When a people vanish, does its civilization vanish with it? What can we discern from the remnants of their existence? Can these remnants tell us who they were or even more intriguingly who we are? In 1930 there were over 750,000 ethnic Germans in Transylvania and the Banat, regions of modern Romania. Most of these were Saxons who had dominated life in a series of fortified towns and cities scattered across Transylvania. Little did they know that as they neared the 750th anniversary of their arrival in the area, they were reaching an apogee. At that point in 1930, the Saxons reached their maximum population in modern Romania. Over the next sixty years their population numbers would fall by ninety-five percent.
Privilege & Exclusion
The Second World War and the Saxons status as ethnic Germans brought them favor and largely unwanted attention from the Nazis. They became a nation within a nation. As the German army retreated across Romania in 1944, the Saxons came under intense pressure and scrutiny. At one time, the Saxons had been the excluders. For centuries, they had guarded their rights and privileges jealously, keeping outsiders – namely Hungarians and Romanians at bay. Following the war, the excluders became the excluded. Those who had not fled the area with the retreating German army often lived to regret it. Under communism, they lost all their historic rights and privileges. The mass movement of the proletariat had no time for ethnic minorities.
By the late 1970’s the Saxon population in Romania had fallen by half. Those that stayed only did so, because they were unable to leave. When the iron curtain fell a little over a decade later, the rest of the Saxons voted with their feet. Ninety percent of them fled to Germany. Thus after eight hundred years the Saxons had all, but left Transylvania and the Banat. What they left behind though, has managed to survive the vicissitudes of war, demographic decline and class strife. The presence of the Saxons in Transylvania today is in many ways still rich and vibrant. If not in human terms, than most definitely, architectural ones. The Saxons built structures that would last the test of time. Ironically these architectural treasures even outlasted the Saxons themselves.
The Black Church – Saxon Reverence
An incredible representation of the spiritual infrastructure of the Saxons is most striking in the architectural masterpiece known as the Black Church. Standing just south of the magnificent Council Square in the city the Saxons called Kronstadt and today is known as Brasov. The church dwarfs all surrounding structures with its three nave hall design. It is the largest Gothic Church still standing in southeastern Europe. It took six years short of a century to complete, but would not acquire its current name until an occupying Austrian army set it afire, singeing it literally overnight in the late 17th century.
The church stands austere, silent and forbidding, imposing its presence on the old townscape area of Brasov. It emanates power, solidity and permanence. The church is the antithesis of the Baroque splendor that would eventually be imposed upon Eastern Europe by Austrian administration. The Black Church is classically medieval, built to last and cast an ominous presence. It is best understood not so much for the detail of its architectural embellishments, but instead for gigantism. The altar is huge, the church tower’s bell weighs seven tons and there is even a four thousand pipe organ. If anything the church is a symbol of all that the Saxons revered: structure, order, craftsmanship and devotion to God.
All That They Left Behind – Banished & Vanished West
The Black Church looks as though it could very well, centuries from now, be the last thing standing of Brasov. It is as though the Saxons are forcing those who rule this land today, the Romanians, to never forget what they accomplished. Yet in just a handful of decades the Saxon human presence was all, but gone, banished and vanished west. In some ways this is symbolic of life itself. Humanity is fleeting, peoples rise and decline, eventually we all turn to ashes or dust.
What is eight hundred years of human occupation, even if it was as brilliant, ordered and refined as the Saxons? Is it all to be forgotten? Not if works of art have their say. The Saxons created something majestic and grand in their Kronstadt, our Brasov. They repeated the feat all across Transylvania to greater and lesser extents. With the Black Church we have a spiritual infrastructure that defeats time. Like all great works of art it stands outside of time. It gives us a sense of continuity with the past and helps us to better understand not only the Saxons, but also ourselves. The Saxons did not last forever, neither will we. But what we leave behind is a statement of our place in the world and how it was civilized.