The history of the Royal Free City of Ödenburg is closely associated with that of the much larger epic story of the Burgenland: The Land of Fortresses. This was Western Europe’s attempt at creating a defence system of settlements and fortresses along the invasion routes from the east and those that lay to the southeast. Because of its strategic location, the city of Ödenburg, also shared a common history, heritage and destiny with the nearby Heideboden villages in the vicinity of the Neusiedler Sea and the Danube to the east.
And yet, Ödenburg has a rich tradition and unique character all of its own. A fascinating history of faith, courage, tenacity and heroism, unequalled in the annals of the Habsburg Empire.
But Ödenburg was not always Ödenburg; nor is Ödenburg, Ödenburg today.
The different names, peoples and settlements associated with the site of the city form part of a colourful tapestry woven by the more than two-thousand-year-history of Ödenburg. The first threads that gave character and shape to the future design of the tapestry were already in place as early as the 4th Century B.C. At that time a large Celtic settlement stood on the present site of the city. Its inhabitants and builders were the tall, energetic, broad-shouldered, blond Celts. The Celts were a federation of tribes that were constantly moving westwards through the Carpathian mountain passes from Asia. Eventually, they would dominate all of Europe and their ongoing migrations took them as far west as Ireland and as legend would have it that, they also reached North America.
They were fierce and courageous warriors, a-cold-blooded-war-machine, that exterminated the local population that had preceded them in this area as elsewhere. Although primarily nomadic, they also established another major settlement in addition to the future Ödenburg. It lay a short distance to the north along the Danube River. Both settlements served a defensive purpose but in their early history they also began to serve as trading centres. For that purpose they were linked by well-worn trails through the forests that eventually became rudimentary roads. In the future, this second settlement on the Danube would become known as Vienna.
A few centuries later the Celtic war machine broke down. For several decades they had been on a head-on collision course with a new military power on the European scene. For all of their ferocity and bravery they proved no match for the ever-advancing, crack units of the well-seasoned and disciplined Roman Legions. The Celts were reduced to a subject people and would never regain the power they had once known. In fact, they would simply disappear. Except for their last stronghold, the island we know as Ireland.
By 18 B.C., the Romans arrived in the sprawling settlement just south of the Leitha River. They constructed a fortress and established a Roman camp, stationing a Legion in the area. They Latinized the Celtic settlement’s name to Scarabantia. It was located on the main road that the Romans constructed over the old route to the future Vienna and it became a military, administrative and trading centre. And very prosperous. The remains of the Roman baths and the amphitheatre attest to that to this day, as well as the ruins of villas in the surrounding hills, with their rich mosaic tile floors and countless other rich artefacts discovered over the centuries.
By 9 B.C., several Roman Legions were stationed along the left bank of the Danube River. All of the western regions of the Danube basin had been conquered and were firmly in Roman hands. As a result, the Senate of Rome created and administered the newly acquired territory as the Imperial Province of Pannonia. Four centuries of Roman rule followed. New towns emerged, roads were constructed, commerce, culture and agriculture flourished unimpeded during the Pax Romana.
An action was taken by the Roman Emperor Probus in 278, that would have a lasting effect on the development and character of the land in the future. In spite of opposition in Italy, he permitted the planting of vineyards in the areas around the future Vienna and Ödenburg, as well as at Fünfkirchen (Pécs) and the areas in the vicinity of the Plattensee (Lake Balaton). That is how grape cultivation and wine making first came to be associated with the land and its people.
There is sufficient archaeological evidence in Ödenburg to suggest there was an active Christian movement here as early as the second century. Most of these early Christians served in the Roman Legions that were stationed in Pannonia. They would prove to be the vanguard of the missionary movement at work among the local Celtic population.
One of these Legionnaires, whose name was Martin, was born in nearby Savaria (later known as Steinamanger/Szombathely). He rose in the ranks and became an officer in the Legion stationed along the Danube. Following his conversion, he gave up his military career in order to serve the poor and the sick, especially working among lepers. Because of his success in winning so many soldiers to the Christian faith, he was convicted of treason and desertion from the Legion and was martyred under Emperor Galarius. On his way to his death in Savaria, Martin stayed overnight in Ödenburg. A stone cross marks the spot where he is reputed to have rested just on the outskirts of the city and beyond its walls.
This soldier-martyr would later be known as St. Martin of Tours. He would become the patron saint of what had formerly been Pannonia, especially the Heideboden region. An infant born in Eisleben, Saxony centuries later, would be named after him, because he was baptized on the feast of St. Martin of Tours. The child was Martin Luther.
The quiet idyll, that marked the Roman occupation of Pannonia, would come to an abrupt end in the 4th Century A.D., as wave after wave of Germanic peoples crossed the Danube in their frenzied wanderings westwards and burst into the peaceful province. The Roman government officials and the military abandoned their defences all along the Danube and fled to the south along the Adriatic coast. Pannonia lay defenceless before the onslaughts of tribe after tribe, who overran, plundered and sacked the settlements, and enslaved the local populations. The first tribes to charge across the Danube and occupy Pannonia were the Markoman, quickly to be replaced and followed by the Quadi. The Quadi would move westwards due to the pressure of the oncoming Goths and they would find sanctuary in southwest Germany where their name was corrupted to Schwaben.
By 453, all of former Pannonia was occupied by the Ostro-Goths, who were forced to move on with the arrival of the Gepiden tribes in the sixth century. The Lombards would soon expel them from the area and they themselves would leave for Italy in 568. Now all of what would become future Hungary fell into the hands of the Avars. They were a mounted nomadic Asiatic tribe who were bent on the destruction of every trace of civilization they could find. Scarabantia fell victim to their attacks and both the city and the surrounding farming communities were left in ruins and the whole area reverted back into a heavily forested wasteland.
The Great Avar Empire, as it was called, finally met its match in 796 when Charles the Great, better known as Charlemagne, defeated the Avar host and drove them right off the pages of history. As a result of the demise of the Avars, Charlemagne extended his Frankish Empire as far east as the Raab River in western Hungary. In order to defend his newly won territories, Charles the Great, established the “Őstmark” … Ősterreich. Better known to us as Austria. Here he created a military bastion. A land of fortresses. It was Europe’s first Maginot Line.
