620,000 for Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia respectively.[2]

World War II, expulsion, and current situation

Traditional schwab house in NE Hungary
Institute for Danube Swabian history and geography

In 1941 Yugoslavia was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany, and in the German-occupied Banat, they granted the Swabian minority a status of superiority over the other ethnic groups in the Yugoslav population. The Baranja and Bačka Swabians reverted to Hungary, to their general disappointment.[3] The Danube Swabians were already under heavy Nazi influence by that time and served as the Axis fifth column during the invasion of Yugoslavia, although many served in the royal Yugoslav army in the brief war against the Nazis in April 1941.[4] The Independent State of Croatia (1941–1945), a fascist puppet state[5][6] created within Axis-occupied Yugoslavia, was home to 182,000 Danube Swabian ethnic Germans ("Folksdojčeri" in Croatian).[7] In addition, the Danube Swabian minority were granted a separate autonomous region of Banat within German-occupied Serbia[8] (another part of occupied Yugoslavia), in which they ruled over the Slavic majority (Danube Swabians formed around 20% of the population[9]). Yugoslav Danube Swabians supplied more than 60,000 troops for German military formations, some voluntarily but many more under duress. They actively participated in the sometimes brutal repression of Yugoslav Partisans and their suspected sympathizers, including 69,000 Jewish Jugoslavs.[4]

The local collaborationist authorities were forced to make it illegal to draft Danube Swabians. However, of the approximately 300,000-strong Danube Swabians minority in occupied Yugoslavia (182,000 in the NDH, 350,000 in Vojvodina), 500,000 in Romania and 500,000 in Hungary, approximately 100,000 eventually entered service in various German and Axis military organizations, most notably in the two locally formed Waffen-SS volunteer divisions, the 7th SS Volunteer Mountain Division Prinz Eugen, and the 22nd SS Volunteer Cavalry Division Maria Theresa (which was made-up of Hungarian Danube Swabians).

The 7th SS Prinz Eugen in particular, one of the most infamous SS units of World War II, was responsible for the massacres of tens of thousands of Yugoslav civilians, as well as brutal reprisals resulting in the desolation of entire areas.[4] The 7th SS Prinz Eugen was principally engaged in fighting the Partisans. The division became notorious for its numerous atrocities against the Yugoslav civilian population, particularly during the battles of the Neretva and Sutjeska (1943), including the killing of all captured prisoners and wounded.[10] Although these formations were initially formed as volunteer units,[4] ultimately SS officials imposed conscription under the dubious legal pretext that occupied Serbia was deutsches Hoheitsgebiet and the archaic Tiroler Landsturmordung (Tyrol General Levy Act) of 1872 was introduced.[11] The 7th SS Prinz Eugen was formed as a volunteer unit, but historians have demonstrated that later in the war, the local German authorities of Banat came under significant pressure from the German authorities. Essentially coercion was used to recruit more troops. Guenther Reinecke, chief of the Hauptamt SS-Gericht (SS legal office) wrote to Himmler that the Prinz Eugen was "no longer an organization of volunteers, that on the contrary, the ethnic Germans from Serbian Banat were drafted, to a large extent under threat of punishment by the local German leadership, and later by the SS Erganzsamt."[12]

Between 1941 and 1943, a total of 2,150 ethnic German Bulgarian citizens were transferred to Germany as part of Adolf Hitler's Heim ins Reich policy. These included 164 Banat Swabians from Bardarski Geran and 33 from Gostilya.[13]

In 1944, a joint advance of the Yugoslav Partisans, and the Soviet Red Army saw the liberation of northern areas of German-occupied Yugoslavia, which were home to the Danube Swabian minority. In Yugoslavia in particular, with many exceptions, the Danube Swabian minority "collaborated . . . with the occupation".[4] Consequently, on November 21, 1944 the Presidium of the AVNOJ (the Yugoslav parliament) declared the ethnic German minority in Yugoslavia collectively hostile to the Yugoslav state.[14] The AVNOJ Presidium issued a decree that ordered the government confiscation of all property of Nazi Germany and its citizens in Yugoslavia, persons of ethnic German nationality (regardless of citizenship), and collaborators. The decision acquired the force of law on February 6, 1945.[15] The many reasons for this announcement are still inaccessible to historians, but revenge against the traitorous activity of the ethnic German minority and the expropriation of Swabian agricultural lands to facilitate collectivization appears to have been prime reasons.[16]

During the Nuremberg trials, a photograph of SS troopers (of low rank) decapitating a Yugoslav civilian with a woodsman's axe was shown. When asked to account for the atrocities of the 7th SS, the SS Oberstgruppenführer Paul Hausser (second in command of the SS) said that the division was composed primarily of Yugoslav ethnic Germans, many trained (under conscription) in the pre-war royal Yugoslav army.[17] Of about 100,000 Danube Swabians who served in the various SS units, approximately 29,000 were killed. This total includes 2,000 POWs from the 7th SS Prinz Eugen who were summarily executed by the Allied Yugoslav troops as Yugoslav citizens collaborating with the enemy.

