Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juli 2006

14.4. Identitätsmanagement von Minderheiten im Alpen-Donau-Adria-Raum
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: Klaus-Jürgen Hermanik (Universität Graz)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

The German National Minority in Subotica: Symbols of Ethnic Identity

Alexander Krel (Beograd)



This paper is an attempt to place the German national minority in Vojvodina in the focus of an anthropological inquiry, the first time after WW II. The central problem dealt in the paper is conceptualization and symbolic expressions of the German ethnic identity in Subotica. The paper tries to identify the most significant symbols/markers of the ethnic identity of the Germans in Subotica, through the analysis of the objective social, economic and demographic factors that characterize the German national minority in Vojvodina. The paper sheds a light on the roles played by the symbols/markers of the German ethnic identity in transformations of their respective strategies concerning the identity in the second half of 20 th century. At the same time, the paper attempts to explain the most important modus of preservation, revitalization and public expression of the German ethnic identity in Subotica and Vojvodina.

Key words: the German national minority in Serbia and Monte Negro, Vojvodina, Subotica, Germans, construction of an ethnic identity, symbols/markers of an ethnic identity, strategies of an ethnic identity, ethnic mimicry, hidden minorities.


The German Colonization of Vojvodina - Historical Background

One of the most interesting features of the Serbia-Montenegro union is its national composition: numerous national minorities make almost one third of the union. This particularly stands for Vojvodina(1), a northern province of Serbia, a plain region separated by the fluvial streams of the Sava and Danube river.

Given its geographical, historical and cultural characteristics, Vojvodina belongs to the South-Eastern-Central European region. After the expulsion of the Ottomans from the Panonic plain, when the region became part of the Habsburg Empire, its historical inheritance became especially enriched. In the 18 th and 19 th century, on several occasions, the Habsburgs have tried to restore and develop the areas’ industry by massive colonization of the central and southern parts of Podunavlje (the central and southern streams of the Danube). The process of colonization ended with the 19 th century, resulting in a formation of a versatile ethnic and cultural mosaic, especially on the territory of the present Vojvodina. Namely, more than twenty ethnic groups live side by side on the same territory in Vojvodina, which makes it a unique area within Europe (Jankulov 1961).

Among others, Germans also are considered to hold a specific part of the unique ethnic mosaic of Vojvodina. Many Germans, mostly craftsmen and agriculturalists, in response to various life obstacles such as social and economic troubles, and religious intolerance decided to leave their mother country and moved to the Panonic plain. They were attracted by plentiful concessions and tax exemptions offered by the Habsburgs. The numerous colonists from the German provinces headed toward Ulm, a major centre of colonization. From there they started their trip on rift boats, so called "Ulm boxes". Finally, the colonists reached via the Danube areas in the central and southern Podunavlje and founded their own settlements. Religious and cultural differences of these colonists from Baden-Württemberg, Alsace-Lorraine, Saxony, Tyrol, Silesia, Prussia and many other parts of the present day Germany and Austria, had gradually blended into an unique ethnic element on the territory of southern Podunavlje. They - the Germans in the central and southern streams of the Danube - are known as "Podunavske Švabe".


The Formation of the German National Minority in Vojvodina

The legal term "national minority" was first time introduced into cannons of international law at the Versailles conference after WW I. The term indicated ethnic groups living within borders of other national states. Numerous Germans, colonized during the 18 th and 19 th centuries in the central and southern streams of the Danube, had become a national minority after the Austrian-Hungarian Empire came to an end.

The Germans in Vojvodina also acquired the status of a national minority in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croatians and Slovenians. After 1918 the Germans became lawful citizens. In spite of the frequent political, social and economic commotions they have managed to lead a continuously rich and dynamic industrial, political and cultural life that ceased with the end of WW II. Vojvodina has remained in Yugoslavia, and the Germans faced the end of war and the victory of the so-called socialist revolution confronted with numerous problems. The Germans in Yugoslavia shared the destiny of the German minorities in SE Europe: they were exposed to a real odium. Under the rule of the new government in Yugoslavia, led by Partisans, many political, class and other oppositionals have suffered a great deal, regardless of their respective nationality, background or religious affiliation. The strict applications of the new "revolutionary" laws have caused mass shootings, disorder, "nationalization" and ripping off the private property. The German minority found itself under the "attack" too. As the representatives of the new social order and government the Partisans immediately relocated the Germans into prison camps (Dimitrijevic, 2005: 337-404). This was followed by new legal decrees regulating the "nationalization" of the private property. The members of the German national minority lost their legal rights. Only a small number of Germans have managed to escape the new revolutionary regulations and were allowed to keep the Yugoslav citizenship. After the repartition of the sentenced Germans in Vojvodina in 1952 a large number of Germans decided to move out of Yugoslavia. They followed their relatives who already lived in Austria or Germany. This was a gradual process up to the ‘mid 1960’s’. Only a small number of the German national minority remained in Vojvodna (Janjetovic 2004:130).