As early as 800, Charlemagne settled Franconian and Bavarian peasants in the frontier areas of Austria in what would become known as the Burgenland. The future Heanzen (or Hienz) who would live here for over ten centuries, would trace their origins back to these original settlers. To a great degree these Heanzen settled in the western part of the Burgenland. The dialect which they spoke was called Bajuwarisch and provides us with the clue to their Franconian origin, unlike the majority of those living in the Heideboden known as the Heidebauern who had a Bavarian ancestry.
These Franconian colonists did not rebuild precisely on the site of the former Roman fortress or Celtic settlement but in an adjacent area very close by. The task of clearing away the ruins and rubble of the former settlements seemed pointless to them as they first attempted to establish themselves in the devastated region. It was this group of settlers who gave the new settlement its name: Odinburch. This would eventually be transformed into Ödenburg and would first appear in literary form in the Royal Chronicle of 859.
By the time the first Magyar tribes under Arpad entered the Danube basin through the Carpathian Mountain passes in 896, Ödenburg had developed into a sizeable community in which its century-long existence expressed itself fully in its town life, trade and culture. Magyar raiders would soon bring all of that to an end. The town was totally destroyed and the population fled and hid in the neighbourhood or they sought refuge across the Enns River in Austria.
Just outside of Augsburg, the rampaging Magyars were finally brought to a sudden halt. Here in 955, the Emperor Otto I, hurled them back and they retreated into present-day Hungary never to return to Western Europe. On their return into what had once been Pannonia, they headed towards the Great Plains to the South, seeking pastures for their horses and cattle. In effect, they abandoned all of western Hungary, leaving it as a No Man’s Land, outside of their jurisdiction or concern. A buffer zone. A border area and frontier.
By then, most of the Heanzen who had fled into Lower Austria, had long since returned to their former “homeland”. In fact, most of the Heanzen had never left. When it became obvious to them, that the Magyars had no intention of settling in the area, they came out of their hiding places and gradually began the task of rebuilding the town, and redeveloping their former vineyards and farms in the vicinity.
During the reign of King Stephen I in the eleventh century, a massive immigration of German-speaking people into Hungary began again. Most of these new settlers were Bavarians. The artisans, skilled craftsmen and merchants among them recognized the commercial potential of Ödenburg’s location. Situated on the main trade route heading north, the old Roman road system enabled them to reach the markets of Vienna, Silesia, Saxony and the Baltic seaports. While on the other hand, peasant farmers took up land and established villages surrounding the town. In times of danger, they would seek safety inside Ödenburg’s walls and behind its steadily rising massive fortifications.
Future kings of Hungary would continue to support the influx of German-speaking settlers into the Kingdom to achieve commercial, political, military and religious objectives. It became one of the major building blocks of royal policy for the future. Hungary was taking its place among the leading nations of Western Europe. But, disaster was just around the corner.
It struck In 1241. The Mongols, also called the Tatars, rode into European history by way of Hungary. Everything that stood in their way, was soon to be a heap of ashes and rubble from one end of Hungary to the other. That too, was to be the fate of Ödenburg. On their way to attack Wiener-Neustadt the mounted Mongol “Golden Horde” took the ancient Roman road north. The road passed through Ödenburg. Ödenburg was destroyed and put to the torch. Its population which had surrendered was massacred, while those who had been able to escape fled into the forests. Although Ődenburg fell, Wiener-Neustadt was able to withstand the Mongol siege but just barely.
By one of the ironies of history, the Mongols were soon in retreat across Europe heading back to their Asian homeland to settle some internal leadership squabbles. Once again the task of rebuilding Ödenburg was undertaken by the surviving populace. But these were very unsettling times. Chaos and anarchy reigned as the King attempted to restore his authority in Hungary in the face of numerous rebellions by his disgruntled and ambitious nobles.
Because of Ödenburg’s loyalty to Ladislaus II in this struggle, and at great peril to themselves at the hands of besieging Bohemian rebels, the King raised the status of the city, to that of a Royal Free City of Hungary as a reward.
The Royal Charter was granted in 1277 and the citizens of Ödenburg were granted individual rights and privileges. The city was entitled to send its own representatives to the Landtag and sit as equals with the nobles and higher clergy in the Hungarian parliament. They were free to elect their own mayor, magistrates and Town Council to govern and administer the affairs of the city. The city was allowed to undertake the construction of defensive towers and fortifications. That was only a start, there would be much more. Above all, there would be much more wealth.
The Royal Free Cities throughout Europe developed special trading relationships with each other and always to their own advantage. And to the disadvantage of their archenemies: the nobles.
Ödenburg began to specialize and almost monopolized the wine trade. The city supplied Vienna, Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia and yet constantly sought to find new markets. As a result, the city needed to increase its source of supply. But in order to increase production there was a need for “more labourers in the vineyard”.
In the Middle Ages, all land, in effect, belonged to the Crown. The King divided up his possessions among his vassals in order to win or maintain their loyalty and have their support and assistance in times of war. That is why the price for rebellion was always the confiscation of the rebel’s lands. The basic objective of the noble families was to increase their landholdings. Usually, at the expense of other nobles. Land was a measure of a noble’s worth and wealth. Along with his land, he also controlled the lives and used the labour of his peasants. They too, belonged to him.
With the rise of the Royal Free Cities, and the strengthening of the rights and privileges of its citizens, the cities themselves also sought to increase their wealth and power. Land was power. The only thing the cities had, that the King and his nobles often lacked, was ready cash. Ready cash is what Ödenburg had. It was not difficult for the city to buy both the villages and the lands in its vicinity from the local, land-rich-yet-penniless nobles.
The city of Ödenburg, now took over the status and privileges of the nobility. The villages they purchased became Stadtdorfer. City-villages. Villages owned by the city. The villagers were subjects of the city and owed the city all the necessary feudal dues that were demanded of them. Their relationship was that of master and subject.
In order to control the wine market and expand its sources of supply Ödenburg purchased eight of the nearby villages: Wandorf in 1277, Wolfs in 1325, Agendorf in 1373, Morbisch in 1392, Klingenbach in 1416, Harkau in 1429, Kolnhof in 1430 and Loipersbach in 1547.
Because their strategy was successful, Ödenburg became one of the richest cities in Hungary.
But in future, this also meant that whatever effected Ödenburg and its citizens also fully effected their peasants. Their destinies were intertwined. It would be the villages and the peasants who to a great extent that had to bear the brunt of the consequences that followed.
