The Heideboden

     The Heideboden is located partially in the present day Sopron and Moson Counties in Hungary and the state of Burgenland in Austria.  It covers the general area between the Neusiedler Sea and the Danube River as it flows south from present day Bratislava that was previously known as Pressburg.  The designation itself indicates that it was originally moorland with rich river-bottom soil which accounted for its fertility.  The area was also known as the “Burgenland” (the Land of Fortresses).  It was intended to act as a buffer zone to protect Austria from constant invasions and nomadic incursions coming from the east.  The settlements that existed were clustered around either defensive military positions or fortresses to provide support in terms of manpower and food supplies during times of siege and attack.

 

  In a sense, the Heideboden was the gateway into south-western Europe, the invasion route of the Germanic tribes, Huns, Magyars, Tatar-Mongols and the Turks.  It was the last outpost of western Europe.  A military frontier district.  The first line of defence.

 

  During the three hundred year Roman occupation of the area, at the beginning of the Christian Era, the region was known as the West Bank of the Danube.  A string of defensive positions to raise the alarm and ward off the advances of the oncoming Germanic tribes and the later arriving Slavs from the east.  The Romans gave the Heideboden its basic character for the centuries which followed.

 

  The original Celtic population was supplanted by various invaders, who themselves were later conquered or forced to move westwards into what is now known as Lower Austria.  There was actually no “local” population in the Heidebdoen per se.  The first of the German-speaking settlers to re-enter the area were of Frankish origin brought there by the Emperor Charlemagne early in the ninth Century from Franconia.  There is, however, the strong possibility that these settlers also included large numbers of Bavarians.  This resulted in naming them Heidebauern which is a corruption of Heidebayern meaning moorland Bavarians.  The purpose for settling them in the area was defensive to stem the tie of the westward expansion of the Magyar tribes coming out of the east.

 

  These settlers bore the brunt of the raids and attacks of the fierce nomadic Magyar horsemen who slaughtered and terrorized the local population and in so doing destroyed every vestige of their settled life.  The Heidebauern settlements were put to the torch.  The population fled en masse.  Hid in the forests and countryside.  Managed to eek out an existence in caves and ruins.  Their fields and crops were totally devastated.  Their livestock were run off.  Yet they managed to survive.

 

  The Magyars were finally halted in their attempt to move into western Europe at Augsburg in 955 at the Battle of Lechfeld.  The forces of the Holy Roman Empire under the Emperor Otto drove them from the field and the retreating Magyars fled for their lives.  In their retreat back into what would become Hungary some of them established themselves in the area where the Heidebauern had lived.  They were later joined by small groups of Heidebauern who began to return to their former settlements.  An experiment in co-existence began.

 

  When King Stephen of Hungary was able to consolidate his power as the first Christian King of the “nation” of Hungary early in the eleventh Century he brought in a second stream of settlers to assist in the Christianization of the Magyar tribes.  Almost all of these settlers who were nobles, knights, monks and peasants came from Bavaria.  His choice of Bavarians was probably due to his queen, Gisela of Passau, a princess from Bavaria.  They were in all likelihood her vassals or came as part of her retinue and dowry.

 

  Large groups of peasant settlers entered the Heideboden.  Most of the villages continued to be clustered in close proximity to fortresses and castles and usually consisted of fifty to one hundred families.  Most of the new colonists lived in timbered houses during this period, while other simply lived in dug-outs or “cellar houses”.  They began tilling the soil with their wooden ploughs and took up gardening.  Later they began to specialize in livestock rearing mostly cattle, hogs, horses and flocks of sheep.  The landlords to whom they were subject were usually Bavarians like themselves:  nobles, monastic orders or higher clergy.  Groupings of ten villages were called upon to support a church and priest.  The Heideboden once again bore all of the essential marks of an ordered and settled communal life.

 

  They came as invited “guests” of the Hungarian king, a fact that future Magyar nationalist historians would conveniently forget or managed to ignore.

 

  In 1074, Henry IV of Germany, had the Heideboden placed under his personal “protection”.  During this protectorate he encouraged the further settlement of German-speaking people into the area.  The twelfth and thirteen centuries saw more German immigration in response to the invitation of Gezá II of Hungary.  The vast majority of these settlers came from Bavaria while contingents of Austrians were now also among them.

 

  Civilized life in Hungary was almost obliterated in 1241 when the Tatar-Mongol hordes swept over the Great Hungarian Plain and crossed the frozen Danube River in mid-winter.  The Heideboden was put to the torch.  The population that had not been able to flee or went into hiding were carried off as slaves.  Hungary lay in ruins.  Plague and starvation would become the fate of the survivors.  Meanwhile, the Mongols continued to move westward…

 

  Recovery from the devastation was slow but gradual due primarily to the early withdrawal of the Mongols from Europe to settle leadership disputes back home and the insightful leadership of the Hungarian King, Belá IV.  Count Frederick of Bamberg annexed the Heideboden to Austria and called for a new resettlement of the territory with the largest number of settlers arriving during this period from territories under the control of the Hohenstauffen family in south-western Germany.

