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Transylvanian Saxons – the saga of a civilization

After 800 years, the Saxons returned in the West in search of the same thing which
had brought their ancestors here: freedom and economic prosperity.

Text by Catalin Gruia

The Colonization
Like managers with vacancies in the organizational chart, the first Hungarian kings
invited guests from the West to develop a Transylvania that was in process of being
conquered. They invited “guests” from the West to settle on the lands inhabited by
conquered Romanians, Cumans, Pecheneg and Slavs and to develop them. They were
promised an enclave free from the domination of nobility and from vassality, subject
only to the king. These privileges would be recorded in writing in 1224 by King
Andrew II. But the champion of Transylvanian colonization was his grandfather, King
Géza II (1141-1162), who succeeded in attracting Flemish, German and Walloon
“guests”. The Magyar chancellery called them Saxons – a name having nothing to do
with their land of origin, but rather with a legal statute. “In medieval Hungary, Saxons
were the holders of privileges which had initially been granted to miners in Saxony,
thanks to their rare skill,” says historian Konrad Gundisch.

The Rise
Saxons brought the habit of planned settlements to Transylvania. The Flemish-type
village became widespread, with homesteads lined up on two rows along one street or
square. According to architect Hermann Fabini, “ever since these settlements were
founded, there was a tendency to reduce the distance between homesteads as much as
possible, for joint, effective action against outside dangers.”
“The Saxons, a people of resolute, steady and unhurried will, chose the land where
they would raise their houses and dig their graves based on deeply pondered criteria;
they cautiously tasted the water, weighed the light and carefully measured the
thickness of the topsoil, they were wary of exceedingly steep heights and tested the
direction of the winds with flags and nostrils”, wrote philosopher Lucian Blaga in
Trilogia Culturii.
In troubled times, in a foreign country at the edge of the world, Saxons learned to live
in their communities much like bees in their hives. Individual freedom was sacrificed
to the interests of the group of neighbors, which ruled almost all aspects of life and
death, of work and play, of rest and faith. Any deviation – as little as swearing,
expressing a superstition, lying, drinking or poor hygiene – was punished.
On the 6th of February 1486, at the request of Sibiu mayor Thomas Altenberger, king
Matthias Corvinus extended the validity of the Andrean privilege (initially granted by
King Andrew II, in 1224, to Saxons in the Sibiu county) over all free Saxon
settlements. Thus, the Saxon Universitas was formed – a Parliament of sorts for free
Germans in Transylvania.

The decline
The star of the Saxons began to fade in the 18th century, when they failed to obtain the
23rd validation of their privileges. In the era of nationalism, they dealt with a new kind
of ruler – the nation state – who was determined to assimilate them at any cost.
Once Transylvania became part of Romania, Hungarification was replaced by
Romanization. In the Greater Romania of 1918, Saxons from Ardeal, together with
Swabians from Banat and Germans from the pre-1918 Romanian kingdom, Bucovina
and Basarabia, formed the most numerous Germanic community in South-Eastern
Europe: 800,000 people. During the agricultural reform in 1921, almost 15,000 acres
were seized from Saxon citizens and over 18,500 acres from Saxon communes, while
the Evangelical Church and the Saxon Universitas lost over half of their lands.
Starting September 1940, Berlin appointed young Saxon Andreas Schmidt as the head
of the Ethnic German Group in Romania. He succeeded in spreading Nazism to the
majority of Germans in Romania. In the weeks after the 13th of September 1944, when
the last German and Hungarian soldiers withdrew from northern Ardeal, Saxon
households were looted by neighboring Gypsies and Romanians, who stole everything
they could. In villages like Ghinda, Chirales or Tarpiu, some had taken the habit of
moving from one absentee house (a term used by Romanian authorities for the
departed Saxons) to the next every few days.
After the WWII 70.000 German ethnics were deported to the U.S.S.R. Those
returned in Romania after “ reeducation” were sent to labor camps as “community
service”, far from their places of origin. The situation only started to lighten in 1948.
Most labor prisoners were set free. Reparatory measures were attempted in the ’50s:
the survivors returned to their hometowns, got back their right to vote and attend
German schools and were given back their churches. But more misfortune was
waiting in Pandora’s box. An all-powerful communist state was established in
Romania, with increasing nationalist tendencies after the 1960s. For Saxons, it meant
discrimination, uncertainty, hindrances, prison, displacement to the B`r`gan plain. It
was also when the paid Saxon exodus began. At the height of its economic boom,
West Germany needed labor. Its authorities initiated protocols with all Eastern
European countries with German minorities. According to Florian Banu, researcher at
the National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives (CNSAS), secret
negotiations between Romania and Germany resulted in over 200,000 German ethnics
leaving the country between 1962 and 1989. One Saxon graduate thus “exported”
brought 3,000$ to the country treasury. One student – 1,500$.

To our days

After the fall of Ceausescu’s regime, the borders were open and, in only two years
(between 1990 and 1992), the huge majority of Germans in Romania (another
160,000) left the county freely. After 1990, with the massive exodus of the Saxons,
their houses were given to other locals – Romanian and Gypsy. The Saxons moved to
the diaspora: 200,000 live in Germany, about 20,000 in Austria, 30,000 in the U.S.,
8,000 in Canada. Rohtraut Wittstock, chief editor of Allgemeine Deusche Zeitung für
Rumänien, estimates that there are only 15,000 Saxons left in Romania – most of
them elderly.

Dear Reader,

If you want to learn more about the Saxon Transylvania – in a fast forward 37-minute reading session, I’d like to recomand you my book The Rise and Fall of German Transylvania

German Transylvania

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