"Seven hundred years ago there was nothing here but wild forest land. We came here from the Rhine at the bidding of the Magyars. Here we settled and made this town what it is today." (an old Saxon man to E. O. Hoppe in Sibiu (Hermannstadt), 1923)*
Transylvania, or Siebenbürgen in German, is best known to most of us as the land of vampires and the infamous Count Dracula. Transylvania will forever be associated with vampires courtesy of the Irish writer Bram Stoker. He loosely tied the story of Vlad Tepes to his novel about vampires. Vlad Tepes, also known as "Dracula," was a 15th century Wallachian prince who had a nasty habit of impaling his Turkish prisioners of war. The name Tepes in Romanian means to "impale" and Dracula means son of the Dragon. Vlad's father was a member of the Order of the Dragon.
Although vampires draw the crowds, the majestic mountains, wholesome people and the region's Saxon heritage convinces them to linger a bit longer than they might have planned to. Transylvania is home to four distinct ethnic groups who have lived there for centuries (Germans, Romanians, Hungarians, Roma). The region was part of the Hungarian kingdom in 1140 when their king (Bela) invited ethnic German merchants and farmers to settle in Transylvania. His goal was to create a buffer between his kingdom and an expansionist Ottoman Empire. The king gave the Germans generous property rights, tax exemptions and limited political autonomy in exchange for military service whenever the need arose.
The region later came to be known by its German name, Siebenbürgen. Several similar, yet conflicting, stories about the origins of the name Siebenbürgen exist. Most likely, Siebenbürgen is derived from the seven original fortress towns (Kronstadt, Hermannstadt, Schässburg, Klausenburg, Mesiasch, Mühlbach, and Bistritz) settled by ethnic Germans in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Transylvania Germans were most often referred to as "Saxons," even though virtually none of them actually came from Saxony. The "Saxons" came to Transylvania from the Mosel and Alsace-Lorraine regions of Germany. At that time, "Saxon" was synonymous with "German." Thus these Palatines became known as the "Saxons" of Transylvania.
The ethnic Germans, or "Siebenbürger" as they called themselves, founded numerous fortress towns at the edge of the Carpathians and in the hinterland to the north. Religion was very important to the Siebenbürger. They built large churches within the fortresses. Perhaps the most famous "saxon" was Johannes Honerus, who was born in Kronstadt (Brasov). Honerus led the Protestant reformation in Siebenbürgen. A street adjacent to the famous "Schwarze Kirche" Lutheran church in Kronstadt bears his name.
The Siebenbürger prospered over the centuries under several different rulers (Hungary, the Ottomans, Austrians, Romanians, Nazi Germany and a socialist Romania). As late as the 1930's the Siebenbürger population in Transylvania numbered more than 800,000**. However, the Second World War ended with disastrous consequences for them. There numbers dropped precipitously after 1939 due to several factors:
● Over 150,000 Siebenbürger died fighting on the Russian Front.
● The communists deported another 70,000-150,000 to labor camps in the Soviet Union after 1945.
● The Siebenbürger population further declined to approximately 340,000 in 1970 when the West German government began paying Nicolae Ceausescu's government 12,000 Deutsche Marks per person to allow the ethnic Germans to emigrate. This policy solved two problems for the Romanian government. The program helped alleviate a hard currency shortage and reduced the German population. The end result was 120,000-170,000 Siebenbürger resettled in Germany from 1970 - 1989.
The Ceausescu government did everything it could to make the non-Romanian minority population of the country desire to leave. The government systematically attempted to destroy German and Hungarian culture. The worst manifestation of this nightmare was Ceausescu's systemization plan in the 1980s. This was a grand scheme to collectivize agriculture and force small farmers off their land. This disastrous policy resulted in the destruction of over 7,000 of Romania's 13,000 plus rural villages. Families were uprooted from their land and relocated in massive, poorly constructed apartment buildings that were little more than hovels. Systemization fell particularly hard on the Siebenbürger who despite their minority status remained a close community until the 1980's. For many the loss of land they had ties dating as far back as the 10th Century was simply too much. Additionally, rural Germans found themselves uprooted from their insular rural world and tossed into an urban environment where many, for the first time, truely saw themselves as a a small minority in a Romania. Thousands of Siebenbürger were disheartened with this new life under Ceausescu's brand of socialism.
The popular (disputed by many) Christmas uprising in 1989 that overthrew Ceausescu did little to end the Siebenbürger's misery. Although the Hungarian minority bore the brunt of the the new government's anti-minority posture, the government sponsored attacks seemed ominous to the ethnic Germans of Romania. The result was few of the remaining Siebenbürger saw any future a in post-communist, anti-minority, poverty stricken Romania.
Generous immigration laws for ethnic Germans allowed the Siebenbürger to emigrate after the Ceausescu regime collapsed in 1989. Over 150,000 Siebenbürger have left Siebenbürgen since the wall fell. This mass exodus has emptied many ethnic German settlements and left the viability of a future German population in Transylvania in doubt. Most of the remaining Siebenbürger today are elderly residents who saw little value in abandoning their homeland.
It is difficult to argue with those who emigrated from Siebenbürgen. They simply voted with their feet for a better life. Neglect, cultural isolation and abject poverty made Transylvania a very unappealing place for many Siebenbürger to be at the start of the 1990's. Ironically there has been a small flourishing of Saxon culture even as thousands departed. There is now a German language daily newspaper (banned until 1990) published in Hermanstadt. Successful Siebenbürger, of which there are thousands, and other Germans have recently begun funding restoration projects throughout the region in an effort to restore badly neglected landmarks of cultural significance. Sadly, a long established ethnic community is dying out in the Carpathian region of Eastern Europe. It will take more than money and restoration of churches to save this unique ethnic group in Eastern Europe. The Siebenbürger can only survive in their homeland if younger Siebenbürger return and raise their children in their homeland. Romania and Transylvania would benefit greatly from their return.
* Robert Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts, page 174.
** Robert Kaplan gives a figure of "several million" in his travelogue Balkan Ghosts.
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