Dr. Valentin Oberkersch
Translated by Henry A. Fischer
(Selections, Summaries and Translations)
The German Schools
Both Maria Theresia and Joseph II had put a great emphasis on the establishment of schools in the new settlements they supported and stipulated that the schools were the responsibility of the State (1770). Prior to that they were understood to be an additional function of the local parish church. In this sense they were to be “national” schools, reflecting the local population in terms of nationality and religion. But in Croatia and Slavonia, we find that the landlords or the communities themselves established their own schools. In many instances it took time to convince the peasant population of the value of their children attending school. Even where schools existed education was limited both in terms of content and length, which took place only during the winter months. In these schools the children learned to read, write, mathematics, and the catechism.
Schools and their upkeep as well as the salaries of the teachers was an expensive proposition during the early years of settlement and in many quarters was seen as a frill and not a necessity. The teachers during this period were often untrained; some were retired soldiers, tradesmen or farmers and had to take on other responsibilities in order to make a living, such as the notary, knife-smith, bell-ringer and organist. We can get a picture of the schools and the lives of the teachers in this period from that provided by the experience of the first schoolmaster in Franztal, Bernhard Sch�tzchen. He had been a sergeant in the Baden contingent of the Imperial Army. He not only taught the children in the newly founded school in 1820, but was also the bell-ringer. For every child he taught he received 2 Groschen per month, and received his board from the various families in the community who took turns having him for meals. Friedrich Falkenburger the schoolmaster in Neu Pasau who had been fully trained in Heidelberg also carried on his trade as a shoemaker.
After the death of Joseph II the number of schools declined. At the time of his death there were 35 schools in Pozega County in 1792 and there were only ten in 1847. In all of Slavonia, including the Military Frontier District there were 48 local schools in 1830.
German schools were established in the following communities: Ruma 1772, Neu-Banovci 1786, India 1790, Neu-Pasau 1791, Sarwasch-Hirschfeld 1809, Calma 1821, Neudorf 1830, Johannisfeld-Jovanovac 1836, Erdewik 1838, Putinci 1845, Bezanja 1862, Ernestinenhof 1865, Surcin 1869, Johannisberg 1892, Alt-Vukovar 1892, Dobanovci 1895, Lovas, 1898. The first of the German confessional schools was established in Eichendorf-Hrastovac and Kapetanovo Polje in 1876, Deutsche Nijemci 1904, Becmen 1876, Obrez 1884 and private German schools in Ivanovo Polje 1871, and Beocin 1882.
In the Concordat with Rome in 1855 the oversight of the schools was given to the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, which was reorganized in 1860 and the parish priest was head of the school in the community.
During the 1840’s the Croatian Nationalists demanded that Croatian was to be language of instruction in all schools. The first implementation of the regulation took effect in 1860 when Croatian was introduced into all of the schools after grade four. But many of the larger communities were able to achieve concessions in this regard. Bishop Strossmayer was very much involved in instigating and carrying out this regulation and took his German parishes to task with a vengeance, especially Esseg and others who had appealed for reconsideration to Vienna.
Ruma had a population of 8,000, of whom 5,000 were German, 2,250 were Serbian and there were 250 Hungarians who had been Croatized. The community simply asked: Why not have German instructions? And proceeded to implement it. Four teachers taught German and four taught Croatian. But German instruction was limited to two hours a day. The regulations were eventually successful so that by 1868 there were only eleven German Schools in all of Croatia and Slavonia: six were in the provinces and five were in the Military Frontier District.
In 1874 Croatian was designated as the language of instruction in all schools unless the students had another mother tongue, which could only be taught if Croatian was an obligatory subject for all of the pupils. The government would not share in the costs of any schools that used any other language as the language of instruction other than Croatian. They especially targeted the German confessional schools and attempted to legislate the forbidding of the use of the mother tongue over against Croatian.
By 1881/1882 there were 48 schools that included German instruction in their educational program. By 1918/1919 there were 22 left, but during the two periods the German population had increased by 60%. In 1890 there were 212 children in the average German school compared to 118 Croatians or Serb or 205 Magyars. At that time there were 140,885 Croat/Serbian pupils in school, 10,363 Germans and 3,682 Hungarians. The Lutherans maintained their German schools much longer primarily due to the fact that they had German clergy who played a leading role in the schools. Yet, by 1912/1913 there were only 4,500 pupils in German schools in Croatia and Slavonia. In 1909/1910 there had been 13,000.
The Ethnic Germans and the Confessional Situation
In Croatia-Slavonia, 70% of the German population of about 175,000 persons were Roman Catholic and were part of two dioceses: Agram and Bosnia-Syrmien. During the first wave of immigration the settlers from Germany were accompanied by their own priests, all of the next generations were to be served by Croatians, who were often Croatized Germans and were fanatic nationalists just like Strossmayer. This would lead to confrontation any time their German parishioners gave any indication of attempting to assert their German language, traditions or heritage. Any German priests who attempted to serve in either diocese were suspect and would not be accepted by their Croatian counterparts or bishops. They would almost always be appointed to parishes that were totally Croatian, regardless of their desire to serve a German parish. None of the bishops would permit the use of German in the Mass or allow any preaching. Some concessions were made in 1836 and German priests were allowed to serve in Esseg, Jarmin, India and Peterwardein and in some parishes the same applied to the use of the Hungarian language. In the city of Agram there were always German priests serving there because of the cosmopolitan nature of the city and its international connections.
The long term result of this attempt to stifle and muzzle the aspirations of the German population through the church, led to the abandonment of the Church by the emerging German leadership and intelligentsia who stepped outside of the Church, seeing it as irrelevant and simply a political tool of the Croatian Nationalists. Studying in Germany and Austria many of them became fiercely anti-Roman Catholic in response to the growing “Free From Rome” movement that was sweeping Austria and a new phenomenon took place there which was repeated in Croatia and Slavonia: Lutheran prayer houses were erected in Roman Catholic communities, schools established and pastors called especially in the towns.
