Who are the Danube Swabians?

translated by Dr. Helmuth Kremling

Das Kirchweihfest


The answer to the question "Who are the Danube Swabians?" requires more than one or two sentences. It is therefore the intention of this essay to portray the origin, development, suffering and search for a new homeland of this German-speaking ethnic group. Special consideration is given to this segment which eventually settled in the U.S.A.


 At the beginning of the 19th century a united Germany and Austrian army, under the leadership of General Prince Eugene, defeated the Turkish forces who had controlled southeastern Europe for over 150 years. In order to make this territory agriculturally productive, German settlers were encouraged to colonize the frontier lands. Approximately 250 years ago, in 1722, the first wave of Germans, invited by Emperor Charles VI, arrived in an area bordered by the rivers Danube, Tisza, Maros and the Carphathian mountains.

During the reign of Empress Maria Theresa the second major immigration occurred, between 1763 and 1770; the third wave followed in 1782 and was encouraged by her son, Emperor Joseph II. Unlike our (American) pioneers who traveled westward on wagons, these pioneers journeyed toward the rising sun on Danube barges. Since the majority settled near the Danube, they were later named the Danube Swabians.

 Most of these Swabians came from the western lands of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and from Austria. Many of the settlers never saw the fruits of their labors, because famine and plague swept through their ranks. Their pioneer spirit prevailed, however, and they not only established a Christian civilization but in the span of 200 years made this area one of the most fruitful in Southeastern Europe. It was even referred to as the "Breadbasket of Europe." 

Many of approximately 15,000 German settlers from the first colonization were killed in Turkish raids, or died from bubonic
plague. Thus, the second wave of approximately 75,000 German colonists had to rebuild many of the settlements. They were successful in re-establishing the towns, but their life was filled with hard work. The third wave consisted of approximately 60,000 new German settlers who were able to increase the economic prosperity of the Hungarian farm land. The Banat region later came to be known as the "breadbasket of Europe." The hardships endured by the three groups of colonists is summarized in this verse:

Der Erste hat den Tod,
Der Zweite hat die Not,
Der Dritte erst hat Brot.

which is translated as, "The first encounters death, the second need, only the third has bread."

Because there were so many Swabians among the earliest arrivals, the Magyars dubbed all the Germans who came to the country after the Turkish wars as Swabians. That was fine, as long as they were isolated in east-central Europe. But, when contact was established with Germany after the last war, where there are still plenty of Swabians, a name had to be found to distinguish the two. Because of our long and special relationship with the Danube river the name was chosen, hence Danube Swabians.

Under the auspices of the Austrian Court, Danube Swabians established more than 1,000 agrarian villages and numerous homesteads on lands bordering the middle Danube. These models of 17th century rural planning were purposely scattered across the entire Danubian Plain so that they would be emulated by other ethnic groups.

The expertise of Danube Swabian craftsmen, merchants and professional people set the standard for the development of the cities and towns. Just how much impact they had is shown by an old guide to Budapest. Most of the noteworthy structures, listed in the guide, are the work of Danube Swabians.

Urban Danube Swabians were better educated than their country cousins, but they contributed far less to Swabian culture. Either of their own volition, or more often due to official pressure, many took Hungarian names to further their own social or financial aims. After a time they did not identify with their own ethnic group-only the country people, with some notable exceptions, remained Danube Swabians.

The heart and soul of Danube Swabian life were the villages and towns of 1,000 to 8,000 people. Though they were widely scattered there was a similarity and unity about them. Which is not surprising, considering they were all designed by people in Vienna in the 17th and 18th centuries. Almost without exception they were founded as "argrarian villages".

An agrarian village, some grew into sizeable towns, is one where homesteads with the requisite barns, sheds etc., are grouped together in a town. Like a hundred farms side by side. The acreage belonging to these homesteads was, of course, in the country. Some a few kilometers away.

The focal point, and most conspicuous landmark in these towns was always the church. Invariably the facade would be in the "settler's baroque" style. Its bell tower would contain a clock facing the four points of the compass and would be topped by a bulbous steeple.

