Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Contexts Part II: Transylvania

Transylvania is known the world over as the home of vampires. In the time I have been here, I have to confess I haven’t seen a single one. If my attractiveness to mosquitoes is anything to go by this is not because I have badly tasting blood. But I admit that it’s possible that mosquitoes and vampires are likely to have different tastes in blood.

So, aside from the vampire angle, what else can I tell you about Transylvania? Those of you with the dubious benefit of a classical education will know that Transylvania means “beyond the woods”. Over the mountains might be a better description as the area is practically surrounded by mountains on all sides. It’s a very fertile region, Transylvania, and was once referred to (by Stalin, I believe, or at least someone in his government) as the breadbasket of Europe. Indeed he (Stalin) saw that as the role for Romania in the Warsaw Pact, but this pissed Ceasescu off, who thought the subtext was that Romanians were being described as peasants, and as a good communist he wanted a country full of proletariats. So rather than building up agriculture he instead filled the country with large ugly polluting factories. Thus, now, Romania’s agriculture is working at a 19th century semi-feudal level. And more surprisingly, in view of the fact that every town appears to have a tractor factory in it, there appear to be very few actual tractors in the country. I’ve mentioned before about how many horse carts and cows you see on the roads, and this is no exaggeration. I don’t think I’ve ever been stuck behind a tractor on the rods here, but horse carts? Every couple of miles. In fact one just went past the window of this apartment, despite the fact that we live more or less in the centre of a city. Well, large town. Ok, town.

Transylvanians regard their part of Romania as the “rich” part of Romania, with hard working people producing the food and other goods that keep the rest of the country in the lazy style to which they have become accustomed. Every country I have ever been to has these kinds of regional stereotypes. There are workers and those who live off the work, and this can be divided into class or they can be divided into regions. People from Lisbon for example barely ever bother to get out of bed if you listen to the people from Porto. Likewise the Sicilians are just a bunch of layabouts to the Milanese. For Transylvanians it’s the Wallachians. The Moldavians appear to have gained a kind of honorary Transylvanian status in all this. They’re not Transylvanians you understand, but at least they understand the role of the wallachian parasites. I should put all that in quotes, so you know it’s not me talking, but perhaps this sentence will do instead.

As I mentioned in the Romania post, Transylvania has something of a long and checkered history. You can read all about it on the Internet somewhere. I’ll start at about the 10th century because before that point nothing 9aside form during the Roman occupation) is very well documented, and so it’s difficult to know what really was going on. This also avoids getting into the tricky question of who the “real” Transylvanians are. So, after loads of invasions from various tribes, Transylvania started to be colonised by Magyars in about the 10th century, and by the 13th century it had become part of Hungary. (Do you se how I cunningly skipped 300 years there?) The Hungarian king, in an effort to stop various invading forces coming in and pillaging bits of it, invited two groups of people to move in and provide a buffer protection area. In the South/Southeast of Transylvania it was the Saxons, and in the East it was the Szekely. I’m not 100% sure who the Szekelys are, “a Hungarian ethnic group” seems to be the common consensus. They were renowned warriors hence their selection for this role. So there are areas of Transylvania where until recently there was a sizeable ethnic German population, and areas which are still Szekely (and there are still a lot of Hungarians in Transylvania). The Hungarian word for Transylvania is Erdely (pronounced Airday), and the German is Siebenburgen (7 towns, although one website I looked at suggested that this didn’t in fact refer to the 7 major towns of medieval Transylvania but was a Germanification of Sibiu, one of those towns, which is the most pronouncedly German still.)

So the next few hundred years is characterised by that history that goes something like “In 1479 King Wankdorf formed an alliance with Prince Mouflon of Cantaloupe, which led to the combined forces defeating the Wingnuts at the battle of Trouserpress. When Mouflon suddenly died of scrofula, his son, Prince Mouflon II joined forces with the Niblicks and turned against Wankdorf. Wankdorf immediately made peace with the Wingnuts and married Princess Lentil of Yucca. The three way alliance thus formed was too much for the Cantaloupe and Niblick forces who were pushed all the way back to the River Handcream.” Etc etc and so forth ad nauseum. You know the kind of thing.

