The Relations Between the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and the Germans
Prior to 1941 as the Reason for the Expulsion of the Ethnic-Germans After 1944
at the "Forgotten Genocide" Conference
Dr. Zoran Janjetovic
in St. Louis, Missouri
28th of April 2011
The fate of the Germans in Yugoslavia at the end of
WWII was determined by several factors. Apart from the wartime events the earlier
history of centuries-long inter-ethnic relations left a deep mark.
Although it was many faceted, the Yugoslav communists
chose to base their policy toward the Volksdeutsche only on the negative part of the
common South-Slav – German relations. In that way they were continuing the pre-war
bourgeois nationalism, but furthering actually their own political, social and
ideological goals. What they chose to ignore was the huge contribution of the Germans
to the development of culture and the economy of the South Slavic lands.
They also tended to ignore, or at least to play down
the German origin of many Yugoslav luminaries in the fields of arts, literature and
politics, without whom the history of the Yugoslav peoples would have looked much
different. Instead of that they chose to refer only to the negative experiences and
conflicts. Furthermore, they chose to imbed them in the history of conflicts the South
Slavs had with the Habsburg Monarchy (although it was never a German nation state) and
with Germany. Always keeping in mind also the positive side of the centuries-long
common history, this author will concentrate in this paper only on its conflicting
side, trying to explain how the conflicts came about and how they were interpreted,
first by South Slav nationalists and then by the Yugoslav communists after WWII.
The first Germans to settle in the territory that would
in 1918 become Yugoslavia, were those in Slovenia. (To be sure, the term Slovenia
appeared only in mid 19th century.) During
the 6th and 7th centuries B.C. the Slovenes
inhabited their present homeland, as well as the neighboring territories. There they
came into contact several Germanic tribes.
century they asked the Bavarians to help them
fight the Asiatic marauding tribe of the Avars. The Bavarians did help them stave off
the Avars, but subjugated them in the process. Very soon their power was supplanted by
the Frankish one, which eventually devolved to the Habsburgs. In that way Slovenia
remained under German domination until 1918.
In the Middle Ages the land was
distributed among German feudal lords. The remnants of the Slovenian nobility – first
the aristocracy and by 15th century the gentry too, merged politically,
socially, culturally, and eventually ethnically with the German-speaking nobility,
leaving the Slovenes as people of peasants.
German lords started bringing German peasants to their
estates and German burghers to towns – most of whom were founded by these German
colonists. This process would also have fateful consequences. One of the most
important was the gradual assimilation of the Slovenes in the more outlying
territories where they weren’t so thick on the ground. By the late 19th
century the Slovenes were reduced more or less,
to the territories where they settled more densely and which they still inhabit.
To this day Slovenian nationalists
moan the loss of one half of the original Slovene-inhabited territories, accusing the
Germans of forcible Germanization. This accusation holds true only for the second half
century, and even there, only partly. In fact the assimilation of the Slovenes was a
1000 years’ process. It started early in the Middle Ages and went very gradually on
until 20th century. It was in a way a natural process favored by the fact that the
ruling nobility was German (or at least German-speaking), that the burghers were
German (or German-speaking) and that social climbing went hand in hand with cultural
and linguistic, and eventually ethnic assimilation.
What Slovenian nationalists often failed to see – or if
they did, they tended to perceive it as normal and laudable – was the similar process
running in favor of the Slovenes in those territories where they were the majority
population –particularly in the country. In the present-day Slovenian territory,
German peasants were assimilated to the Slovenes and only German burghers could
ethnically survive in towns – particularly in the southern Styrian towns of Celje (Cilli),
Maribor (Marburg) and Ptuj (Petau) where they managed to preserve their majority until
1918. To be sure, the Slovene nationalists claimed that the “Germans” in towns were
actually of Slovenian origin –which was partly true.
The problem was that the Slovenian nationalists claimed
the assimilation was always coercive. They refused to acknowledge the impact of other
factors, such as social mobility – which not only made German artisans, officials,
intellectuals or industrialists out of Slovenian immigrant peasants, but also German
workers of Social-Democrat leanings.
The only predominantly German peasant enclave which
survived in the territory predominantly inhabited by the Slovenes was Kocevje (Gottschee)
in Crain, It was settled in 14th
century by the counts of Oldenburg, and even
though it lost some ground over centuries, it remained predominantly German until
WWII. The Slovene nationalist claimed the Slovenes were the original inhabitants of
the area, or that at least Slovenian settlers came along with the Germans from
Carinthia, as well as that the territory was actually an ethnically mixed one.
