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Nicholas Sveholm, Indiana University, Bloomington, History

Blut ohne Boden: Diaspora Activism and Interwar Romania's German-Speaking Minorities

Between the World Wars, citizens of Germany discovered they had “lost brothers” all over the world. Previously unknown or neglected German enclaves were brought to the attention of the public; their persecution was decried; their survival, and more urgently the survival of their Germanness, became a matter of public hand-wringing. Some of these brothers had been lost to the state in the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, some lived tantalizingly close to the German border, but many were the far-flung descendants of German speakers who had resettled a century or more before Germany existed. The German speakers of Greater Romania were a case in point: the territories they lived in had never been part of the unified German state, and they were too far from its boundaries to be annexed except in the most fevered expansionist fantasies. It is tempting to explain the ease with which Romania's German-speaking minorities were absorbed into an encompassing pan-German discourse as just a symptom of the disease of nationalism. There is doubtless some truth to this explanation, but we can open more intriguing avenues of inquiry if we ask why German-speaking minorities in Romania (or elsewhere) were useful to nationalists in Germany. What effect did this usefulness have on the minorities themselves, and how were German speakers in Romania able to take advantage of the solicitous interest of far-away activists?

According to one interwar German nationalist, there were at least 106 organizations active in Germany by 1923 that sought to intercede – politically, culturally, financially, morally, or spiritually – for the suffering Auslandsdeutschtum.[1] For them, distant German communities were not just an object of solicitous concern, they provided three salutary lessons for the strife-ridden Weimar Republic. The first lesson was conveyed merely by dint of their existence. The process of nationalization is often portrayed as one in which the ethnic self is defined against an ethnic other, but a German diaspora enabled German nationalists to define the self with reference to a sort of external self: German enclaves were used as a limited, easily assessable case study of what it meant to be German. The survival of German communities was a second salutary lesson; it proved the vitality and indissolubility of Germanness, even after centuries of foreign influence. The third lesson was their current plight, which was invariably portrayed as dire, and supposedly illustrated the true situation of Germans all over the world. Offenses against Germans in Romania, combined with offenses against Germans in Tyrol, combined with offenses against Germans in the occupied Rhineland to form a master narrative of persecution. By examining not only the internal history of specific diaspora aid organizations, but also the collaboration and competition between them, and their dynamic interaction with a specific auslandsdeutsche community, my research will provide a unique perspective on the effort to publicly disseminate these three lessons.

Diaspora aid organizations active in interwar Romania employed various tactics to strengthen bonds between German speakers abroad and their “motherland,” including direct financial support, scholarships for young students, group holidays, and study trips to various German enclaves. As elsewhere, Germany-based organizations worked in tandem with Romania-based organizations that also sought to bolster solidarity between Reichsdeutschen and Volks- or Auslandsdeutschen. These deliberate efforts, both on the part of diaspora activists in Germany and ethnic German organizations in Romania, contrasted with and weakened the already anemic struggle to build up a unified “Romanian German” community within the state's new borders.  Despite a political class that cut across historical and confessional divisions, Banat Swabian leaders were often animated by considerable distrust toward the Transylvanian Saxons, and although the Saxon Lutheran Church expanded to include numerous non-Saxon, but usually German-speaking parishes, the Church remained in most respects a loose federation, with groups of parishes carefully maintaining their distinct customs and historical identities.  German speakers in Greater Romania were a de jure minority, but de facto they remained distinct minorities.

Diaspora aid organizations in Germany were also animated by distinct historical and confessional missions, and pursued their various aims with only limited coordination. Catholic and Protestant associations, for example, evinced grudging respect for each other’s work, but potential collaboration was made largely impossible by lingering prejudices. Secular associations also drew their members and missions from different political backgrounds. This project will clarify the causes and effects of these differences, in the process enriching our understanding of interwar German nationalism, as well as of the Weimar Republic’s relationship to German-speaking minorities abroad, and to Romania and eastern Europe in general.

[1]Karl Egon Gundhart, Die Verteilung des Weltdeutschtums (Hermannstadt: Georg Haiser, 1923), 10-13.