For as rebellions raged, as uprisings broke out, as attacks, lightning raids, pitched battles and sieges took place, the villages and their inhabitants always suffered far more than the city and its “burghers”.
The townspeople were protected behind their city walls and fortifications while the villages were completely defenceless. Often, the villagers did not have enough warning or time to reach the city gates ahead of the besiegers. They were often caught out in the open. Were unarmed. Massacred. Carried off as slaves. Robbed. Tortured. Their homes were plundered. They were victims of untold atrocities at the hands of merciless troops and marauders.
The peasants of Hungary had to provide all of the taxes. The most cherished right and privilege of the Hungarian nobility was the freedom from taxation. The peasants had to bear the burden of taxation all alone. In addition, they had to perform free labour for their master for a designated number of days each year. The landlord decided when. This was called “Robot” service. This is the only Slavic word to find its way into the English language, and says it all, in terms of the lot of the peasants.
But, by and large, the lot of the peasants on the estates of Ödenburg was far better than that of the peasants on the neighbouring domains of the nobles. After all, the townspeople of Ödenburg had once been peasants themselves. Most of them never forgot that. Over the years, many of the villagers would achieve citizenship and move into Ödenburg.
The pattern of the past, would now continue, as Ödenburg and its villages would find themselves caught again and again, like a pawn between warring factions.
For decades there were quarrels and squabbles between nearby Austria and the Hungarian King. When it led to military confrontation, Ödenburg was always vulnerable because it was on the frontier between the two.
Nor was Ödenburg immune to natural disasters. From 1317 to 1370 there were numerous fires in the city that created havoc and destruction. But not to be outdone during a three year period, 1348-1359 the Black Death raged and decimated the city’s population. Even years later there were still empty houses where whole households and families had perished.
Then came the Hussite Wars. One of their strongholds was located on Mount Katzenstein which lay just outside of Ődenburg. From here they carried out a reign of terror for two decades. Pillaging and plundering, raping and murdering, burning and destroying. With the assistance of troops provided by the Bishop of Raab they were driven out of the area and their lair was destroyed.
Following the disastrous defeat of the young Hungarian King, Louis II and his entire army at the battle of Mohács in 1526 the Turks marched and rode their way across Hungary without meeting opposition anywhere. The Sultan Sulieman, known as “The Magnificent” was determined to take over all of Europe. His next objective was Vienna. After passing between the Danube and the Neusidler Sea, he led the largest part of his army of 300,000 men across the Leitha River and lay siege to the city on September 21st. By October 14th, he began to withdraw and gave up the attempt to take Vienna.
But a small portion of his army had left the main force on its way to Vienna at Altenburg in the Heideboden and head towards Ődenburg. Their real destination was Wiener-Neustadt. Unknown to the Turks, the walls and fortifications of Ődenburg had recently been strengthened…
The siege of Ődenburg began on August 9th, 1529. The citizens of the town took up arms and stationed themselves on the walls and towers of the inner city. Both men and women. Wave after wave of fanatical screaming Turks hurled themselves at the gates of the inner city or attempted to scale the walls but they were unable to penetrate the defences and the renewed fortifications. The courageous defenders simply refused to yield knowing full well what surrender would mean.
The city quarters outside of the walls and the neighbouring villages were sacked, burned and plundered. The gardens and vineyards were trampled by cavalry units and foot soldiers. Crops were burned in the field. Many townspeople and peasants who were captured were massacred or carried off to be sold as slaves throughout the Turkish Empire.
The villages of Wolfs, Kolnhof and Harkau were hardest hit. Some of the peasants managed to hide themselves and some of their cattle in the forests. But everyone and everything left behind were destroyed. Later in 1530, in the Town Council’s report to King Ferdinand on the siege they indicated that not even a quarter of the population of the city and the villages had managed to survive. In fact, almost the total populations of the villages had either been killed or enslaved. Only the majority of the townspeople in the inner city had been spared.
In 1532 the Turks were back at the gates of Ődenburg once again. An order arrived for the commander of the Turkish army to move on to lay siege to Guns to the south. In the face of the heroic stand of the defenders of Guns, the Turks abandoned the field and headed back to Ődenburg.
Because of the warning they received, the citizens of Ődenbrug hurriedly repaired the city defences to withstand another siege. A defence force of six hundred and seventy citizens was raised and all of the peasants were called upon to defend the inner city and abandon their villages. There were over two hundred peasants who took their places on the city walls and towers.
As the defenders on the walls looked out across at the approaches to the city they saw the rising smoke of fires. The remaining crops left in the fields had been set abalze. Hurriedly constructed thatch-roofed houses that had served as emergency dwellings after the last Turkish siege went up in flames in the burned out villages. But there were no Turks in sight. They simply passed by. They had no time to waste. No interest in Ődenburg. The city was spared again.
Later rebellion broke out in what remained of Royal Hungary that was unoccupied by the Turks. Stephen Bocskay issued the rallying cry, “For Fatherland and Freedom!” as the leader of the revolt against the Habsburg Emperor Rudolph of Austria who looked upon Hungary as part of his domain. This freedom fighter was one of the richest nobles in north-eastern Hungary and had been a former close associate of the Emperor. He had hoped to influence the direction of the Emperor’s official policy towards Hungary but had been unsuccessful. Bocskay left the royal court and returned to his estates and gathered a circle of likeminded and disgruntled nobles who along with him were opposed to Habsburg rule and tyranny in Hungary.
He won a mass following and by 1605 he had conquered and occupied all of Upper Hungary (Slovakia). Many members of the Hungarian upper nobility joined in the uprising. He invited the other nobles and the Royal Free Cities to join him and open their gates of their fortresses and cities to his forces. Ődenburg refused to join the rebellion even though they had just cause and little love for the Habsburgs.
Ődenburg kept its gates closed to the rebels even though the nobles in the neighbourhood encouraged the city to join them in the revolt. The rebel army was on its way and Ődenburg and its villages were directly in its path.
The rebels crossed the Danube River at Ragendorf and ravaged the area around the Neusiedler Sea and by May 18th (1604) they stood at the gates of Ődenburg. But the city was not put under siege. The army headed towards Guns which opened its gates to Bocskay’s forces. By the end of May the rebel army stood before Ődenburg again.