In Bosnia the situation was somewhat different in that only about one third of the German settlers there were Roman Catholics. Chiefly at: Windthorst, Siboska, Kalenderovci, Polje and Sitnes. In Rudolfstal and Opsiecks the Roman Catholics formed the majority of the population. These parishes were regularly served by German priests many from the various monastic orders in the area.
The Protestants formed only a small minority in Croatia and Slavonia. In 1891 there were 36,151 Lutherans and 12,365 Reformed. This number increased up to 1914 with an ongoing emigration from Swabian Turkey in Hungary. In the national census of 1900 Lutherans accounted for 1.24% of the population and the Reformed 0.57%. With the exception of Slovak Lutherans and Hungarian Reformed, the Protestants by and large were Germans.
With the passing of the General Regulation XXVI in the year 1791 members of the two Evangelical Churches were forbidden to settle or own land in Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia, but the existing Evangelicals in Lower Slavonia were not allowed to be harassed. The War Office in Vienna decreed in 1839 that the purchase of land and property by Protestants in the Military Frontier District was also forbidden. The existing Protestant populations already living in the District were to be expelled. There were over 600 of them in Neu Pasua alone and they began to prepare to immigrate to Russia but their pastor, Andreas Weber through a personal appeal to the Emperor was able to prevent it. The Protestant population continued to face difficulties of this nature until 1859.
On September 1, 1859 the Emperor issued an Imperial Patent for Croatia that officially recognized both of the Evangelical Churches. It took up to 1866 before the Protestants were granted freedom of religion by the Sabor. Opposition came from the Bishop of Senj, Vjenceslav Soic, who protested against the legalization of the Confessions of the Protestant Churches whose entry into Croatia was seen as introducing a “foreign” element into the life of the nation.
As a result of the Compromise between Hungary and Croatia in 1868, all of the Lutheran and Reformed congregations in Croatia and Slavonia remained under the supervision of the Seniorats and Superintendents of their respective churches in Hungary, with the exception of the Lutheran congregation in Agram. This would lead to conflict and misunderstanding in the future. In 1873 the government of Croatia attempted to set in motion the legal establishment and administration of an independent Lutheran and Reformed Church of Croatia and Slavonia but were unable to put it into effect.
In 1881 there were 15 Lutheran pastorates in the country: in Agram, Alt-Pasua, Neudorf, Beschka, Antunovac, Eichendorf, Surtschin, Bingula, Brekinska, Rieddorf-Retfala, Neu Pasau, Hrastiin, Laslovo, Tordinci, Korodj. As mentioned previously, all of them with the exception of Agram were part of the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Hungary (Lutheran).
This relationship was frequently challenged both by the Croatian Sabor and the congregations and pastors themselves, but there was no desire to create friction with the Hungarian government or church authorities. Eventually in 1900, the Lutheran congregations formed an independent Seniorat within the Hungarian Church, with the exception of the congregations in Agram that remained independent, and Antunovac and Eichendorf that continued their membership in the Seniorat of Tolna and Baranya in Hungary. The much smaller Reformed constituency maintained distance from the religious authorities in Hungary as much as possible.
Most of the Protestant congregations were served by German pastors and thereby avoided the struggle that the Roman Catholic Germans had with their Croatian priests. The one exception was the pastor in Neudorf, Senior Nicholas Abaffy, a Slovak and also a fanatic pan-Slav who turned his congregation against him with his determination to Croatize the members. He even attempted to change the German name of the village to the Croatian: Novo Selo. The German newspapers also criticized him in 1910 because of his political agitation on behalf of the Coalition Party, claiming he used the pastorate for non-religious purposes. In 1917, after Abaffy’s death, Franz Morgenthaler of Neu Pasua was elected the Senior. The Slovaks insisted that the election was void because he could not handle the Croatian language adequately. He was given two years to learn the language and if he failed to be proficient in it, he could not continue in his office.
In addition to that, the assembly of the Seniorat had to deal with the difficulties in Bingula. The Lutheran “brothers” in Bingula were experiencing constant conflict as German and Slovak speaking members of the same congregation sought ascendancy in the leadership of the congregation. Because they could not come to terms over which language to use in worship, the Germans desired to establish their own German congregation and if that was not to be granted to them, they would leave the church. The assembly in convention supported the request of the German members, but that did not settle the local problem.
Another major difficulty in many regions was the question of religious education because a number of the Lutheran teachers did not have a command of the Croatian language and some of the officials of the government insisted that the instruction had to be in Croatian. In 1905/1906 the education officials ordered that all religious instruction at Weretz had to be in Croatian or the school could not be opened. Weretz was a filial of Slatina and the pastor there could not speak Croatian and therefore the children could not be taught religious education in their “church” school!
The two Protestant Churches and their individual congregations had regular contact, received support and maintained relationships with Protestant Church circles in Austria, Switzerland and Germany unlike their Roman Catholic counterparts. As a church of the “Diaspora” the Churches also received financial support and assistance from Germany as well as pastors. They especially assisted in projects beyond the means of the fledgling churches and were instrumental in providing 16,000 Marks towards the building of the new church in Agram.
Bosnia proved to be a different situation and the small-scattered congregations existed autonomously. Franzjosefsfeld at first existed as a filial of their mother church in Franzfeld in the Banat. It became a parish in 1891. This was followed by Banja Luka in 1893, Lukavac in 1904, in Schutzberg in 1910, Bosnisch Brod in 1914. A congregation was established in Sarajevo along with a filial congregation in Zabidovici in 1898. They formed a synod with a president as their provisional church government.
The ethnic Germans as a “Folk Group” in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia
With the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following the First World War, the long held dream of the South Slavs was realized in the establishment of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, a decision that was made without the input or approval of the populations that would be involved in redrawing the map of this portion of the Balkans. The major partners of this union would turn out to be the Serbs and Croats, but they were not equally matched. Croatia was very much the junior partner and bristled because of their secondary position in the new Kingdom that would have repercussions for the future and in the end have disastrous affects on the Danube Swabians populations involved.
