Transylvanian Saxons

Saxon settlements in Transylvania.

The Transylvanian Saxons (German: Siebenbürger Sachsen; Hungarian: Erdélyi szászok; Romanian: Sași) are a people of German ethnicity 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 (11411162). 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.

After 1918, when, following the Treaty of Trianon, Transylvania was separated from Hungary and united with Romania, Transylvanian Saxons, together with other German-speaking groups in newly enlarged Romania (Banat Swabians, Satu Mare Swabians, Bessarabia Germans, Bukovina Germans), became part of the German minority in Romania. The Transylvanian Saxon population has decreased since World War II. Transylvanian Saxons started leaving Transylvania during and after World War II, settling first in Austria, then especially in Germany. The process of emigration continued during Communist rule in Romania, and even into the collapse of the Ceaușescu regime in 1989 when approximately half a million fled to homeland Germany.[1] The great majority of Transylvanian Saxons now live in Germany. A sizable Transylvanian Saxon population also resides today in the United States, notably in Idaho, Ohio and Colorado and in Southern Ontario, Canada. Relatively few still live in Romania, where at the last official census around 37,000 Germans were registered, the number including also Banat Swabians and Sathmar Swabians.

Medieval settlements (Ostsiedlung)

Main article: Ostsiedlung
Saxon sees and districts in 17th century Transylvania.

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

A second phase of German settlement during the early 13th century consisted 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 of Nösen, the later Bistritz (Bistrița), located on the Bistrița River. The surrounding area became known as the Nösnerland. Continued immigration from the Empire expanded the area of the Saxons further to the east. Settlers from the Hermannstadt region spread into the Hârtibaciu River valley (Harbachtal) and to the foot of the Cibin (Zibin) and Sebeș (Mühlbacher) mountains. The latter region, centered on the city of Mühlbach (Sebeș) was known as the Unterwald. To the north of Hermannstadt was settled the Weinland near Mediasch (Mediaș). The term "Saxon" was applied to all Germans of the regions because the first German settlers who came to the Hungarian kingdom were poor miners or convicted groups from Saxony.[2]

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 (Brașov). 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 Hungarian Border Guard tribe Székelys, in the southeast by the castles built by the Teutonic Knights and Burzenland Saxons, and in the south by the Altland Saxons.

Medieval organization

The Lutheran Cathedral in Sibiu (Hermannstadt)

Although the knights had left Transylvania, the Saxon colonists remained, and the king allowed them to retain the rights and obligations included within the Diploma Andreanum of 1224. This document conferred upon the German population of the territory between Draas (Drăușeni) and Broos (Orăștie) 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).

The Lutheran church and school in Transylvania (1904)

Religious organizations

Along with the Teutonic Order, other religious organizations important to the development of German communities were the Cistercian abbeys of Igrisch (Igriș) in the Banat region and Cârța in Fogarasch (Făgăraș).

The earliest religious organization of the Saxons was the Provostship of Szeben/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 by ethnic Germans in the region.

Saxon fortified church in Cincșor (Kleinschenk)

Under the influence of Johannes Honterus, the great majority of the Transylvanian Saxons embraced the new creed of Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation (almost all became Lutheran Protestants, with very few Calvinists), while other minor parts of the Transylvanian Saxons remained staunchly Catholic (Latin Rite) or were converted to Catholicism later on. Nonetheless, one of the consequences of the Reformation was the emergence of an almost perfect equivalence, in the Transylvanian context, of Lutheran and Saxon, with the Lutheran Church in Transylvania being de facto a Volkskirche, i.e. the 'national church' of Transylvanian Saxons.

Birthälm (Biertan), with its fortified church, was the see of the Lutheran Evangelical Bishop in Transylvania between 1572 and 1867.

Fortification of the towns

Saxon church with fortified bell tower in Netuș (Neithausen)

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. In the Middle Ages, about 300 villages were defended by Kirchenburgen, or fortified churches with massive walls. Though many of these fortified churches have fallen into ruin, nowadays south-eastern Transylvania region has one of the highest numbers of existing fortified churches from the 13th to 16th centuries[3] as more than 150 villages in the area count various types of fortified churches in good shape, seven of them being included in the UNESCO World Heritage under the name of Villages with fortified churches in Transylvania. 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), presumably:

Privileged class

Along with the (largely Hungarian) Transylvanian nobility and the Székelys, 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

Ethnic map of Romania in 1930. The Transylvanian Saxons were mostly concentrated in the Sibiu, Târnava Mare, Târnava Mică, Făgăraș, Brașov and Năsăud counties (coloured in red).

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 Romanians and Hungarians. 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 majority population attempt to acquire equal political standing after so many centuries of oppression. 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 marry 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 and particularly the fight against oppression by local Romanian ethnic population.

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 many wealthy Saxons lost their land in the land reform process that was implemented in the whole of Romania after World War I. Taking into account the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany, many Transylvanian Saxons became staunch supporters of National Socialism, the Church very much losing its influence in the community.

World War II and afterwards

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 did neighboring countries at war's end. However, more than 70,000 Saxons were arrested by the Soviet Army and sent to labour camps in Ukraine for alleged cooperation with Germany.

Because they are considered Auslandsdeutsche ("Germans abroad") 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 Union of the Transylvanian Saxons in Germany. 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, the political party that gave Romania its fifth president, Klaus Iohannis.

19th and 20th century population figures

Historical population
1880 211,748    
1890 217,640+2.8%
1900 233,019+7.1%
1910 234,085+0.5%
1930 745,421+218.4%
1956 384,708−48.4%
1977 359,109−6.7%
1992 119,436−66.7%
2002 59,764−50.0%
2011 36,884−38.3%
Starting with the 1930 figures, the reference is to all German-speaking groups in Romania.

See also


  1. Jenkins, Simon. "The Forgotten Saxon World that Is Part of Europe's Modern Heritage," The Guardian October 2009. Accessed on 15 March, 2014.
  2. K. Gündisch, "Autonomie de stări şi regionalitate în Ardealul medieval, în Transilvania şi saşii ardeleni" în istoriografie, Asociaţia de Studii Transilvane, Sibiu, Heidelberg, 2001, pp. 33–53.
  3. Villages with Fortified Churches in Transylvania. UNESCO World Heritage Centre 1992–2010
  4. Wolfgang Mieder. The Pied Piper: A Handbook. Greenwood Press, 2007. p. 67. ISBN 0-313-33464-1. Accessed via Google Books September 3, 2008.
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