Donauschwaben History

The Donauschwaben are people that belong to a culture that developed under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The 15th and 16th centuries witnessed the conflict between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the powerful Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans conquered not only all of the Balkan States and most of Hungary, but eventually threatened the city of Vienna.  They controlled Southeastern Europe for more than 150 years and during this time not only ravaged the land but also scattered the people. Some areas lost all traces of civilization.

When the Turks of the Ottoman Empire were finally defeated by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1683, the main concern of the West was to colonize the land again and to make it fruitful, as well as to provide a buffer zone against further Turkish encroachments.

Starting with Emperor Charles VI, and during the reigns of Empress Maria Theresia and Emperor Joseph I, farmers and craftsmen were encouraged to settle in the ravaged lands by offers of land ownership and freedom from the restrictions of the landholders in their homelands.

Not with wagon trains westward, as did settlers of the American West, but with barges did these people travel eastward on the Danube to reach their new homes. They settled on the potentially fertile land along the Danube, or in German, the “Donau”, and some of its tributaries. Many of the earliest settlers came from the Schwabian region of Germany. Early in the 20th Century, the combination of the Donau and Schwabians gave a name to this unique German ethnic group. Other migrants included settlers from Alsace Lorraine, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and other parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany.

Despite extreme hardships in the initial stages of development, in the span of 200 years, the colonists turned this swampy, disease and famine ravaged land into the “breadbasket of Europe.” The people developed a sense of pride in their German language and cultural heritage and lived in close-knit settlements and it was very uncommon to marry outside the German community. As the population of the original settlements grew, additional colonies were established further east. The economies of the areas also evolved to include industry as well as agriculture and mining.

The number of settlers increased to such an extent that land became scarce and the traces of pioneer spirit still remaining caused many to seek America at the end of the 19th century.  At the conclusion of World War I, when the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was dissolved and this area was parceled up between Hungary, Rumania, and Yugoslavia, many more came to America. Those that remained continued to prosper and maintained the cultural identity that had developed over the years. The language and the customs varied by region and village but the concept of an ethnic identity separate from that of Germany was taking hold. The Donauschwaben gained a reputation for ambition and industry in acquiring property and land.

The end of the Second World War saw about 250,000 Donauschwaben annihilated in the concentration camps of Tito. An estimated 25% of the German population perished or disappeared. 100,000 people from Rumania and Hungary were abducted to Russia for forced labor, and were forcefully displaced to the Baragan Steppes where many thousands perished.  The largest part of the surviving Donauschwaben were forced to flee in this ethnic cleansing.

Most of the refugees fled to their German roots in Germany and Austria.  From there, many continued on to the United States and Canada, which was still a beacon of tolerance and freedom. A large number settled in the Midwest, where there was already a sizable number of German and Donauschwaben. Areas such as Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Akron and Cincinnati became popular cities to settle in during the early 1950’s.

The new immigrants adapted quickly to their new homeland and many of them play a substantial role not only economically, but also politically. The Donauschwaben created organizations and associations such as German language schools, music bands, youth and sport groups, choirs, and dance troupes to preserve their language, songs, dances and customs.