Serbians troops occupied all of the territories of future Yugoslavia, but did so in a rather ruthless manner: plundering, mistreating local populations, murdering and terrorizing the minorities they encountered. There was to be no question of who was in charge. The Serbs. In their minds Yugoslavia was simply Greater Serbia. Croatia alone could offer any resistance and was prepared to do so as subsequent history would prove. During this period of transition the ethnic German population had to endure a lot and was in no position to offer any resistance. Most of the men had gone off to war, mainly on the Eastern Front and were prisoners of war. There were immediate calls to confiscate the property of the Danube Swabian minority and expel them from the country. The Serbian troops could not maintain order and districts set up “home guard” units that often included the older Danube Swabian men to protect their villages from vandalism, raids and attacks from disbanded soldiers, deserters and brigands. Women and children often had to seek safety in the forests in the bitter cold of 1919.
With the declaration of the State and Kingdom of Yugoslavia a whole new relationship arose among the widely scattered ethnic German communities in the new jurisdictions in which they found themselves and their new authorities and rulers with whom they had to deal. In each of the areas of Danube Swabian settlement there were men who were prepared to establish organizations for the welfare, freedom and defense of the ethnic German minority as an identifiable ethnic group, the so-called Volksgruppe (Folk Group), which also had racial overtones. These areas of settlement in the new south Slav state were the western portion of the Banat, the largest part of the Batschka (Vojvodina), Lower Baranya, Syrmien, Slavonia, Croatia, Bosnia as well as Slovenia. Most of these areas had a previous history with Hungary, except for Bosnia and Croatia and Slavonia, which had an existence of their own.
Initially there was little change for the Danube Swabians in Croatia and Slavonia except they found themselves caught in the middle of the struggle between the Croats and Serbs for control of the new nation state. There was no longer a language problem since the ethnic Germans were now Croatian speaking and not very fluent in German at all if they still had any knowledge of their language. Because of the enlarged Folk Group in this new centralized state, the leadership of the ethnic German minority from across the Kingdom in diversified groups and organizations worked towards the objective of establishing a centralized organization to enable them to have a national voice.
The elections that were planned excluded the Danube Swabian minority as well as all of the others and were designed for an electorate that consisted only of Croats, Serbs and Slovenes. This resulted in great unrest in all of the regions with sizable ethnic German populations. One of the stipulations and guarantees that the new state of Yugoslavia had agreed to uphold as a result of the Treaty of Trianon was to protect minority rights but they insisted that to give the minorities the vote would destabilize national sovereignty. Because the Danube Swabian minority was prevented from any role or participation in the political and public life of the Kingdom, they opted to form a cultural organization to unite all elements of the minority, in the various areas of settlement, and as a result the Swabian German Cultural Union (SDKB) was formed at Neusatz (Novi Sad) on June 20, 1920 with over two thousand participants in attendance.
In 1921 a new constitution was passed by the Sabor with a vote of 223-196, which made all citizens equal before the law. This equalization of all of the minority ethnic groups began a new phase in which the Danube Swabians could now fully participate. They had been given the franchise and all of the political parties sought their support for they recognized that the ethnic Germans who numbered approximately one million persons were now a force to be reckoned with. But the leaders of the Folk Group organizations were already planning to give birth to a political party of their own: a “Ethnic German Party” to protect their rights and freedoms and full participation in the life of the nation. The party manifesto that was passed at the assembly in Hatzfeld on December 17, 1922 began with a confession of loyalty to the Dynasty and State and included a twelve-point program to achieve their objectives. The party leadership that was elected included: Dr. Ludwig Kremling of Weisskirchen, president who served with an executive: Dr. Stefan Kraft of India, Dr. Hans Moser of Semlin and Michael Theiss of Hatzfeld. Of the twenty members of the party Council Dr. Sepp M�ller of Ruma, Dr. J�rg M�ller of Ruma, Christian Marx of Erdwik and Franz Moser of Semlin represented Syrmien .
The new party contested the elections in 1923 and eight members were elected: four from Syrmien, three from the Banat and one from Slovenia. But in various parts of the Kingdom, Danube Swabian candidates were elected representing other parties. In Bosnia the ethnic Germans voted for Moslems and Croatian candidates because they were more tolerant than the Serbs who were running. Many of the parties saw the Ethnic German Party as a divisive force, while they in turn said they would go out of existence whenever the ethnic Germans achieve their full rights guaranteed by the Constitution. This was said in the context of the situation in which many of the Danube Swabian communities lived such as Lazarfeld. In April of 1924, sixty Danube Swabian farmers out working in their fields were attacked by a mob of some two hundred so-called Dobrovoljci (patriots). Sixteen of them were badly injured. The leader of the Serbian mob was a lawyer and he screamed: “You Danube Swabians have your rights, but we have the power!” All kinds of intimidation of voters would follow, leading to the public beating of many of the Ethnic German Party candidates. In the next elections, the Ethnic German Party received more votes but only elected five representatives.
King Alexander set aside the Constitution on January 6, 1929 and declared a dictatorship and disbanded all political parties and issued a proclamation to his: “Beloved people, all Serbians, Croatians and Slovenes.” He made no mention of the other seventh of the population: the minorities. He always did it that way. He desired a centralized government and national unity, but only on his own terms, which resulted in his assassination.
The Emerging Conflicts (1933-1939)
With the dictatorship in place, in spite of the efforts of the leadership of the ethnic German minority there was great discontent on the part of some in the various areas of Danube Swabian settlement. There were questions about the finances of the SDKB with charges of mismanagement that required the intervention of the German ambassador in Belgrade. At the beginning of 1933 the discontent took on concrete form. Dr. Jakob Awender, a physician from Pantschowa headed what became known as the “Renewal Movement” and he as its “F�hrer” attacked the key leadership of the SDKB in the press and at every opportunity. This was at the time of the Depression and there had been successive crop failures all of which fueled the discontent. The co-operatives set up by the SDKB attempted to respond to the crisis but only succeeded in making it worse. Not only were the farmers critical of the leadership but also the young academicians who had studied in Germany and Austria were also vocal in their opposition. They were highly influenced by the political trends taking place in Austria and Germany and were fed up with the old leadership, values and attitudes. At first, this was perhaps nothing more or less than a generation gap. With the coming of the dictatorship in Yugoslavia in 1929 the German Party like the other political parties was banned. This meant fewer positions and offices available to the new intelligentsia who chafed at the lack of opportunities available to them. These and other malcontents are the ones who assembled at Pantschowa as the “Renewal Movement” and chose Awender as their Leader. They published their own weekly newspaper and wrote highly critical articles and personal attacks against the leadership of the SDKB and demanded their resignations.
