The Bukovina Germans: A Community On The Verge Of Extinction
The Bukovina Germans (known in standard German as either ‘Buchenlanddeutsche‘ or ‘Bukowinadeutsche‘), or Buchenland Germans as they are also known, represent a once significant 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 (following the Russo-Turkish wars and the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca), 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’ national socialist population transfer policy, most notably to then occupied Poland.
According to Dirk Jachomovski’s work ‘Die Umsiedlung der Bessarabien-, Bukowina- und Dobrudschadeutschen‘ (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 history of the German community in Bukovina can actually be traced back to the High 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: Baja, Stadt Molde, or 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. Hugo Weczerka was a historian of Bukovina German origin from Vama who later emigrated to West Germany and earned a PhD in philosophy at the University of Hamburg.
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 the Kingdom of Hungary, in Central and Eastern Europe respectively, more specifically during the High Middle Ages.
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 blended within the larger Romanian ethnic majority which inhabited all of the towns and villages of the region, thereby assimilating in. The assimilation process thus put an end to the early German presence in what would later become Bukovina and other parts of the Principality of Moldavia respectively, including, most notably, Târgu Neamț (in Neamț County) or Huși (in Iași County).
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 (German: Cisleithanien/Zisleithanien), 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 or Herzothum as it was also written in old Austrian High German).
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, then Holy Roman Emperor) which lasted well 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 in Suceava: 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 the rural areas of south-western Bukovina or present-day Suceava County, including, most notably, Cârlibaba (German: Ludwigsdorf/Mariensee/Kirlibaba) or Iacobeni (Jakobeny) for example;
- 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 (German: Böhmerwald) in contemporary Czech Republic.
Therefore, the Bukovina Germans were, fundamentally 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 (that is standard German), ranging from Zipserisch to Pfälzisch or even Bavarian.
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).
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 afterwards founding several communities in the state of Kansas, in the Midwestern United States of America. Some Bukovina German families emigrated at that time to neighbouring Canada as well.
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 out, 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‘) national-socialist plan. The Bukovina Germans were thus evacuated to parts of occupied western Poland, temporarily residing in Graz, Austria along the way.
It is estimated that 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).
After 1945, few Bukovina Germans remained in Romania (even if sparse groups of Zipser Germans and Bukovina Germans came back from their forceful re-settlement), which was overran by the Soviet Army and was forcefully and illegally transformed into a communist state through tremendous electoral fraud in the wake of the 1947 Romanian legislative election. Demographically, the same must be mentioned about the Germans from the north of Bukovina (i.e. Cernăuți/Czernowitz area), whose numbers fell to an even greater extent at each and every Soviet census conducted since the beginning of the Iron Curtain.
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. Nonetheless, not enough to replenish the tremendously depopulated German communities in the wake of the war.
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, a beautiful smaller town situated in Western Moldavia and to the south of Suceava.
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:
- Personal travels to Bukovina, Romania;
- Being a native of Bukovina and having several ethnic Germans in my family along with German being spoken as a second language by older generations of my family;
- Personal experiences with people from Bukovina, Romania (including a visit to the local FDGR/DFDR Forum in Suceava in 2020 for cultural and educational reasons exclusively);
- The works of Bukovina German historian Hugo Weczerka;
- Istoria etnicilor germani on www.mereualaturi.ethnicmarket.ro (in Romanian);
- Nemții și Bucovina. Cum a fost distrusă comunitatea care a construit, în spirit teuton, o oază de civilizație în România on www.adevărul.ro (in Romanian)
- The Germans from the Bukovina on www.sites.ualberta.ca (the website of the University of Alberta);
- Bukovina, region in Europe on www.britannica.com;
- The Bukovina Society of the Americas on www.bukovinasociety.org;
- Bukovina Germans on www.wikipedia.org (in English);
- Germans of Romania on www.wikipedia.org (in English);
- Germani bucovineni on www.wikipedia.org (in Romanian);
- The Bukovina-Germans During the Habsburg Period: Settlement, Ethnic Interaction, Contributions by Sophia A. Welsch, Ph.D.
- Povești din folclorul germanilor din România (i.e. Tales From the Folklore of the Germans in Romania) by Roland Schenn (in Romanian) at Corint Junior publishing house (2014)
Thank you very much for your time and readership! All the best!