Transylvanian Saxons

The Transylvanian Saxons (German: Siebenbürger Sachsen; Hungarian: Erdélyi szászok; Romanian: Saşi) are a people of German origin who settled in Transylvania (German: Siebenbürgen) from the 12th century onwards.

The colonization of Transylvania by Germans was begun by King Géza II of Hungary (1141–1162). For decades, the main task of the German settlers was to defend the southeastern border of the Kingdom of Hungary. The colonization continued until the end of the 13th century. Although the colonists came mostly from the western Holy Roman Empire and generally spoke Franconian dialects, they were collectively known as Saxons because of Germans working for the Hungarian chancellery. For much of their history, these 'Saxons' held a privileged status with the Hungarians and Szeklers of Transylvania.

The Transylvanian Saxon population has decreased since World War II. Despite mass emigrations — primarily to Germany — they still form notable minorities in Hungary and Romania.

Medieval settlements

The initial phase of German settlement began in the mid-12th century with colonists travelling to what would become the Altland or Hermannstadt Provinz (Sibiu County), based around the city of Hermannstadt (Sibiu). Although the primary reason for Géza II's invitation was border defense with the Szeklers against invaders, Germans were also sought for their mining expertise and ability to develop the region's economy. Most colonists from this era came from Luxembourg and the Moselle River region.

A second phase of German settlement came during the early 13th century consisting of settlers primarily from the Rhineland, Southern Low Countries, and the Moselle region, with others from Thuringia, Bavaria, and even from France. A settlement in northeastern Transylvania was centered on the town Nösen, the later Bistritz (Bistriţa), located on the Bistriţa River. The surrounding area became known as the Nösnerland. Continued immigration from the Empire expanded the area of the Saxons further to the east. Daughter settlements from the Hermannstadt region spread into the Hârtibaciu River Valley (Harbachtal) and to the feet of the Cibin (Zibin) and Sebeş (Mühlbacher) mountains. The latter region, centered on the city of Mühlbach (Sebeş) was known as the Unterwald. To the north of Hermannstadt was settled the Weinland near Mediasch (Mediaş).

In 1211 King Andrew II of Hungary invited the Teutonic Knights to settle and defend the Burzenland in the southeastern corner of Transylvania. To guard the mountain passes of the Carpathians (Karpaten) against the Cumans, the knights constructed numerous castles and towns, including the major city of Kronstadt (Braşov). Colonization in the Burzenland region consisted mostly of settlers from the Altland. Alarmed by the knights' rapidly expanding power, in 1225 Andrew II expelled the Order which henceforth relocated to Prussia in 1226, although the colonists remained in the Burzenland.

The Kingdom of Hungary's medieval eastern borders were therefore defended in the northeast by the Nösnerland Saxons, in the east by the non-German Szeklers, in the southeast by the castles built by the Teutonic Knights and Burzenland Saxons, and in the south by the Altland Saxons.

Medieval organization

Legal organization

Although the knights had left Transylvania, the Saxon colonists remained, and the king allowed them to retain the rights and obligations included in the Andreanum Act (Goldener Freibrief der Siebenbürger Sachsen) of 1224. This document conferred upon the German population of the territory between Draas (Drăuşeni) and Broos (Orăştie) both administrative and religious autonomy and obligations towards the kings of Hungary. The territory that was colonized by Germans covered an area of about 30,000 km². During the reign of King Charles I of Hungary (probably 1325-1329), the Saxons were organized in the Saxon Chairs (or seats).

Enlarge picture
Saxon church with fortified belltower in Netus

Religious organizations

Along with the Teutonic Order, other religious organizations important to the development of German communities were the Cistercian abbeys of Igrisch (Igriş) in the Banat region and Cârţa in Fogarasch (Făgăraş). Biertan was the see of the Lutheran Evangelical Bishop in Transylvania between 1572 and 1867. Video of the village of Biertan, with its magnificent Fortified Church.

The earliest religious organization of the Saxons was the Provostship of Hermannstadt, founded 20 December 1191. In its early years, it included the territories of Hermannstadt, Leschkirch (Nocrich), and Groß-Schenk (Cincu], the areas that were colonized the earliest.