In November 1933 a new German ambassador, Viktor von Heeren was appointed and arrived in Belgrade. He officially supported the “old leadership” of the Folk Group but he had really come to get the lay of the land and hinder and avoid any internal squabbles among the Danube Swabian minority, which now was virtually impossible.
With the assassination of the King in 1935, the political parties stepped into the void. In effect the National Party took over the government following the elections in which only two Ethnic German Party representatives were elected. They in turn supported the majority party and were “welcome” to join the party, and Dr. Kraft the leader of the SDKB did, hoping to get a better hearing for the issues that were of primary concern of the ethnic Germans in terms of the school and language issue. The government carried on friendly relations with Germany and felt no need to treat the Danube Swabian minority with kid gloves. The German ambassador’s main concern was the foreign policy of the Yugoslavian state and the Folk Group was left responsible for its own fate and destiny.
Attempts were made by the government in 1938 to curtail and prevent the sale of land to the Danube Swabians. This was hardly a new approach on their part. The Folk Group leadership saw this as catastrophic and repressive to the aspirations and economic future of the ethnic Germans. In turn, their discontent was interpreted by the Serb Nationalists as a recognition that they were acting as a “fifth column” on behalf of the German Reich, which sought to interfere in the internal affairs of Yugoslavia. The government however backed down to maintain their lucrative trading relationship with Germany.
The Folk Group leadership faced turmoil within the organization and the Danube Swabian communities. On January 15, 1935 the ruling Council of the SDKB expelled Awender and several of his followers in the Renewal Movement to avoid a split in the membership. Unfortunately this only intensified the conflict. The growth and development of the SDKB in the previous years had been concentrated on the establishment of youth groups in every community and district and they very quickly became the most active organizations within the cultural union. A large portion of the members of these groups were open to the objectives of the Renewers and their propaganda, while there were others who sympathized with them even though they disapproved of some of their methods and continued to accept and follow the “old leadership”.
There is no question that the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) in Germany better known as the Nazis and their party organs were involved in the development of the Renewal Movement and both provided support and influenced it. The German ambassador gave “public” support to the “old leadership” in the cultural union SDKB in the press but was involved in the background in providing aid to Awender when called upon.
From the very beginning various other ministries and offices in the Reich government felt sympathy for the Renewers and provided massive support. This was especially true of the ‘Verein f�r das Deutschtum im Ausland’ (VDA) whose concerns dealt with the ethnic German populations outside of the German Reich. Discussions between Paul Claus the representative of the VDA in Yugoslavia and the leadership of the Renewal Movement took place in the spring of 1935 whereby Awender, Dr. Sepp Janko and Fritz Metzger undertook the task to lead the struggle to renew the Ethnic German Folk Group so that it could stand on its own two feet financially so that it would not be a burden to Reich foreign policy.
Both the “old” and “new” leadership sought approval and support in important Reich circles. Early in 1935, the German ambassador in Belgrade passed on a letter of complaint to the Reich Foreign Office outlining the crimes, activities and faults of the Renewers, highlighting the fact that Awender had no character at all and was a man of ill repute. They requested that the SDKB be the only recognized official voice of the Folk Group in Yugoslavia to speak to any issues affecting the Danube Swabian minority. But in the central organs of the NSDAP, the ‘V�lkischen Beobachter’ (The People’s Observer) reported that there was a need to support both groups assisting them to form a united front in carrying out the objectives of the ethnic German minority.
This did not help matters a bit. The SDKB was determined to cleanse itself of the Renewers organizationally. Along with Awender they expelled the Youth Leader of the SDKB, Jacob Lichtenburger. Assuming that they had the support of the majority of the youth group an assembly was called on July 28, 1935 at Neusatz to install a new Youth F�hrer in his place, namely Dr. Erich Petschauer. But the installation could not be carried out because the vast majority of the youth present were sympathizers of the Renewal Movement and occupied the hall and heckled and disrupted every attempt on the part of any one to speak on behalf of the Folk Group leadership and they then walked out.
The conflict sharpened and deepened. Discontent and concern spread among the membership of the SDKB and it was obvious that things were coming to a head and action had to be taken. On August 5, 1935 representatives of the two groups met in Neusatz to work out a compromise. The SDKB was represented by: Dr. Oskar Plautz, Thomas Menrath, Dr. Sebastian Nemesheimer and Dr. Richard Derner. The representatives of the Renewers were: Fritz Metzger, Peter Kullmann, Jakob Kr�mer and Branimir Altgayer. The talks broke down and the quarrel simply went on.
Things came to a head at Neu Werbass on August 11th, 1935 in response to a speech by Josef B�rchel the Nazi Gauleiter (District Leader) of the Saar-Palatinate on the occasion of a celebration of the 150thanniversary of the settlement of the Batschka. Both groups hoped to use the occasion for their own purposes. Instead he spoke of the need for unity against the forces that threatened their racial purity. His essential message was: take pride in being Danube Swabian and in effect he did not support either group as he had been ordered.
This was a clear indication to both groups that the Reich was determined that the ethnic German minority would not upset or effect their foreign policy in terms of Yugoslavia, but that the Folk Group would adopt the political outlook of the Nazis. As the leader of the old political establishment, Kraft knew he needed the support of the Reich regardless of who was in power in order to achieve such objectives as the school question. He sought such support in the Reich Foreign Office. Although a declared opponent of Nazism he sought out contacts within the various ministries of the Reich and the Party for support for the Danube Swabian minority. In January 1936 he met with Hitler’s Deputy, Rudolph Hess who was in charge of all affairs dealing with the Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans) and Dr. Kraft was received warmly as he later reported.
