Danube Swabians Were The Third Largest Producers Of Hemp In The World

Before World War II the Danube Swabians of this region were the third largest producers of hemp in the world. This almost forgotten factor of Danube Swabian enterprise is recounted by Frank Schmidt.

Canada’s Health Ministry recently announced that it was prepared to issue permits to some farmers in the Peace River country of British Columbia to cultivate hemp on a trial basis. The crop would, of course, be closely monitored by the Food and Drug Division of the Ministry.

The cultivation of hemp was outlawed in Canada and the U.S.A. in the 1930’s because of it’s kinship to marijuana, though the industrial hemp contains little of the psychoactive ingredient tetra-hydrocannibol.

Today hemp is lauded as a non-herbicide, high-value crop that can be used in fiberboard, paper, food products, industrial oils – and, even hemp-flavored beer!

This news report aroused my interest because before World War II the Danube Swabians of the Batschka, the lush agricultural region between the Danube and Theiss (Tisa) Rivers in Yugoslavia were the third largest producers of hemp in the world. Although they made up but 30% of the population of the Batschka, the cultivation and processing of hemp was 95% in their hands.

Map Lower Danube

Four things are necessary for the production of hemp: A temperate climate, fertile soil, water for retting and above all a dedicated people. All these were present in the Batschka before World War II.

The hemp plant was brought to what was then Habsburg Hungary from Baden and Palatinate (Pfalz) in Germany by the pioneer ancestors of the Danube Swabians in the 17th and 18th centuries. In that age it was an indispensable crop for the production of homespun linen, rope, sacks for cereal crops and canvas. It was even exported to the Netherlands to make sailcloth. The word canvas is in fact derived from cannabis sativa, the Latin term for hemp.

The hemp plant is an annual and is propagated by seed. It is cross-pollinated and has a deep taproot. The seed-producing flowers are borne on separate plants. The seed producing ones are called ‘postulate’ or ‘female’ plants.

The pollen producing ones are referred to as ‘staminate’ or ‘male’ plants.

When the plant is grown under natural conditions the proportion of male to female plants is about equal. The male plants die soon after pollination but the female plants continue to grow until the seed matures.

In the Danube Swabian communities preparations for growing hemp began in the fall when the wheat harvest stubble or clover were plowed under to a depth of 25 cm (10 in.). The field was then harrowed and stable manure was added. Next year in April when the field was dry it was again plowed to a depth of 10-15 cm (6-7 in.) so that the manure would not be buried too deeply. The seed was sown about 10 cm (6in.) apart.

Hemp grows very quickly and any weeds that come up between the rows soon gave up the ghost in the shadow of the hemp. In the Batschka hemp was harvested around mid-August. Harvesting was done manually with a sickle or a type of scythe. Handling the rough plants in the hot summer sun was not a job for the more refined members of the community.

After the bundles had dried they were taken to a pond and put in the water. Since hemp is very buoyant the bundles had to be weighed down with earth so that they would sink below the surface. They were left in the water for one to two weeks, or until the combined action of bacteria and water had partially decomposed and dissolved the substances that surround the fiber. The retting of the hemp invariably caused an unpleasant stench to permeate the area.

Hemp retting

The next step was to remove the hemp from the water and to stook it in the fields until it was thoroughly dry. It was then transported to small factories where it was subjected to mechanical processes that separated the fiber from the straw. These devices are called brakes, because they break or crush the woody part of the straw.

After breaking, the crushed mass had to be processed to separate the fiber from the broken woody core, called hurds. This shaking/breaking and combining process is called scutching.

In the Danube Swabian hemp producing communities the machinery was commonly driven by steam engines. Electrical power was too expensive so the engines were fuelled with the hurds derived from the breaking process. This also took care of the huge disposal problem.

The long, reasonably straight fiber is called line and this was the final stage of production of hemp in which the Danube Swabians were involved.

The line was bound in bundles which were taken to distribution center such as Hodschag, from where it made its way to Germany, Switzerland, Holland and as far away as Sydney, Australia.

Hemp depletes the soil to such an extent that it can only be cultivated for two years on the same land, but it produces twice as much cash income per acre than any other crop. In Danube Swabian agricultural communities the “Hanffabriken” (hemp factories) were a God-sent because they provided employment throughout the fall and winter when work in the fields had ceased.

The leaves of the hemp plant produce a resin from which the cannabis drug is derived. As a narcotic drug it is either smoked – or even eaten – and is known as marijuana in the Western Hemisphere. As a drug it acts on the central nervous system and produces a “feeling of well-being” and various hallucinations. Danube Swabians knew nothing of the hemp plant as a drug and there is no record of them smoking it.

Some Danube Swabian families kept caged quails as songbirds. These cages were hung outside on a wall over the “Gang”, a covered porch that ran the length of the house facing the yard. The quails were commonly given a dash of hemp seed in their food which caused them to burst into glorious song.

Hemp fibers have largely been replaced by man-made products. However, it is still in demand for some unusual applications such as listed below.

1. Hemp-derived products are non-toxic, biodegradable, and, they are renewable.

2. Hemp produces twice as much fiber per acre as cotton or flax.

3. Hemp protein can be processed and flavored like soybeans.

4. Hemp fiberboard is far stronger than wood products.

5. Hemp fiber swells when wet and forms a natural water barrier.

6. Hemp produces 10 times as much methanol for auto fuels than sugar cane or corn. It is the second best living fuel source. It is renewable – oil is not.

7. Hemp fuel burns clean and does not cause acid rain.

8. Hemp fuel can be used to treat a variety of physical and mental ailments, such as tuberculosis, depression and side effects of cancer therapy.

Before World War I the Batschka was home to diverse nationalities who had lived in harmony and mutual respect for centuries under the benign rule of the Habsburgs in Austria Hungary.

The Batschka and part of the Banat were arbitrarily awarded to the royal dictatorship of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (called Yugoslavia after 1929). In the wake of World War II Danube Swabians became victims of the most sweeping genocide to have occurred in Europe in the 20th century.

Now that the bees (The Danube Swabians) are gone the region is no longer the land of milk and honey. The present occupiers of Danube Swabian lands do not have the expertise, the work ethic, nor the will to produce hemp and the once busy factories are now idle and have largely fallen into disrepair.

Those fortunate enough to have survived the genocide in Tito’s Yugoslavia and are now scattered throughout the world will take little comfort in the fact that hemp will be produced in North America. These experts are too old to get involved in what could again be a very lucrative enterprise. They at least have the satisfaction of having once produced the best quality hemp in the world which should be a source of pride to their descendants.

It is my hope that this article will rekindle the memory of a Danube Swabian enterprise that has largely been forgotten.

Frank Schmidt

Copyright Heimat Publishers 2000
Reprinted with author’s permission