Meanwhile, Ődenburg’s defences had been strengthened under the direction of the Imperial Army Commander, Trautmannsdorf. The attack by the rebels on June 5th was repelled and the townsmen captured thirteen flags which were later sent to Vienna as war trophies. The rebels fled in disorder. But on June 11th they were back again.
Reinforcements arrived in the city, some five hundred knights and three hundred foot soldiers. They drove off the rebel forces who fled into the nearby districts, plundering, burning and destroying villages and setting their crops on fire.
At the beginning of July Bocskay’s followers stood before Ődenburg once again. The villagers had all fled to seek protection behind the walls of the inner city. Within two hours, the besiegers burned down the sections of the city outside the walls. Then they went on a rampage throughout the area. Finally they realized that Ődenburg could not be taken and left the field.
The rebels remained in the area for all of the next year and were a constant hazard to the local population. It was simply too dangerous to harvest any of the crops, especially the grapes in the vineyards which seemed to be their special target. All of the villagers in the area faced starvation and famine. Ődenburg had to purchase food for its citizens and peasant subjects in order to survive.
The Peace of Vienna signed on June 23, 1606 ended the rebellion. The peace treaty granted religious freedom to the Royal Free Cities and their subjects. In effect, Ődenburg was granted what the rebels they had opposed had been fighting for all along!
The city was quick to respond and called Evangelical Lutheran pastors to serve the peasants in the villages belonging to the city. For by now the vast majority of the population of Ődenburg and its villages were Evangelical Lutherans. How that had come about is a story in itself and will be dealt with later. The implementation of the Peace of Vienna was also made easier in Ődenburg because the Roman Catholic clergy in the city and the Paulist fathers in Wandorf had fled to Wiener-Neustadt when the rebels first approached Ődenburg. This was also true of the Bishop of Raab and all of his clergy.
Only one decade after the Peace of Vienna, the Counter Reformation was put into motion by the new Habsburg Emperor, Ferdinand II. Along with Archbishop Peter Pazmany and Count Nikolaus Esterhazy a convert from Lutheranism at the age of nineteen years. Emperor Ferdinand championed the cause to eradicate all forms of Protestantism in his hereditary lands despite the terms of the Peace of Vienna. He seems to have had a very short memory. But his subject in Hungary did not. They rose up in rebellion again.
The new Prince of Transylvania, Gabriel Bethlen, took up arms for the sake of the homeland and religious freedom and against Habsburg tyranny. The Hungarian nobility rushed to his banner and in a short time they had “liberated” Upper Hungary. His rebel army stood at the borders of Austria. From here he wrote to the city of Ődenburg reminding the Town Council that they had sent their representatives to the Landtag he had called. He proposed to leave some of his Transylvanian troops in Ődenburg to protect the city from the Emperor’s troops and any threats he might make against the city.
Prince Bethlen asked for overnight accommodation in the inner city for himself and some of his selected troops. Unlike the city’s action in the previous rebellion in 1605 it opened its gates and the citizens welcomed Bethlen. The Prince departed shortly afterwards for Pressburg and left a force of fifteen hundred men for the defence of the city.
These “defence forces” in Ődenburg went on a rampage throughout the area. They burned Lackenbach to the ground. It was a market town that belonged to the rebellion’s archenemy, Count Esterhazy. The Count demanded that the Emperor send a force of two thousand men to take Ődenburg and drive the army of occupation out of the area.
The city was taken by surprise at night by forces of the Imperial Army. Some fifteen hundred cavalry and foot soldiers were involved. Bethlen’s rebels were not even in the city. They were gathering supplies and provision in the district to withstand a siege. Now both the Imperial troops and the rebels roamed round the countryside robbing the peasants, burning their houses and driving off their cattle. The Imperial troops confiscated whatever caught their fancy in the outer city and brutalized the population. It was only when the Town Council agreed to pay 2,400 Thalers to the Imperial Army commander that they were assured they would not put the outer city to the torch.
The Town Council of Ődenburg notified Bethlen of the city’s rather desperate situation, urgently requesting him to come to their assistance as quickly as possible. The relief forces were soon on their way and occupied the city until the danger was past. The ongoing atrocities of the Imperial Army committed against the village populations throughout the area went on unabated and terrified both the peasants and the townspeople.
Emperor Ferdinand now came upon the scene once more. On January 12, 1621 he decreed that his Imperial Army commander, Buquoit, was to be sent to Hungary to destroy all of his enemies, unless all of his subjects in Hungary surrendered and joined his army. On the other hand, all who acknowledged him as their king would be spared punishment. After both Pressburg and Altenburg fell to the Imperial Army, the Emperor’s forces stood before the walls of Ődenburg.
The mayor of the city, Dr. Christoph Lackner, attempted to prevent the destruction of the city. Ődenburg was prepared to honour the Emperor in order to save the city. The commander of the Imperial forces promised that no plundering would take place and accepted a “gift” of 20,000 Gulden and 2,000 barrels of wine. In addition, all of his troops would be billeted in the outer city and the villages and would receive “free” food and provisions.
Anarchy and chaos reigned throughout the countryside and the population found itself caught between the rival warring forces and suffered under both.
Peace talks finally began once both sides saw that neither had a chance of winning. The Peace of Nikolsburg of December 31, 1621 resulted in some concessions to the Protestants in Hungary. The rights assured them in the Peace of Vienna were simply reaffirmed even though they had never been in effect.
Ődenburg would be the locale for several Landtags called by the Emperor in the following years while things remained relatively quiet. But only until 1644…
An eight hundred man force under the command of Count Esterhazy who along with his allies took the city created havoc and destruction. This was only minor compared with results of their occupation. The troops brought the plague with them. In that year, 1,450 of the inhabitants of the city fell victim to the horrendous disease. The following year, 1645 an additional 1,029 deaths were recorded. One third of the city’s population had perished. In 1656 another third of the population died of plague. The plague would appear again in 1678 and 1679. The last outbreak in the city would occur in 1714.
No sooner had the plague died down in 1679 when war broke out again.
Emmerich Thӧkӧly, like his predecessors, Bocskay and Bethlen, raised a call to arms against the absolutist government of the Habsburg Emperor.
Transylvania fell to him quickly and with Turkish support he took over Upper Hungary. His forces were called the Kurutz (Crusaders). Emperor Leopold I was forced to take action. Since he lacked money to finance a military campaign he had no other alternative than to call for the assembling of the Landtag which he had avoided doing for most of his reign. But calling a Landtag was only half of the solution. He needed the support of all elements of the population in order to get their approval for the funds. The plague was raging in Pressburg so he called for the Landtag to be held in Ődenburg in 1681.
