Serbia: Expelled Germans Demand Compensation

Ethnic Germans who lost property under the Yugoslav communists are calling on the authorities to compensate them.

Serbia: Expelled Germans Demand Compensation

Ethnic Germans who lost property under the Yugoslav communists are calling on the authorities to compensate them.

Wednesday, 22 May, 2002

Germans expelled from the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina in the aftermath of the Second World War are demanding the restitution of property they lost.

The demand is causing unease, not only among local residents, but also in Belgrade, which hasn't the funds to deal with compensation requests, despite having drawn up a draft law for dealing with the problem.


However, the government will have to address the issue, as restitution of property seized by the communist authorities is one of the preconditions of Yugoslavia joining the Council of Europe.


The compensation request was filed by the Presidency of the World Association of Germans in the Danube region on May 10 this year, in Subotica on Vojvodina's border with Hungary.


Germans from Vojvodina are demanding restitution of property seized by the so-called Anti-fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia, AVNOJ, set up in 1944.


According to censuses carried out in 1921 and 1931, more than half a million Germans lived in Yugoslavia - 340,000 of them in the northern Serbian province. Known as Volkdeutschers, they settled there in the 18th century following the Turks withdrawal from southern Hungary.


They had become the third largest ethnic community after the Serbs and Hungarians and a leading economic force between the two world wars.


But after the Second World War, retaliatory measures decimated the population. The Danube association says around 80,000 members of the community lost their lives - mainly women, children and the elderly - in concentration camps in the region. According to a 1991 census, just over 5000 Germans remain in Serbia.


Their confiscated property was mainly distributed to Serbs who fled to Vojvodina from Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro during the war.


The issue became taboo for many years. Katica Andrijevic from Sremska Mitrovica still remembers the time her German neighbours were forced to leave in the early Fifties.


"Franc Haltmayer, his wife Mandica and sons Rudolf, Karl and Viktor were our neighbours," said Ana in the residential area of Rumska malta. "They were good people. We all cried when they left."


She said that, later on, Mandica and her sons often visited Sremska Mitrovica. Viktor even married his former neighbour with whom he used to play as a child.


Germans from Vojvodina, both those who had been forced to leave and the few who stayed behind, now await adoption of denationalisation legislation which will entitle them to compensation for real estate illegally seized from them.


Head of the German National Alliance, Rudolf Weis, and deputy head of the World Association of Germans, Rudolf Reiman, say they ought not to be discriminated just because they are Germans.


Enactment of the law is also eagerly awaited by tens of thousands of Serbs whose property had been confiscated after the war.


However, this is easier said than done. There can be no immediate solution as owners of properties due for restitution have to be found alternative accommodation and the current authorities in Belgrade are too impoverished to compensate people for their loss.


The Serbian justice ministry's denationalisation bill has been highly commended by the international community, but its enactment has been repeatedly postponed. Government sources say it could be held up for another two years.


Property claimants hope that the Council of Europe issue will speed things up. Some Serbs have already said that they intend to take their grievances to the European Court in Strasbourg. One similar lawsuit filed against the Romanian government was enough to get it to adopt restitution legislation within days.


Prominent Belgrade lawyer Milenko Radic warns that German claimants must prove that they have not already received compensation from other sources.


"As far as I know, a large number of Germans from Vojvodina had been compensated in Germany," said Radic, claiming that the German state as well as some international humanitarian organisations have already lent them a helping hand.


Another problem facing the ethnic Germans in their bid for justice is resistance from those now living in their properties. There were tensions last year in the Vojvodina towns of Vrsac and Bela Crkva when ethnic Germans returned to see former homes.


Weis claims members of his community have no desire to create new injustices by reclaiming property. "We are aware that undoing the wrongs of the past could harm other people, but we have to have talks on this matter and find a solution that is best for all," he said.


Reiman agrees. "The return of the seized property, that is, restitution, must not cause new injustices," he said. " Revenge is not our aim."


Jan Briza is an editor of Novi Sad daily "Dnevnik" and regular IWPR contributor.


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