During the Second World War, many ethnic Germans sent the youngest and the oldest of their families to Germany. From 1945–48, many ethnic Germans in Hungary were dispossessed and expelled to Allied-occupied Germany under the Potsdam agreement. In the Bačka, which had been part of Hungary from 1941, Schwowisch villages were emptied forcibly in March 1945. The old and the young were imprisoned in Gakovo, Kruševlje, Rudolfsgnad (Knićanin), Molidorf (Molin), Bački Jarak, Krndija, Valpovo and Sremska Mitrovica.[16] Those able to work were used as slave labor throughout the countryside. On March 1, 1946 130,388 interned Yugoslav ethnic Germans were proposed to be expelled under the Potsdam Agreement [18] This was turned down but provides a good estimate of the number of Shwovish internees. Many thousands were forcibly removed by cattle cars to Russia to work as Allied “war reparations,” slave labor in Siberian coal mines and elsewhere until 1949, when the program was shut down. The conditions were poor, and about half of those sent to Russia died from malnutrition or disease.

Of a pre-war population of about 350,000 ethnic Germans in the Vojvodina, the 1958 census revealed 32,000 left. Officially, Yugoslavia denied the forcible starvation and killing of their Schwowisch populations, but reconstruction of the death camps reveals that of the 170,000 Danube Swabians interned from 1944 to 1948, about 50,000 died of mistreatment.[16] Since only families with the very young (under three), very old, and mothers were interned and starved, many others were unaccounted for in slave labor settings throughout the countryside and in Russia; but their death rates were probably much lower. The Germans in Romania were not deported but were instead dispersed within Romania. Many left Romania for West Germany between 1970–90, and this trend increased in 1990.

Beginning in 1920 and especially after World War II, many Danube Swabians migrated to the United States, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Austria, Australia, and Argentina. Some of them, descending from French-speaking or linguistically mixed families from Lorraine, had maintained the French language for some generations, as well as an ethnic identity, later referred to as Banat French, Français du Banat. They were resettled in France around 1950.[19]


Danube Swabian women's tracht, from the historic house of the parents of Stefan Jäger, Hatzfeld (Jimbolia), Romanian Banat.

The Danube Swabian culture is a melting pot of southern German regional customs, with a large degree of Balkan and mostly Hungarian influence. This is especially true of the food, where paprika is heavily employed, which led to the German nickname for Danube Swabians as Paprikadeutsche. The architecture is neither Southern German nor Balkan but is unique to itself. The houses, often made of stamped mud and straw walls or mud bricks, are ubiquitous throughout the Vojvodina region. Georg Weifert was responsible for developing one of the most famous beers in the Serbia/Yugoslavia region and later became an important banker and politician in Belgrade (his image currently features on the Serbian 1000 dinar note).

Georg Weifert on the 1000 Serbian dinar bill.


The Danube Swabian language is only nominally Swabian (Schwowisch, as it was referred to locally). In reality, it contains elements or many dialects of the original German settlers, mainly Swabian, Franconian, Bavarian, Rhinelandic/Pfälzisch, Alsatian, and Alemannic, as well as Austro-Hungarian administrative and military jargon. Loanwords from Hungarian, Serbian, or Romanian are especially common regionally regarding cuisine and agriculture, but also regarding dress, politics, place names, and sports. Other cultures of influence include Serbian and Croatian, Russian (for communist concepts), Romanian, Turkish (Hambar), English (for football), and general Balkan and South Slavic loanwords like Kukuruts (corn). The plural of loanwords is in most cases formed in the Shwovish way. Conjunctions and adverbs from the respective contact languages may be integrated as well.[20]

Many German words used by speakers of Danube Swabian dialects may sound archaic. To the ear of a Standard German speaker, the Danube Swabian dialect sounds like what it is: a mix of southwestern German dialects from the 18th century with many strange words from other languages. Due to relative isolation and differing proximities to nearby German speakers (Austrians and Transylvanian Saxons), the language varies considerably, with speakers able to distinguish inhabitants of neighboring villages by the words they use for such things as marmalade (Leckwaar and Schleckle being two variants), or by how many (usually Hungarian) loanwords they employ.This even applied to verb conjugations. For example, the German verb "haben" was conjugated as "han" in Sankt Hubert and as "hava" In Mramorak, although both were in Banat.[21] Herman Ruediger, a German sociologist, reports that in his trips throughout the Bačka in the 1920s, he noted that Danube Swabians from widely separated villages had to use standard high German to communicate with each other because their speech was so different. This was particularly true for towns like Esseg where Shwoveh were thoroughly with majority Croatians.[22] For instance, the ethnic Germans of Esseg were so thoroughly assimilated with Croatia that their Shwovish or 'Essekerish' could only be understood by those who also spoke Croatian or Serbian.


