Kočevska, Bleak And Empty

doc. dr. Mitja Ferenc

The Fate of the German Linguistic Island of Gottschee – Kočevska after the resettlements of the German population

In this lecture I am going to talk about the reasons why the region once inhabited by the German minority in Kočevska went into decline, and why it suffered a fate for which it would be difficult to find a comparison in recent European history. I shall try and explain how it is possible that a culture which lived in an area for six centuries has declined to such an extent in the last hundred years that practically nothing of it has remained.

To begin with let us pinpoint the area about which I shall be talking. It is a territory of approximately 800 square kilometres lying in the south of Slovenia, one of the youngest states in Central Europe, born after the break-up of federal Yugoslavia in 1991. Kočevska is therefore in the area which lies somewhere between Austria, Hungary, Croatia and Italy.

This area, Kočevska, was home from the middle of the 14th century right up to 1941 to German inhabitants, known as ‘Kočevska Germans’.

If you were to walk with me today around Kočevska, you would see giant wooded areas which in the great majority of cases have already completely overgrown the ruins of former villages. And what was there in Kočevska at the beginning of the 20th century, i.e. a hundred years ago? At that time the German minority - around 20,000 people - lived in 177 villages. More than 100 villages were home to an exclusively German population. Today only a few score members of the former minority still live here, and over a hundred villages no longer exist.

If we wish to understand the fate of the Kočevska Germans and their region, we have to begin with their settlement in Kočevska, which dates back to the first half of the 14th century. In that period the noble Ortenburg family, primarily for economic reasons, began to settle German colonists from their possessions in Austria (in Upper Carinthia and eastern Tyrol) in the sparsely populated Kočevska region.

These were the last German farming settlers in Slovene, since later Germans came to our markets, towns and villages only as traders, officials, miners and artisans. After the First World War, the Kočevska Germans represented the only agrarian (agricultural) German linguistic enclave in Slovene territory. They were one of the oldest German ethnic groups outside Germany and Austria.

And now to the reasons for the decline of this area, which had already begun at the end of the 19th century, though the greatest damage was done during and after the Second World War, all of which brought about far-reaching changes in the cultural landscape and the destruction of the cultural heritage of the Kočevska Germans.

There were at least five key reasons for the decline, and these were:

1. The first reason is emigration of the population abroad, mainly for economic reasons;

2. Secondly: departure of the Kočevska Germans at the end of 1941 and thus an emptying of the area;

3. the ravages of war;

4. failure to reconstruct and unsuitable economic and settlement policies after the war;

5. And at least: deliberate destruction for nationalist and ideological reasons.

These reasons are the same for the whole Kočevska region, and are related, but different ones prevailed in different parts of Kočevska.

Taking them in order, let us begin with emigration currents.

The inhabitants of Kočevska were well-known peddlers. This in itself meant that many of them remained abroad. Emigration from Slovenia was a fairly common phenomenon, but Kočevska particularly stood out. As I have already said, the majority of Kočevska Germans were farmers. At the beginning of the 20th century an agricultural crisis began. As a result, farmers left the region to do seasonal work elsewhere, or else they emigrated - mainly to the USA. The Kočevska district was in first place in terms of the number of emigrants. Before the Second World War, around 13,5 thousand Gottscheers lived in USA, more than in their homeland. Statistics show that from 1880 to 1936, i.e. in just over 50 years, the number of inhabitants fell by a fifth. The consequences of this, of course, were empty farms and the emptying of villages. Before the start of the Second World War almost every fourth village house was empty.

The second reason for the decline was the emigration during the war of the majority population - the Kočevska Germans

Just as the German authorities had sent individual German ethnic communities from the other countries of Eastern and South Eastern Europe and Italy into the Reich, they now did the same with the Kočevska Germans. As many as 97 per cent of the Germans in Kočevska decided to move to the Reich. Today these emigrants ? cite at least three reasons for this mass emigration: powerful Nazi propaganda, the desire for a better life in a ‘German’ state, and fear of isolation or exclusion by their co-nationals.