The Hungarian Constitution was reinstated at the Landtag and the King was obliged to obey it. In spite of all of the complaints of the Protestant nobles and the Royal Free City representatives the only concession they gained was for the provision that two “Articular” churches for both the Reformed and Lutherans be permitted in each County. Finally, the Protestants had the legal right to exist. Even if that right was rather curtailed and minimal. As the Landtag was meeting, Thӧkӧly’s army was on the march in Slovakia. While the Turks were setting out to capture Vienna.
Although Ődenburg was not on the route of either army, marauders from both raided the area around the city. The city had to do homage and swear allegiance to Thӧkӧly the commander of the uprising. On July 12, 1683 the city of Ődenburg raised the white flag and on the 16th the Town Council swore their allegiance. As a result the city was spared another round of plundering. An occupation force of Kurutz remained behind in the city while provisions were ordered to be supplied to both of the besieging armies at Vienna. Thӧkӧly’s forces and the Turks.
The Kurutz rebels who remained behind terrorized the population. They were joined by both Turkish and Tartar troops who left the besieging camps around Vienna to round up supplies. Instead they rounded up the population. Most of the men were murdered or sold to slave traders. Women of all ages and young girls were raped. Children were rounded up and dragged off for shipment to Constantinople. In the midst of all of this suffering and brutality word came that the Turks had been defeated at Vienna on September 12th and were in full retreat back into Hungary. The liberation of Hungary by the Imperial Habsburg Army that was to follow would prove to be as bad as the Turkish occupation had ever been.
With the withdrawal of the Turks and the Kurutz rebels the Imperial troops arrived and were billeted and quartered in the homes of the townspeople and villagers. That was only a minor form of suffering for the people. Next came taxation. There were taxes for manure piles. For a still unborn foetus. After billeting the troops the peasant’s cupboards were bare…
The population of Hungary was reduced to beggary. The land seethed with unrest. It is hardly any wonder that rebellion broke out once more. But the movement was still in search of a leader. In 1700 he appeared. Franz Rokocsy II. Unlike the previous rebel armies, this army consisted mostly of peasants. Few nobles joined them.
The same pattern emerged as the rebellion broke out in the north east and eventually the rebels found themselves facing the walls of Ődenburg. But the city would not open its gates to them. In 1706 they attempted to take the city once more after Guns, Eisenstadt and Rust had already fallen to them. The siege lasted from Christmas Day until Epiphany (January 6) 1706. On January 7th the final frontal attack was launched on three sides. The men and women on the walls held off the attackers but this resulted in the deaths of countless defenders, both men and women. The rebel commander withdrew on January 10th and set up headquarters in the villages and plundering and destruction continued.
The rebels no sooner conquered all of the land when they lost it again and again, battle after battle. The Peace of Sathmar in 1711 finally ended the carnage and destruction. It was the people who lost the war.
Commerce and industry were at a standstill. It would take Ődenburg over a decade just to get back on its feet. Now that the rebellion was over, there were better times ahead. By the time of Joseph II’s visit in 1770 and the Empress Maria Theresia’s visit to the city in 1773, Ődenburg had become a majestic baroque city, thriving and industrious. The Napoleonic Wars which followed would drain the city’s resources once more as the city lived up to its loyalty to the Habsburg dynasty. On May 29, 1809 eight thousand French troops occupied the city and remained until mid-November. When they left, they left only poverty, need and an epidemic behind. The task of recovery and rebuilding once more became the agenda of the city and its inhabitants as it always had been throughout its long beleaguered history.
But where did this tenacity come from? This ability to go on despite everything? What was the source of their courage? Hope? What kept them going?
The answers to these questions are found in still another story. A story that parallels the story already told. Ődenburg’s other story. The story of its faith.
As was stated earlier, Christianity was introduced into the vicinity of Ődenburg during the Roman occupation in the 2nd Century AD. Savaria, which was later known as Steinamanger (Szombathely today), was a bishopric in that period. Its bishop is mentioned as one of the seven bishops of Pannonia who attend the Synod of Rimini in 326. Savaria was also the birthplace of Martin of Tours who perished in the Great Persecution of the Emperor Galarius. Two bishops of Savaria were also martyred in the city at that time. In the 7th Century, Ődenburg belonged to the diocese of Laureacum in Austria. Later it became part of the bishopric of Passau. King Stephen I of Hungary joined Ődenburg to his newly established Episcopal See of Raab to which it belongs to this day. This information details for us some of the official aspects of Ődenburg’s religious life but little of its character or piety.
One source, however, sheds some interesting light on the religious life of the citizens of the community in the 15th Century when it was reported that large numbers of Waldensians were in the city. The Waldensians were especially critical of the luxurious life-style of the clergy. All of this information was passed on the Inquisition. We never hear anything further about the matter again.
Ődenburg was a city of churches, schools and religious houses. St. John’s on the Wienerstrasse which was built in 1214 is probably the oldest of the churches. The church of Benedictines and the St. Jame’s Chapel that stands beside the city church are also from a very early period. St. Michael’s which was known as the “city church” was the most important and imposing building in the inner city. Its construction began in the 13th Century and it was finally completed at the end of the 15th. To this day, St. Michael’s is the most beautiful Gothic structure in all of the Hungary.
In addition to the Benedictines there were also Franciscans engaged in preaching and teaching ministries in the city. At the beginning of the 13th Century, the Order of the Knights of St. John established themselves in the city. This Order would play a major role in the development of church life in the city. In addition to their spiritual ministry, they also took up the sword to defend the city against its enemies. They later built a hospital on land donated by the Town Council They acted as the official historians of Ődenburg and undertook to write the first chronicles of the city.
The schools of Ődenburg were renowned for their scholarship and were in touch with current thinking throughout Western Europe. Humanism arrived here early which would play a leading role in preparing the city and its people from the fresh winds of the Reformation coming from Wittenberg in Saxony.
According to Roman Catholic historians the Reformation doctrines of Luther were first preached in Ődenburg in 1519.
