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German Settlements in Eastern Europe

By Duncan B. Gardiner, Ph.D., C.G.

Historical Background By the end of the Middle Ages, ethnic Germans constituted a significant minority of most Eastern European countries. The areas we now know as Poland, the Baltics, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania. Russia's Germany minority arrived in later centuries and Bulgaria's German population was negligible.

The eighteen and nineteenth centuries saw the second wave of Germanic emigration into Eastern Europe and Russia. Part of this was in Hungary where the 150-year Turkish occupation was gradually ended during the decades around 1700 and the Austrian emperors imported settlers of many nationalities to make empty villages productive again. The other part of the German expansion, into Russia, outlying areas of Romania, and elsewhere, was at the end of the 1700s as a result of a general increase in European population.

The first emigration of Germanic speakers toward the East took place before and during the Crusades (1095-) much of it from northern German (especially Koeln and north along the Rhine. later from Saxony) where an agricultural revolution had taken place: The invention of a more effective plow which was capable of turning over the heavier soils of northern Europe, and the adoption of the three-field method of crop rotation. 

The resultant increase in the food supply generated a population explosion which within a few generations caused idle land in Western Europe to be colonized and new towns to be founded. This stage was followed by Germanic colonization of Eastern Europe where very fertile, previously untilled, soil was available to satisfy the hunger for land. This began in the mid-1100s.

At the end of World War II, almost all these ethnic Germans were expelled from the various East European countries. Czechoslovakia retained only a handful of German speakers. Yugoslavia not only expelled the Germans, but also destroyed many of their churches and moved Serbs into the former German villages. Romania kept a good number of its Germans. 

Poland, of course, expelled Germans from the former provinces of Posen, Pommern, Ostbrandenburg, etc. These Germans, with the support of the West German government, founded homeland organizations with very active publishing programs which include newspaper, quarterly periodicals and `homeland' books (Heimatbuecher). (See the last page of this outline for a source listing these organizations.)

Romania: One of the best known early Germanic colonies was in the Hungarian province of Transylvania (now west central Romania), where the first waves of immigrants, invited by Hungarian King Geza II, arrived in 1141 to 1161. In 1211 the Teutonic Knights founded a series of towns in Transylvania. These Transylvania Saxons still retain their German language and many customs. 

Also in Romania are a number of towns founded after 1700 by many different nationalities, including Czechs, Slovaks, Alsatians, Flemish, and French speakers. The Germans are known as Danube Swabians -- Swabians because many came from Swabia in southern Germany; Danube because many of the re-settled towns were along the Danube. German teams microfilmed many German parish registers in the Transylvania Saxon and Danube Swabian areas. These are available through the LDS Family History Library. 

Access to other Romanian records remains rather difficult as of 1995. Other German settlement areas in Romania (dating to the 1800s) are the Bukovina (in the Northeast), Dobrudscha (Romanian Dobrogea, on the Black Sea), and Bessarabia, the easternmost strip of Romania part of which is now in Ukraine.

Hungary: Many German settlements were begun in the 1100s and succeeding several centuries, including the Pest side of Budapest, most of them close to the Danube River. These earlier settlements were joined by the Danube Swabian communities of the 1700s and 1800s. 

Hungarian parish registers are all available on microfilm through the LDS Family History Library. Civil registers, from 1895 to about 1908 are now being catalogued. Other materials, such as the Urbaria (feudal land lease records of the 1780s and 1790s) are also being catalogued. Due to the early agreement of the Hungarian archives with the LDS film project, Hungary's genealogical records are the most easily accessible of all Eastern European countries.

Former Yugoslavia: Before 1919, Hungary's southern border was at Belgrade. What until recently was the northern part of Yugoslavia (including Slavonia, the Vojvodina and much of what is now Croatia) had a goodly number of Danube Swabian towns. 

Access to parish registers is now through LDS microfilms (see below) and individual town halls: The matri ar (civil records offices) have collected most of the earlier church records. The records are accessible by correspondence or personal visit. Some other parish registers, particularly those of now defunct German villages, are in archives. Access to some of them is problematical. 

Microfilms of Danube Swabian and other German parish registers in Hungary, Romania, and Yugoslavia were made by the Germans, apparently during World War II. Most only extend to about 1850. The LDS FHL has a complete set of these. (See Schmidt, Josef, Die Banater Kirchenbuecher [Institut fuer Auslandsbeziehungen, Erlangen, 1979]).