Technically speaking it was true, but the Germans made
up the vast majority of the inhabitants, making the assimilation of the immigrant
Slovenes comparatively quick. Kocevje was a thorn in the flesh of Slovenian
nationalists because it managed to survive as self-conscious German enclave. Otherwise
it had no large importance being a poor wooded area from where people massively
emigrated to USA since late 19th
Despite their small numbers, the Germans in Slovenia
carried a much greater weight in terms of power and influence. Until 1918 the
administration was German-speaking, as was most of the bourgeoisie. Social differences
overlapped with ethnic ones. As the great Slovenian romantic poet France Presern said:
“In this country (i.e. Slovenia) those who give orders speak German and those who
carry them out speak Slovenian.” As we have seen, this doesn’t mean the order-givers
were necessarily Germans, but they were perceived as such by the masses and Slovenian
Indeed the fact that there were many German-friendly
Slovenes, not only among the self-made men, but also among peasants too, was
particularly irritating for the Slovene nationalists, and it added special gravity to
the “German problem” in their eyes. That’s one of the reasons which contributed to the
severity of ethnic strife in the Slovenian lands since mid-19th
All this led to severe persecution of the Germans by
Slovenian nationalists once they became top-dogs in 1918:
German associations were disbanded or turned into
Slovenian ones and German schools, as hotbeds of Germanization, shut down, even though
most of them were not opened with that intention. The German educational system was so
reduced, that not enough German classes remained for German children – let alone those
Slovenes who wished to educate their children in German in order to enable them social
promotion. The authorities in Slovenia pursued oppressive national policy throughout
the inter-war period which helped to push the Slovenian Germans in the hands, first of
Austrian irredentists, and then of the Nazis.
This would have serious consequences for both the
Slovenes and the Germans. The first were earmarked for expulsion into Croatia, Serbia,
Poland or Germany after the occupation of Slovenia in 1941, Because of that, and
decades long ethnic strife, Slovene intellectuals were one of the most influential
champions of the expulsion of the Germans not only from Slovenia, but from the whole
Unlike the Germans in Slovenia, the Danube Swabians
came only in 18th and 19th centuries to Southern Hungary (known as the
Vojvodina in Serbian). They were brought there by the Viennese court and the nobility
to till the land on the state and private estates acquired after the liberation from
the Turks who had run the region for 150 years.
The Germans (usually called
Swabians) were not the only settlers who were brought there. Already during the war
the Serbs who were used as soldiers came in 1689/90. After the liberation from the
Ottoman rule, the fertile Hungarian plane was only weakly populated. The Serbs
(latecomers and locals) and Romanians were not only too thin on the ground, but were
economically not productive enough: most of them were semi-nomadic cattle-raisers.
On the other hand the State and
the nobility needed agriculturalists who would cultivate the deserted land and make
profit. German peasants from South West Germany were seen as the best candidates for
the job: they were numerous enough to export population, hard-working, (unlike the
Serbs and Romanians) obedient, fed up with oppression of their princes and French
incursions and land hungry, which made them willing to emigrate. For these reasons
they were much desired as settlers not only by the Habsburgs, but also by Prussia,
Russia, Spain and other countries. However, they were by no means the only colonists:
the Hungarians, Slovaks, Czechs, Italians, and even Spaniards, were also recruited.
The settlers were granted a number of privileges such
as tax exemption, advance payments, tools seed etc. that were meant to enable them to
make the take-off. To be sure, they were also given land and often houses.
These privileges made them obnoxious to the Serbs
because they often infringed with their way of living: the Serbs were cattle-breeders
and they needed lot of space for grassing their herds. For that reason they were
unhappy with parceling of land. In a number of cases they had to move out and to make
room for the German settlers. They were also dissatisfied that they often had to clear
and to plough the land before German settlers arrived. Sometimes they had to build
houses for the colonists, or to give them shelter in theirs until the colonists’
houses were built. Furthermore, due to tax exemptions for the settlers, the local
Serbs had to pay all communal taxes alone during the first couple of years. All this
was very onerous for the Serbs at that time, and was used time and again by Serbian
nationalists in order to depict the Germans as intruders.
Although all these things did happen, in its totality,
the historical reality was somewhat different. It is true that the Germans were
granted privileges, but so were the Serbs in some cases. It is true that the Serbs had
to move in order to make space for the Swabians, but in some cases in the Military
Border it was the opposite: the Germans as poorer soldiers had to yield to the more
pugnacious Serbs. In many cases the Serbs were indemnified for the land that was taken
away from them, or they were given other parcels. Sometimes they had to leave their
houses, but they were cheap, easy to build dwellings of semi-nomads anyway.
