This is the 500th issue of our 'Letter from Europe'. Over 15 years, our regular e-brief has given a flavour of the topics about which we write in hidden europe magazine. We focus on European journeys, and on matters of culture and community. We have over the years written much about borders. Join us today as we explore a Cold War frontier.
Dear fellow travellers
Thirty years ago this summer, the so-called Iron Curtain was being pulled down. Czechoslovakia held free elections in June 1990, just as a newly elected government in Hungary was busy smoothing the transition to capitalism.
The Iron Curtain tracked across Europe from the Baltic to the Adriatic, effectively splitting the continent in two. The easternmost village on the west side of the divide was in Austria’s Burgenland province. At over 17 degrees east of Greenwich, it is further east than Poznan (in Poland) or the Croatian capital Zagreb. The village, called Deutsch Jahrndorf, is in the flatlands between the River Danube and the River Leitha, not far south from the city of Bratislava. For the Cold War decades, the village was hemmed in by barbed wire - Czechoslovakia away to the north and east, and Hungary just to the south. Deutsch Jahrndorf was right by a great European divide.
The tripoint where Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Austria converged was for years a no-go area. These days, you can enjoy a cross-border picnic at the very spot where the frontiers of Austria, Slovakia and Hungary meet. It’s across the fields to the east of Deutsch Jahrndorf. There’s a curious collection of sculptures in the area where the borders meet - among them a small triangular picnic table where residents of the three nations are invited to share lunch. It’s not conducive to social distancing.
Deutsch Jahrndorf. Now doesn’t that village name strike you as odd? Here’s a place, clearly on the Austrian side of the border, being marked out as German-speaking. But why? The answer is intriguing.
The next village to the north of Deutsch Jahrndorf is a place called Jarovce. These days, it’s almost a suburb of Bratislava, though it retains a pleasant, rather rural, feel. It’s shown on some older maps as Kroatisch Jahrndorf. In that name there’s a nice reminder that there has long been a substantial Croatian-speaking population throughout this region south of Bratislava, and indeed more widely through the Austrian province of Burgenland. These are not recent arrivals, but the descendants of migrants who arrived between about 1530 and 1550. Croatian farmers and their families were encouraged to colonise the region which had suffered terrible depopulation during the Ottoman Wars. Remember that in 1529 Suleiman the Magnificent had even tried to take Vienna.
Pulling off the main road just before Kitisee, a minor road tracks south, on the Austrian side of the frontier, towards Deutsch Jahrndorf. Here one stumbles across another reminder of the borderland’s ethnically mixed history. The first village proclaims its identity bilingually: it is called both Pama and Bijelo Selo. The latter (Croatian) name translates simply as 'white village'.
That the use of Croatian in Burgenland has survived is remarkable. There are Croatian-language schools and media, and in many churches in Burgenland the Roman Catholic Mass is regularly celebrated in Croatian. During the Cold War years, contacts between Burgenland and Yugoslavia were limited, but these days there is a rich web of connections. At the height of the Coronavirus pandemic, Croatia sent 100 care assistants to assist elderly Croatian-speaking residents in Burgenland.
To add a further layer of complexity to this, pretty well every community in this region also has a Hungarian name, revealing the region's former status as part of the Kingdom of Hungary. Jahrndorf is Járfalu in Hungarian and old Hungarian maps clearly distinguish between a Croatian and a German village of that name.
The trefoil of language, culture and identity is always fascinating, and just as the Albanians in southern Italy - who moved around the same time - have to a good degree retained their own distinctive culture and identity, so too have the Croatians in the watery flatlands around where Austria, Slovakia and Hungary converge. The place names of that part of Burgenland are the most obvious witness to the multicultural vitality of this European frontier region.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)