The banks of the Danube, the Danube basin and the surroundings of the river are home to more than hundred million people which – in one way or the other – depend on the river.
In the past, that number was significantly smaller, but the Danube region was still one of the most inhabited in those days. Thanks to its nature,wild life, fertile land, beauty and geographical position, the river always attracted people to live nearby or to use it for their military and merchant purposes.
Some of the ancient ethnic groups that inhabited the region, are known only by the place their relicts were excavated from – such as the people from Vinca, neolithic village near the Iron Gates, on the territory of modern Serbia. After them, there were Celts, Greeks, and – for a few centuries – the Romans. The region of Lower Danube even boasts the number of 19 Roman emperors who were born there: 16 were born in modern Serbia (including Constantine the Great, the first who introduced Christianity as a legal religion in the Empire), and 3 in Croatia.
With the invasion of the tribes from the North and the East, the Danube region became a melting pot which would finally produce modern nations: the Huns, the Avars, the Goth and the Slavic tribes, were among those who wanted their piece of land near the river, which they managed to gain during the 5th and 6th century.
A lot of different people only passed through the region. Byzantine merchants used the Danube and its valley as their main route to the West (from the 4th, until the 15th century). From the 11th until the 13th century, on their way to Asia Minor, the Crusaders found it easier to transport their troops by the Danube, than by the roads. Later on, the Turks will invade the region and leave their troops behind – from the 14th to the 19th century, a lot of people from the Ottoman Empire would join them, inhabit the region and build their cities, mosques, houses and monuments.
More recent times introduced new forms of migration, but the result was always the same: people who came to the Danube valley made an impact to their new surroundings, by bringing their tradition, beliefs and concepts of life. Simultaneously, they were also influenced by the cultures already present at the Danube banks. Modern people living in the Danube region, are genetic and cultural mixture of different nations and traditions.
Although there are no official statistics, it is presumed that approximately 20 languages are spoken in the Danube region – apart from the languages predominant in the Danube countries (German, Slovak, Hungarian, Croatian, Serbian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian and Moldovan), there are a large number of dialects, less known languages and local versions of predominant languages. But, thanks to historic connections among the Danube countries, the ”borders” among spoken languages are not as firm as it may seem: although they officially speak two languages, the citizens of Croatia and Serbia understand each other, as well as Romanians and Moldovans.Slovakian capital – Bratislava – was once famous for being a three-lingual city, whose residents could switch with ease between German, Hungarian and Slovak. A few people still preserve this proud tradition. Almost everyone in Bratislava speaks Slovak, a western Slavic language: it is very similar to Czech and more or less comprehensible to Polish-speakers. This means that an average Bratislava citizen can easily communicate with the citizens of at least three or four different countries.
Apart from the nations which dominate population of the Danube countries, there are a lot of other ethnic groups: Jewish people, Turkish people, Roma people, etc. However, there are also groups which are very specific to the Danube region and can’t be found literary nowhere else in the world. One of those is the group of “Swabians”, which is a collective term for the German speaking population who lived in former Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and who live in different countries today -parts of Hungary, Serbia, and Croatia. German merchants and miners began settling in the Hungarian Kingdom and neighbouring regions during the 12th century.During the 17th and the 18th century, when the wars between Austria and Ottomans devastated and depopulated much of the Pannonian Plain, the ruling Habsburg dynasty resettled the land with people of various ethnicities: Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, Serbs, Romanians, Ukrainians, and German settlers (Swabians) from all over Hungary. Before the World War II, there were approximately one million ethnic Danube Swabians in the region. After the War, many of them were forced to leave their homes and move to Germany, but some still live near the Danube.
One of the most specific ethnicities are the Lipovans, who live in the Danube Delta, in Romania and Ukraine. Lipovans are Russians who emigrated from that country three hundredyears ago, because of the religious disputes. Since they refused to obey reformed doctrine of the Orthodox church in the 17th century, they were persecuted as ”schismatic” and forced to leave the country. Most of Lipovans live in the town of Vilkovo in Ukraine. Since they inhabit a swampy lands, Lipovans build their homes on islets of dry land, made by digging mud out from the trenches. The house walls are made of reed and mud, so they have to be rebuild every few years.
Whatever ethnicity they belonged, whatever language they spoke, all the Danube people tend to enjoy life, to sing and dance, to eat well and be by the river as much as possible. In all the parts of the region, folk music and dancing have a long tradition, and some of the elements are shared by more nations. The gastronomy and viticulture is an important part of culture, as well as “naive” painting and different useful crafts.
The Danube is a constance presence in everyday life, which is best illustrated by the fact that it is a subject of numerous poems, songs and paintings.