Caroline Mezger: Youth and the Politicization of Germanness in Interwar Yugoslavia

A conversation with Caroline Mezger

In this conversation, Lucija Balikić, a researcher affiliated with the CEU Democracy Institute and a PhD candidate at the History department of the same university, discusses “Forging Germans: Youth, Nation and the National Socialist Mobilization of Ethnic Germans in Yugoslavia (1918-1944)” (Oxford University Press, 2020) with the author, Caroline Mezger. The conversation touches upon issues related to researching children and youth as historical actors in their own right, complex avenues of negotiating “Germanness” in historical perspective, as well as the dynamics of the National Socialist takeover of youth organizations in the regions of Bačka and Western Banat during the interwar and World War II periods.

Caroline Mezger is Leibniz Junior Research Group Leader of the international, Leibniz Association-funded project “‘Man hört, man spricht‘: Informal Communication and Information ‘From Below’ in Nazi Europe” (INFOCOM) at the Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History in Munich. She holds degrees from Yale University, CEU and a PhD in History and Civilization from the European University Institute in Florence and has published on the twentieth-century history of Central and Southeastern Europe, World War II and the Holocaust, borderland minorities, migration, communication, and the history of childhood and youth.

Lucija Balikić: A central theme of your research is the radicalization of German youth in interwar Yugoslavia. On many occasions, you also provide a valuable comparative perspective by referencing various youth organizations, associations, and groups. I was wondering whether you could tell us what motivated you to write this book and why does youth matter for the study of this period? What does it tell us about the broader dynamics of young people’s stances towards authoritarianism and democracy in historical perspective?

Caroline Mezger: To answer these questions, I think I should start with referring to my general interests as a historian. I was always very interested in the 20th-century history of Europe, especially as it relates to questions of identity, questions of nationalism and the massive political, social, and economic changes that happened across the continent. The topics of interwar Yugoslavia, wartime Yugoslavia and the radicalization of ethnic German youth started to interest me many years ago when I was still a BA student and working on my undergraduate thesis. At that particular time, I was very interested in the so-called expulsion of some 12 to 14 million ethnic Germans from Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe. As someone who wasn’t raised or educated in Germany, I felt like I hadn’t actually learned a lot about the subject. Since I was always very interested, as a historian, in perspectives “from below” and in how individuals themselves relate to larger and often very dramatic historical changes, I decided to launch a little oral history project on the subject.

As it turns out, I actually had a very distant relative who had been expelled and he came from Yugoslavia. We were doing this interview and, of course, he began it by discussing his life as a child, and as a youth in this very multiethnic space in northern Yugoslavia called the Vojvodina. He was describing to me how although this was Yugoslavia, it was Southeastern Europe, it was a post-Habsburg space, and there were lots of languages and cultures and religions involved, he and his community were very, very German. His community spoke German, they had a German education, and he was even in the Hitler Youth. This one statement changed my research direction for the next decade or so.

I was fascinated by, first of all, this ethnic German community in Yugoslavia, because it just hadn’t been represented so much in professional historiography, certainly if you compare it to what was happening in Poland or Czechoslovakia in the immediate postwar period. Then I became very intrigued by the fact that this very elderly gentleman was reflecting on his “Germanness” decades later and using his association with the Hitler Youth as evidence to show how German he really was. I was puzzled by this intertwining of what is a very problematic ideological youth program with questions of personal identity and feelings of national affiliation.

That was the starting point for this book.

To come to the other part of your question, youth from the interwar period onwards gained a prominent political role. There was a “boom” globally in terms of mobilizing young people into different types of extracurricular, sometimes curricular programs, and to raise them to be citizens according to certain political, ideological, or national projections in terms of where their society should be now and in the future. Some of these are well known — the Hitler Youth is certainly known, the Sokol, too. But regardless of the exact youth group, the interwar period saw a global moment where youth became not just the target of mobilization, but also emerged as a separate social category.

I looked at ethnic German communities, in what is now northern Serbia, that were very rural, very traditional, very bound to religious senses of self, and in which youth before the interwar period did not really constitute a social category. Young people usually got married as teenagers, established their own families and so on, so there wasn’t much in terms of a separate moment in someone’s life where they’d be mobilized and identified as a “youth.” Youth groups that emerged in this context in the interwar period also helped redirect certain social categories and social interactions. In a sense, these groups provided various avenues of agency to young people that hadn’t been there before. These projects created a kind of space in people’s lives to engage in very big political, national, and ideological questions of belonging in their communities. This is a story I tried to untangle in my book.

One of the most original contributions of your book is its emphasis on the agency of young people: you reveal them to be historical actors in their own right, something we don’t see very often in historiography, not least due to the scarcity of sources. Could you tell us a bit about the sources you draw on and how you went about bridging this gap in historical knowledge? Your book is based on both written materials and interviews, so I was wondering whether you would be willing to discuss how you view the relationship between the different kinds of sources you use and how you combine them?