I should mention in passing that before the Fascist forces attacked Yugoslavia about 12,500 Kočevska Germans, or just under 3,000 families, lived in Kočevska and owned around 47,000 hectares of land. When this community came under the control of the Italian occupying forces, the leaders of the Kočevska Germans reached an agreement with the German authorities to emigrate to the Reich. The Nazis promised them that they could move to a strip of Slovene territory in Lower Styria, along the border with the Kingdom of Italy and the Independent State of Croatia, which was earmarked for annexation to the German state and which was only a few tens of kilometres from Kočevska. Thus from the mid-November 1941 to mid-January 1942, in nine weeks, something over 11,500 people moved to the newly-selected area in Lower Styria and about 500 to the Germany. If I remind you of the figure I quoted earlier, that in the spring of the same year 12,500 Germans lived in Kočevska, this means that this community or minority migrated almost in its entirety. They were settled in the homes of around 37,000 deported Slovenes. I have already mentioned that they moved from the Italian area to the German area, where according to the Nazi idea they were to become a type of ‘defensive farmer’ protecting the south-eastern border of the German Reich.

This was an illusion and at the same time a disappointment - one which became increasingly clear towards the end of the Second World War, when Nazi Germany suffered defeat after defeat.

After the resettlement several tens of villages in Kočevska were completely abandoned, while in others a thin Slovene population remained.

I see the third reason for the decline of Kočevska in the devastation caused by the war.

This lasted from the transfer of the Kočevska Germans to Lower Styria until the end of hostilities. Following the migration of the Kočevska Germans, who left all their immovable property at home, most villages remained empty. The plan of the Italian authorities to recolonise part of Kočevska (they were planning to reforest a large part of it) collapsed. With the exception of the town of Kočevje itself, the bulk of Kočevska was under the control of the Partisan movement. The country had been crossed several times by various armies, which additionally ravaged the abandoned villages of the Kočevska Germans. Kočevska was worst affected by the great Italian offensive in August 1942, in which the Italians deliberately burnt down empty villages to prevent the Partisan army from setting up camp in them. After the Italian offensive the devastation, mostly carried out by the German army, continued on a lesser scale for a further three years.

The end of the war in Slovenia in May 1945 also meant the end of German colonisation in Slovene territory. The property of the Kočevska Germans was, on the basis of a law passed during the war, confiscated by the new Yugoslav authorities, and with it in fact all German property in Yugoslavia. Those migrant Kočevska Germans who did not leave with the German army retreating over the border, and some of those who had remained in Kočevska were expelled to Austria after the war. Thus suddenly and finally, the Kočevska Germans became homeless. After staying temporarily in camps in Austria, they were later dispersed and settled in regions of Germany and Austria, while a considerable number went to the USA.

The fourth reason is the inability to reconstruct the region after the war and the unsuitable economic policy, settlement policy and cadre policy in Kočevska after the end of the war, which resulted in further decline.

Kočevska did not revive after the war. Half of the total 177 villages had been devastated by the end of the war and were not lived in again. Of the almost 4,000 residential buildings, two thirds had been damaged or destroyed. This, by the way, was almost twice the Slovene average. Destruction on this scale in such a condensed area was not experienced by any other region of Slovenia.

During the period of the post-war reconstruction of Kočevska, no-one even considered reconstructing the totally destroyed villages in remote areas, and instead it was mainly villages in the valleys that were rebuilt. The burnt-out buildings soon collapsed completely and turned into piles of rubble. Reconstruction would have required a great deal of material and money, a workforce, a large number of experts, livestock and machinery etc. There was none of this in Kočevska.

Given the extent of land that had been confiscated, and I have already mentioned the law by which the Yugoslav authorities confiscated their property, empty Kočevska became ideal for the organisation of large-scale socialist state farms. Kočevska became the largest area in Slovenia earmarked for internal colonisation. This however was postponed, right up until 1947, when the authorities decided that individual settlements in Kočevska were not appropriate. The settlement was only appropriate within the framework of employment on a state farm or forestry service. As opposed to other Slovenian regions, where the land of emigrated Germans was similarly repopulated, here the colonists were not given this land to own, but only to use. Thus Kočevska is also the region which experienced the greatest changes in the social structure of the land, since very little private property remained.