Die Wallfahrtskirche Maria-Radna

Streets were usually wide and straight, and the whitewashed houses had tile roofs (just like those in Baden and Alsace). Many streets were lined with mulberry trees, which once supported a thriving silkworm industry.

The "Kirchweih" (church dedication) was the most important local holiday. In spite of past religious links it was a purely secular holiday devoted to fun, games,reunions, and dancing, to the sounds of an oompah band of course, far into the night.

The dialect is an amalgem of Palatine and Swabian, plus a hint of Viennese. Due to archaic word forms it is not readily understood in Germany.

After centuries of living in east-central Europe, Danube Swabian women adopted some features of local costumes. German pioneers in Hungary wore tricorn hats. In this century this had changed to the "Pelzkapp". (Fur hat)

All the peoples of the Danubian countries borrowed from each other to create the foods which have become associated with the area. The bratwurst, with the generous addition of paprika, became the Hungarian sausage purchased in local stores.

By 1900 the Danube Swabians numbered over one million and had achieved a relatively high economic and cultural status. After the end of the First World War and the consequent dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of which the Danube Swabians were a part, the various territories of the German settlers were parceled out to Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia. The separated and weakened communities continued to progress but life became more difficult as the animosity of the majority in the countries toward the prosperous settlements of an ethnic minority increased. These feelings did not bode well for the future and, along with the suicidal policies of Germany several decades later, eventually sealed the fate of the Danube Swabians.


 As a result of World War II and the advancement of communism deep into Central Europe, the chauvinism and intolerance of some Eastern Europeans and communists was directed cruelly against the mostly innocent and defenseless German ethnic groups in these areas. The unsuspecting Danube Swabians who could not flee in time or who did not give up their homes so readily often became the victims of the boundless hate for everything German at this  time. Tito's reign of terror demanded tribute in the form of human life and 250,000 succumbed in his concentration camps. Many of the remaining Danube Swabians in Romania were deported to Russian work camps or to the Baragan Steppes of Romania where tens of thousands also perished. German settlers were forced to leave Hungary for Germany or Austria as a result of the Potsdam agreement.

Most of the Danube Swabians consequently have disappeared from Eastern Europe; only in Romania approximately 200,000 still do remain. 


Some 12 million refugees fled to Germany and Austria after the war and in this number half a million Danube Swabians are included who were crammed into refugee camps there their fortunes appeared bleak. The liberal immigration laws of the United States and Canada gave renewed hope and the opportunity to start anew as their forefathers had done again and again. Several hundred thousands came to America while smaller numbers settled in France, Brazil, Australia, Argentina, and other countries of the world. The largest number, of course, remained in Austria and Germany where they are now living in fairly good circumstances.

In many places of Canada and the United States population pockets of Danube Swabians are found which were begun by countryman who had arrived before the two world wars and who later helped immigrants settle in the same area of the New World. Although there are Danube Swabians in almost all the urban centers of the United States, the greatest concentration are found in the cities of New York, Rochester, Trenton, Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Akron, Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Los Angeles.

The energy and honesty of the Danube Swabians made them a sought-after work force. They took advantage of the freedom provided in heir new homeland and many have gained prominence in business and public service areas. The Danube Swabians in their United States have proved receptive to social progress and justice without becoming supporters and fellow travelers of radical groups. Education is very important to these new Americans, and not only are many young Danube Swabians studying at various colleges but some are also teaching at these higher institutions. Many of the graduates are, for example, successful engineers, physicians, etc.

As the Danube Swabians had maintained their language and traditions in Romania, they also strive to maintain their culture in this country, Their attempts have met with success largely because of the many pedagogical, social, and musical organizations which these immigrants have created in this country. These organizations continue to be very active and find supporters and participants in other German and American circles. Believing that unity of effort produces better results, the various Danube Swabian societies have formed a national organization which also works closely with a similar organization in Canada. They are grateful for the support they have received from the public at large but also from government agencies including prominent politicians. The representatives of the Federal Republic of Germany formerly also lent their valuable support and the Danube Swabians often welcome them as guests in their new homeland.