Christoph, a Franciscan monk who preached in the Benedictine Church spoke to large crowds in the spirit and thought of the young Luther. This occurred only two years after the nailing of the 95 Thesis on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. His fellow Franciscans were anxious to save Christoph from the Tribunal established in the city by King Louis II to carry out hearings and investigations of “all Lutheran heretics” and to burn them along with Luther’s books. Christoph was spirited away by night by sympathetic monks and he was never heard from again. At least not officially.
This was merely the beginning.
Within five years of the events that took place in Wittenberg in 1517, Martin Luther’s writings were read throughout the city. In some pulpits echoes of the Reformer’s teaching were easily discernable and recognizable although not officially sanctioned. In fact, it was forbidden by the decree of the Hungarian King and was punishable by death although it was hardly enforced except for two isolated incidents. It was window dressing to placate the Vatican.
The spread of the writings and thought of Luther in Ődenburg was due primarily to the tradesmen and merchants of the city. On their journeys to their distant markets and visiting their clients in Regensburg, Augsburg or Vienna they bought the tracts and publications of Luther and brought them home. On their return they invited their neighbours and associates to dinner and sitting around the table one of them would could read while the others listened. Often these household “study groups” consisted of ten to twenty people, both men and women.
A counter attack was lodged against the “secret heretic Lutherans” of Ődenburg by the priest and preacher in the Benedictine church, Johann Kapistan. He targeted the Franciscan monk, Christoph, who had to go into hiding. Then he broadened his horizons, his targets and his threats The city chaplain did the same at St. Michael’s Church where the Waldensians had been condemned over and over again during the 15th Century resulting in the burning of several of them in the city. An all out campaign was now in progress once again.
Christoph Peck, the city chaplain, acknowledged publically that it was obvious to everyone that the citizens of Ődenburg were in possession of Luther’s writings and were reading and distributing them. On this occasion, the chaplain named names. Paul Kramer for one. The man was a tanner by trade who admitted openly that he owned copies of Luther’s writings, read them and shared them with others. Kramer was ordered to surrender all of the writings of Luther in his possession and offer a public apology. Furthermore the city chaplain announced that a commission had been established to carry out a search for the writings of Luther throughout the city. All publications found would be confiscated and “executed”. Citizens were urged to inform on each other or surrender their own copies for a public burning which would be held in front of the Franciscan Church. Peck also ordered that all preachers who alluded to the teachings of Luther in their preaching in any way were to be banned from the pulpits of the city.
The citizenry and the magistrates of the city gathered in front of the Franciscan Church on October 30, 1524. It was one day less than the seventh anniversary of Luther’s launching of the Reformation in Wittenberg with his 95 Theses against papal indulgences. A huge bonfire was set and the hooded executioner threw the books and writings of Luther into the fire as the city chaplain spoke his anathemas against Luther and all those who clung to his evil and perverse heresies. As the books went up in flames, Paul Kramer was made to apologize as a quiet sullen crowd listened intently. When the tanner finished the townspeople nudged one another or had a twinkle in their eyes because Kramer had apologized. He had not recanted. Nor had they!
Within three days another search was conducted throughout the city and another book burning took place. These two public book burnings were the catalysts that turned the city to Lutheranism. At first if was the citizenry and then the city magistrates followed suit.
At the insistence of the townspeople, the magistrates appointed preachers to St. Michael’s “who were not opposed to the Gospel” to serve alongside the city priests. As news of this and the rapid expansion of Lutheranism throughout Western Hungary came to the attention of King Louis II of Hungary and under pressure he reluctantly decreed new and harsher laws against the spread of Luther’s teaching. Once again the punishment for breaking any of these new laws was death. A penalty which was never carried out.
The King delayed taking action against the Lutherans because of a much greater peril that he faced. The Turks. He met them head-on at the Battle of Mohács in 1526 where he and his army were defeated and massacred. All of Hungary was now at the mercy of the Turks. Among those killed on the field of battle were countless armed bishops and higher prelates. The bishop of Raab, who had jurisdiction over Ődenburg perished during the battle. The monks in nearby Wandorf did not plan to be part of the welcoming committee when the Turks arrived. They fled for their lives and abandoned their flocks in the villages that lay outside of Ődenburg. The population was left without a shepherd in a rather hopeless situation. It was be the “evangelical” (Lutheran) preachers who held out hope to the beleaguered population of the city and all of Hungary in the face of the oncoming onslaught of the Turks that would devastate all of Hungary. That hope was the Gospel of God’s grace and His faithfulness.
Ődenburg and its subject villages were served by numerous evangelical “Predigers” (preachers) following the Turkish conquest of most of Hungary. In 1565 the city magistrates called an outspoken evangelical preacher to serve as a pastor in Ődenburg. He had escaped from the dungeon of the Hohensalzburg fortress that stands in the centre of Salzburg and looks down on the city below where he had been imprisoned for four years. The Prince Archbishop of Salzburg had arrested and tried him for his evangelical faith and his “illegal” ministry in his territory. Simon Gerengel would serve in Ődenburg for only a short time but in effect he would become the “Reformer of Ődenburg.” He organized and shaped evangelical church life, published a catechism and a worship agenda (liturgy) both of which would be used for the next two hundred years. His intention was not to bring about external change but rather that an inward spiritual transformation would bring about appropriate outward change in keeping with the Gospel. He maintained good relationships with the continuing Roman Catholic constituency in the city as well as with their priests. Lurking on the horizon were the times of testing that now lay ahead for the Evangelicals.
It began in nearby Raab, when its bishop, Georg Draskovics, became the Imperial Chancellor of Hungary. In this dual capacity he carried out Act One of the Counter Reformation in Hungary in 1578. His initial primary objective was the re-catholicization of Ődenburg.
The terms of the Religious Peace of Augsburg in 1555 were also embraced by the Hungarian Landtag (parliament). It was expressed in the Latin phrase: Cuius Regio, Eius Religio. Which stipulated that the religion of the ruler would be the religion of his subjects. Those subjects who refused to comply were banished from the ruler’s territory.
These terms did not only apply to the subjects of the nobility but were also to include the subjects of the Royal Free Cities of the Empire of which Ődenburg was one. It was this right that bishop Drastovics attempted to deny to Ődenburg. He sought to change the status of Ődenburg to that of a village. All of his efforts to do so proved fruitless. He simply tried harder.