Things would not remain quiet for long. At a meeting on March 18, 1936 the representative of the VDA, Dr. Helmut Carstanjen reported on the situation of the Folk Group in which he made scathing remarks about the “old leadership”. The representative of the Foreign Office, Fritz von Twardowski defended them and declared that the question of the Folk Group in Yugoslavia was a matter of foreign policy. He reported that Dr. Kraft was now engaged in friendly discussions with the government in guaranteeing the rights of the Danube Swabian minority and these discussions should not be jeopardized because of any outside interference on the part of the Reich. It was at this point that Heinrich Himmler and his Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle (VOMI) intervened. He was highly critical of Dr. Kraft and the VOMI was not prepared to have Dr. Kraft speak on behalf of the Folk Group or under the auspices of the Reich. He inferred that his reception by Hess had gone to his head. He instructed the German ambassador in Belgrade to invite Dr. Kraft and Awender to dinner, along with a representative of the VOMI some time after Easter to work out a solution to the conflict. It was a futile meeting. The quarrel was now waged out in the open in the German and Yugoslavian press much to the delight of the Yugoslavian government. Meanwhile, at the same time, the Yugoslavian foreign policy was actively pro-German.
The VDA began to lessen its financial support for the work of the SDKB and provided resources to the Renewers instead. The SDKB leadership protested to the Rich, claiming to be the sole voice of the Folk Group in Yugoslavia. They called upon the VDA and the German ambassador for their support since they represented the vast majority of the Danube Swabian minority. But in 1937, the Renewers through Gustav Halwax were calling upon the Yugoslavian government for the legalization of their Party so that they had the right to hold meetings, conferences and assemblies. The police had been repressive, combative and brutal against ethnic German youth groups at their assemblies and the old leadership saw this as a reason for the discontent and fear in the Danube Swabian communities in terms of their rights as citizens of Yugoslavia. Kraft and the old leadership saw this kind of treatment as tantamount to calling forth a radicalization of the Danube Swabian minority.
The relationship between the VDA, the VOMI and the SDKB leadership did not get any better in the summer of 1937. This led to the leadership of the SDKB approaching von Neurath the Reich Foreign Minister and explained the conflict with the DVA with the hope that a peaceful solution could be worked out. The DVA and VOMI were informed of the meeting and letters that were exchanged. In effect, the old leadership was now without support in the Reich ministries.
The membership of the two factions within the Folk Group wished for an understanding and unity among all of their people. But among the leaders there was only division. A call for Dr. Kraft’s resignation became public. It was felt that with his ouster rapprochement with the Renewers would now be possible. The opposite was the result and the Renewers were no further ahead because Kraft remained in his position and they became more strident in their opposition.
Berlin wanted no part in the quarrel. Both the VOMI and the Foreign Office wanted nothing to do with it. The German ambassador arranged for an arbitration panel to deal with the feuding parties, both of which agreed in advance to accept the recommendations and results. The panel was made up of various Folk group representatives from other countries including Estonia, Romania and Latvia. A solution was worked out and then presented on May 15, 1939 that called for Dr. Kraft stepping down from his position with an appropriate pension.
Of great importance to all of the ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe were the Anschluss (annexation) of Austria by the Reich and the incorporation of the Sudentenland that raised their German consciousness and in addition in Yugoslavia there was now a great desire for unity. A “German Unity Front ” and platform was developed with the participation of Dr. Kraft and sought to establish guarantees that the ethnic German minority had legal rights by law as an identified separate entity. But personal quarrels and aspirations again got in the way and impeded the effort. As always Awender and his followers were at the head of the discontent and sought a political solution through incorporation with the governing party but with minimal success. The ideological struggle went on. On August 26, 1938 two of the “old leaders” Moser and Grassl agreed to support the Radical Party and would join the struggle against Nazi propaganda that was flooding the Danube Swabian communities. They established a committee to plan and carry out actions against the Renewers. Ethnic Germans who would join the voter’s list of the Radical Party were to be granted five seats in parliament.
At an assembly of representatives of all groups within the SDKB, on October 29, 1938 all Danube Swabians were called upon to support the list of candidates submitted by the government at the next election. As a result the Croatian Nationalists (Ustaschi) conducted a reign of terror in Slavonia and Croatia among the ethnic German communities to keep them from voting for the government party.
The occupation of Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939 resulted in intensive anti-German feeling and alarm especially on the part of the Serbian population, as well as the other Slavic people. Army officers were instructed to develop strong anti-German sentiments among their troops. Danube Swabians in the army were suspect and were forbidden to speak German, they were scolded every day and many received corporal punishment. But officially the government policy towards Germany had not changed.
On October 31, 1938 there was a rapprochement with the Renewers, who along with their youth groups returned to the fold of the Swabian German Cultural Union (SDKB).
The Last Years of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1939-1941)
With the personal resignation from the leadership of the SDKB by Dr. Keks the successor of Kraft the functionaries met in early May of 1939 to deal with the question of succession. Awender proposed himself for the position with the support of the Renewers and others. But the VOMI was not pleased with this development. They were opposed to Awender because of his past performance in terms of his relationships with the Yugoslavian government. In his place the Renewers proposed Dr. Sepp Janko who was a “leading personality” and a staunch Renewer. All those present at the meeting cast their votes for him and the VOMI ordered him to report to Berlin. There he was informed of the VOMI’s slate of candidates for positions in the Folk Group. Parliamentary representatives were: Hamm, Trischler and Grassl. The leader of the SDKB was Sepp Janko. The F�hrer of Slovenia: Baron. The F�hrer of Croatia: Altgayer. The F�hrer of the Renewal Movement: Awender. But in effect, there would be a triumvirate who would be in charge: Hamm, Janko and Trischler. But the plan was never put into effect because of the swiftly changing situation in Yugoslavia. Yet, Janko ended up at the top as planned. To all intents and purposes the organization was bankrupt. The membership of the SDKB had always remained small during the 1930’s and the dues barely covered the costs of the organization. But by November 15, 1940 almost the entire Danube Swabian minority had become members through a vast publicity campaign spearheaded by Joseph Beer and raised 3,000.000 Dinar in one year.
