‘The Rise and Fall of Saxon Transylvania’: A Book Review by Marius-Constantin Popa

Feb 28, 14 • BlogNo CommentsRead More »
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The Rise and Fall of Saxon Transylvania

Reading this book was a thrilling experience for me. It took me to those times when the Saxons came to Transylvania, settled and made progress there, as well as left that place for better destinations. Thus, the Saxons came to Transylvania without meaning to disturb the peace and quiet of those parts, but to establish themselves there on the chance of a better living standard. The newcomers adopted the Transylvanian parts as a land of possibilities, where they could be­come prosperous and find their peace and quiet. Their migration towards the East was ac­tually fuelled by their ardent desire for land and freedom. In addition, like many other people who want to keep the crafts that made them famous and to earn their living, the Saxons were burdened by taxes – just as we are nowadays – collected by feudal rulers. Most of those emigrants were poor peasants. The rulers who wanted to colonize a land used the services of a professional ‘locator’, who helped the newcomers to settle on the new land. Only wealthy ‘locators’ could become managers of the new settlements. Their desire for land and freedom could be only fulfilled in a ‘promised land’ (a place that today resembles ‘the United States). The ‘professional locator’ could resemble one of the Founding Fathers of the American nation. Our present-day neighbors from the West, the Hungarians, were those who promised the new colonists all kinds of advantages. Hungarian leaders invited the new guests from the Western parts of the continent to establish themselves on the lands inhabited by conquered ethnic groups (among whom Romanians were also counted) and develop them. This situation reminds me of two similar cases, when England wanted to populate the newly-conquered land of today’s United States of America and Australia with convicts that overclouded its prisons. The new colonists were promised an enclave free from the domination of nobility and vassalage, having only to subject to the king, who was actually the Hungarian leader at that time. The same situation is also shared today by a part of Canada, which is subject to the queen of the United Kingdom.

Saxons brought the habit of planned settlements in Transylvania. Their widespread and small villages had homesteads lined up on two rows along one street or square. In this re­spect, like in many others, I have noticed that these German ethnics set many good ex­amples to our fellow citizens, but the latter were not always – if they have ever been so- grateful to them for the lessons they had learned from them. Each settler got an equal share of the field – split into three areas (for crop rotation over a three-year cycle). Saxons used to grow wheat, oats, barley and rye. Forests, meadows and waters were used jointly. As I have noticed, the Saxons were very good farmers and managers of natural resources.

In troubled times, Saxons learned to live in their communities much like bees in their hives. Individual freedom was sacrificed to the interest of the community, which ruled al­most all aspects of social life. Deviations from these rules were punished. This is another situation when the Saxons outdid our fellow countrymen – the good of the community took priority over the individual interest, a positive attitude that is quite the opposite of the way in which most Romanians are accustomed to think nowadays.

Because they came from parts where advanced farming represented a tradition, the Saxons succeeded in sowing the seeds of economic development. The new, efficient tools that they introduced to meet their agricultural and economic requirements led to the acceleration of deforestation and the expansion of arable land and increased production. Their labor was also aided by animals, water and wind power.

Archaeological discoveries came to prove the development of crafts and trade. The agricul­tural progress they made and strict specialization of crafts improved each other. Because the Saxons had got the right to hold tax-free fairs and travel with their goods without pay­ing customs, trade saw a quick development, becoming a profitable occupation.

After 1241, when the great Mongolian leader Genghis Khan had conquered our continent and many names of Saxon settlements, colonization began again to repopulate deserted areas. After the following decades and centuries, each with their own share of pillage by different conquering nations or mercenary armies, the Transylvanian Saxon civilization reinvented itself, sheltered by sturdy walls, in fortified towns and villages.

Sibiu offers the traveler an unforgettable trip through space – its narrow streets, commu­nicating courtyards, stone pavements – and time – in a medieval workshop-town, with hundreds of internal regulations. The Great Square had been once the place where fairs, festivities, trials and executions used to be held and where the town’s rich men lived. Such wealthy people became managers of the local mint and mining business. As it can be seen, monopolization has a long tradition in our country, and this historic period illustrates how gold and silver mining was monopolized by wealthy and influential people in the town.

As in other historical periods when it was about the emergence of new ethnic groups in certain parts of a country, the case of Saxon colonists is pretty much the same. The first of them who settled in Transylvania founded a very large town – a kind of city of today. In less than a century (namely around the beginning of the 13th century), the town had already become the political and administrative centre of the colonist union. Towards the 1230s, the former Sibiu County went through a land reform, being split into seven seats or admin­istrative units headed by the main seat, Sibiu. I have noticed that the land reform through which Sibiu went is similar to the one attempted by the Romanian government nowadays through the much-disputed regionalization strategy; the only difference in our case today is that the number of over 40 Romanian counties is reduced to eight, while the Sibiu County was split into seven seats. In time, Sibiu became bigger and bigger, developing into a true city, specific to the middle Ages, with its square surrounded by its walls.