Early in 1583, Bishop Draskovics invited all of the members of the Town Council (all of whom were Lutherans) to a consultation in Vienna. Upon their arrival in the imperial city they were imprisoned. After nine weeks spent in the dungeons enduring constant harassment and judicial hearings they finally gave in and agreed to expel all the evangelical pastors from the city and the villages subject to the jurisdiction of Ődenburg. All of the churches were ordered to be handed over to the Roman Catholic authorities. This would continue to be the case until 1606.
For the next twenty-two years, Ődenburg lost the freedom to practice its Lutheran faith. Following the imposition of the ban the citizenry was cautious at first. Draskovics and his local officials were certain that only the Town Council had really been committed to Lutheranism. To their consternation the people not only boycotted the Roman Mass but each Sunday morning long columns of citizens left through the city gates heading into the countryside for Neckenmarkt or Deutschkreuz, two Lutheran villages on the Estates of the Lutheran Count Nadasdy to attend worship there. Along the way they were joined by the Lutherans from Wandorf, Harkau, Agendorf, Wolfs, Morbisch and Loipersbach whose pastors had also been exiled.
The churches of Ődenburg were virtually empty as a result of the Sunday morning exodus of the Lutherans. No one sought out the ministry of the Roman Catholic clergy. The midwives of the city were arrested because they refused to report any births. In most cases they baptized the children themselves or took the infants to the nearby Lutheran pastors in the villages or assisted in sneaking pastors into the city baptize the children.
None of the Lutheran schoolboys attended any of the church schools. Clandestine Lutheran schools sprang up all over the city. Usually they were very small groups. They were taught by “underground” teachers who lived in the vicinity.
But the real craw in the throat of the Roman Catholic clergy were those Lutherans who could not attend worship in the village churches. The aged and infirm, nursing mothers and those who were sick were brought together in homes where they sang hymns, recited psalms, prayed and listened to the reading of Scripture. Meanwhile the priests in Ődenburg were saying mass for the benefit of one another faced with empty churches.
Following the Peace of Vienna in 1606 Lutheran clergy were allowed to return to Ődenburg. What made their return possible was the fact that the Turks and the Hungarian rebels were on the march in the area and all of the Roman Catholic clergy had fled from the city. In a short period of time the Lutherans regained the use of their former church buildings. There were four German-speaking pastors and one who was Hungarian-speaking serving the 8,000 Lutherans in the city. Less than 1,000 of the inhabitants had remained Roman Catholic and most of them were recent immigrants from the Austrian hereditary lands.
As the Thirty Years War raged across central Europe, Hungary was in a shambles with uprisings and rebellions breaking out across the land and Ődenburg was not immune to the destruction that took place everywhere. And of course there were always the Turks…
When the Thirty Years War was over, Leopold of Austria’s hands were no longer tied. Act Two of the Counter Reformation could now begin.
In Ődenburg this next phase of the Counter Reformation came in the guise of the Jesuits. Over the objections and opposition of the Town Council the Jesuits moved into Ődenburg to establish a school in 1636. Beginning in 1639 the head of the Jesuit mission in the city, Ambrose Heigel, attempted to carry out missionary activity in the nearby villages belonging to the city. As a first step he had all of their Lutheran pastors expelled and sent into exile. The strategy proved unsuccessful for there were simply no converts to be found among the “stiff necked” Lutherans.
As what would become known as the “Decade of Sorrows” dawned in Ődenburg in the 1670s, more and more of the rights of the Lutherans and Reformed were taken away from them at the instigation of the Jesuits. A plot to overthrow the Emperor being planned by some leading Roman Catholic nobles was uncovered and it was labelled as a “Protestant Conspiracy” by the crafty Jesuits. Kangaroo courts set up in Pressburg saw to the exile and banishment of hundreds of pastors and teachers while the more recalcitrant among them trudged south in chain gangs to be sold as galley slaves in Naples.
As pressure was applied against the Lutheran pastors, teachers and magistrates in Ődenburg, the only way to prevent a complete loss of their Lutheran church life was to agree to the City Court’s demand that all churches, chapels, schools and their fixtures would be “voluntarily” handed over to the Roman Catholic authorities for the privilege of holding services in a private house, “without any hindrances”. The last Lutheran service was held in the city church, St. Michael’s, on February 25, 1674. At the close of the service, Pastor Christoph Sowitsch, had to inform the congregation of the actions that the Town Council had been forced to take. He called upon the people to be faithful and patient and to conduct themselves in a Christ-like manner and wait on the Lord for help in the future. “Through quietness and hope we will find strength,” he quoted the prophet Jeremiah 30:15. The congregation met the following Sunday in the main hall of the spacious home of Christopher Lackner. As the worshippers entered through the gates into the courtyard of the house they read the words inscribed above the doorway: “Thy will be done.” Because of the crowd that assembled they gathered in the courtyard for worship and it was here where the congregation would commemorate Lent in 1674. The words of Jesus now had new meaning for them in their own Gethsemane, “My father if it is possible let this cup pass from me, but not as I will, but as You will.”
They gathered in the courtyard in rain and snow, despite wind and bad weather and often soaking wet as the City Chronicle puts it. Or half frozen to death. They still came to hear the healing Word and gladly received it. Their enemies laughed at them and hounded them. Ridiculed them and said, “Where is your God?” The Lutherans answered the question with the rest of Psalm 42. Shortly afterwards, Princess Eggenberg, an exiled Habsburg Austrian Lutheran noblewoman opened the door of her house on St. George Street for worship as well and had a stone pulpit carved into the balcony of the courtyard for her chaplain to have visibility as he preached.
A wooden church was constructed on “the street of the bakers” at a sizable cost to the congregation. On Pentecost the first service was held and it began with the recitation of Psalm 84:4 “The bird has found its house and the swallow her nest…”. Yet even this “swallow’s nest” was just too much for the Roman Catholic clergy to have to bear according to the Chronicler. After one month the church was locked and the pastors were exiled. As their pastors left, the congregation sang the Salzburg Lutheran’s exile hymn as they accompanied them to the city gates.
The measures that were taken against the Lutherans in Ődenburg were also experienced by their fellow believers in the villages around the city. Their churches were confiscated as well. Their pastors were driven into exile. Troops were quartered in the homes of any who resisted the take- over. In most cases, families resorted to “household” worship. Roman Catholic priest and teachers were appointed to each village. The priest ministered in an empty pews and the teacher faced empty benches. This would prove to be the case for the next 110 years in Agendorf, Harkau, Wolfs, Loipersbach, Wandorf and Morbisch.