Sources are really a key question, also in terms of how we frame our historical actors. In histories of childhood and youth, up until relatively recently, children were usually rather framed as the objects of adult projections of who they were supposed to be, as the objects of educational policies, of extracurricular programs, and so on. Only more recently have historians engaged in a concerted intersectional approach, through which they’ve looked at children and youth as historical actors in their own right. One of the reasons for this has to do precisely with the question of sources.

In the traditional archive, you usually have the perspective of adults, and very often of adults in power, which makes it quite difficult to recreate the historical experience of young actors – the layer of historical analysis I was most interested in. To get a sense of how young ethnic German children and youth themselves responded to and acted within things like Nazi youth groups, I worked with three types of sources.  One type was the more traditional archival source. This includes, for instance, state documents or official organizational publications, documents in which adults of the historical period we’re studying took a stance on youth and described programmatically where youth should be, described what was being done to train and mold future generations, and maybe also reflected certain activities that these young people were engaging in.

The second type would be sources produced by young actors themselves. These can be very tricky to find. For numerous projects, you might have ego documents like the diary of a young person. In my case, such documents were very, very difficult to have because the communities I was studying – some 300,000 ethnic Germans living in this region – were expelled or imprisoned from late 1944 onwards. This dynamic did not really allow people to save things like personal letters, diaries and so on. What I did have for this book was, for instance, contributions that young people wrote for youth magazines – which can be valuable, though we need to remember that that is heavily mediated material as it went through very pro-Nazi editors or, as in the case of religious groups, the local priest who then chose who would have what kind of voice.

The third type of source that I used for this line of questioning proved the most substantial for my purposes: oral history interviews, which gave me an impression of how adults reflected on their childhood. I interviewed about 20 ethnic Germans who as children or youth had lived in the Bačka and the Banat, the two territories that I was looking at, and who reflected on their own experiences of the arrival of Nazi youth groups in their towns, different mobilization methods, the different educational experiences they had, their family life, etc. This gave me much more context and much more of an impression of what it was to be a young person in this very complicated, very dramatic period in history.

I had to use all these sources because of my topic of Nazi youth groups, and because there was not one obvious archive I could go to.

There is no “Hitler Youth archive,” because the materials that it could hold were destroyed through bombardment in Berlin in 1945, and a lot of the local materials disappeared over the decades as well. I had to look for different kinds of sources and I had to be creative about it. It was exactly by combining these different kinds of sources that I could start finding certain cases to write about and getting a feel for the context and then also triangulating my sources to verify, contextualize, and contrast certain stories.

Oral history should always be embedded in a very strong feel for the context in which people are speaking now, but also the historical context from which they came. In using oral histories, I always tried to look at all my sources – publications of the period, other oral history interviews, archival materials, journals and so on – at the same time. Very often I found overlaps and harmonies in what people were saying, and certain historical actors that arose again and again. I also encountered interesting dissonances that I then tried to address in the book.

It seems to me that precisely due to this method, you manage to outline different notions of ‘Germanness’ as espoused by various young thinkers and activists. Would you be willing to tell us more about the main streams of thought in this context? What were the main dividing lines in terms of political thinking and in social terms?

This really depends on historical context, the historical moment, the space, and the individual. Questions of “Germanness” and how people related to it varied quite dramatically, based on an individual’s own experiences and how they related to what was happening around them. Also, it depended on certain opportunities that may have been given in different historical moments and spaces.

Broadly speaking, there was a fairly dramatic shift in the first half of the 20th century within these communities. These ethnic Germans, or Donauschwaben, started the 20th century as citizens of the Hungarian portion of the Habsburg Empire and were very tied to religion as an identifier. By the early 20th century, they were generally educated in Hungarian, although they spoke Swabian dialects at home. They were traditional communities, where the priest and the local Hungarian notary represented the social elite.

During the interwar period, with the foundation of the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, things started to become very complicated. Loyalty to the state was previously tied to other questions of personal identity, such as national belonging, cultural belonging, linguistic group, religion, and so on. One could be loyal to the Hungarian state and be “German” at the same time, and that wasn’t necessarily problematic as people had very complex ways of situating themselves.

A new framework developed with the foundation of what came to be called Yugoslavia and, more globally, with the League of Nations. Certain requirements were placed on these new post-imperial states, especially in Eastern Europe and Southeastern Europe, in terms of the treatment of national minorities. Technically, the German minority of Yugoslavia was supposed to have primary education in German guaranteed, but this was not always the case in practice, not just in Yugoslavia, but in other spaces too, because these ideas were in often in conflict with the nation-building projects of these new states. State loyalty suddenly became directed towards the new Yugoslavia and areas like education were reformed dramatically, so most German-speaking youth and children didn’t have access to German or Hungarian education because education was generally conducted in Serbo-Croatian. This caused quite a bit of conflict, whereby even religious leaders in ethnic German communities started protesting what they felt was an unfair treatment and a violation of what should have been their guaranteed cultural right.

