In the Middle Ages, the kingdom of Hungary was located between the Holy Roman Empire in the West and the Byzantine Empire in the southeast. In the 11th century, under its first King, Vaik, the country began to look more towards the West. Vaik converted to Christianity, taking the name Stephan, and married a Bavarian princess, Gisela. It was he who brought the first Germans to the western reaches of the main Carpathian mountains. Noblemen were granted land and territories by the king on condition that they attracted settlers to live on it. The new landowners employed specialist location agents to recruit settlers and arrange for their passage. The first real wave of immigration took place around 1170. The second and largest influx of German miners, craftsmen and merchants began in 1245. Colonists from the German-speaking areas of the Rhineland, Bavaria, Swabia, Saxony and Bohemia resettled the areas devastated by the Mongol invasion of 1241.
Many of the colonists came from eastern and south-eastern Europe, but the Germans formed the largest group. Along with technical skills, they brought with them experience of civic organisation and structures. In many cases, the indigenous Slavic and Magyar peoples adopted the imported Germanic market and town laws, which were advantageous for citizens. The Town Law of Magdeburg, in particular, was widely used and became something of a standard. During the Middle Ages, the whole region experienced an economic boom from the mining of rich deposits of gold, silver, copper and iron ore. Germans in the region were described as 'Hungarian Germans', or as 'Germans from the Kremnitz settlement', until the beginning of the 20th century, when an umbrella term, 'Carpathian Germans', became widespread. This promoted a sense of community in a time of growing nationalism. In 1918, the Republic of Czechoslovakia was founded as one of the successor states of Austro-Hungary. Almost 140,000 inhabitants of the Slovakian part of the country identified themselves as ethnic Germans in 1921. By the late 1940s, this number had fallen to only 20,000, and today, there are perhaps 10,000 ethnic Germans living in what is now the Republic of Slovakia.
In the 16th century, Pressburg became the capital of 'royal Hungary', since, in contrast to large parts of the country, it was not under Ottoman occupation. Immigrants from German-speaking countries had lived here as craftsmen, merchants, and wine-growers since the 13th century, alongside Magyars, Slavs and Jews. Their influence waned during the 17th century, when the special rights and privileges of the Germans in upper Hungary were gradually rescinded. Yet German remained the language of everyday speech in Pressburg until the late 19th century, and the town council continued to conduct its business in German. The majority of the population was multilingual and had a good command of German, Hungarian and Slovakian.
Until well into the 19th century, nationality and citizenship were not felt to be equivalent. Most of the population saw themselves both as loyal subjects of the King of Hungary and as German, Hungarian, Slovakian or Jewish, depending on their ancestry. From the mid-19th century onward, increasing Hungarian nationalism led many Germans to change their names to a Hungarian form. This was often done to improve their career prospects. In 1840, Hungarian was made the sole official language, although it was still common for state documents to be issued in all three languages until 1867.
The Zips (Spiš) region lies in the north-eastern part of present-day Slovakia. In the Middle Ages, one of Europe's most important trade routes ran through the region. During the 12th century, under Géza II, the King of Hungary, families from the overpopulated Rhineland, from Saxony and Silesia were invited as settlers. They improved the land, spurred on economic growth and gradually changed the existing settlements into towns.
The 'Zipser Saxons', as they were known, acquired numerous special rights and privileges, such as the especially extensive Staple Right (1321) granted in Leutschau (Levoca). This stipulated that any traders passing through the town had to offer their wares for sale there for a period of 15 days. The predominantly urban character of German settlements in the Zips also resulted, in the 14th century, in the development of an early system of formal schools. In contrast to Siebenbürgen (Transylvania), where town rights were reserved for Germans, the civic privileges for towns in the Zips were valid for all inhabitants, regardless of nationality. This helps to explain the high density of towns in this region: in order for a town to qualify for German Town Law, only a certain percentage of its citizens had to be of German extraction. Up until 1608, however, the guilds still only admitted ethnic Germans to the status of Master.
It was during the 12th century that the first miners from Bavaria, Saxony and Silesia came to settle in what is now central Slovakia. From the 13th century onward, the Kings of Hungary recruited people with knowledge of constructing mine shafts and galleries, to help them extract valuable metal ores from deeper strata. These specialists came from Carinthia, the Harz mountains, Bohemia and Moravia. Their settlements were built up over time into the 'seven mining towns of lower Hungary'. The copper, gold and silver mines in the mountains proved very profitable. The work of German scientists and engineers resulted in many improvements to mining technology. These included new large transportation skips, the use of dynamite from the 17th century onwards, and systems for pumping groundwater out of the mines.
The intensive mining activity in the region led, in the 14th century, to the Hungarian Royal Mint being established in Schemnitz (Banska Štiavnica). Along with coins, it produced skilfully worked commemorative medals with local motifs, using manufacturing techniques based on craft traditions from the German-speaking world.
The region experienced a new period of prosperity with the founding of the world's first specialist college of mining, the Bergakademie, in Schemnitz in 1762. Its graduates went on to work in mining all over Europe.