Don’t you feel nostalgia at all?

Felix and Max are Plotkists from Berlin, Germany. Together with Alice and Katerina from the Czech Republic their expedition led them to an encounter with members of the vanishing German minority of Transylvania, the Transylvanian Saxons. They talked with people at the German Democratic Forum and the German Newspaper for Romania "DAZ" in Sibiu and to some older people (residents and former residents returning for summer holidays) in a former German village, Cişnadioara / Michelsberg.
However, their views on what they saw and heard are still quite different…

MAX: Come on, Felix! You have to admit you would not even dream of visiting a Transylvanian Heritage Stube at home in Germany, full of traditional craftsmanship, old people in fancy costumes staging folklore, and afterwards telling you in a strangely archaic dialect they’re sorry Kronstadt is now Braşov and Schässburg is only called Sighişoara… But being here, in Romania, you think the few remaining Saxons of Transylvania are worth an expedition?

FELIX: An ethnic group may look different from different angles. Looking for the Saxons in Germany, organised in their unions, you?ll inevitably run into some keepers of a perhaps too carefully kept-up tradition. But please, try to see it in a more abstract way. Look at us, young Germans travelling all over Eastern Europe, finding traces of a centuries-old German presence around every corner. What does it mean to be German? It seems quite amazing to me to meet people who speak the same language, far, far away from Germany. And when you watch such a tradition vanish, diminish, leaving only a few remainders, as here in Transylvania, nostalgia comes along naturally. Then you want to know more about what was once there. It was especially the German Minority in Romania, who formed a separate community long ago, now leaving a clearly visible mark on this region.

MAX: No doubt the Saxons have bestowed their features onto towns like Sibiu and villages like Cişnadioara, although they make up a minority of merely a few percent in those places today.

FELIX: You have to understand, it’s not folklore I’m interested in. Folkloristic stuff seems to be what those leaving this region seem to need at home or in their summer apartments they keep returning to. Among the people we met, I felt more sympathetic towards those who did not need products of traditional craftsmanship or folk dance bands for their self-assurance. Like Mr Kattisch, the farmer, or Mr Gütsch, the engineer we met in the village of Michelsberg. Many Saxons who stayed, like them, have a very pragmatic approach towards their situation. They may be looking back in grief on what is lost. But they live on, here. They have been building up closer relations with their Romanian neighbours, closer than the German community ever did in the last seven centuries.

MAX: Well, what you are alluding to now struck me the most. Those centuries of self-chosen isolation, the strict disapproval of mixed marriages. Mr. Gütsch told us about some villages with so many years of incestual marriages; indeed the great number of children with disabilities immediately caught my eye. These are the extremes of a mentality that hid itself away, like the medieval Saxons did in those castle-churches that tourists come to see today.

FELIX: The reasons for the closing of communities are various. Maybe it is more a question of religion, as Romanians are Orthodox, Hungarians Calvinists or Catholics. The Banat Swabians, a Catholic German minority group, did not intermarry with the Lutheran Saxons either.

MAX: Saxons and "Germans" in general are profiting from a very positive stereotypes in the minds of the Romanian majority. In contrast to the widespread contempt for Roma and the general dislike of Hungarians, Germans are liked and their culture is at the centre of interest for many young Romanians who not only attend German schools, but even join the minority’s cultural activities…

FELIX: But what makes a community a community, when the people are lacking? The German schools still exist, although most of the children have Romanian parents, and hope their kids will have a better future if they grow up bilingual. And if some of those children (as the girl who plays the organ in the Lutheran church of Cişnadioara) decide to take part in the German youth organisations, you have got the minority reappearing. Well, that’s what the representatives of the German Democratic Forum think. It may be the only chance for the German culture to survive in this region.

MAX: We are always talking about "being German"! Don’t you agree that this culture seems to have disappeared from Transylvania (and from the Banat and other areas), and that the exodus of those people happened exactly because they fatally identified themselves as Germans, all of a sudden? The identification works in Germany, too. Since the fifties, Western Germany literally bought tens of thousands of Romanian citizens out of the country. And after ’89, everyone who claimed German ancestors was given a German passport. That’s Germany’s racist law!

FELIX: I wouldn’t call it racist. But it is clearly a different understanding of citizenship than for instance in France, where you have to be born on the French territory to attain French citizenship. In Germany the determination of origin is decisive, family traditions and far-reaching roots do matter.