Enlarge picture
Saxon citadel in Cincsor

Fortification of the towns

The Mongol invasion of 1241-42 devastated much of the Kingdom of Hungary. Although the Saxons did their best to resist, many settlements were destroyed. In the aftermath of the invasion, many Transylvanian towns were fortified with stone castles and an emphasis was put on developing towns economically. Many towns were defended by Kirchenburgen, or fortified churches with massive walls. The rapid expansion of cities populated by the Saxons led to Transylvania being known in German as Siebenbürgen and Septem Castra in Latin, referring to seven of the fortified towns (see Historical names of Transylvania):
  • Bistritz (Bistriţa, Beszterce)
  • Hermannstadt (Sibiu, Nagyszeben)
  • Klausenburg (Cluj-Napoca, Kolozsvár)
  • Kronstadt (Braşov, Brassó)
  • Mediasch (Mediaş, Medgyes)
  • Mühlbach (Sebeş, Szászsebes)
  • Schässburg (Sighişoara, Segesvár)

Privileged class

Along with the (largely Hungarian) Transylvanian nobility and the Szeklers, the Transylvanian Saxons were members of the Unio Trium Nationum, or "Union of the Three Nations", signed in 1438. This agreement preserved political rights for the three inclusive groups and excluded the largely Romanian peasantry from political life.

During the Protestant Reformation, most Transylvanian Saxons converted to Lutheranism. As the semi-independent Principality of Transylvania was one of the most religiously tolerant states in Europe, the Saxons were allowed to practice their religion. The Habsburgs promoted Roman Catholicism to the Saxons during the Counter Reformation, but the majority remained Lutheran.

Warfare between the Habsburg Monarchy and Hungary against the Ottoman Empire from the 16th-18th centuries decreased the population of Transylvania Saxons. When the Principality of Transylvania came under Austrian Habsburg rule, a smaller third phase of settlement commenced which helped to revitalize the Saxons. This included the settlement of exiled Protestants from Upper Austria (the Transylvanian Landler) near Hermannstadt. Germans served as administrators and military officers, especially during the Habsburg Monarchy's wars against the Ottoman Turks. The German-populated Hermannstadt (Now: Sibiu) was an important cultural center within Transylvania, while Kronstadt (now: Brasov) was a vital political center for the Saxons.

Loss of elite standing

Emperor Joseph II attempted to revoke the Unio Trium Nationum in the late 18th century. His actions were aimed at the political inequality within Transylvania, especially the political strength of the Saxons. Although his actions were ultimately rescinded, many Saxons began to see themselves as being a small minority opposed by nationalist Hungarians and Romanians. Although they remained a rich and influential group, the Saxons were no longer a dominant class.

During the Revolutions of 1848, the Saxons ultimately supported the Romanian attempt to acquire equal political standing. The Hungarians, on the other hand, supported complete unification of Transylvania with the rest of Hungary. Stephan Ludwig Roth, a pastor who led the German support for Romanian political rights, was executed by Hungarian radicals during the revolution.

Although the Hungarian attempt to acquire greater control over Transylvania was defeated by Austrian and Imperial Russian forces in 1849, the Ausgleich compromise between Austria and Hungary in 1867 did not bode well for the political rights of the Saxons. During the years of Austria-Hungary, the Hungarians engaged in a policy of Magyarisation to combat the rising nationalism of other ethnicities within the Hungarian kingdom.

After the end of World War I, many Saxons supported the unification of Transylvania with the Kingdom of Romania. They were promised full minority rights, but these guarantees were not followed and many Saxons lost their land.

World War II and afterwards

During World War II, many disaffected Saxons sided with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union, as did Romania and Hungary, into which country Northern Transylvania had been annexed.

When Romania signed a peace treaty with the Soviets in 1944, the German military began withdrawing the Saxons from Transylvania; this operation was most thorough with the Saxons of the Nösnerland. Around 100,000 Germans fled before the Soviet Red Army, but Romania did not conduct the expulsion of Germans as in neighboring countries at war's end. However, more than 80,000 Saxons were arrested by the Soviet Army and sent to labour camps in Siberia for alleged cooperation with Germany. The remaining Saxons were persecuted by the Communist Romanian government and lost many political rights.

Because they are considered Auslandsdeutsche ("foreign Germans") by the German government, the Saxons have the right to German citizenship. Numerous Saxons have emigrated to Germany, especially after the fall of the Eastern Bloc in 1989, and are represented by the Landsmannschaft der Siebenbürger Sachsen in Deutschland. Due to this emigration from Romania the population of Saxons is dwindling. The Saxons remaining in Romania are represented by the Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania.

19th and 20th century population figures

Starting with the 1956 figures, the reference is to all German-speaking groups in Romania
  • 1880: 211,748
  • 1890: 217,640
  • 1900: 233,019
  • 1910: 234,085
  • 1956: 384,708
  • 1977: 359,109
  • 1992: 111,301
  • 2002: 45,129

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