The Bukovina Germans: A Community On The Verge Of Extinction

The Bukovina Germans (known in German as either ‘Buchenland Deutsche’ or ‘Bukowina Deutsche’) represent an ethnic German minority which previously lived in Bukovina, a historical region situated at the crossroads of Central and Eastern Europe (nowadays divided between Suceava County in northeastern Romania and Chernivtsi Oblast in western Ukraine) from about 1774, when the region was annexed from the Principality of Moldavia by the Habsburgs, up until the outbreak of World War II, when the vast majority of this community was forcefully resettled by The Third Reich under the ‘Heim ins Reich’ population transfer policy.

According to Dirk Jachomovski’s work ‘Die Umsiedlung der Bessarabien-, Bukowina-, und Dobraschadeutschen‘ (i.e. ‘The Settlement of Bessarabia, Bukovina, and Dobruja Germans) published in 1984, the population transfer concerning the Bukovina Germans involved a total number of 100,000 ethnic Germans who were relocated from Bukovina to, most notably, parts of occupied western Poland by the Wehrmacht.

The regional flag of Bukovina, a historical land situated at the crossroads of Central and Eastern Europe and currently divided between northeastern Romania and western Ukraine. The regional flag of Bukovina is also the coat-of-arms of the Bukovina Germans, a German population which lived in this region from the late 18th century up until the mid 20th century. Image source: www.wikia.fandom

Medieval history


The history of the German community in Bukovina can actually be traced back to the Middle Ages, when, due primarily to economic reasons, small numbers of Transylvanian Saxons (known in German as ‘Siebenbürger Sachsen’) from Bistrița area (German: Nösnerland) crossed the Carpathians in order to trade and subsequently settle parts of western Moldavia (more specifically present-day Suceava and Neamț counties), some of them becoming local rulers (medieval mayors under the title of Schulteiß) in Baia (German: Moldenmarkt) or Târgu Neamț (German: Niamtz), as documented in Hugo Weczerka’s work ‘Das mittelalterliche und frühneuzeitliche Deutschtum im Fürstentum Moldau‘ (i.e. ‘The medieval and early modern German community in the Principality of Moldavia) published in Munich, Bavaria in 1960.

The ruins of the Gothic-styled Roman Catholic cathedral at Baia (German: Moldenmarkt), built by the local Transylvanian Saxon community at some point during the early 15th century (photograph taken on 8 July, 2008). Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org (under C.C. BY 2.5 license)

The 14th century seal of the medieval town of Baia (German: Moldenmarkt), situated in present-day Suceava County. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

This settlement of the Transylvanian Saxons to what was later known as Bukovina occurred as part of the greater Ostsiedlung (German: Eastern settlement) which gradually saw many German craftsmen, blacksmiths, carpenters, traders, and mere settlers migrating from many petty kingdoms which would later be unified into the modern German state to the Kingdom of Poland or Hungary, in Central and Eastern Europe more specifically.

An important heraldic aspect of the Transylvanian Saxon legacy in the medieval commercial town of Baia from contemporary Suceava County is represented by its 14th century seal which evokes the legend of Saint Hubertus, the patron saint of hunters.

As centuries passed by, due to their low numbers, these Transylvanian Saxons progressively assimilated within the larger Romanian ethnic majority which inhabited all of the towns and villages of the region. The assimilation process thus put an end to the early German presence in Bukovina and other parts of the Principality of Moldavia, including Târgu Neamț (in Neamț County) or Huși (in Iași County).

Modern history


As the Middle Ages came to an end, the Modern Age saw the northern highlands of the Principality of Moldavia switched from the Ottomans to the Habsburgs in the wake of the Russo-Turkish war. Before the annexation, the region had an overwhelming Romanian population (of over 85%) with small numbers of Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, and Armenians.

After the annexation, the northern highlands of the Principality of Moldavia became a constituent part of the Habsburg and, later, Austrian Empires, henceforth known as ‘Bukovina’ (originally in German ‘Bukowina’), meaning the land of the beech trees. While initially part of the Kingdom of Galicia and Londomeria, Bukovina later achieved the status of a separate crownland within Cisleithania, an administrative title given to the Austrian-ruled realms of the dual Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Later on, it even acceded to the status of duchy (German: herzogtum).

The flag of the Habsburg and, later on, Austrian Empire (including Cisleithania) with the affiliated coat of arms. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Beginning in 1774, the Habsburgs initiated a plan of German colonisation of the rural areas of Bukovina under the larger Josephine colonisation process (named in this manner in reference to Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor) which lasted way throughout the 1780s as well. In this early colonisation phase, 75 families were settled in 9 colonies as follows (according to Sophie A. Welsch):

  • Fratautz – now Frătăuții Vechi/Noi: 16 families;
  • Illischestie – now Ilișești: 12 families;
  • Satulmare – now Satu Mare: 8 families;
  • Milleschoutz – now Milișăuți: 8 families;
  • Badeutz – now Bădeuți: 8 families;
  • Itzkany – now Ițcani: 8 families;
  • Sankt Onufry – now Siret: 8 families;
  • Arbora – now Arbore: 7 families.