 

  Unfortunately this period of rebuilding would be short-lived.  The Turks were now on the rampage in the south in the Balkans which was later followed by the disastrous defeat of the Louis II of Hungary and his army at Mohács in 1526.  The entire country was defenceless and at the mercy of the Sultan and his Grand Vizier and their policy of plunder and depopulation.

 

  The Turkish invaders swarmed across the Heideboden.  They attacked and ravished unsuspecting villages, plundered, murdered, burned and enslaved.  The peasants fled to the fortresses which were able to withstand the marauders and outlast the sieges.  By September the peasants began to return to their destroyed villages…and rebuilt once more.  For the next one hundred and fifty years the Heideboden, like all of Royal Hungary, was open to sudden attack and destruction at the hand of the Turks.  Countless Heidebauern peasants were slaughtered or carried off as slaves never to be heard from again.  Yet even now, following the Turkish conquest of Hungary, additional settlers arrived in the Heideboden.

 

  These settlers were persecuted Swabian Lutherans from the Bodensee-Eck, an area along the eastern shore of Lake Constance.  They arrived in 1620 under the protection of a Habsburg princess who was a convert to Lutheranism and she established them in their own settlements.  These Swabian settlers came primarily from villages in Upper Swabia:  Wangen, Ravensburg, Lindau and Isny.  Lutheran refugees from Salzburg would later become part of these communities throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as persecution intensified during the Counter Reformation.

 

  Throughout the recorded history of the region there are numerous references to the villages of Nickelsdorf and Ragendorf which both shared in the devastation and destruction and were part of the resistance and rebuilding.  Nickelsdorf existed prior to 1048 and is one of the oldest of the Heideboden communities and its original settlers came from Franconia and Bavaria.  Their dialect, attire and customs also reflect these origins and traditions.  All indications point to the fact that Ragendorf was also established at approximately the same time.  There were always close relationships between the two communities over the centuries and they also shared a common feudal master.  Ragendorf belonged to the series of villages related to the fortress at Altenburg and its history is intertwined with the fortunes and misfortunes of that military bastion and outpost on the west bank of the Danube.

 

  Ragendorf became a market town early in the life of the community which gave it special Royal privileges and rights.  During the 14th Century there was an annual assembly of the nobles of the County at Ragendorf where civil cases were judged and fines imposed.  In 1313 the St. Martin’s Church was constructed on the foundations of an ancient Roman watchtower in the village.  The St. Martin in question was Martin of Tours, the patron saint of the Heideboden.  It was Martin of Tours who was the namesake of Martin Luther.

 

  The community chronicles from the Middle Ages often record the original name of the settlement as “Reugen”.  The Urbarial documents indicate that throughout its history Ragendorf was a “German” community with only a handful of Croatian residents.  There were no Hungarians.  The community’s most famous son was the composer and pianist Franz Liszt.  Although Hungary considers him to be one of their greatest national figures he had no Hungarian origins at all.  In fact he never learned the language.  Nor did he ever refer to himself as being Hungarian.  The family name was actually:  “Lisztmeyer”.  His side of the family converted to Roman Catholicism during the last phase of the Counter Reformation in Hungary in the 18th Century.

 

  Ragendorf had an additional noteworthy distinction.  Along with Nickelsdorf, these two Heidebauern villages formed two of the earliest Evangelical Lutheran congregations in Europe.  As indicated previously, the Lutheran Reformation spread rapidly throughout the Heideboden among the local population.  The preaching of Lutheranism first won over the towns of the Pressburg and Ődenburg in the early 1520s under the protection and support of the Habsburg Queen Maria of Hungary.  The teachings of Luther were soon carried to the surrounding Heidebauern villages by “preachers” and book sellers.  The printing press became the vehicle for turning all of Hungary to the Reformation.  As a result wherever Lutheran congregations came into existence they were quick to establish their own local Lutheran school which would develop the strong Lutheran character and piety of the people.

 

  In 1554 the first Evangelical Lutheran “synod” met at the fortress town of Altenburg which was only a stone’s throw away from Ragendorf.  The first Lutheran “bishop” of Hungary was elected at this gathering.  From the very beginning of the spread of Lutheranism in Hungary restrictions and outright persecution were ordered and carried out by the Roman Catholic higher clergy and the various monastic orders.  The Heideboden would become a virtual battleground as the power of the Church and State were unleashed against the townspeople and peasantry who tenaciously held to the tenets of their Lutheran faith.  Their opposition was so formidable that the Jesuits had to be called in to carry out the Counter Reformation in the Heideboden.