Poland: Germanic settlements date to the Teutonic Knights in the 1200s and continued into the 1300s and later. Present-day Poland contains a large chunk of territory which belonged to the German Empire (and Reich) before the peace settlements of 1919 and 1945. 

Before 1919, the eastern territory of Germany included Posen (Pozna ) and the entire Baltic seacoast to the border with Lithuania. The peace agreement of 1945 shifted the borders of Poland to the west a good bit. 

As a result, present-day Poland has parish registers, whether Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Byzantine Catholic, or Protestant, of former territories of Germany, Russia, Austria, and pre-1921 Poland. The languages of these registers: Latin, Polish, Russian, German. A practical fluency in reading the old German script is required.

Many parish registers from all parts of Poland have been microfilmed by the LDS Family History Library, but there are still many gaps. Some information is obtainable by writing to local parishes and various archives.

Czech Republic: The Kingdom of Bohemia was part of the Holy Roman Empire and, although it was primarily a Slavic (Czech) speaking kingdom, German language was frequent in official documents and German speakers held sway in most towns. But until the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, Czech was the official and predominant language of administration. After that date, the Habsburgs took over the country, installed a German-speaking nobility, and remained in power until 1918. 

The entire western and northern portions of Bohemia, Moravia, and Czech Silesia was German speaking. Before World War II, 30% of Bohemia's population was ethnic German. In 1945, these Germans were summarily expelled to West and East Germany and Austria.

In the 1950s, all parish registers were collected in the Czech and Moravian regional archives, of which there are seven. The languages are Old Czech, Czech, Latin, and German. The pre-1840 registers are in the old script, whether in German or Czech. The archives are open to the public, but a recent (1995) regulation restricts the number of registers available on a single day to six. There is a small charge for each volume ordered. 

Many other sources of genealogical information are available: Land records, urbaria, serfs' lists, great estate records (e.g. permissions to marry), etc. The archive administration does genealogical research for a fee. Write for details to Archivn� sprava, Milady Hor�kov� 133, Praha 6, Czech Republic. Private genealogical services also exist.

Slovakia: As early as about 1150, Germans settled in the Zips (Spi county) in Northeastern Slovakia. According to legend, they were part of the group of Saxons who went on to found the German-speaking colonies in Transylvania. By the 1300s, many towns and villages were predominantly German and another settlement area, in Central Slovakia, near Bansk� Bystrica, was founded. It was called Hauerland. 

The Bratislava area already had many German speakers because it is just across the Danube from Austria Bratislava itself was essentially a German town before World War II. According to the 1930 census, there were about 38,000 Germans in the Zips, about 41,200 in Hauerland, and 50,000 in the Bratislava area. After the evacuation of 1945-1946, there were 24,000 ethnic Germans in Slovakia.

Parish registers, covering the period up to 1895 or so (when Hungarian civil records began), are in the seven Slovak regional archives. Religious denominations are: Roman Catholic, Reform, Lutheran, Byzantine Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Jewish. Languages are Latin, Hungarian, German, Slovak, and (from 1850 to 1855 in Byzantine Catholic registers) Russian. 

The Slovak archive administration conducts genealogical research in these parish registers for a fee (upwards of $20 per hour): Archivn� sprava, Kri kova 7, 811 04 Bratislava, Slovakia. Other resources to be searched, though not available at all archives: Urbarium of the 1780s, Hungarian censuses of 1857 and 1869.

The parish registers in three of the seven Slovak state regional archives is complete and part of the holdings have been catalogued. The contents of the other archives should be microfilmed in the next several years.

Germany: Since unification, LDS microfilming has continued where access has been given by individual pastors and archives. Access to parish registers is perhaps somewhat freeer in the former East Germany.

Former Soviet Union: Germans settled in a number of areas in the former Russian Empire. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia had sizable German minorities. Colonies of Germans were established in the 19th century along the Volga River and the Black Sea. Beginning in the 1700s, a number of Germans settled in and around towns in Sub-Carpathian Rus' (now part of Ukraine).

The LDS Family History Library is now filming in a number of locations. In 1994 we received the first news of Lutheran records of the Black Sea German colonies, apparently duplicates located in St. Petersburg. They were slated to be microfilmed. There are LDS filming crews in Sub-Carpathian Rus'.

A number of relatively new genealogical agencies now offer research services in the former Soviet Union.