Subsequently, as multiple waves of German settlers successively started residing in Bukovina throughout the late Modern Age, one can distinguish between the following main groups:

  • Zipser Germans (from the Zips region of Upper Hungary – nowadays Slovakia) who were mainly farmers, miners, or lumberjacks who settled in Cârlibaba (German: Ludwigsdorf) or Iacobeni (Jakobeny);
  • Banat Swabians from Banat;
  • Galician Germans from Galicia;
  • Other minor groups stemming from contemporary Rhineland, Baden, and Hesse coupled with impoverished inhabitants from the Bohemian forest in contemporary Czech Republic.

Therefore, the Bukovina Germans were, just as the Transylvanian Saxons, a mixture of various German-speaking groups from many regions of Central Europe, and, as a direct consequence, spoke different dialects within their local communities apart from Hochdeutsch (standard German), ranging from Zipserisch to Pfälzisch or Bavarian.

Gura Humorului (or Gura Humora in German), a town situated in present-day Suceava County which used to have a large ethnic German majority during the Modern Age. Postcard depicting Hauptstrasse, the central street of the town along with the Roman Catholic church. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

In terms of regional demographics, along with the influx of German settlers (alongside that of other ethnic minorities) to Bukovina, the population of the entire region increased over the course of both the 18th and 19th centuries.

Consequently, in addition to a lot of rural communities, the Germans also settled in the bigger cities of Bukovina which were developed by the Austrians, namely Suceava (German: Suczawa), Cernăuți (German: Czernowitz), Gura Humorului (German: Gura Humora), Câmpulung Moldovenesc (German: Kimpolung), Vatra Dornei (German: Dorna Watra), or Rădăuți (German: Radautz).

The central square of Cernăuți/Czernowitz, the most populous urban settlement of the Duchy of Bukovina. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

As the 19th century came to an end, due to increasing economic hardships, several families of Bukovina Germans (along with many families of ethnic Romanians) migrated tremendously westward, crossing the Atlantic to North America and founding several communities in the state of Kansas, in the midwestern United States of America. Some Bukovina Germans emigrated to neighbouring Canada as well.

Contemporary history


In the wake of World War I, all representatives of the Bukovina Germans in the General Congress of Bukovina voted for the union of this historical region with the Romanian motherland. Subsequently, as the rise of the national socialists in Germany began to pose threats to the German minorities in Central and Eastern Europe, some organisations of the Bukovina Germans tried to oppose the political propaganda of the Third Reich.

Nonetheless, as World War II broke, many of them, due to poor economic conditions, fell prisoners to the pro-Reich mentality. This ensured a full consent of the vast majority of them for evacuation to Nazi Germany under the ‘Heim ins Reich‘ (i.e. ‘Home inside the Reich’) plan initiated by dictator Adolf Hitler. The Bukovina Germans were thus evacuated to parts of occupied western Poland, temporarily residing in Graz, Austria along the way.

Between 96,000 to 100,000 ethnic Germans from Bukovina were re-settled by the national socialist authorities to occupied Poland after 1940 in two main waves: the first to be evacuated were the Germans from northern Bukovina (which was eventually ceded to the Soviet Union as of the cause of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) while the last ones were those from southern Bukovina (what is now Suceava County in northeastern Romania).

Solca (German: Solka), a former mining town inhabited by Germans and Poles alongside a strong Romanian majority. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

After 1945, few Bukovina Germans remained in Romania, which was overran by the Soviet Army and was forcefully transformed into a Communist state. The same must be said about the Germans from the north of Bukovina (i.e. Cernăuți/Czernowitz area) whose numbers fell to an even greater extent at every Soviet census.

Cârlibaba (German: Ludwigsdorf), a rural community in which a small number of Zipser Germans still live to these days. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

The surviving German community in southern Bukovina however saw several families or groups of individuals return to their origins after World War II was won by the Allies, thereby also culminating in the failure of the re-settlement plan initiated by the national socialists.

Nowadays, this community on the verge of extinction is represented at social, cultural, and political level by the Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania – Bukovina chapter (‘DFDR Buchenland’ in German and ‘FDGR Bucovina’ in Romanian). Most of them live in the city of Suceava or Rădăuți with sparse rural communities of Zipser Germans still living in Cârlibaba (German: Ludwigsdorf) or Iacobeni (German: Jakobeny).

The Roman Catholic church of Saint John of Nepomuk and the Administrative Palace (German: Verwaltungspalast) in the centre of the city of Suceava (German: Suczawa) by night. Suceava is still home to a small but well-organised community of ethnic Germans. Image source: www.trekearth.com

At the latest Romanian census (which was carried out nationwide in 2011), only 0.11% (or 717 citizens) of the entire population of Suceava County was represented by ethnic Germans, including Bukovina Germans, Zipser Germans, and Regat Germans from Fălticeni.

Postcard depicting the city of Suceava (German: Suczawa/Sutschawa) by sunrise during wintertime. Image source: personal archive.

Below you can also watch a brief documentary on the rise and fall of the German communities in Central and Eastern Europe, also related to the history of the Bukovina Germans:

Documentation sources and external links:


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