The Transformation of the Ethnic Identity Strategy of the Germans in Vojvodina after WW II; a Period of Concealing the Symbols of Ethnic Identity; Ethnic Mimicry of the Vojvodina’ Germans

Since the ‘mid 1960’s’ the position of the Germans who remained near the central and southern streams of the Danube in Vojvodina have improved considerably, at least in the formal, legal way. They have acquired the same minority-status as the other national minorities.

The first organized attempts of the new government to incorporate the remaining Germans into active social, industrial and cultural life of the Yugoslav community have started at the end of the 1940’s; these included schools where some subjects are taught in German language, several journals in German and the overall attempts to incorporate the Germans into cultural, artistic and sports activities (Nikolic 2003:174-6).

Although these declarative attempts of the government could be seen as an effort to improve the status of the Germans in the post war Yugoslavia, they did not, in effect, influence the change in a strategy of preservation of the ethnic identity of the remaining Germans. Indeed, well aware of the consequences of the anti-German attitudes and the subsequent resulting events during the first two decades of the new socialist rule in Yugoslavia, the Germans from Vojvodina allotted for an "ethnic mimicry". It became the primary strategy of preservation of the ethnic identity.

Namely a lot of the Germans in Vojvodina purposely opted for a concealment of one’s own true identity and instead, chose to exhibit an identity of ethnic groups with more favorable social standings than their own, at a given moment. In particular, in censuses from 1945 to 1991 the Germans declared themselves as Hungarians, Croatians, Serbs, and Czechs or of some other ethnic group. Furthermore they exhibited ethnic markers/ symbols of the preferred group in public, in their immediate surroundings. For instance he Germans frequently acquired the typical and customary personal and family names of the Hungarian, Croatian, Serbian and other ethnic groups.

The Germans also avoided using their native language as well as among themselves in public. Even among immediate family members German language was not spoken. Instead, they communicated in one of the languages spoken in Vojvodina. Unlike German language these other languages were the official languages in Vojvodina, spoken by majorities of the ethnic groups (for example, the Serbian and the Hungarian language). It facilitated the reduced usage of German language.

In addition, there were no mass celebrations of holidays, which further concealed their ethnic and cultural identity. Therefore it could be safely assumed that at the given period he Germans in Vojvodina functioned as a hidden minority(2). The fact that Vojvodina was seen exceptionally as a multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual area further facilitated the ethnic mimicry. Furthermore, mixed marriages between the Germans and members of other ethnic groups, as well as their religious overlapping assisted in easier acquisition of ethnic markers/symbols of the others. Namely, the Germans of Roman Catholic or Lutheran confession further smoothed the progress of acquisition and exhibition of religious symbols/markers of the other ethnic groups. It is these reasons, therefore, that have helped the Germans to temporary discontinue a public expression of their true ethnic identity and have made the acceptance of a public expression of symbols/markers of other ethnic groups from the area(3).

This kind of practice was especially widespread in urban areas. The global process of industrialisation and urbanisation also affected Yugoslavia in the second half of the 20 th century. Many Germans, especially from the younger generation, relocated to urban areas. They looked for jobs in factories of various industrial branches. ( Пушић, 1986 : 149-152). Unlike Vojvodina’s rural areas, the cities in Vojvodina represented extraordinary multiethnic, multilingual and multicultural environment. It further facilitated the Germans staying hidden.

The choice of such a strategy for maintaining their ethnic identity also carried negative consequences for the German national minority. The aove mentioned strategy facilitated previous attempts of ethnic and cultural assimilation of the German population (Janjetovic 1998:115-132). This situation along with reduced birth rates led to a dramatic reduction of the German population in Vojvodina.