Despite the fact that the number of inhabitants almost doubled in the eight years after the war, the population density in Kočevska after the war was the lowest in Slovenia and deviated sharply from the Slovene average. Through colonisation - especially in the town of Kočevje and the surrounding villages - the ethnic composition of the population also changed, as did the proportion of inhabitants who had lived in the same settlement since birth: at less than a third it was one the lowest in Slovenia.

And thus we come to the fifth important reason for the decline of the cultural heritage of the Kočevska Germans: deliberate destruction for nationalist and ideological reasons in the first half of the 1950s, which above all affected religious buildings.

Many of the churches still standing after the end of the war no longer exist. There are several reasons for this. We need to differentiate here between two groups: those buildings which like the abandoned villages were more or less left to their fate, and those which were deliberately demolished and removed.

After the war villages were either empty or demolished, and there were no more believers. The churches were nationalised by the authorities. The settlements were mostly populated by seasonal workers or immigrants who failed to establish roots. Of course, the attitude of politicians and the authorities to religious buildings had a large part to play, especially in Kočevska. Since there were no people, funding, will or permission from the secular authorities, the churches which survived the war fell into ruin.

At the beginning of the 1950s the authorities made a part of Kočevska an area to which public access was denied. This is where the military and political leaders would retreat in the case of an armed attack. This part of Kočevska had a special regime of government and it experienced a very special fate. In this period the authorities demolished all the churches and chapels (even in villages which were still inhabited) and almost all religious statuary, and removed all German tombstones.

Despite the fact that often only destruction on ideological grounds is stressed, I think that national reasons were also very important. Religious buildings which were eliminated during the period of deliberate demolition were with one exception in the former German linguistic enclave. If ideological reasons alone had prevailed, we could justifiably expect churches to have been demolished outside this area too, especially where villages were desolate or where a small Slovene population still remained. I however only detect a special zeal in the destruction of sacred buildings in the area where the German minority had formerly lived.

I conclude from the data now collected that during this period 25 to 30 churches which had survived the war with their fittings intact were destroyed; the villages in which they stood were still inhabited.

To close with I should sum up my findings about the fate of cultural heritage in Kočevska. The statistics are relentless. Of 177 settlements 112 were destroyed or burnt down and no longer exist today. The places where villages stood are often only recognisable today by the fruit trees growing there, above which increasingly prevails the oppressive forest. That is why I observed at the beginning that if you came to Kočevska today you would see a region in which only by making a detailed examination under the trees would you find the remains of ruins of, for example, concrete wells and some foundations of commercial buildings.

The greatest changes in Kočevska only became visible ten or more years later in the inexorable expansion of the forest to cover former farmland. Cultivated fields of this area are now mostly deserted pastures. After the war, the forest reclaimed some 300 km2 of land, a third of the former Gottscheer national territory. Due to the emptying of the area, the rate of reforestation was extremely rapid compared to other parts of Slovene and reached 90% of the total area of the end of 19. century.

Apart from the disappearance of entire villages, the greatest loss was suffered by religious buildings. Of 123 churches 95 were destroyed. Of more than 400 chapels and signs, I managed to find only tenth. . Most have fallen into ruin. The majority of the former 38 cemeteries were removed and levelled, or the gravestones which testified to the German population were removed. Even the special dialect which developed in this linguistic enclave and survived through the centuries, and which can today only still be heard among a few of the elderly, will soon die out. If a hundred years ago around 20,000 Germans still lived here, the last official population census only counted 19 people whose mother tongue is German, and only 5 people of German nationality.

The question is naturally raised as to what has survived of that which externally labels the special history of this land. Of the rare material remains which have survived I should mention the German inscriptions inside some of the surviving churches or on their fittings. German surnames are still visible above the doors of some houses. Despite the fact that most cemeteries were levelled and German gravestones removed, cemeteries are the most important material remains testifying to the 600-year presence of a German ethnic community in the middle of Slovene territory.

I should end by saying that the Nazi policy which envisaged the destruction of the Slovene nation as an ethnic unit was actually responsible for destroying the ethnic community of Kočevska. Their cultural heritage, however, was almost entirely destroyed by the war and by ruthless post-war nationalist and ideological intolerance.