MAX: Are the Romanians, Hungarians or the Roma of less worth because their ancestors did not come from the Rhine valley 700 years ago?

FELIX: It just seems to me that Germany has had a responsibility for Germans abroad (and their descendants), who suffered from expulsion and forced labour in Eastern European countries like Romania in the aftermath of WW II. I guess, you have to keep this in mind, if you want to understand German citizenship legislation in the past decades.

MAX: Anyway, I think it’s no wonder this culture is gone. When our interviewees where young, most of the locals of Cişnadioara regarded themselves as Saxons and not rarely, also as citizens of the Romanian state. Of course, the sons of the bourgeoisie went to Germany for their studies, but they used to come back and even bring their future wives along. The Romanian nationalities policy and the Third Reich’s war changed this very quickly. Suddenly, the Saxons would run to the Waffen-SS units, feeling supreme compared to their "non-German" Romanian neighbours. But when they were deported into the USSR or lost their property after WWII, they thought of themselves as victims of a great injustice. It did not even take two generations, say, from 1918 to 1956, to turn "Saxons" and "Swabians" into "Germans". For the children of those new Germans, going "home to the Reich" (as it was logically from the economic point of view) was more important than the heritage of centuries they left here.

FELIX: Sociologists claim that the community disappeared, because it was unable to reform itself and it couldn’t survive the old way. Imagine the restrictive climate, the customs we talked about, having such difficulties as not being able to marry a partner from another ethnic group! When the Iron Curtain was torn away, young people had the chance to get out of this and start a new life in a modern country! And we have to mention the Ceausescu dictatorship. The country was ruined – another reason to leave. But I wonder what you think about them vanishing. Don’t you feel nostalgia at all, when you see the empty churches, the remaining lonesome grannies, the cemeteries that nobody looks after? Surrounded by a Romanian population that feels no relationship whatsoever to their German heritage. Should we blame people for having left? For not having stayed to join in rebuilding the country after the end of the dictatorship? The Germans, famous reconstructers, isn’t that the cliche? No one forced anybody to leave, the exodus was a voluntary one. What remains is grief for the lost home, the forlorn culture.

MAX: I would never accuse my doctor from Sighişoara for his decision, as I’d never blame my Turkish shopkeeper for leaving the village by Lake Van. We have no right to judge those people. I am rather criticising German law that welcomed the doctor as being German but sends his Roma neighbours back to Sighişoara.

FELIX: I thought the statement of Mr Kattisch, the old farmer, was very reconciliatory. He said: Seven hundred years ago the Saxons came here in search for a better and freer life. Now many of them left again to find a better life in another place.


Before the war, there were 800.000 people counted as ethnic Germans in Romania. At that time, they were the most prominent majority. Today they are outnumbered even by Bucharest?s Arab working migrants. There are 60.000 ethnic Germans left, 0,3 percent of the country’s population.

In the 11th century the Hungarian king Geza invited German settlers from the Rhine/Mosel territories to the Eastern borderlands of his kingdom to defend the area from steppe nomads endangering it from the East. The settlers were offered far-ranging liberties (personal freedom, political, economic and religious autonomy from the German "corporations"). Settlement was reactivated in later times. As recently as in the 18th century, the Habsburg Emperors settled "Swabians" to the Banat.

So there were different, independent "German" minority groups in Romania, divided by different traditions, time of settlement and religious denominations: Sathmar and Banat Swabians, Bucovina and Moldovan Germans. Saxons in Bistriţa and Central Transylvania, called "Siebenbürgen" (Seven Boroughs) because of seven cities with independent regional jurisdiction.

As an effect of the Saxon settlement in medieval Transylvania, the loosely populated area changed completely. German towns and villages were built, surrounded by Romanians and Hungarians. The Saxons preserved their ethnicity, German language and culture until the 20th century. Deported in scores to reconstruct the Soviet Union after WWII, the Saxons continued to play a specific role in Ceausescu’s Romania. Although they maintained some cultural rights, a strong wish emerged to flee the communist dictatorship and leave for Germany.

After the revolution in 1989, the majority of Romania’s ethnic Germans took their chance and went to Germany, where they were granted citizenship. Those who stayed, mostly the old people with no wish to leave their homeland, faced the rapid dissolution of a formerly functioning local society and the breakdown of their social networks. Nowadays ethnic Germans in Romania have an average age of 60, while the average life expectancy in Romania is around 68. Politically, the remaining German minority is represented by the German Democratic Forum (DFDR).

Felix Wolf

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