A Period of Open Expression of an Ethnic Identity - the Awakening from the "Ethnic Hibernation" of the Vojvodina’s Germans

Although numerous in the past, the present day German national minority could be characterized as a "small" minority (Domonji 2003:147-166). According to the census from 2002 there are 3.901 Germans living in Serbia. 3.154 of them reside in Vojvodina and only 747 reside in some other part of the SCG-republic. In 1991 census there was a total of 5.172 Germans.They declined for 1.271 members during 11 years. This demographic decline was more noticeable in Serbia than in Vojvodina: There the population declined from 1.299 to 747. The largest number of Germans live in towns: Belgrade (481), Novi Sad (410), Sombor (339), Subotica (272), Pancevo (227), Zrenjanin (181), Apatin (159), and Kula (158). The percentage of the Germans in Vojvodina is 0.16 (Domonji 2003:115).

Today the majority of Germans inhabit the urban areas in Vojvodina with limited cooperation among each other; in the past, these areas were also the main centers of the colonization, cultural, historical and industrial focal points for the Germans. After the fall of Yugoslavia, and the subsequent formation of the new states, the status of national minorities entered a process of transformation. An act in accordance with the new democratic constitutional and legal regulations, and the pressure from the West (Basic 2002:13-68).

The Germans in Vojvodina, in accordance with the general occurring changes and new legal rights, founded several associations. The main goals of these associations are to preserve, revitalize and encourage the public expression of their ethnic and cultural symbols. The first association, named Donau, was founded in 1992, in Novi Sad. Similar associations have been founded in other urban areas as well. In present there are quite a few in Vojvodina and their number is increasing.

The activities of these associations, though different in their intensity and impact, have changed the strategy of the German national minority. After a few decades showing ethnic mimicry, there has been an awakening from an "ethnic hibernation". The Germans are again present in a public life. The awakening required a public manifestation of the most important symbols/markers of the German ethnic identity: Language, religion, customs and cultural inheritance. Therefore, the primary activities of these associations are: Organizing German language courses, celebration of church holidays, church service in German language and attending the German mass graves. In addition the associations also organize poetry readings in German language, provide scholarships for the youth and closely cooperate with similar organisations in the country and abroad.

One of the most important and the best organized associations of this type is the association of Germans in Subotica, "The German People’s Union" (Deutscher Volksverband), founded in 1997. The organised efforts of the chairman and the members of the association regarding public display and usage of the ethnic symbols/markers, have shown considerable results. This is especially significant since Subotica was not one of the centers of colonization of the Germans in the past, and yet today it has been the most important place for the German national minority in Vojvodina.

Today Subotica is important for two reasons. Namely Subotica is the only municipality and/or area that experienced a demographic increase of the German national minority after WW II. According to the 1991 census 208 people declared themselves as Germans, while their number in the census in 2002 increased to 272 (Domonji 2003-2004:151). This should be related directly to the activities of The German People’s Union, which makes every effort to preserve, revitalize and use the ethnic symbols/markers. In comparison to other associations this one was more successful in using certain symbols. Notably it is the maintenance and usage of German language, which is not so widespread among the younger generations. For this effort to popularise German language and culture, The German People’s Union has founded the Cultural Center of the Germans in Vojvodina; the center includes a children’s books library, with more than 2.000 books, available to a wider audience. So the German language has proven to be the key of a symbolic (re)-construction of the ethnic identity of the German population in Subotica. Also the association runs a 30 minutes radio-show called "Our Voice". It is broadcasted on a local radio every Friday evening. In Vojovdina, this show is the first public informative media in German language since 1945. Thus te German People’s Union became the first association of the Germans in Vojovdina that have used the right to be informed in their native language, guaranteed by the constitution and legal norms.

The efforts of the association to preserve and enhance the knowledge and usage of the language fit exactly with the dominant attitude in Vojvodina: The multilingual situation is seen more as a value than a handicap (Lebl 1962:29). Nevertheless, the using of the German language is, at least at the moment, the most emphasized symbol/marker of the ethnic and cultural identity of the Germans in Subotica, both from the standpoints of their ethnic ascription and ethnic description (Zikic 1998:134).



The case study carried out among the members of The German People’s Union during 2004 and 2005, confirms the most important theoretical assumptions on ethnic phenomena. The research of the ethnic symbols/markers of the German national minority in Subotica shows that an ethnic identity - similar to other form of identity - is just a socio-cultural construction. It achieves homogenization among its members by a symbolic affiliation according to the need, mobilised or de-mobilised. At the same time, this study points out to the importance of a public display/expression of symbols/markers of an ethnic identity, such as language, religion, customs and cultural inheritance; furthermore, the research shows the importance of establishing ethnic group boundaries, and rising resistance to take over of some dominant models of the neighbouring ethnic groups. The research also shows the functioning of a small local community, which was, due to historical circumstances, left without its intellectual elite and other means of political power; last but not least it points out the importance of The German People’s Union and its emphasises, especially its internal members communication.