The Mongol invasion that took place in the 13th century caused an upheaval in South-East­ern Europe, but the state of affairs that it created turned out to be the big advantage of Saxon towns. The arisen power void led to the emergence of the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia. The two new countries served both as sources of raw materials and as mar­kets for the goods traded by Saxon craftsmen – weapons, tools or luxury items. With the help of a well-developed and secured retail system, Saxon merchants could increase their production.

Right from the start, Sibiu had the bad luck of being led by people whose only purpose seemed to be the one of growing richer and richer. The first to get rich was the small nobil­ity, who had founded settlements and who were busying themselves with activities more or less illegal. During the following centuries, they were repeatedly replaced at the town hall by a new elite of non-noble entrepreneurs, who were also hungry for more and more money and did business with different kinds of partners. The story of Sibiu at that time is pretty much the same as the one of our entire country after the (failed) masquerade of 1989, when either parties, coalitions, alliances or unions of parties succeeded to power. These ‘benefactors’ are always criticized by the opposition while in office and are accus­tomed to criticize those in power while in the opposition. Their sole purpose was not the progress of our nation, but to tax different products, services and goods purchased, used and owned by the ordinary citizen so that he realizes that he only lives to pay his taxes to the state for being treated like a slave. In the meantime, ‘the smart guys’ do business with the state, but they do not experience anything. Those who are cast into prison, however, ex­perience this situation because they have made trouble for themselves on different occa­sions. Some of them are guilty indeed; others might have ‘irritated’ influential people.

They all proved to be masters at lobbying: they constantly fought to extend and protect trade, making a competition out of collecting economic exemptions and privileges from Hungarian kings. Today, some Romanian local barons do not even think and admit that they are unable to draw European funds in order to contribute to the development of the city that they lead. Others, on the other hand, use the European funds to supply money for their business.

Only a few high-ranking families could be elected members of the city council. It happened because they might have known how to pull the strings for their benefit when they did business with their partners. The situation of that time was similar to the one of today’s Romania: elections are won by the candidate, party, alliance or union of parties that proves its abilities to pull the strings for the benefit of the one who ‘deserves’ it.

Towards the end of the 14th century, the town had almost 20 guilds with more than 20 crafts. There, people used to work together like within a large multi-skilled company, each guild representing a kind of trade union for one type of craftsmen, who, instead of com­peting, chose to help each other. Unlike today, when companies are accustomed to fight against each other through different kinds of strategies, Saxons knew that helping each other was a better way to make progress.

Like during any historical age, battles were fought only if they were led by a chief, and the Transylvanian Saxon one did not make any exception. Towards the end of the 15th century, Sibiu began being led by a merchant named Georg Hecht as its mayor. While he led the town, the latter saw a prosperous time. Even the Turks were defeated two times while he led the town. After he had passed away towards the end of the 15th century, his son Johann, the main supporter of Martin Luther in the town, facilitated the officiation of the first Re­formist services in the house that he inherited from his father. Like any other new thing that emerged during a historical age, religions were supported very easily by ‘open-minded’ people, who also found followers for the new medium of manipulation, without balancing in mind the danger they incurred in advance.

The 16th century represented a period of great changes in Transylvania. Hungary had been defeated by the Turks in the 1520s, and the heart of the country became a pashaluk after about 20 years. Transylvania had remained an autonomous principality under Ottoman suzerainty until towards the end of the 17th century. Transylvania is a claimed territory even nowadays, when the Hungarians that like in that part of our country want their own territory, called the Szekler region. The three privileged groups – the Magyar nobility, Sax­ons and Szekelys ruled the country with equal rights. They chose the prince, they were rep­resented in his councils and had the power of veto against the decisions taken by the Diet, which could harm their interests.

As concerns the decline of the Saxon civilization of Transylvania, it happened as a result of the edicts and new laws issued by Emperor Joseph II of Austria, through which it was at­tempted the regulations of his subjects’ happiness on the basis of rational principles and the turning of the empire into a modern centralized state. This situation reminds me of the case of the Roman Empire, when Emperor Constantine the Great issued the famous edict of Milan, through which he turned the Christian religion into a state one, thus stopping the practice of his predecessor emperors to persecute the followers of Christianity; on the other hand, the Austrian emperor had the bad idea of turning his empire into a centralized state against the will of his happy subjects. One of the 6,000 edicts issued by the Austrian em­peror gave the Transylvanian parts a new administrative partition into 11 counties, cancel­ling out the autonomies of privileged peoples. Those privileged had been recognized by the Habsburgs whey they had taken over Transylvania, through the Diploma Leopoldinum (1691).

