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Germans in Slovakia
The ethnic German population of Slovakia (148,000) was about five percent according to the 1930 census statistics. Most of these Germans were descendants of people who came to Upper Hungary (Slovakia), as early as the 1100's. These ethnic Germans emigrated to Hungary and other lands east of the Elbe seeking fertile farmland on which to settle due to scarcity of land in their native areas. At first, the emigrants were people from Rhineland and Saxony. By the end of the Middle Ages, these ethnic Germans were a significant minority of most East European countries, the areas we now know today as Slovakia, Poland, the Baltic States, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania.
During the early Middle Ages, the territory of Upper Hungary was relatively thinly settled by Slovak and Rusyn agriculturalists along with some Magyar landowners and margraves. Compared to the densely populated Rhineland and northern France, Upper Hungary (Slovakia) was a frontier region. The Germans, known for their skills in the crafts, farming and mining, were invited as settlers by a series of Hungarian rulers.
In 1241, the Mongols invaded Upper Hungary for a short period and all but destroyed many of the early settlements. The Germans were again invited to settle. The main period of this later settlement was under King Bela IV (1235-1270). German immigration continued until the time of the Black Death, beginning in 1346, which decreased the population of Europe as a whole by at least 25 %. The resultant smaller population reduced pressure to emigrate.
The German population of Upper Hungary during the Middle Ages is estimated at between 200,000 and 500,000. The Germans were among the most influential and prosperous citizens, dominating the political and commercial life of the major towns. In some towns, only Germans were allowed to own houses and belong to certain trade guilds.
The Turks invaded Lower Hungary in 1526 occupying most of Hungary until 1683. Many Hungarians, among them many members of the aristocracy, fled to Upper Hungary where they gradually began to play an important role in the economic and political life of the area. Over time, they gained equal political status both for themselves and the Slovaks. The Germans began to lose their economic and political monopolies in the cities.
Settlements in Slovakia
By the beginning of the 1800s, many towns which were founded by Germans or previously had a majority of Germans became predominantly Hungarian and Slovak. Towns with a majority German population, previously distributed generally over most of Slovakia, gradually shrank to three distinct areas: The Pressburg area in the southwest, Hauerland in Central Slovakia, and the Zips in Eastern Slovakia in the High Tatra Mountains and to the South.
The Zips (Slovak Spis, Hungarian Szepes) is the best-known German settlement area in Slovakia. The first German settlers arrived in the 12th century. Known as the Zipser Saxons, these early immigrants were apparently from the Lower Rhine region, Flanders, Saxony, and Silesia. In the early period, the Zips was a single continuous region stretching from the northern border with Poland to the present-day Slovak-Hungarian border. Over time, the Zips divided into two regions, the Upper and Lower Zips (German Oberzips, Unterzips).
The Upper Zips towns, in the valley of the Poprad River, stretch from Poprad and Levoča in the South to the Polish border along the Tatra Mountains. The most prominent towns were Poprad, Kežmarok, and Levoča. The economy of the Upper Zips towns was varied: traditional crafts (masonry, blacksmithing, leather working, etc.), textiles, mining, farming, commerce. In 1412 the Emperor Sigismund, to finance his war with Venice, mortgaged 14 of the original 24 Zipser towns to the King of Poland, to whom their income belonged until 1772. The 1930 census indicates that there were 25,162 Czechoslovak citizens of German nationality in the Upper Zips towns.
The Lower Zips towns stretch from Spišská Nová Ves in the North to Medzev in the south, along the valleys of the Hornád and Hnilec Rivers. The major Lower Zips towns were founded as mining communities; iron mines replaced the early gold and silver mines as the more precious metals gave out. In contrast to the Upper Zips towns where the German population was partly replaced by Slovaks, the Lower Zips towns had a bigger influx of Hungarians after the Turkish occupation of Lower Hungary in the 1500's. The Lower Zips had a flourishing iron forge industry until the 1860's and exported hand-forged farming implements all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire and abroad. The Industrial Revolution caused a decline in the Lower Zips metalworking industry. Many of the miners and blacksmiths emigrated to larger industrial centers in Austria-Hungary, elsewhere in Europe, and the United States. According to the 1930 census, there were 13,141 Germans in the Lower Zips.
Adapted from the article German Places in Slovakia by Duncan B. Gardiner. For more information eee FEEFHS, 5:1-2 (September 1997).