© Alexander Krel (Beograd)


(1) The area of Vojvodina covers the south-eastern part of the Panonic plain. On the north, Vojvodina borders with Hungary, on the west with Croatia, and on the east with Romania. The area includes three geographically-historical parts: larger part of Srem, Banat and backa, and its capital is Novi Sad. In 1849 Vienna has founded the administrative area of Vojvodstvo Serbia and Tamiski Banat (the river Tamis), made of the parts of the present day Banat, Backa and Srem; in 1860, it was cancelled. (Bosic 1990:45).

(2) The term "hidden minority" represents terminus technicus, established three years ago by a group of researchers at the University of Graz, in order to clarify the issues on the project "Hidden minorities between CE and the Balkans. The term is used to mark a several officially unrecognized ethnic groups residing in Austria, Slovenia and Croatia. Sikimić suggested that the term should be used for all similar phenomena in SE Europe (Promitzer 205:13).

(3) I consider that identity/ethnicity is a symbolic organization of social relationships or a symbolic connection among members of an ethnic group, that could be mobilized or de-mobilized, altered and redefined, depending on a group need. In accordance with these the meaning and usage of ethnic symbols/markers of an ethnic identity are also a subject of alteration. The theoretical background to this assumptions was formulated by Prelic’ contemporary discourse of ethnicity, primarily the attitudes referring to a symbolic construction of an ethnic group (Prelic 1997).


Bašić, 2002: G. Bašić, Položaj nacionalnih manjina u SR Jugoslaviji, u: Demokratija i nacionalne manjine, Centar za istraživanje identiteta, ur. Goran Bačić, Beograd, 2002.

Босић, 1990: М. Босић, Досељавање Срба у Војводину, Етнолошке свеске 11, часопис Етнолошког друштва Србије, Београд, 1990, 45.

Димитријевић, 2005: Д. Димитријевић, Реституција ''стечених права'' припадника немачке мањине у бившој Југославији, у: Теме, часопис за друштвене науке, 3, Ниш, 2005.

Domonji, 2003-2004: P. Domonji, Položaj malih manjina u Vojvodini, u: Habitus, ur. Alpar Lošonc, Centar za multikulturalnost, Novi Sad, 2003-2004.

Jankulov ,1961: B. Jankulov , Pregled kolonizacije Vojvodine u XVIII I XIX veku , Matica srpska, posebna izdanja, Novi Sad , 1961.

Јањетовић, 1998: З. Јањетовић, Срби и Немци у Војводини и мађаризација, у: Етнички односи Срба са другим народима и етничким заједницама, Етнографски институт САНУ, Београд, посебна издања, књ. 44, 1998.

Janjetović, 2004: Z. Janjetović, Švabe u Vojvodini, u: Skrivene manjine na Balkanu, Balkanološki institut SANU, Beograd, 2004.

L ebl, 1962 : A. L ebl, Socijalno-istorijski aspekti jezičkog pluralizma u Vojvodini , Etnološki pregled 4, Beograd, Beograd, 1962, 29.

Leidensweg II, 1993: Leidensweg der Deutschen im kommunistischen Jugoslawien I-VI, Sindelfingen 1995-1998.

Nikolić, 2003: G. Nikolić, Život nakon skidanja sa krsta, u: Jedan svet na Dunavu, ur. Nenad Stefanović, Donauschwäbische Kulturstiftung- München, Beograd, 2003.

Прелић, 1997: После Фредерика Барта: савремена проучавања етницитета у комплексним друштвима, Гласник Етнографског института САНУ, XLV, Београд, 1997.

Promitzer , 2005: К. Promicer , (Ne-) vidljivost skrivenih manjina na Balkanu. Neka teorijska zapažanja , u: Skrivene manjine na Balkanu, Balkanološki institut SANU, Beograd, 2004.

Пушић, 1986: Љ. Пушић, Друштвени оквири урбаног развоја градова у Војводини (1900-1955), у: Зборник матице српске за друштвене науке, 81, Нови Сад, 1986.

Жикић, 1998: Б. Жикић, О разлици између етничког и културног идентитета Мађара у источној Бачкој, у: Етнички односи Срба са другим народима и етничким заједницама, Етнографски институт САНУ, посебна издања, књ. 44, Београд, 1998.

14.4. Identitätsmanagement von Minderheiten im Alpen-Donau-Adria-Raum

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  16 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Alexander Krel (Beograd): The German National Minority in Subotica: Symbols of Ethnic Identity. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 31.7.2006     INST