Serbian nationalists tended to oversee these facts and
to see injustice, national intolerance or conspiracy of the Habsburgs behind these
The grudge of Serbian nationalists was increased by the
fact that the Germans, being not only endowed by the government, but also technically
more advanced and at the same time more diligent and more thrifty, after the difficult
initial phase (which lasted several decades) started to prosper better than their
This influenced also their behavior during the
Hungarian revolution of 1848: the Hungarian elite was willing to grant civic equality
but not national rights to numerous ethnic minorities. The Germans were interested in
economic progress, and having no developed national consciousness, sided with the
Magyars. The Serbs, on the other hand, being nationally more conscious, were afraid of
the incipient Magyarisation.
This caused conflicts and marred the inter-ethnic
relations. They were marred further still when German was introduced as the official
language of the administration after revolution. The Serbs didn’t realize that most of
the officials of the hated absolutism were actually Slovenes, Czechs and Poles.
Complaints of “Germanization” in that period are heard to this day.
The remaining decades until 1918 brought with them a
considerable economic upswing. However, more often than not, the Germans were the
winners and the Serbs the losers in the process. Although the Serbs (and other ethnic
groups in the regions) have adopted German way of living and tilling the land, they
weren’t so thrifty as the Germans. Being prone to spend more than they earned, they
often had to sell their land to the provident Swabians who were saving money precisely
for that purpose. In that way the Serbs and members of other ethnic groups (except for
the Slovaks) tended to lose land in favor of the Germans.
The myth of the opulent Swabian came to being, but it
was just a myth. Indeed, most Swabians were small or middle-sized peasants who looked
opulent only because their Serbian, Croat, Magyar or Romanian neighbors had even less
There was another factor which estranged the Swabians
from the Serbs in the Vojvodina. Being materialists, the Germans didn’t care much
about culture, politics or their own nationality. Just like part of the Slovenes, many
of them were willing to sacrifice their nationality for social ascent and carrier.
For that reasons, many German communes gave their
schools over to the Hungarian state to finance them, although that meant introduction
of Hungarian as the language of instruction. This enabled ambitious Swabian parents to
sent their sons to Hungarian high-schools and Universities, from where they returned
as Hungarian officials, teachers, politicians, intellectuals, priests and
professionals who worked on Magyarisation not only of their fellow-Swabians, but of
members of other minorities too. In that way they made themselves obnoxious as pillars
of the Hungarian regime with the Serbs.
Such state of affairs conditioned the Serbian policy
toward the Swabians in the Vojvodina during the inter-war period. Since the Serbs and
other Slavs were the minority in the province, in order to secure Yugoslavia’s
possession of it, the Serbian authorities tried to win the Swabians over by closing
down Hungarian and opening German schools and by allowing the Kulturbund, the blanket
German cultural organization to be founded in 1920.
However, once the Trianon peace treaty which allotted
the Vojvodina to Yugoslavia was signed, the minority policy became more rigid.
Furthermore, in order to “rectify” the ethnic-make up of the province, and “historical
injustices” committed during the colonization of the area during 18th
and 19th centuries, as well as in order to
alleviate the social problem of the indigent peasants, the Yugoslav government
instituted agrarian reform.
It was introduced in the whole
country and in the Vojvodina it was aimed more against big Hungarian landowners than
against the Germans. Nevertheless it hit: some German communes who lost their land,
and what was even worse, the German landless received no land within the framework of
the reform. At the same time, members of the minorities couldn’t get jobs in state
administration, educational policy was rather restrictive and possibilities of German
political influence very limited.
Although the overall situation of the German minority
was not intolerable, it left much space for improvements. The older minority leaders
were not able to achieve them, accumulating at the same time many functions in very
few hands. During 1930s this caused dissatisfaction on part of the young
intellectuals, partly educated in Germany and Austria.
They came in contact with Nazi ideas there and they
started their crusade against the old leaders. With the help from the Reich they
managed to come to the helm of the Kulturbund after a protracted conflict in 1938/39.
During the remaining pre-war year they would reshape not only that organization but
the whole German minority according to Nazi standards. This meant less adoption of the
ideology, but to a much higher degree organizational forms. They were willing to
follow the instructions from Berlin and serve the goals of the German foreign policy.
The masses of the Ethnic-Germans, especially the young, became nationally enthusiastic
since: after 20 years of being the under-dog of European politics, their mother
country became a great power again.
They hoped the Third Reich would achieve what the
Weimar Republic couldn’t: the improvement of their minority situation. This eventually
came about, but the Reich’s leaders always subordinated the interests of the
Volksdeutsche to those of the Reich. At the same time, greater assertiveness of the
Swabians – their marches, parades, uniforms, banners – irritated the nationalist part
of the Serbs and intimidated broader masses of the Serbian population.