The outbreak of World War Two had little effect on the Folk Group. On September 2, 1939 a partial military mobilization was ordered. Some Danube Swabians were called up and horses and wagons were requisitioned, especially if they were known members of the SDKB. Many of the reservists and recruits who were called into the army who were ethnic Germans were called: Hitler’s swine. Germany was seen as the Arch-Enemy of Yugoslavia, and the land would become their cemetery if they dared to invade it. Most of the army officers were very critical of the government’s pro-German foreign policy and the demise of the Small Entente. There were however 450 officers in the armed forces who were ethnic Germans.
But the speech of Adolph Hitler on October 6, 1939 caused a great stir and deep concern to the leadership and membership of the SDKB. He called for the re-settlement of the ethnic Germans in the Diaspora back home to the Reich. There was great upset and confusion. No one had a desire to leave “home”. The Yugoslavian government also asked for clarification as to how and when this would take place. There were only evasions and no answers forthcoming. By October 28, 1939 Berlin had no alternative than to respond and did through the German ambassador who reported: “The re-settlement to Germany of the German Folk Group in Yugoslavia is not actually planned at the present time.”
Meanwhile the Croatian Nationalists gained new concessions and a degree of autonomy from the central government in Belgrade, which was dominated by the Serbians. In short order, Bosnia was also seeking autonomy. Slavonia was now made into a separate jurisdiction and Croatia was making a play for parts of the Vojvodina, but there were also autonomy concerns on the part of the people living in the area.
Dr. Philip Popp, the bishop of the Lutheran Church in Yugoslavia who served the congregation in Agram was appointed to the Croatian senate in March of 1940. Some of the concerns he brought to the government’s attention were the school issue, the use of the German spelling of family names, rescinding the law that forbade the purchase of land by the ethnic Germans. He was successful in that in 1940/1941 session of parliament, a private German Lutheran school was opened in Agram.
Fears with regard to a “fifth column” continued to plague the country at the instigation of military men. From their perspectives all ethnic Germans were spies. All suspicious persons should be arrested. The Western Powers appeared to be behind it and supported the spread of leaflets to scare both populations. During May and June of 1940 ethnic Germans were arrested in Syrmien and Slavonia and charged with being spies and guilty of espionage. On June 6, 1940, Ludwig Ritz, a close fellow worker with Altgayer was arrested and taken to the feared Glavna Jaca prison in Belgrade where he was badly tortured but he did not incriminate himself in any way and was later set free after a long well publicized trial.
After the fall of France, Yugoslavia was having a nervous breakdown of its own. It began to assess its relationships with its neighbors and re-established diplomatic relations with the USSR on June 24, 1940 and the Communist Party of Yugoslavia came out of the woodwork. The borders to the north and west were strengthened in fear of an Italian/German alliance. Men aged 40 to 50 years of age were called up to do the defensive preparation and again also included ethnic Germans. These men were not given uniforms nor did they receive rations or shelter. Nor did their families receive any support while they were in the armed forces.
On June 28, 1940 Russia occupied Bessarabia and the northern Bukovina. As a result of an agreement with the Reich, Russia allowed the emigration of the ethnic German populations for re-settlement to Germany. The Folk Group in Yugoslavia took on the task to build a transit camp at Prahovo and Semlin and provided provisions and assistance to the 140,000 ethnic German �migr�s. Semlin could accommodate 10,000 at a time, and Prahovo some 5,000 persons. Thousands of young people were involved in setting up the camps over a period of four months. In Agram and Urplje in Croatia aid stations were set up by German girls and women from Slavonia, Croatia and Slovenia at train stations to serve warm meals and refreshments to the people in transit to Germany. The costs were over 2,000,000 Dinars.
As a result of the Vienna Accords of August 30, 1940 Hungary regained some of its former territory lost to Romania and fear reigned in the Vojvodina as the local Hungarian population agitated for a return to Hungary and the Serbs were convinced that the ethnic Germans would support them. By the fall of 1940 political and foreign developments were drawing Yugoslavia ever closer to possible conflict with Germany fueled by the Serbian nationalist circles which became more and more vitriolic in terms of their mistrust of the ethnic German population that led to quarrels, confrontations and on occasions physical mob violence. During one such melee in Beschka, Peter Deringer a well-known member of the SDKB was shot and killed by a Serb in November 1940.
The highest military authorities began to plan measures to take along with the local authorities in the case that war would break out. In all communities with an ethnic German population a list of names of the most prominent and important members of the SDKB were to be prepared by the local officials and these individuals would be immediately arrested and taken as hostages. This would not be true of the other minorities and their leaders. It was the task of the Secret Police to keep their eye on the ethnic German leadership. The implications for the ethnic Germans should war break out were threatening to say the least. Appeals to the German ambassador were of little value nor was he sympathetic to their concerns.
Sepp Janko who was ill at the time when the question of what would happen to the leadership of the ethnic Germans should war break out, sent Fritz Metzger in December 1940 to the VOMI and asked for weapons to protect the leadership. The ethnic German population was unarmed except for hunting rifles. Because the Reich was still working with the Yugoslavian government in hopes of establishing a military pact, the idea of arming the ethnic Germans was out of the question. There were all kinds of rumors and stories of arms and ammunition being shipped down the Danube to Werbass and buried there in the cemetery. All of the stories were eventually proven false as late as 1963.
But there is also another question that is played up in some circles of whether or not ethnic German men left Yugoslavia and volunteered to serve in the Waffen-SS. The first volunteers from among the ethnic German men who served in the German forces were those who had gone to seek work in Germany prior to the war and had remained there. Their numbers were not large. Some hundreds of younger men accompanied the ethnic Germans from Bessarabia who journeyed from Semlin to the Reich. Janko and the others were not prepared to consider a voluntary recruitment program at this time because of the complications involved. Later when such recruitments took place and parents became aware of what was afoot they raised such a rumpus that Janko had to high tail it to Austria and tried to talk the boys into coming home and they were released in order to do so. This involved about two hundred such volunteers.