 

  The Jesuits made their headquarters at nearby Altenburg.  As the activities of the Lutherans were curtailed by the zealous members of the Society of Jesus with the assistance of armed Imperial troops the beleaguered Lutherans resorted to forming “household churches” or held gatherings in the forests by night.  Others would journey to distant Pressburg to attend Lutheran services there as long as they were permitted in that city.  All of these factors would shape and form the character of the Heidebauern Lutherans in the future.  The pogroms the Lutherans endured under the misleading designation of the polite sounding “Counter Reformation” throughout Hungary were especially severe in its application in the Heideboden towns and villages.

 

  Their pastors were exiled.  Their church buildings were confiscated.  Their teachers were forced to go underground in order to continue to serve them.  Children were taken away from their parents to be raised as Roman Catholics.  But whenever there was a pause or a respite from persecution due to the power some Lutheran and Calvinist nobles were able to  exercise; congregations re-emerged built new churches and established their local schools.  Only to lose them again.

 

  Priests were appointed to every Heideboden village after 1582 and the Lutherans had to pay all of their church tithes to support them even for those services their own pastors performed for them.  In 1645 the Hungarian Landtag forced the Habsburg Emperor to return some of the church buildings that he had ordered confiscated from their Lutheran congregations that he had handed over to the Roman Catholic Church authorities for their use.  Two of these churches that were returned were those in Ragendorf and Nickelsdorf.  This was simply window dressing because the congregations and their pastors were forced to remain under the jurisdiction of the local Roman Catholic bishop and were placed under his “spiritual care.”

 

  Regular, if not annual, canonical visits were carried out in all of the communities within the territory of the diocese of Raab (Gyӧr).  These direct inspections were carried out to keep abreast of religious life in the diocese as it was expressed in the local parishes.  The visitations also provided a way to keep a check on the “heretics” and their activities.  One of the legal rights of the official visitor acting on behalf of the Bishop was permission to interrogate Lutheran pastors, teachers and lay leaders of the congregation.  All Lutherans were responsible to the Roman Catholic bishop or his appointed delegate “both for their life and doctrine.”

 

  Such a canonical visitation was carried out in the Heidebauern villages in March of 1659 by the bishop’s appointed delegate Martin Szily.

 

  In reporting on his visit to Nickelsdorf, he identified the village as part of the Estate of Adam Forgacz.  He laments that he was not properly  received or welcomed into the community as was fitting his position and rank.  In fact, he was confronted with a list of complaints and grievances by the villagers upon his arrival.  He then proceeds to describe the church and its liturgical appointments.  Then finally he indicates that all of the inhabitants of Nickelsdorf were Lutherans except for six families.  These “faithful Catholics” were served by the priest in Strasssommerein while the Lutherans shared the “heretic preacher” from nearby Zurndorf.  The Lutherans had a school and their own schoolmaster who lived locally.  The teacher instructed the boys including the boys from the Catholic families.  He was also the organist and bell-ringer.

 

  During a visitation in Ragendorf on February 18, 1669 the bishop’s visitor indicates that the vast majority of the Heidebauern villagers were adherents of the Lutheran Confession but there were several Croatian and Hungarian families who held to the “old” faith as he puts it.  The visitor complains bitterly that he was not received or welcomed by the Lutherans at all.  In fact, he was totally ignored.  As a result he threatened to lodge an official protest and complaint to both their noble landlord, Count Forgacz and his wife over the affront on the part of his “heretic” subjects.  He identifies Andreas Fierestany as the resident Lutheran pastor and a man named Foelix as their schoolmaster.  He then begins to describe the newly built Lutheran church as rather simple and rustic in comparison with the rather well appointed and attractive Roman Catholic church.  What he fails to mention is that this church had belonged to the Lutheran congregation but had been confiscated nine years earlier for use by villagers holding to the “old” faith.

 

  From the visitation reports in 1696 we discover only a remnant of the Lutheran community survived the “Decade of Sorrows” in the Heideboden.  The Lutherans had paid a high price.  Some were sent to serve as galley slaves in Naples.  Others were banished or exiled.  There had been executions and imprisonments.  They had all taken their toll.  The Archdeacon who carried out this canonical visitation was shocked and rather dismayed to discover that in addition to the 20,405 Roman Catholics in the eastern Heideboden there were also still 4,547 Lutherans and 680 Calvinists (Hungarian Reformed).  The Lutherans were concentrated in the villages of Edelstal, Ragendorf, Andau, Gols, Kaltenstein and Zurndorf.  The inhabitants of the village of Halassen was all Calvinists.  All other areas of the eastern Heideboden had been re-catholicized.

 

  The last phase of the Counter Reformation struck the Heideboden congregations during the reign of the Empress Maria Theresia.  Their churches were closed or confiscated; their pastors and teachers were driven out of the country.  Congregations reverted back to family assemblies and visited the two Articular churches in their vicinity.  (On the basis of an Article passed by the Landtag, two Lutheran and two Calvinist churches were allowed in each County.  Outside of that it was dangerous for the Lutherans to give any outward expression to their faith or to frequent services beyond their own family circle until the Edict of Toleration in 1781.)

 

 

 

 

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