Kranjc on Mezger, 'Forging Germans: Youth, Nation, and the National Socialist Mobilization of Ethnic Germans in Yugoslavia, 1918-1944'

Author: 
Caroline Mezger
Reviewer: 
Gregor Kranjc

Caroline Mezger. Forging Germans: Youth, Nation, and the National Socialist Mobilization of Ethnic Germans in Yugoslavia, 1918-1944. Studies in German History Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. Illustrations, maps. 360 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-885016-8.

Reviewed by Gregor Kranjc (Brock University) Published on H-TGS (April, 2021) Commissioned by Benjamin Bryce (University of British Columbia)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56412

Forging Germans in Yugoslavia

Caroline Mezger’s Forging Germans: Youth, Nation, and the National Socialist Mobilization of Ethnic Germans in Yugoslavia, 1918-1944 is a welcome addition to the paucity of English-language works on the interwar and World War II history of the Donauschwaben (Danube Swabians) minority of Yugoslavia’s Batschka (Bačka) and Western Banat regions, joining Mirna Zakić’s recent book Ethnic Germans and National Socialism in World War II (2017), which despite its title focuses primarily on the Banat. Mezger offers us a well-researched exploration of how the Donauschwaben youth became crucial agents of accepting and spreading an exclusivist Nazi racial understanding of “Germanness.” This is accomplished, in part, by her chronological framework, which covers not only the years of Nazi and Axis occupation of Yugoslavia (1941-45) but also the longer interwar era (1918-41), which witnessed the Donauschwaben’s increasing “nationalization” into a more strident German national identity, replacing the comparatively nationally amorphous localized identities that they had had under Habsburg/Hungarian control before 1918. Mezger’s comparison of the Western Banat and the Batschka, which fell under German and Hungarian occupation respectively during World War II, acts as an additional analytical tool, revealing how the impact of different ruling regimes could promote or act as a soft brake on the Nazification of the Donauschwaben. Mezger intersperses her thoughtful analysis with the voices of eighteen elderly Donauschwaben, who opened up (or in some cases did not) about their interwar and wartime experiences in interviews that Mezger conducted over the past decade.

After detailing her study’s theoretical and methodological frameworks in her concise introduction, including a sophisticated understanding of youth as historical actors and agents rather than only the passive victims of historical processes, Mezger launches into the first of three parts of her work. By sheer volume, Mezger’s study puts more emphasis on the period of Axis occupation (parts 2 and 3) than the preceding interwar era (part 1). Part 1, unlike parts 2 and 3, treats the Batschka and the Western Banat together, as both regions came under the rule of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia after World War I. Keeping her primary focus on Donauschwaben youth, the two chapters in part 1 deal with the fight over the language and curriculum of Donauschwaben minority schools in Yugoslavia, and the proliferation of a variety of interwar Donauschwaben youth groups that competed over the loyalties of the community’s young people. Mezger’s analysis of the struggle over minority schools is a fascinating study of the interplay between individual, regional, national, and international actors. German minority education in the 1920s was under assault by the Yugoslav government’s education policies and its privileging of the Serbo-Croatian language. These policies contributed to a marked decline in the proficiency of German among some Donauschwaben youth. However, the intercession of Weimar Germany in support of Germans abroad (Auslandsdeutsche) in the late 1920s—a process that accelerated after 1933—resulted in a remarkable reversal in the fortunes of German minority education in the Batschka and Banat.

The struggle over education highlighted the religious and ideological fault lines among the Donauschwaben in the Batschka and Banat, schisms that also revealed themselves in the extracurricular youth groups that sprouted across Europe in the interwar era. Donauschwaben youth and sporting groups cleaved along Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist Christian denominations. With the rise of Nazi Germany, rivalry developed between the youth groups associated with the established conservative Kulturbund that was founded in 1920 to represent the ethnic Germans of Yugoslavia but that professed loyalty to the Yugoslav state, and those fostered by the Erneuerungsbewegung (renewal movement) in the 1930s, which aimed to “realize the ‘Volk-based, social and biological demands of National Socialism’” among the Donauschwaben (p. 62). Overlaying all of these competing factions was mandatory membership (after 1934) for all Donauschwaben youth in the state-sponsored pan- and pro-Yugoslav Sokol (Falcon) youth organization. While membership in religious youth organizations steadily declined (most obviously among Lutherans and Calvinists, less so among Catholics), the Erneuerer infiltrated and took over the Kulturbund leadership in the late 1930s. Its establishment of the Deutsche Jugend youth group in 1939, to which most of the Donauschwaben youth now flocked in their required black and white uniforms that “offer[ed] a unified image externally,” was indicative of the homogenizing trend toward National Socialist affiliation among the German minority of the Batschka and the Banat (p. 113). The nexus between National Socialist-supported minority education and youth groups was also soldered together by shared interwar experiences and cooperation between Reichsdeutsche and Donauschwaben (such as the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the resettlement of two hundred thousand ethnic Germans from Romania to Germany via Yugoslavia). Indeed, as Mezger reveals at the conclusion of part 1, by the time the Axis forces occupied Yugoslavia in April 1941 it appeared to have laid the groundwork for “the ‘unification’ of all of Yugoslavia’s Donauschwaben children and youth under the Kulturbund’s umbrella” (p. 119).