The Waffen-SS was in search of recruits for the war effort and sought “volunteers” from among the ethnic Germans throughout Eastern Europe. Under the orders of the Folk Group leadership, Gustav Halwax was sent on a mission to the Reich where he volunteered to serve in the Waffen-SS and saw service on the Western Front. In December 1940 he returned to Neusatz. At this time, Janko was apparently sick, or at least he later claimed to be, and Metzger took over for him. Halwax met with his old comrades from the Renewal Movement to win them over to his plan to carry out VOMI policy and goals because Berlin was not happy with Janko’s independent “politics”. Metzger and his cronies had the VOMI recall Halwax to Germany where he could do less damage to the ethnic German cause.
In spite of what the SDKB leadership was saying, on January 24, 1941 the VOMI in writing to the Foreign Office indicated that Heinrich Himmler had announced the arrival of 200 Waffen-SS volunteers from Yugoslavia, 500 from Hungary and 500 from Romania. The VOMI planned for a mustering and recruitment of ethnic Germans in Yugoslavia and sent Dr. Hans Huber, the official physician of the SS to be in charge. He would travel around in sport’s circles offering his services and examining the young men without the men being aware that he was actually mustering them for the SS. They would participate in sport’s events in Germany and then later return home. In March 1941 Halwax reappeared at Neusatz sent under the auspices of the VOMI. The plan was now to convert all of the youth organizations into Sports Clubs and received the approval and endorsement of the German ambassador.
All of this took place two to three weeks before the military uprising in Belgrade and the outbreak of the war and these Sport Clubs could not be put into effect as a recruitment tool of the VOMI.
These sport’s fraternities were not be confused with the Deutsche Mannschaft (German Men’s Fellowship). Its origins were within the SDKB in the early summer of 1939. These groups were established for men beyond the parameters of the youth organization and had their beginnings in Apatin, Lazarfeld and India and then spread. They were also involved in assisting in the resettlement of the ethnic Germans from Bessarabia at Semlin and Prahovo. They were characterized as para-military organizations, but very often that was only window dressing for their real purpose that was defensive in nature.
Yugoslavia maintained its neutrality in the first phase of the Second World War. The USSR was on the move in the Balkans with the occupation of Bessarabia and Bukovina in June 1940 and German interests lay in Romania as a source for wheat and oil. From the perspective of the Yugoslavian government the British were not reliable allies and the Italians were massing troops on the frontier of western Yugoslavia. By October 4, 1940 German troops were stationed in Romania to help keep the peace with Hungary and as a buffer against any moves made by the USSR.
December 27, 1940 saw the signing of the Axis Pact between Germany, Italy and Japan to keep the Western Allies and Russia off balance. Molotov visited Berlin and saw German policy as threatening to the interests of the USSR and demanded to have a free hand in the Balkans…Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Greece. As a result Hitler saw that war with the USSR was inevitable.
The Italians launched an invasion of Greece on October 29th, 1940 that ground to a halt through British intervention and Italian stupidity. The British could now bomb the oil fields in Romania so Germany had to act to secure the situation. The Axis Pact was signed by Hungary on November 20, 1940, followed by Romania on November 23rd and Slovakia on the 24th. Bulgaria hesitated, afraid of the Soviet response, but joined the Pact on March 1, 1941.
In a letter to Mussolini on November 20th, Hitler indicated that they needed Yugoslavia to secure the oil fields in Romania and that efforts had to be undertaken to entice the Yugoslavians to join the Axis. Meanwhile, the British and Americans tried to win Yugoslavia to their side. The British went so far as to supply weapons and armaments. Negotiations and meetings were undertaken and finally Germany asked for an answer on March 25, 1941.
The Royal Council of the king of Yugoslavia voted to sign the Axis Pact on March 24, 1941 because of the pressures coming from all kinds of directions. Two ministers of the Council voted against it and resigned from the government. The Pact was signed in Eugene of Savoy’s Belevedere Palace in Vienna on March 25th. But a military coup took place in Belgrade on March 27th and installed a new king. Riots and demonstrations broke out in Serbian and Slovenian areas. “Better War Than This Pact,” was the rallying cry and slogan. The German ambassador was publicly insulted at the coronation of the new king: Peter II.
The new regime was not ready to ratify the Pact and sought other options and considered an immediate mobilization that was suggested by the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch, Gavrilo Dozic in order to gain some time. Berlin was also trying to read the signals coming out of Belgrade. On the 27th of March, Hitler indicated that if the new government would refuse to follow the terms of the signed agreement they would be considered enemies and they would be stamped off of the map of Europe.
The leader of the coup, Simovic sought to use the leadership of the Folk Group as intermediaries with the Reich government. On April 1, 1941 he had discussions with the leaders of the Belgrade District of the SDKB, Christian Br�cker and Hans Moser. He told them that he wanted to hinder a war with Germany and to break off relationships with the British and the Americans. It was the wish of his government to enter into talks with the Reich government. He also wanted to meet with the F�hrer of the Folk Group, Sepp Janko as well as Hamm the parliamentary representative to speak on his behalf to the German Foreign Office and other German functionaries. He was personally prepared to go to Berlin to pursue such discussions.
Following the coup and the coronation of Peter II, Janko had sent a telegram on behalf of the Folk Group with a pledge of loyalty to the new regime and indicated to Simovic of his readiness to work and co-operate with the new government. But on the same day he was invited to meet with Simovic he was asked to meet with the police chief in Neusatz to discuss matters related to the leadership of the SDKB. On that day, March 28, 1941 he was taken into “protective custody” in Gross Betscherek and taken to the Neusatz police station and prison. On the following day he was taken to Simovic and he was to speak to the German embassy to arrange for communication with the Reich government, because Yugoslavia was not prepared to go to war. The message that Janko received from Berlin was, “Keep negotiating, but promise nothing!” That was a way of saying that it would be war. Simovic wanted Janko to speak over the radio indicating that Yugoslavia’s foreign policy would not be negative towards the Axis Powers and that the Danube Swabian minority was not being mistreated in any way in spite of propaganda reports on Austrian radio from Graz. Janko pleaded that he was such a man of conscience that he could not do what he had been asked, after all he himself had been arrested and jailed at Simovic’s orders.
