Vanishing Acts: The Expulsion of the Germans from Hungary

In 1910 a census was taken in the village of Boszenfa in Somogy County, Hungary. It recorded a population of 984 people, 586 (59.6%) of whom were ethnic Germans, with 397 Hungarians (40.3%) distinctly in the minority. Today, the village consists almost entirely of ethnic Hungarians. Traces of the bygone German majority which dominated a mere century ago are very few. A Roman Catholic Church first constructed in 1777 and rebuilt in 1902 is the most outstanding physical remnant of their presence. The church steeple soars above the village, bringing to notice the most prominent piece of architecture in the village. The church is still noticeable, but the loss of its members after World War II is barely even a footnote in history. What happened to the German majority of Boszenfa is reflective of what happened to the German minority all over Hungary during the 20th century. Their fate can be summed up in just a few words: World War II and Communism.

Boszenfa - a village in Somogy County Hungary. A century ago it had a majority ethnic German population. Today there are virtually none left due to the upheavals of the 20th century.

Boszenfa – a village in Somogy County Hungary. A century ago it had a majority ethnic German population. Today there are virtually none left due to the upheavals of the 20th century.

Present At the Creation & Re-creation – Germans & the Kingdom of Hungary
Germans were an integral part of Hungary from the very start. Istvan (Stephen), the first king of Hungary and the man who turned the Magyar tribe towards western Christianity in the year 1000, married Giselle of Bavaria. This made an ethnic German the first queen of Hungary. Over the coming centuries the influence of ethnic Germans waxed and waned, the most lasting influence would come from the Austrian Habsburgs who provided the military muscle which pushed the Ottoman Turks out of Hungary in the late 17th century. Large scale settlement of Germans began in Hungary during the early 18th century when the Habsburg’s invited them to repopulate areas ravaged by the Turkish occupation. These immigrants came from Swabia, Saxony and Austria. Their industrious spirit would help rebuild the country. Soon they were thriving as farmers, merchants, and craftsmen.

By the end of the 18th century there were over one million ethnic Germans living in the Kingdom of Hungary. Even after Hungary gained autonomy as an equal partner in the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy in 1867, the German population continued to flourish. Ethnic Germans led the rapid industrialization of Hungary, especially in and around Budapest, which soon became the fastest growing city in Europe. The Germans came to share an allegiance with the Hungarians, but chafed at nationalistic policies that attempted to impose the Magyar language on them.

Map of the Ethnic Groups of Austria-Hungary in 1910 - notice the red patches in Hungary denoting ethnic Germans

Map of the Ethnic Groups of Austria-Hungary in 1910 – notice the red patches in Hungary denoting ethnic Germans

From Exalted Status To Persecuted Minority 
Largely due to their economic power, the Germans were allowed more leeway than other minorities who suffered under the heavy hand of Magyarization. In the smaller villages, such as Boszenfa, their culture exerted a profound influence on the way of life. The villages were instrumental in sustaining customs and traditions that bolstered the ethnic German consciousness. It was the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930’s that would lead to the demise of Hungary’s ethnic German minority. Separate organizations arose that lobbied to increase rights for the German speaking minority. One of these, known as the Volksbund, actually held seats in the Hungarian Parliament. The Hungarians had little choice, but to allow this.

The Nazi’s had rolled over most of Europe in the first years of the Second World War, they could easily do the same to Hungary. The Hungarian government decided it was better to join the German side rather than try to fight it. The German leadership even gave Hungary parts of Czechoslovakia and Romania as an award for their loyalty. Hungary soon joined the German invasion of the Soviet Union. This would turn out to be a disastrous decision. In March 1944, the German military occupied Hungary. They rightly feared the Hungarians were on the verge of quitting the war.  With the occupation, ethnic Germans in Hungary were now elevated to exalted status, but not for long. Following the German defeat at the end of the war, states such as Czechoslovakia and Poland that had suffered repressive Nazi occupations forced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans out of their countries.

The Hungarian government had not originally planned to evict their ethnic German populace. Nevertheless, pressure from the Soviet Union resulted in ethnic Germans being stripped of their citizenship following the end of the war in 1945. Then in successive waves, from 1946 through 1948, they were deported. The Hungarian communists used ethnic German minorities as a convenient scapegoat, calling them examples of capitalist and bourgeois elements that had to be expunged from society. They were also given the taint of having supposedly all been supporters of the Nazis.

Painting of Danube Swabians being escorted by a Red Army soldier. Ethnic Germans from the Danube Basin of Hungary were forced out of the country in the years following World War II (Source: stefan-jaeger.net)

Painting of Danube Swabians being escorted by a Red Army soldier. Ethnic Germans from the Danube Basin of Hungary were forced out of the country in the years following World War II (Source: stefan-jaeger.net)

Empty Spaces – A Dwindling Legacy
The expulsion policy, like much else in post-war Hungary, was haphazardly applied. Some villages were cleared of all ethnic Germans while others had their population left relatively intact for no apparent reason. Yet the underlying intent was clear, Germans represented possible enemies of the state and must be separated from Hungary once and for all. Many of those lucky enough to avoid deportation still had their lives ruined. They were reduced to menial labor, especially in the countryside. Following the failed 1956 Hungarian Revolution, another exodus occurred. Many of the dwindling number of ethnic Germans fled to Austria and West Germany. Even with the easing of oppressive measures during the era of “Goulash Communism” the German minority continued to decline in numbers. By the time communism collapsed in 1989, over two million ethnic Germans had either been deported or willfully emigrated from Hungary.

Today, there are about 60,000 ethnic Germans left in Hungary. In villages that they once dominated ethnically, economically and culturally their presence has vanished. A century ago, the Roman Catholic Church in Boszenfa was filled with devout German Catholics. Today in that same church, the village’s older Hungarian parishioners still go to worship, but they are unable to fill the pews. The empty spaces between them are a lasting reminder of the ethnic German population that has all but vanished.

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