In the grander scheme of things Transylvania was handed from empire to empire (Ottoman, Habsburg, Austro-Hungarian) Until about 1848 when the revolutions sweeping Europe engulfed Hungary and Transylvania, and ended up with a ruthless quashing of the uprising, and a subsequent policy of Magyarisation of the population of Transylvania. Under this regime, the Romanians in Transylvania, who previously had merely been disenfranchised, were now oppressed quite overtly and denied basic rights. All designed to undermine the Romanianness of the region. Language, culture, religion, you know, the whole works. It’d be nice to think that the end of this period would be the end of such oppressions anywhere in the world ever. But unfortunately not. In fact that Magyarisation has sprouted many bastard offspring all over the world in the 20th century and it’s still going on in various places.

In the First World War Hungary sided with the Germans, while Romania sided with the British/French/Russian alliance. At the end of the war, then, Transylvanian was effectively handed over to Romania, a fact on the ground which was confirmed by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. Then of course the entire process of Magyarisation was reversed and replaced with Romanisation. Hungarians were stripped of their land, property etc, and Romanians from other parts of the country were brought in to ensure the Romanian majority. In the 2nd World War, Hungary made the same mistake again and sided with Germany - mostly it seems to get back Transylvania. It did for a while, until Hitler and Stalin fell out and then Romania sided with Russia, eventually leading to being again on the “winning side”. Transylvania reverted to Romania after it’s brief bit of Hungarianness (in reality it was more like part of a greater Nazi empire, but since that empire only really existed under war conditions it’s a bit of a weird one (describing the nazis as weird is I suspect setting myself up for abuse, so I’ll just add in here that the empire and its status as a constantly fluctuating entity is the bit that’s weird. What happened within its expanding and contracting borders goes beyond weird and into the realms of fucking awful. Just to clear that up).

Post war and under Ceasescu, the Romanisation continued. Romanians were moved in from other parts of the country, Hungarians were often moved out and moved to barren bits of land or to work on one of Ceasescu’s grand projects (like the Danube Black Sea canal). People couldn’t have Hungarian names (Erika’s dad for example, born Laszlo, is officially Ladislau the closest Romanian equivalent to his real Hungarian name), large Romanian Orthodox Churches were built al over. The most prominent building in Csikszereda for example is the Romanian Orthodox church – even though the town has very few Romanians in it. I imagine the congregation is dwarfed by the interior of the church. Also under Ceasescu much of the German population of Transylvania left for West Germany. Germany has apparently always had a policy of offering all Germans anywhere in the world citizenship, and paid to “repatriate” their countrymen from Ceasescu’s Romania. Ceasescu wanted the money so was happy to let them go. Thus now, there are almost no Germans left in Transylvania.

After Ceasescu’s fall, and the general collapse of Eastern Europe many Hungarians fled to Hungary (these days you see thousands of Hungarian registered cars touring the countryside in summer, as people come back to visit their families). There are now about 1.5 million Hungarians in Transylvania. The population of Romania as a whole is 22million, but I don’t know what proportion of that is in Transylvania. So what’s left is a land of probably about 75% Romanian, 20% Hungarian and 5% Roma and a few surviving Germans. I’m making these figures up, but they’re a relatively informed guess.

God, I’ve gone on a bit there haven’t I? What I really ought to add is that Transylvania is gorgeous. Hills, mountains, forests, attractive and traditional villages, attractive gothic cities, rivers, lakes, gorges, and valleys. I perhaps ruined the effect of that final statement by wittering on about the divided history of the region. But really you should come. And visit.


nojer said...

Lakes, Mountains, Plenty we have, but very little tourists.

Emma said...

I really enjoyed your article. My parents are Saxons from scharosch. They came to the united states in 1964. There are not so many saxons left in the world. My brother and I can speak it but our children will never learn the language. It makes me feel sad that the culture I know will not exist for my children.



Anonymous said...

dude, get a life...

If anyone in the 21st century Romania, doesn`t feel Romanian, may he be ethnic romanian, hungarian, szeckely, gypsie or saxon, I think he has a problem....
Wake up, man!! Szecklers (especially) are clearly mixed with Romanians since centuries ago... You should read some history, it`s not exactly how you put it...

Signed: a half hungarian-half romanian girl.

Andy H said...

I have no idea what you're on about. If you'd care to tell me what you disgree with instead of throwing around meaningless expressions like "get a life" or "wake up", I could perhaps respond properly.

Tell me, what in this piece is incorrect or misrepresented?