Nature-lovers who chose to take a stroll last summer through the woods surrounding the Romanian Transylvanian village of Viscri might have been surprised, on some of the less-travelled paths, to bump into Britain’s Prince Charles. For locals, however, the presence of this illustrious figure is not at all a surprise, and hasn’t been for some time – in fact since the prince became a resident of Viscri a few years ago through his purchase of two pieces of real estate there.
But what brought Prince Charles to Romania? The area’s German community, or rather the vestiges left behind by this now virtually extinct people. The Germans of Romania were brought to the Transylvania and Banat areas in two historic waves a few hundreds of years apart. The Saxons and the Schwaben (Swabians) had the same intention, to populate certain areas, build roads, cities and towns and develop the regions’ economy. This they successfully did. And Herta Müller, a representative of the Schwaben of Banat, received this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, to everyone’s surprise. Nowhere was the surprise greater than in Romania itself. The event was covered by the media, but thereafter silence settled in again. For Herta Müller has a critical attitude towards the evolution of Romanian society after the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu, and her opinions are inconvenient.
Anyone looking for the Saxons and Schwaben of Romania would have a hard time finding them today. Most of them are in fact in Germany. But they have left behind stones, churches, walls, towers, homes and schools. The churches no longer have parishioners and there is not a whisper of German to be heard in the schools, since their pupils and teachers vanished altogether twenty years ago. The prolonged death agony of this community, which started with World War II, ceased abruptly during the early nineties, right after the fall of communism. A single year was all it took to end eight hundred years of history.
The first Germans to arrive in Transylvania, the Saxons, were brought there as colonists by the Magyar king Geza II in the twelfth century. Their mission was to defend the kingdom’s border, to build roads and cities. And not haphazardly but in a planned fashion: Transylvania was also known during the Middle Ages under the German name of Siebenburgen (seven cities). The Saxons were granted the right to administrative self-governance, judicial independence and the autonomy of their church. The newly established communities enjoyed economic prosperity, to which the opening of commercial routes towards the south with the kingdom of Wallachia contributed significantly. The Romanian kings of Wallachia were interested in establishing commercial ties, and the customs duties they levied for crossing the Carpathians were a substantial source of income for them. But life isn’t just fun and games. A Romanian king became involved in trade disputes with the powerful Saxon merchants of Brasov, known as Kronstadt in German. His behaviour on military expeditions into the Saxons’ lands was considered excessive, even by the standards of the time. The Saxons had literary inclinations and were also skilled engravers. Their stories, accompanied by illustrations, became bestsellers in the Middle Ages and made famous the king Vlad Tepes, sometimes mistaken for his father, Vlad the Dragon. During the nineteenth century the Saxon stories of the Middle Ages reached the ears of Irish writer Bram Stoker and thus one of the greatest literary myths was born: Dracula.
Bram Stoker didn’t receive the Nobel, but literature intervenes again in this story which will eventually lead to a Nobel prize. The first attested document written in Romanian is a letter dating from 1521, sent by a Romanian merchant, Neacsu, who also performed intelligence-related activities, to Hans Benkner, burgermeister or mayor of the Saxon city of Brasov/Kronstadt. The letter, drafted in the beautiful Romanian language of the epoch, informed Benkner of an imminent invasion to be led by Suleiman the Magnificent, the grand sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Evidently, the letter’s recipient, Benkner, also spoke Romanian, otherwise it would have been pointless for Neacsu to write to him in the language.
Herta Müller’s ancestors were Schwaben, settled in Banat, in the western part of today’s Romania, by the Austrians in the eighteenth century. The empire brought them there to revive a region desolated by the wars against the Turks. The Schwaben succeeded. It took them three generations, but they drained the swamps and built villages and prosperous towns. One such is Nitzkydorf, the home town of Herta Müller. At the end of the First World War Transylvania and Banat became part of Romania and the Saxons and Schwaben became Romanian citizens. The Second World War brought Romania into an alliance with Hitler. Romanian troops invaded the USSR in June 1941. Through an accord with Germany, it was established that Romanian Germans would fight as part of Hitler’s forces.
Herta Muller’s father found himself in this position. After the war, Stalin’s desire and capacity for revenge knew no bounds. The Germans of Romania were persecuted, some deported to uninhabited regions of the country, others ending up in concentration camps in the USSR. Herta Müller’s mother suffered the latter fate.
Ceausescu’s Romania meanwhile was becoming a concentration camp for all its citizens, regardless of ethnic group. The Securitate, the national security police, was everywhere and Müller was intimately aware of their presence. Ceausescu, however, had during the seventies hit on a scheme to obtain money from the West through the sale of his Germans and Jewish fellow citizens. The federal government in Bonn paid to extricate “its” Germans from the socialist camp. Herta Müller, for the price of eight thousand Deutschmarks (€4,090), was permitted to emigrate to Germany.
“When I left, I felt rescued. I knew that if I hadn’t been able to leave, I wouldn’t have endured and would have gone mad,” she told a conference held last year at the National Theatre in Bucharest. She also confessed that for her “home is the place that you can’t get away from and that you can’t stand”. She could not think of returning to Romania, she added, given how many people there continued to occupy the same posts in the same structures that obtained before the Revolution. Asked how “Nitzkydorf” is said in Romanian, she replied: “Nichisoara. You’ll be very disappointed, but I haven’t been in Nitzkydorf since I left Romania and I don’t have to set foot there to reminisce.”
It was not Ceausescu, however, who finally destroyed the German community in Romania, even though he sold a great many of its members. Paradoxically, the coup de grace came with the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Helmut Kohl’s cabinet decided in favour of the repatriation of all the Germans of Eastern Europe. Having just been freed from communism, Romania’s ethnic German community left the country en masse.
Communist Romania, Ceausescu’s Romania, the drama of the ethnic Germans – all remained in Herta Muller’s memory and are in her books, a body of work that has now been awarded the Nobel Prize. Müller herself remains just as critical of Romania and sees the lingering presence of former Securitate agents in key positions in Romania, including in literary and cultural circles.
Stepping into a school in a former German village in Romania, at the entrance you can see two photographs, the kind that are taken at the beginning of the school year. The first is taken in 1990. The pupils of the first grade fill every desk. They’re excited, and look back at you from the image with shy glances. Where will school and the road on which they have set out lead them to? The second photograph is of the same class, taken one year later. A single pupil sits there, surrounded by empty seats. The rest have gone to Germany; the community has vanished.
It lives on in Herta Müller’s works – and those of other German writers from Romania. Is that enough?
Ion Ionita is senior editor with Adevarul newspaper in Bucharest. He writes on both domestic and foreign politics and also contributes to public and private television and radio in Romania.