As is the custom in Hungary (as well as southern Germany), Danube Swabians often put the surname first, especially when writing, for example Butscher Jakob (see photo of memorial). Danube Swabian villages tend to have relatively few family names as the villagers stem from only a few families, but usually the same family name does not appear in more than a couple of villages, meaning that there are many Danube Swabian family names. The names come from throughout southern Germany, from assimilated Hungarians, and occasionally from Balkan and Italian origins. There are usually no middle names, but often double first names, if a distinction can be made. The variety of first names is few, since children were usually named after grandparents or godparents. Popular names for women include: Anna, Barbara, Christina, Katharina, Magdalena, Maria, Sophia, Theresia, and many two-name combinations thereof. Popular names for men include: Adam, Anton, Christian, Friedrich, Georg, Gottfried, Heinrich, Jakob, Johann, Konrad, Ludwig, Mathias, Nikolaus, Peter, Philipp (or Filipp), and Stefan (or Stephan). With so few names in villages, other modifiers or nicknames were almost always used to distinguish people. The modifiers were often size related (e.g., "Kleinjohann" or "Little Johann"), occupation related ("Tischler Stefan" or the "carpenter Stefan"), or location related (usually by prefixing the streetname).

Coat of arms

Coat of arms of the Banat Swabians created by Hans Diplich in 1950.

A coat of arms designed in 1950 by Hans Diplich has been adopted by many Danube Swabian cultural organizations. Its blazon is "Parti per fess wavy 1 Or, an eagle displayed couped Sable langued Gules; 2 parti per fess Argent and Vert, a fortress Argent roofed and turreted Gules surmounted with Sun and Crescent waning Or; chief wavy Azure".

It depicts:

Resources for genealogical research




See also

Memorial in German for soldiers who died in World War I in Sekitsch (Lovćenac), Vojvodina.


  1. Josef Volkmar Senz, _Geschichte der Donau-Schaeben: Von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart_, (Munich: Amalthea, 1987), dust jacket.
  2. G.C. Paikert (6 December 2012). The Danube Swabians: German Populations in Hungary, Rumania and Yugoslavia, and Hitler’s impact on their Patterns. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 3. ISBN 978-94-011-9717-5.
  3. Tomasevich 1975.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 Tomasevich, Jozo; War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941-1945: occupation and collaboration, Volume 2; Stanford University Press, 2001 ISBN 0-8047-3615-4
  5. Independent State of Croatia - Britannica Online Encyclopedia
  6. Yugoslavia, Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
  7. Pavlowitch, Stevan K. Hitler's New Disorder, Columbia University Press, 2008
  8. Johann Böhm: Die deutschen Volksgruppen im Unabhängigen Staat Kroatien und im serbischen Banat. Ihr Verhältnis zum Dritten Reich 1941-1944. Peter Lang, Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften, Frankfurt am Main, 2012, 530 pages.
  9. http://www.hic.hr/books/jugoistocna-europa/02tablice.htm
  10. Wolff, Stefan. "German minorities in Europe", Berghahn Books, 2000
  11. George H. Stein, The Waffen-SS, Hitler's Elite Guard at War 1939-1945, (Cornell University, 1966), page.172.
  12. George H. Stein, The Waffen-SS, Hitler's Elite Guard at War 1939-1945, Cornell University, 1966, p. 171.
  13. 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.
  14. Ramet 2006, p. 159.
  15. Tomasevich 1969, p. 115, 337.
  16. 1 2 3 Janjetović, Zoran: Between Hitler and Tito. The Disappearance of the Vojvodina Germans, Belgrade 2005 (2nd ed.)
  17. Stein, George H.; The Waffen SS: Hitler's elite guard at war, 1939-1945; Cornell University Press, 1984; p. 274; ISBN 0-8014-9275-0
  18. Lt.-Gen. Avsich, Yugoslav Military Mission, Berlin to the Allied Control Commission. Foreign Office 1032/2284.
  19. 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
  20. Bentz, Michaela (2008). German as a Minority Language: The "Swabians" in the Danubian States and their Language(s). In: Kokkonidis, Miltiadis (ed.), Proceedings of LingO 2007, pp.20-26
  21. Hess, Michael, personal experience with native speakers from each town
  22. Ruediger, H. (1931) Die Donauschwaben in der südslawischen Bačka, Schriften des Deutschen Ausland-Instituts Stuttgart. Reihe A. Bd. 28. Stuttgart, 1931

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