The first yellow flames are beginning to spread upwards on the main square in Mohács, eating a hole through the darkness. Sparks spray upwards from the mountain of neatly stacked twigs and branches, torchbearers melt back into a pool of darkness and a group of horned figures, shaggy looking and silhouetted against the orange glow of the facades behind them, clamber slowly down from their position on the top of the bonfire. And then, arms linked in concentric circles and faces glowing orange in the billowing, crackling roar of heat, the people of Mohács begin to dance.
Mohács is generally known within the framework of two key dates — as the place where the Magyars were defeated by the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent in 1526, and where the Ottomans were in turn defeated by the armies of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I in 1687. These two dates provide a pair of neat bookends to the fortunes of the Ottomans in central Europe. Yet the mixture of cultures, minorities and languages in this little town beside the Danube near Hungary’s southern border, far from the tourist crowds in Budapest and Balaton, is infinitely more multi-layered than two defining battles in the vast chronology of European history might suggest.
Mohács has a significant Croatian minority, the Šokci — Catholic inhabitants of several towns and villages along the Danube and the Sava, in the Hungarian Baranya region as well as the Croatian Baranja region in eastern Slavonia, and the Vojvodina region in Serbia. They moved to this area from further south — probably from what is now northern Bosnia — as part of the chaotic jumble of migrations and displacements which accompanied, and followed, the Ottoman invasion of and later retreat from the Balkans. (The Šokci are not seen as a separate ethnic group in Croatia, and the 2011 Croatian census didn’t offer Šokci as a defined ethnicity or národnost.)
In any case they have their own folk costumes, and you can still hear Croatian spoken fairly widely in the town — along with an archaic form of German, since there’s also a significant German (Swabian) minority in Mohács.
The Danube Swabians arrived in the 18th century in several waves, having been invited by the Habsburgs to resettle the area following the recent expulsion of the Ottomans from Hungary. The Habsburgs welcomed the prospective settlers, who were Catholics, originally from the south-west of Germany (hence the name Swabians). They were offered free agricultural land and exemption from taxes for several years. For their part, the Swabians were resettling an area drastically depopulated following the departure of the Ottomans, and restoring productivity on its fertile farmland.