Weimar Germany started becoming very active in this period, and it developed a massive interest in the tens of millions of supposed ethnic Germans living outside the state’s borders. Through the involvement of Germany, the ideas of “Germanness” in different circles started switching towards the Reich German ideal of what it might mean to be a German – an ideal that was quite divorced from previous Habsburg notions. Of course, with the rise of National Socialism, racial, national, cultural, and linguistic notions of what it meant to be German were again combined in a new way. This became very powerful in the youth movement.

By the late 1930s, local pro-Nazi youth leaders were counting that about 90% of local ethnic Germans and youth were mobilized into youth groups that were essentially promoting their vision, in which to be a German speaker meant to be a German, meant to be a National Socialist, which was obviously not something that everybody accepted. In these ethnic German communities, there were different religious organizations, mainly Catholic, but sometimes also Protestant ones, which tried to offer their own idea of “Germanness,” which was not necessarily a National Socialist vision, but rather that of a devout Christian.

In my book, I look at what happens in two different regions after 1941, when Yugoslavia was invaded, occupied, and dismembered into more occupied zones than any other country during World War II, at least in Europe. In the Bačka, the Hungarians took over and notions of Germanness were negotiated again, which already happened during the Habsburg period when the question was how to relate “Germanness” with the Hungarian nation-building project and policies of Magyarization. In the Bačka, religious leaders became quite important in promoting a pro-state, meaning pro-Hungarian, affiliation, as part of a package of belonging to a German-speaking, Catholic community in this region. This clashed very dramatically and violently in many communities with the pro-Nazi image of “Germanness,” which became the predominant one for youth in this region in this period.

The Western Banat, the other region I look at, came under German administration, and not just that. The German forces came in and, having occupied the territory, they then delegated most administrative matters to the local ethnic German community. The Western Banat is basically the only place in Europe where this happened. Thus, the local “Volksgruppe” became very powerful in determining the parameters of national belonging in this space. They took over the school system and came to mandate that anyone who joins a German school has to fulfill certain cultural, linguistic, and “racial” criteria. In addition, they also had to serve in the local Nazi youth group on the “home front,” and they were also mobilized extensively into groups such as the Waffen-SS.

The predominant public notion of Germany in this space became the National Socialist one. It became so powerful that there was very little by way of a religious program among Germans to counterbalance all these forces.

My final question concerns the subsequent periods. In the book, you also track the fascinating legacies of these divisions throughout the 20th century and into the present. How would you describe the ‘afterlife’ of the nationalizing projects of youth and the consequences it had on the Donauschwaben?

The whole story was already complex, but during the postwar period, or rather already towards the end of World War II, this becomes a very dramatic question. What I also explored in this book was how self-identification corresponds to, or sometimes clashes with, identification from outside. Regardless of a particular ethnic German’s comportment during the war and his or her own definition of “Germanness,” all of these ethnic Germans were categorically placed into the category of the “perpetrator,” which was often the case because 90% of them were mobilized by organizations such as Deutsche Jugend. Tens of thousands of ethnic Germans from this region were often voluntarily mobilized into forces such as the Waffen-SS, the Wehrmacht, as SS guards in concentration camps, and so on. Hence practically everyone, including children and youth, was either forced to flee with the incoming Soviet troops and Partisan forces, was locked into camps, or deported to Siberia for forced labor. This lasted until about 1948 and happened due to being placed into this category of “German.”

This became a very traumatic experience for the Donauschwaben involved and caused a very complex personal grappling with what it means to be “German” and how to keep identifying as “German” in the postwar period.

A lot of these people who left — and that’s the majority of my interviewees — came to Germany as foreigners, where they weren’t accepted necessarily as “Germans,” but were rather seen as “Balkan populations,” or as “not quite German enough.” This was a particularly profound experience for those individuals whom I talked to who had been extremely active in the Nazi youth movement and the promotion of what they thought was their own “Germanness.”  

The association of “Germanness” and the perpetration of World War II atrocities — namely the Holocaust, locally or on a European scale — became quite complicated when confronted with the experience of mass expulsion. Yugoslav ethnic Germans are not special and certainly not the only ones who were dealing with this. In West Germany, there was a massive politicization during the 50s, 60s and 70s among these ethnic German groups, whereby they often promoted a revisionist sense of their own World War II victimhood. For most of the people I spoke to, this politicization did not allow for sufficient space for describing their own identities and their wartime experiences.

Every single person I spoke to had a different relationship with questions of their own nationality in the postwar period. Their relationship depended mainly on their wartime experience and interpretation of history, on whether they were simply a victim of history or perhaps also played a part in a very dark nationalizing project.

Where they integrated also played a massive role. I encountered numerous intricacies in terms of how people see themselves. For instance, some of them stated: “I’m a Donauschwabe…” or “I’m Bavarian because I’ve lived here all my life,” and that was very different compared to the visibly homesick ethnic Germans who had spent most of their lives in the United States.

These questions of national identity and their relation to peoples’ own historical experiences, as well as to much larger and often very politicized historiographical debates, is what I think continued to be pertinent for this group of former children and youth for the rest of their lives.

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