History / Irina Marin

An Accessible America in the Balkans

More accessible than America as a destination of escape for migrating populations, the Banat of Temesvár region of Hungary, Romania and Serbia offered the promise of ‘golden mountains’ to thousands in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Moving of the Serbs

Central and Eastern Europe has for a long time been seen as a source of migrants, of people following the mirage of going West, the mirage of a better life. This hasn’t always been so. Up until the 19th century the region was more of a destination for migration than a starting point. This had to do with its positioning on the convulsed fault lines of three Empires: Holy Roman, Ottoman and Tsarist.

The lure of the West and of the New World has more often than not taken the form of migration to America. However, as pointed out by William O’Reilly, concomitant with this westward pull was an eastward attraction. The Drang nach Osten was not an invention of 19th-century German nationalist discourse. It was part of a demographic ebb-and-flow that went as far back in time as the Middle Ages (with Saxon and Székely colonists settling the eastern reaches of the Hungarian Kingdom) and reached high tide in the late 17th and throughout the 18th century as a consequence of Christian-Ottoman wars. In this context the Banat of Temesvár, which formed part of the newly conquered Hungarian lands under the Habsburg Crown, became in the 18th and 19th centuries a more accessible America as a destination for migrating populations.

As with all migrants, these people followed a promise or a dream. Some, such as the Serbian population fleeing to southern Hungary before rampaging Ottoman armies in 1699, were rudely uprooted and had to make a virtue of necessity. The Habsburg Emperor at the time had promised them safe haven and help in ousting the infidels from the Serbian lands and safe passage back home. Their native lands remained, however, in Ottoman hands for more than a century after and they never returned home. In his novel Seobe, dedicated to the Great Serb Migration and its aftermath, Miloš Tsernianski, a twentieth-century Serbian writer, captured in the words of his warrior character Vuk Isaković the life of misery and poverty that kept the colonists on the move:

‘He came to feel the futility of the lives they were living, lives of migration, colonization, of lamenting the dead and bringing new people into the world, there along the Danube. He imagined escaping the vapours of the swamps and marshes, the endless day-to-day suffering caused by moving from place to place, watching cattle drown, ploughing through mud and bogs.’

Others, such as the Schwaben or Suabians, German settlers from the Holy Roman Empire, followed a dream and a promise of rich land and colonists’ privileges at the end of their long journey down the Danube. Late in the eighteenth century, while travelling through Hungary, Ernst Moritz Arndt encountered a Schwaben family on their way to their place of colonization and, upon asking their son where they were going, the answer came: ‘To Paradise.’ Arndt wondered at the attraction of the Hungarian East to these starry-eyed German colonists: ‘These poor Suabians often go to Hungary as colonists, and dream of golden mountains there.’

Brought into the Banat upon the promise of definite economic privileges, the Suabian peasants were, in contrast to the autochthonous population, keenly aware of their rights and willing to defend what they considered to be their due. They were often described as obstinate, independent and so litigious that there was even a proverb about them among the landed proprietors, ‘As many Suabians, so many court cases’. Having arrived in the Banat on a contractual basis as privileged colonists, the Schwaben had decades of practice in the art of official complaint and used their Beschwerderecht (right to complain) to signal to the imperial authorities the infringement of their rights or any other problems that got between them and the promised prosperity.

‘Nicht mit dem Schwerte,/ mit der Pflugschar erobert,/ Kinder des Friedens, Helden der Arbeit’ (Conquerors not with the sword, but with the ploughshare, children of peace, heroes of labour). This is how a local church inscription presented the Schwaben and it was not mere self-aggrandizing praise. It reflected the self-image of a community who had braved the hardships of resettlement, the adverse climate, the epidemics and wars of a new land. Suabian village monographs record the ravages of the first years of settlement, with entire communities almost wiped out by cholera. Stemming from this generational experience, Suabian proverbs and poems convey both the spectre of death and the hard work that allowed the community to endure and prosper: ‘The first has death, the second has need, and only the third has bread for his lot’ (Der Erste hat den Tod, der Zweite had die Not, der Dritte erst das Brot) or ‘Labour was our only trait and the little field we ploughed was our world’ (Arbeit nur war unser Element, das Stückchen Feld das wir bebauten unsere Welt). Irrespective of whether this self-image was a result of colonial experience proper or was also influenced by the Josephine restrictions on the third great wave of Habsburg colonization, with its emphasis on a prospective colonist’s ability to work and prosper, industry and hard work remained a defining identity trait for the Schwaben, cherished by the community and recognized by outsiders. Even after the horrors of World War II pitted one ethnic community against another and waves of emigration were set in motion which depleted the German community in the Banat, the proverbial Suabian industriousness lingered on in the collective memory of the place for generations to come.


No one leaves their home and hearth for sheer happiness. The 18th – and 19th – century migrants to the Banat of Temesvár sought refuge and the promise of a better life, they settled in a foreign land grudgingly or hopefully, many died so that the generations to come could thrive. The very pattern of their lives changed completely and they themselves changed the land and people they found there. Around the middle of the 19th century, A.A. Paton, a diplomat and member of the Royal Geographical Society of London, remarked about the land thus transformed by more than a century of imperial rule and colonization: ‘the Banat has not the least resemblance to the interior of Hungary. If a stranger were to have his eyes bandaged, he would suppose that he had been carried back towards the centre of Europe, instead of being nearer the Turkish frontier.’

Anyone who may be tempted to think those days are gone when Central and Eastern Europe was seen as a place of opportunities should be reminded of the current trend which involves Western European companies buying vast stretches of agricultural land in the region (the Banat of Temesvár included) because it is cheap and fertile. These high-capital migrants testify that the mirage of going East is still alive. ■

Top image shows Paja Jovanovic’s (1859-1957) The Great Serb Migration (1896), which  portrays the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Arsenije III Carnojevic, surrounded by soldiers, flocks of sheep and women with babies, leading some 36,000 families from his seat in Pec, Kosovo and Southern Serbia to what is now Vojvodina and further to Hungary in 1690, after Serbian revolts failed.

Contested Frontiers in the BalkansIrina Marin gained her PhD at the School of Eastern European and Slavonic Studies (SSEES) at University College London, and her new book, Contested Frontiers in the Balkans: Ottoman, Habsburg and Communist Rivalries in Eastern Europe, is out now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s