Although the edict was partly revoked in the year of the emperor’s death, things had already begun to look black for the Transylvanian Saxons. The 18th century marked the be­ginning of their fall as a civilization, because they could not get a new reconfirmation of privileges. In the age of nationalism, they had to face a new leader – the national state – de­termined to assimilate them at any cost.

Although Hungary annexed Transylvania after the one-year rebellion that had started in 1848, Romanians and Saxons remained faithful to Vienna. As a result, the Szekelys resorted to reprisals, setting several villages on fire. This awful measure of the Szekelys proves, once more (if it was needed again) – that the Hungarians are very revengeful as a nation.

The Saxons had to adopt ‘the Hungarian lifestyle’ towards the end of the 19th century.

Among other things, the adoption meant that Hungarian became the official language, and guilds were forbidden for being obsolete. In addition, this adoption reminds me of the case when the Dacians had to adopt ‘the Roman lifestyle’ after they had been taken over by the Roman Empire; at that time, Emperor Trajan was the main character that played a major part in the Romanization process that the Dacians had to face. Among other things, the Romanisation process implied the adoption of Latin, the main language spoken within the Roman Empire.

Dissatisfaction with the Hungarian government and the customs war between our country and Austria-Hungary happened towards the end of the 19th century, which plunged Saxon towns into a deep economic crisis, gave rise to a massive wave of emigration to the United States. As history has proved so far, dissatisfaction with the measures taken by a certain government and war went hand in hand with massive emigrations of people to countries where living standards were higher, and this Saxon case could not be excepted.

Once Transylvania was annexed to our country, Romanisation replaced Hungarification. In 1918, the three Romanian principalities – Moldavia, Transylvania and Wallachia – united as the Greater Romania, and the Saxons, Swabians and Germans from the pre-1918 Ro­manian kingdom, Bucovina and Bessarabia, founded the most numerous Germanic com­munity in South-Eastern Europe, namely 800,000 people. However, the Saxon community would face more challenges.

During the first half of the 20th century, the Saxon community faced an agricultural reform that implied the loss of large lots of land, as well as financial problems for school and church, its two fundamental institutions.

The next blow was the decision made by the Romanian government to impose a half rate for exchanging the Hungarian currency into the Romanian one, which melted away all the savings made by the inhabitants of Transylvania, but hit the Saxons particularly hard, be­cause the latter had succeeded in saving more money. Since the half of the 1920s, the end-of-school examination was only held in Romanian. I must say that the Bucharest govern­ment ‘knew’ almost always how to cheat its own people, including its minorities. As con­cerns the financial measures that our government took throughout history, they proved il­logical many times. Even today, our government is taking many financial measures for the sole purpose of collecting money to the state budget, but most of these measures prove a burden of taxation for the ordinary citizen. Many times, our authorities listen to the European financial institutions and the international ones too much when they take such measures, instead of taking into consideration the financial and economic context of our country. The educational system is still ‘an intellectual exam’ that our government is al­ways trying to pass, but it is always giving enough bad answers to the questions in the exam and never succeeds in finding the best solutions for an educational system that is still in a coma. This coma is maintained artificially by the ‘experts’ in the Ministry of Edu­cation, who try all kinds of ‘medicine’ to make ‘the patient’ ‘communicate’, but they actually keep it in a deeper coma and will never know when they find the perfect ratio of measures. It is small wonder that few children succeed in getting best results in international compet­itions and not any Romanian university is recognized throughout the world.

As expected, the Saxons were not prepared to face the transition from the periphery of great European empire to the centre of a Balkan country, but they succeeded in reinventing themselves, and their economy had another attempt at a comeback. After the Unification, the Saxons, although most of them were peasants, realized that their much lower and very expensive production could not compete with the one of the farmers to the south of the Carpathians. In order to avoid bankruptcy, they came up with industrializing agriculture. Thus, after importing all the necessary tools from Germany to serve their purpose, they re­oriented themselves towards more profitable fields – animal farming, industrial and medi­cinal plants, vegetables and fruits.

Education played an essential part with their community. Every village participated in con­ferences scheduled for being held by teachers to spread new knowledge and technologies. With the help of the industrialized agriculture, they could get wheat and maize crops more than 100 hundred percent above the average agricultural output of our country. In 1925, they were considered the best farmers and cattle breeders of all the nationalities of the Ro­manian provinces united seven years before. The Saxons proved – once again – that they outdid our country in every aspect of social life, and now it is about farming and cattle breeding. They succeeded in outdoing our country in a field where Romania excelled dur­ing the Communist regime of Ceausescu, when we – as a country – became the granary of the entire Europe.