In the village history of Harkau we can catch a glimpse of how the Lutherans managed to carry on. In 1674, one of the priests complained to the authorities that he had discovered that the village cow herder took the boys of the village with him out to the pastures not in order to train them in cow herding but taught them how to read. His textbook was the Bible.
While almost a century later, in 1755, another priest stationed in Harkau reported: “The Lutherans operated an illegal school in the mill out in the meadow taught by Catharina Predl, the miller’s daughter. It was a Winkelschule (clandestine school). On orders from the Roman Catholic magistrate in Ődenburg the school was closed.”
With the assistance and close co-operation of the Habsburgs, the Jesuits achieved the goal of the Counter Reformation in Hungary. With the exception of the services held in the courtyard of Duchess Eggenberg in Ődenburg there was no public Lutheran or Reformed worship anywhere. Only the Lutherans living in Ődenburg itself were permitted to worship there. A proclamation was posted on the door of every gate into the city forbidding the participation of any Lutherans from the neighbouring villages at the services at the Eggenberg house.
When the Lutherans in Ődenburg were able to gain some concession at the Landtag in 1676 and were allowed to build a second wooden church in the city after the original one burned down as a result of arson the Lutherans in the nearby villages were permitted to worship in the city. Every Sunday from the site of the wooden church to the town hall there were long lines of wagons and carriages of the believers from: Agendorf, Wandorf, Loipersbach, Walbersdorf, Pottelsdorf, Rust, Morbisch, Wolfs, Harkau, Kobersdorf, Weppersdorf and Stoob.
Early in the 18th Century it became obvious to the leaders of the Lutheran congregation that the wooden Bethaus (prayerhouse) could no longer serve the ever growing congregation. Construction of a stone church was begun in 1722 and completed in two years. It could accommodate 2,000 worshippers. Ődenburg’s Lutheran church still served a large constituency outside of the city. Very soon after its construction the church was unable to provide enough room for the throngs of worshippers attending multiple services.
In 1775 the congregation submitted a petition to the Empress Maria Theresia for permission to expand their prayer house. This request was granted primarily because Joseph II the future Emperor was already acting as co-regent at the time. Not to mention the fact, that Ődenburg’s greatest foes, the Jesuits, had been disbanded in the Habsburg Empire.
Because of the desperate economic situation at the time, the congregation was unable to take advantage of securing her permission. They were also short of additional space and the building was in bad shape. The idea of demolishing the old structure and building a new prayer house soon caught hold among the members of the congregation. Permission to do so was received from Joseph II at the beginning of 1782 and the present day church was erected. At the time of the construction of the new Lutheran church there were 5,873 Lutherans living in the city.
From the very beginnings of the Reformation in Ődenburg there was a movement to establish schools so that all people could read the Scriptures. All Lutheran villages had schools of their own and not just simply the towns and cities. Ődenburg would become the centre of an extensive system of Lutheran schools to serve all of Hungary especially as it related to the education and training of teachers for the Lutheran schools and preparing future pastors and theologians.
By now even the most casual reader must have taken a glance at a map in order to attempt to locate Ődenburg. Unfortunately no contemporary map can help you do so. That in itself is part of the final chapter of the story of Ődenburg.
Ődenburg is no longer Ődenburg.
Even though it has retained much of its charming character and architectural appeal as a city, the life of the community has changed forever. That had its beginnings in the 19th Century under various names and influences. Ődenburg was moulded and shaped in such a way as to erase its German past, heritage and traditions. A change in its name would be part of that process and an indication of the change. Ődenburg became part of the mainstream of life in Hungary. A symbol of how it would be possible to have the best of both worlds. One was left behind in order to adapt and accept another.
Ődenburg and its past was left behind. In its place Sopron became window dressing for Magyar nationalism. Sopron, not Ődenburg had a future. Ődenburg only had a past. It had no future in the new Hungary. There were many who welcomed that from the time of the Revolution of 1848 to the two World Wars in the 20th Century. Assimilation became the order of the day in Sopron and its schools and academies. Her graduates became the vanguard of inculcating Hungarian ideals into the minds and hearts of others. On the other hand there were those for whom Ődenburg’s heritage and past needed to be preserved and passed on. The city suffered from schizophrenia, trying to live in two worlds at the same time.
Inevitably a decision had to be made and the city and its nearby environs were called upon to make it in 1920. The League of Nations decided that the population and territory of the ancient Burgenland that had been established by Charlemagne centuries before should become part of what would remain of Austria. Hungary refused to accept the loss of Sopron and its environs and demanded that a plebiscite be held on the part of the people who lived there. The vote itself was a total mockery of the democratic process. There were all kinds of illegalities in the registration of voters that were Hungarians and were non-residents. Many of the German-speaking population were prevented from reaching the polling stations. Armed gangs roamed the countryside threatening and warning the German-speaking population of what would happen to them if Austria annexed the Burgenland. The German-speaking villages that surrounded Ődenburg voted overwhelmingly in favour of being incorporated into Austria. Hungarian nationalists would never forget or forgive that. But in Sopron, the German-speaking population was vastly outnumbered and outvoted by the city’s “new residents” who had been brought in for the plebiscite.
Sopron would remain within Hungary but Ődenburg would be no more. That was agenda of the Hungarian rightwing government.
It came as no surprise that when the expulsion of the German population living in Hungary that was ordered by the Big Three at Potsdam in August 1945 began early in 1946 and had its first focus on Western Hungary. Ődenburg’s neighbouring village of Harkau had its entire German-speaking population expelled. During the plebiscite 99% of the residents of Harkau had voted to join Austria. The same would be true in Wandorf, Agendorf and the other villages. Of Sopron’s 10,000 “Svabok” as the Hungarians referred to the German-speaking population over 7,500 were deported. The effect was that only 2,500 remained in the city and made up the vast majority of the remnant of the Heanzen left in Hungary after ten centuries of struggle, determination and hope for a better future.
It also almost meant the end of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in an area where Lutheranism had come to birth very early. Where it had continued to flourish despite all kinds of odds against its survival. Evangelical Lutheran Church life still goes on in this picturesque postcard city. The magnificent towers of the their church rises above its surroundings on the Templon Utca…Church Street…standing there in the heart of the inner city.