In his third meeting with Simovic, Janko refused to speak over the radio but suggested that he would accompany a government official to Berlin to begin talks. Agreement was reached and the flight would leave on April 6th or 7th. Simovic wanted to meet with his cabinet first. He had already sent a mission to Moscow, which tried to arrange a military alliance with the USSR, but the Russians were only prepared to sign a “Friendship Pact”, with some “nice” words from Stalin:
“We are brothers of the same blood and same religion (?). There is nothing to divide our two nations. I hope your army will hold back the German army for as long as possible. You have mountains and forests, where tanks are useless. Organize a guerilla war.”
The issues of the safety and security of the ethnic German minority in Yugoslavia was not lost on Berlin, the Foreign Office or the VOMI. A telegram was sent to the German ambassador in Budapest from the Foreign Office, signed Weizs�cker:
“For your personal information, I inform you that the VOMI has received the following instructions: The German Folk Group in Yugoslavia is in danger of being called up to serve in the Yugoslavian armed forces, and in order to escape that they will be encouraged to cross the border into Hungary on their way to Germany. Please convey to your Hungarian counterparts to permit the fleeing Danube Swabians to freely cross the borders of Hungary and allowed to go on unhindered to Germany.”
Other telegrams were sent to Rome and Bucharest, asking for the same kind of assistance to the “refugees”.
There is no evidence that such a call for flight on the part of the ethnic German minority was ever issued. Janko is quick to point out that Hitler’s so-called order for the ethnic Germans to refuse to comply with their call up into the Yugoslavian army on March 28, 1941 was never received by the SDKB leadership. Very few failed to respond to their call-ups into the military. (Translator’s note: From my own personal perspective it is interesting to note that the concern of the VOMI and the SDKB leadership was not the danger facing the ethnic German population, meaning the women and children and the elderly, but only the men of military age. The rest of the population apparently was expendable as would prove to be the case in the holocaust that followed.)
The Collapse of Yugoslavia
Following the coup of March 27, 1941 the ethnic German population became restless and afraid. In Syrmien the local ethnic German populations were confronted by demonstrations by Serbian Nationalists hostile to Germany and advocating war against the Reich. The Danube Swabians held back in order not to cause any reprisals against them. To a great degree they remained in their houses awaiting the outcome of the developments that were taking place, realizing that not much good news awaited them. But the Croatian and Serbian populations were just as upset and uncertain about what was happening in Belgrade or the streets of their own communities and the “unknown elements” that might be on the prowl. In some villages with mixed populations, each group depended upon the support of the other to defend them from army forces as they had done during the First World War.
Right after the coup in Belgrade, those settlements with a large majority of ethnic Germans were occupied by Tschetniks (Serbian Army), which guarded all public buildings and installations and kept the population off the streets and in their homes. The Danube Swabian community later paid for this protection. The call up and mobilization of men for the Yugoslavian Army was publicly announced in all communities on April 1, 1941, but all ethnic German men had been called up two or three days earlier. Along with the mobilization there was the requisition of food and supplies, horses and wagons. In some cases this involved shooting and violence.
There is no official record of the numbers of ethnic Germans mustered into the army, or how many failed to report for service. In each community, it was a different story, the only consistency was what was true of one nationality was also true of the others. According to the information contained in the various Heimatb�cher, most of the ethnic Germans reported to the Army. The vast majority of them were assigned to duty in remote areas of Bosnia, Macedonia, southern Serbia and Herzegovina.
At 5:30 pm on April 6th, 1941, the Reich government announced that the German Army had invaded Greece and Yugoslavia during the night. To this day we have no idea of how many ethnic Germans fell in this war against the German Army. Numbers are usually not given in the Heimatb�cher either, and those that list any names indicate that they were murdered by Yugoslavian troops, usually by men from their own units. The war lasted only two weeks and the losses suffered by the Yugoslavian Army were not very high since the campaign was short. That was also true of the ethnic Germans serving in their armed forces.
As soon as the war broke out the police confiscated all weapons in the possession of the ethnic Germans, mostly hunting rifles and in addition they also took all radios. The prepared lists of leading ethnic Germans were used to arrest them as hostages in Syrmien. In Belgrade and Semlin all ethnic German men were arrested (even an 80 year old man). In Syrmien the total number of hostages numbered about four hundred. The dungeons of the fortress of Peterwardein were filled to overflowing so that those from Syrmien were kept in their own regions. They were released within a few days as the German Army moved quickly into Syrmien and the Yugoslavian troops fled from the area.
Talk of a “fifth column” at work to explain the rapid victory of the German Army really does not hold any water in terms of historical fact, nor does the use of the Deustche Mannschaft units doing rearguard action. All of that is the figment of the imagination of the retreating Serbs. Many of the Yugoslav troops deserted and wore civilian clothes and headed for home.
A day after the invasion began the news spread that all of Yugoslavia was disintegrating. On April 10, 1941 Slavko Kvaternik declared the independent state of Croatia in Agram and the Hungarians who had not participated in the fighting were already moving in to occupy the Batschka and the Lower Baranya. Along with the retreating Yugoslavian Army fled the authorities and local officials along with the police forces leaving anarchy behind them.
By Easter of 1941, a week after the beginning of the Yugoslavian campaign all of the larger settlement areas of the ethnic Germans in Croatia, Slavonia and Syrmien were in the hands of German troops that were welcomed by the inhabitants, in Schutzberg in Bosnia as the German troops arrived the villagers stood on the streets and sang, “Now Thank We All Our God.”