Although they only represented about one hundredth of the country population, their total investment into industry amounted to about 7 billion lei at the half of the 1930s, namely one third of the Romanian state budget. At that time, 10 percent of the money deposited in Romanian banks was entrusted to the over 40 Saxons banks, of which the General Savings House in Brasov (1825) is considered the first of its kind in our country. I think this is a great accomplishment for the Saxons, especially because it was about the inter-war period, when everything was realized very hard, particularly as concerned the financial aspect. The Saxon example is a good one and it should be followed by the Romanian authorities in order our country to be financially independent and not to have to borrow money from in­ternational and European bodies any more.

Even the newspapers and the other publications printed in the Saxon world saw a great development, although they were issued during a tense period, at least from political and social points of view. Having been a privileged ethnic group until towards the end of the 1860s, the Saxons did not take well to becoming a minority claimed by the Hungarian national state and the Ro­manian one; in the 1930s, they chose to form their own nation, against the state in which they lived. Many times, when a minority cannot get some privileges it asks for, it should better declare its independence from the country within which it leads its life, but this is

Not always a measure that has to be taken, because there must be a way out without split­ting an entire country into minorities that ask for their rights.

Their disappointment with the Bucharest government determined them to protest against the Romanian regime. In that context, Adolf Hitler, who was first considered as a ‘saviour’, used the Saxons as ‘weapons’ against the Bucharest government. However, the ‘saviour’ proved himself a traitor that disappointed their expectations and decided to split their area between Romania and Hungary, stopping thus their dream to live within their own autonomous area.

The young Saxon appointed by the Berlin regime at the beginning of the 1940s to lead the German ethnic group of Romania succeeded, however unfortunately, in spreading the Nazi ideology to most Germans that lived in Romania, they becoming a must-have ‘accessory’ for the army of their native country. After U.S.S.R had started its invasion, ethnic Germans be­came a reserve for the Third Reich army. At that time, the army still played a major part in the strategy of a country, especially because the Second World War was approaching quickly, but today, only the United States of America invests lots of money into its armed forces. It happens because the USA is accustomed to dare to declare war to which they want and must be always prepared for others’ revenge. In the United States, there is also a custom according to which young boys are trained very well to face the tough conditions in the army. As everybody knows war cause many casualties and, in addition, is very expens­ive. To lower the expenses, but to keep the high number of casualties, the idea of war was abandoned for other measures that require much lower expenses. One of such measures is the ‘aid’ come from the pharmaceutical industry and consists in the drugs that it creates. According to some trustworthy sources, there are even diseases created for the drugs that already exist.

The war and its devastating consequences gave rise to a general hysteria among the Sax­ons. Most Saxons were obliged by soldiers to abandon their own homesteads. Those evacu­ated from northern Transylvania experienced an ordeal of their own, orchestrated by their Romanian fellow countrymen. After all soldiers had left Transylvania, the abandoned homesteads were looted by neighboring Gypsies and Romanians, who stole everything they could. Even at that time, our fellow countrymen and their ‘work mates’ ‘contributed’ to a bad reputation for our country. Their reputation as thieves and murderers has deep roots throughout history.

Between 1944 and 1945, the abandoned Saxon homesteads were repopulated with more than 2,000 families of Romanian colonists. The agricultural reform applied in the spring of 1945 deprived German ethnics of their lands. One quarter of the evacuated Saxons were overtaken by the German army and sent back to Transylvania during the summer and au­tumn of the same year. The Romanian authorities acted like the legendary character Robin Hood, taking the possessions of wealthy people and giving them to the poor, but they prob­ably forgot that the Saxons had greatly contributed to the national prosperity. Once re­turned, our fellow countrymen were again those who brought Saxons under because the latter ‘dared’ to come back to their homesteads.

There had been a time when all German ethnics had to work for their community, but they were set free towards the end of the 1940s. During the following decade, survivors could fi­nally return to their places of origin and got back everything they had been deprived of: their right to vote, education and liturgical services. They were, however, unprepared for the emergence of the Communist regime. For them, the new regime stood for discrimina­tion, uncertainty, hindrances, prison and displacement to the Baragan plain. At that time, the Saxons that lived all over Eastern Europe were paid to go back to Western Germany to work there. The fall of the Communist regime in 1989 determined another great wave of free emigration for German ethnics.

After 1990, with the massive exodus of the Saxons, their houses were given to Romanians and Gypsies, who nevertheless coveted their homesteads especially that they got them for free and had not contributed to their development. The Saxons moved to Germany, Austria, the United States and Canada. Today, there are only about 15,000 Saxons left in our country – most of them elderly.