Slavonia’s Danube Swabians

Rosina T. Schmidt

Slavonia is the agriculturally lush area between the Rivers of Drava and Sava, and bordering in the West by the River Ilova and on the East by the Danube. It has excellent soil and climate in which almost everything grows but the citrus fruit and bananas.

Slavonia was part of the Triple Kingdom of Croatia: Croatia-Dalmatia-Slavonia during the reign of the first Croatian king, Tomislav (910-928), who was crowned by the Pope in 924. Later, when the dynasty lacked a male hair, Hungary forcibly annexed Croatia to the Hungarian crown after the defeat of the king Petar Svacic at the Battle of Karlovac.

After the Turks won the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, the Kingdom passed into the hands of the Habsburg Archduke Ferdinand, the brother-in-law of the fallen king Louis, who had no male heir and so both Hungary and Croatia became part of the Austrian domains.

Europe ca 1740

Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1826

Even prior to the Turk’s 140 years of occupation Slavonia had a large Germanic population, primarily consisting of merchants, artisans and military officers with their families.

After the Turks were expelled by the German and Polish troops in 1688 there was hardly any population left. The southern part of the formal Kingdom of Slavonia became Habsburg’s Military Border, populated by mostly German and Serb soldier/farmers. The northern part, also known then as civil Slavonia, was thinly settled by the invitation of the Habsburg’s Emperor by the Croats and Serbs who managed to flee from Bosnia. Bosnia, just south of the River Sava, was still to be occupied by the Turks for another one hundred years.

Austrian Empire Military Boarder (between the red lines)

Both Croats and Serbs were mainly herders in the thickly forested land and only raised enough crops for their own needs. Their motto “if you work harder you have only to pay more taxes to the Emperor” influenced their way of life until the present day.

Slavonia ca. 1995, Microsoft Map Point

The very first ethnic German settlement was German Miholjac, established in 1744, followed by Kutjevo in 1771 and Djakovo 30 year later, which was established by the settlers directly from the Black Forrest.

The large percentage of the German officers in the Military border contributed to a high percentage of Burgers in the cities, who built their cities in the Germanic style by their own architects, builders and artisans.

Due to a huge supply of oak forest in Slavonia, besides the logging industry, the potash industry was one of the first industries to be established. The enterprising settlers were all German-Bohemians. Glass making was the next undertaking, due to rich quartz deposits and an abundance of firewood. The German-Bohemians established glass-making colonies as well.

So far most of the settlers were artisans, bureaucrats and soldiers.

In the 1860’s the Military border was abolished. Slavonia, including Croatia east of it, changed hands from Austria to Hungary. Both shared the parliament in Budapest.

Austro-Hungary in 1910

#16 Greater Hungary, with all other areas under Austrian jurisdiction

The first agricultural settlers came from the Batschka, as they could buy land in Slavonia much more cheaply and only had to cross the Danube River to be back in the Batschka. Later many Syrmien Danube Swabians spread all over Eastern Slavonia and in no time established farms identical to their farms in Batschka and Syrmien.

However, once again, they had to clear-cut the forest and start from scratch all over just as their ancestors did one hundred years earlier when arriving there from the Germanic lands of the Holy Roman Empire.

Another group of settlers to Slavonia came from the Swabian Turkey, the counties Baranya, Tolna and Somogy. Swabian Turkey is just north of Slavonia and the River Drava is the border between them. Here too by the second and the third generation they transformed the wilderness they found into the fruit basket of the region.

The largest influx of Danube Swabians was around 1880, which came from all three regions, Batschka, Syrmien and the Swabian Turkey. Some settlers arrived from the Banat. There was still plenty of farming land available and it was affordable too. The same types of villages were established as in the former areas, the same language and customs too. All as a private initiative. However, in Slavonia there were not many fully Danube Swabian villages or cities, but mostly mixed villages with villagers from different ethnic backgrounds: Croats, Donauschwaben, Check, Slovak, Serbs, Hungarians, Jews and even some Gypsies.

Only 15% of the population lived in the cities and the rest worked in the agriculture, raising mainly wheat and corn for their own use as well for the market. They harvested hemp, sugar beets, sunflowers and flax for industry. These were delivered directly to the nearby factories.

Except for Horses, all other farm animals, cows, pigs, sheep, as well as the geese were kept by the shepherds on the community hotter. Vineyards and plum orchards were in abundance in hillier regions and the plum brandy RAKIJA is well known even today to most of us.

As per Danube Swabian tradition each farmer had also a trade skill on the side, to fill in his winter hours. He was a weaver, tailor, clog maker, bee keeper or carpenter. The life in Slavonia was abundantly rich and rewarding to our Donauschwaben.

Map adapted by Rosina T. Schmidt, 2002

After the Peace of Trianon in 1918, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was divided in 8 different parts, no new settlers were coming from the Swabian Turkey, as that was now in Hungarian hands. It was also the time of the beginning of birth control, learned from the Croatians (!) and the ever-increasing need of new land lessened.

While our thrifty and hardworking Danube Swabians worked their land, built larger houses, increased their stock and generally prospered admirably, their Croatian and Serb neighbours, who still practiced their former herder life styles, had their own songs to described their Schwaben neighbour: “Švabo ore I sije, Šokac sedi I pije.” (The Schwob is plowing and seeding, while Šokac* relaxes by eating and drinking.)

In the Census of 1931 Slavonia is supposed to have had a Danube Swabian population of 160 000. Most likely much more, as in many places the Danube Swabian numbers were artificially put down, due to the increasing of the Croatian national feelings.

However, those same Croatians did forget that it was the Germans who freed that area from the Turks that it was their Emperor who invited them to settle there after 1690.

It is interesting to note, that the ethnic German population of Croatia, Slavonia and Bosnia in 1942 was only 3% of the total population, yet they collectively raised 46% of States needs on wheat and corn.

As we all know the good life for Danube Swabians ended in Slavonia during WWII. Most of those who did not manage to flee ahead of the Red Army in 1944 ended in Stalin’s Slave labour camps or in Tito’s Starvation Camps. The former had it better than the later.

In the Census of 1948 there were only 16,000 Danube Swabians in all of Yugoslavia, which would bring it to about 4,000 in Slavonia. Most of those finally could leave after Stalin’s death in 1953, when the Iron Curtain boarders were slightly opened.

*Šokac = Slavonia’s Slav


Erwin Boehm “Das Deutschtum und seine kulturgeographische Leistung” Verlag von S. Hirzel in Leipzig, 1942