When Yugoslavia was attacked in April 1941, the
Volksdeutsche sided with Germany in their hearts, and sometimes also in their actions.
The historical development has put them on the opposite side from their Serbian
During WWII and right after it, it would have fateful
consequences. After Yugoslavia (and the Vojvodina) was carved up, the Serbs became
underdogs and the Volksdeutsche were given smaller or larger degree of autonomy.
However, it came with a price: they had to serve the Reich as soldiers and foodstuffs
and raw materials producers.
Within the framework of German actions against the
partisans in Yugoslavia, some of them were also involved in war-crimes. They would
serve as the main rationale for the Communist authorities to reach the decision to
expel the Germans after WWII. However, in order to justify their action, they referred
not only to the wartime, but also to the times when the Volksdeutsche had been settled
in the Vojvodina.
Retroactively they had been accused of having always
been the instrument of German imperialism and oppressors of the South Slavs. The
difficulties the Serbs had had with the Habsburg Monarchy were partly shoved in their
shoes. Their huge contribution to the economic and cultural development of the region
was completely neglected, to be rediscovered only recently.
The situation of the Germans in Croatia differed
somewhat from those in Slovenia and the Vojvodina. The Germans started settling in
Croatia in small numbers already in late 17th
and early 18th century. The greater influx
started only from mid-19th century, mostly from Hungary. The available land
in Hungary was running out and the revolution of 1848 made peasants more movable. The
development of capitalism and dissolution of the Military Border increased the need
for labor force on the estates of the nobility, and plunged many Croat and Serbian
peasants into debts. Jobs and land at lower prices than in Hungary became available
which spurred many Swabian peasants to settle in Croatia which had certain autonomy
within Hungary since 1867.
Most of them settled down in the
fertile Slavonian plain. Unlike in the Vojvodina, the Germans rarely founded new
villages there, but rather settled in the existing Croat and Serbian ones. Although
they either bought land or were given lots to till by landlords, the colonization
caused some frictions there too. The poor Slavic peasants were dissatisfied they had
to sell their land so cheaply or envied the buyers.
The autonomous Croat government
was striving to stave off Hungarian supremacy so that it resented the influx of
foreigners – the Hungarians, but also the Germans, who were often (and with some
reasons too) perceived as the extended hand of the Magyars.
Even more resentful was the increasingly more
nationalist Croat intelligentsia: it couldn’t come to terms with the prevalence of
German cultural influence and the fact that German was the main language of
communication in major Croatian towns. For these reasons the Croatian government and
the intelligentsia – aided by the Clergy – strove to assimilate the newcomers.
Over decades, they were fairly successful. The Croats
were Roman-Catholics like 80% of the Swabians which (unlike in the case of the
Orthodox Serbs) facilitated inter-marrying and adoption of the local language through
church attendance. The Swabians were usually a minority in Croat or Serbian villages
which forced them to use Croat or Serbian much more often than their mother tong.
Last but not least, the Germans had almost no German
schools there (which the Croat government refused to open for them). For all these
reasons they soon became nationally dormant and their national awakening started only
in 1930s. It would not only reawake the animosity of nationalist Croat intellectuals,
but partly also fear among the Croat and Serb population (because of the resurgence of
Germany’s influence in Europe). At the same time, it would split the Volksdeutsche
into two opposed camps: the national one and the pro-Croat or Croatized one.
This situation would prevail throughout WWII in which
Croatia was granted independence by the Axis powers. Its government had to make
concessions to the Volksdeutsche who in turn had to be in the service of the Reich –
just like Croatia itself. The Ustasha (Croat fascists) and the Volksdeutsche
go-getters were scrambling for power and Jewish and Serbian property.
The Croatian government and intelligentsia remained
anti-German, despite the official friendship with the Reich. As fate would have it,
the two largest single war-crimes committed by the Banat Volksdeutsche SS-Division
“Prinz Eugen” while fighting the partisans , were committed against two Croat
villages. Although 90% of the Croatian Germans were evacuated before the partisan
power was established, the fate of the rest was no different from that of other
Volksdeutsche, and the supreme master of their fate was a Croat: the partisan leader
The same historical arguments for their incarceration
and expulsion were adduced in Croatia as in Slovenia and the Vojvodina, whereas German
origin of many Croat luminaries as well as the huge contribution of the Germans to
Croatia’s development were conveniently forgotten. As in the Vojvodina they have been
rediscovered and acknowledged only after the fall of communism.