The unification of all Donauschwaben youth into a National Socialist worldview and its associated organizations, which seemed so apparent in the final months before the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia, was frustrated by international politics as the Batschka was reunified with Hungary, while only the Western Banat remained under German occupation. Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the German-occupied Banat and the unique power that the pro-Nazi Donauschwaben leadership had in monopolizing the administration of the region once the German occupational troops were withdrawn after the capitulation of Yugoslavia. This included, as Mezger details, assisting in the genocide of the Banat’s Jewish population (Batschka’s German minority also assisted in the somewhat delayed deportation of Batschka’s Jews to the death camps in 1944), as well as the violent suppression of Partisan activity. What had been fairly robust Reich-supported minority education immediately before the invasion of Yugoslavia now became the foundation for an expanded effort at Germanizing the Germans and reversing what was seen as the damage done from two decades of Yugoslav curricula and denationalization efforts. As part of this process, the anticlerical thrust of National Socialism was revealed, and the various churches “shrunk to the peripheries of the Western Banat’s Donauschwaben societies” (p. 150). This marginalization of the once powerful influence of the Christian churches was confirmed by Mezger’s oral interviewees, a helpful interplay between oral and archival research.

The full-throttle Nazification of the Banat’s education, administration, and youth groups was not replicated in the Batschka, where the Donauschwaben found themselves again in the familiar place of a national minority. Mezger does an admirable job at navigating the fraught tensions when “Hungarian nation-building meets German imperialism,” a phrase she uses in the subtitle for her section on the Batschka’s education policies under Hungarian rule in chapter 5 (p. 218). The dual (and dueling) pressures of the Hungarian and German national projects were revealed, on the one hand, by the extension of Magyarizing educational and administrative policies in the newly “returned” regions of Hungary, although Mezger reminds us that Hungary’s minority school policies “did in fact allow for German-language education” (p. 221). On the other hand, Nazi Germany continued to financially support the Batschka’s German-language minority schools, including recruiting Reich German teachers for these schools to replace “the exodus of German teachers from the Batschka” (p. 224)—a result, in part, of Hungarian-language requirements. The Batschka became a battleground not only for Hungarian nation-building measures and Germanizing counterefforts from these two ostensible Axis allies but also for the competing identities of the insurgent National Socialist-orientated and the traditional Catholic-orientated Donauschwaben, the latter of which were able to carve out a far more significant role in a more Catholic-friendly Hungary than in the Banat, with which they launched “one final, forceful, and fraught attempt to salvage the religious self-identification of the Donauschwaben youth” (p. 240). Indeed, in the Batschka this divide in identities led to a virtual civil war between the pro-Nazi “Browns” (Braune) and the pro-Hungarian, pro-Catholic “Blacks” (Schwarze). Its ugliest phase came after the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944, which made all of the Batschka’s ethnic German men between the ages of seventeen and sixty-two eligible for mobilization into the German armed forces. Mezger details how a number of those who attempted to evade mobilization had their hiding places revealed and were denounced as members of the “black front” by their “Braune” neighbors (p. 299). Mezger ends her comparative surveys of both the Banat and the Batschka under Axis occupation with the Nazis’s last desperate military mobilizations of remnant Donauschwaben manpower in 1944, a fitting end as the almost decade-long Nazi commitment to the “Umvolkung” (ethnic conversion) of the Donauschwaben was ultimately predicated upon converting them into expendable human resources for the Reich’s use, a project made all the more tragic because so many Donauschwaben voluntarily and enthusiastically contributed to it.

At times Mezger’s ardent focus on the Donauschwaben conceals the extent to which the Donauschwaben coexisted within a multiethnic society of Serbs and Hungarians, as well as smaller minorities such as the Jews. The unavoidable requirements and compromises of living in a multiethnic society was revealed, in part, by the lack of proficiency of some young Donauschwaben in the use of the German language, as well as by their polyglotism. While the multiethnic character of the Western Banat and Batschka is less apparent in Mezger’s chapters on the interwar era, as she tackles the process by which the Donauschwaben attempted to disentangle themselves from the denationalizing efforts of the Yugoslav state and its education, it becomes more of an issue during Mezger’s analysis of the occupation, as the Serbs in particular only enter the narrative as occasional targets of oppression as well as lurking, along with the Partisans, as the nemesis that will have its revenge upon the Germans in the fall of 1944. That the Donauschwaben are only rarely viewed through “Serbian eyes” may have something to do with the fact that the work contains no Serbian-language sources.

I also had some initial concern over the ages of the oral interviewees that Mezger relies on in her research, as over a quarter of the interviewees would have been no older than four years old when Yugoslavia was occupied in 1941 and no older than seven years old when they fled or were expelled from Yugoslavia beginning in 1944, with the youngest interviewee only born in 1943. The question of how such young eyewitnesses could possibly offer any reliable insight into the events they experienced is somewhat resolved by Mezger’s thoughtful introductory reflections on using oral history interviews, noting that their “aim was not to gain ‘facts’ in a classic empirical sense ... [but rather to seek] ‘truths’ on a different epistemological plane.” The interviews were “inherently dialogic” (p. 21). Mezger did find “a surprising degree of correlation between oral and archival accounts,” and her sprinkling of intimate and idiosyncratic excerpts from her interviews within the work add a valuable and revealing human element to her study, in line with her view that the most dynamic history writing occurs when “the ‘from above’ and the ‘from below’ are mutually constitutive and responsive” (pp. 22, 23).

Mezger’s fluidly and accessibly written study will surely become one of the authoritative English-language sources for specialists and non-specialists alike on the interwar and wartime history of Yugoslavia’s Donauschwaben community of the Batschka and the Western Banat and the role that its youth played in actively shaping the transformation of their community during this era. Forging Germans is also an important, broader meditation on the homogenizing impact of modern European nationalism, as ethnic diversity—and the multiplicity of identities within ethnicities—was to be flattened and repurposed for the interests of the predatory nationalizing state, and for the communities and individuals that helped define and serve it.

Citation: Gregor Kranjc. Review of Mezger, Caroline, Forging Germans: Youth, Nation, and the National Socialist Mobilization of Ethnic Germans in Yugoslavia, 1918-1944. H-TGS, H-Net Reviews. April, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56412

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