Ghost Sightings In Cluj – Monuments To The Wrong Memories (An Invitation To A Vanished World – Part Four)

In They Were Counted, the first book in Miklos Banffy’s masterful The Writing On The Wall trilogy, the main character Balint Abady is riding an overnight train from Budapest to Kolozsvar (Cluj). Just after dawn he wakes up as the train is passing through Banffyhunyad (Huedin) close to where he observes a fantastical, snow covered landscape, glowing radiantly in the bright morning sunlight. Somewhere between Banffyhunyad and the Sztana Tunnel, Abady spies the ruins of an old castle. Nearby he catches sight of the towers of a manor house, where his cherished, captive love Adrienne resides. It is a fleeting yet memorable glimpse, as though he were experiencing a dream rather than a reality. The landscape of Transylvania observed from a train has that kind of quality. I did not see any old castles or manor houses inhabited by beautiful aristocratic women on this stretch of the railway, but what I did see was a natural beauty just as romantic and dreamy. Here was a place that could possess the soul. I could have stayed on that train forever, only waking from this dream as the train came upon the outskirts of Cluj. The moment of arrival was jarring. Time suddenly had meaning again. One journey was over, another was just beginning.

St. Michael's Church In Cluj with the Matthias Corvinus Monument

St. Michael’s Church In Cluj with the Matthias Corvinus Monument

A Reminder Of Mortality –  St. Michael’s Intimidation
Cluj is a city of ghosts, but to see these ghosts you have to look past all the urban distractions to find the leftovers of empires and peoples past. The train station itself is ghostly. A strange thing to say since the station is bustling with travelers, police officers and an assortment of hangers-on. The station is an Austro-Hungarian confection dreamed up by Ferenc Pfaff at the beginning of the 20th century. The interaction of its architecture with crowds of people lends itself to an air of festive seediness. Nowhere is this more apparent than in front of the station, where taxi drivers noisily converse while awaiting potential passengers to swindle. Behind them stands the station, colorful, chaotic and grand. I picked my way through the clamor, ignoring the calls of “tak-si, tak-si, tak-si” directed at me. Weaving through the foot traffic of a much too busy sidewalk I made my way along Strada Horea (Horea Street). At a bridge crossing the somnolent Somesul Mic (Little Somes) River, the street suddenly became Strada Regelle Ferdinand (King Ferdinand Street). Many great cities are bisected by a river, but the tepid Somesul Mic looked like it had been tamed one too many times over the centuries.

Ten minutes after crossing the river I was brought to a halt at the city’s epicenter, Piata Unirii by the glorious Gothic ghost of Cluj’s Saxon past, St. Michael’s Church. All the distractions of commercialism and capitalism that had confronted me in my walk up to that point were obliterated by this classic example of a central European hall church. This was more than just a church. It was also a pivot point around which the city had developed. It took almost a century and a half to construct. Since its completion in 1487 (five years before Columbus arrived on the shores of America), St. Michael’s had haunted this square, towering over everything that had come and gone since then. The city was no longer Klausenberg (as the Saxons called it) or Kolozsvar (as Hungarians called it), the names and peoples associated with them had come and gone, but St. Michael’s stood, intimidating, austere and singular. It had outlasted conquering armies and ideologies, bombs from above and below, surely it would outlast everyone living in Cluj today and many more generations. St. Michael’s Church was a reminder of mortality. It would not last forever either, but it would last much longer than anything else in this city or at least it has so far.

Matthias Corvinus Monument in Cluj

Matthias Corvinus Monument in Cluj

Ghosts Of Provocations Past- A King & Mad Mayor
After settling in at my accommodation I walked back to the square later that day. That was when I noticed the spectral presence of the Matthias Corvinus Monument just to the south of St. Michael’s Church. Corvinus, native son of Cluj, perhaps Hungary’s greatest king, is portrayed here atop a horse in a magnificently regal and royal pose. His birthplace is located not far off the square. The statue went up the same year as Pfaff’s train station. It was a time of nationalistic self-confidence for Imperial Hungary, when the Magyars imposed their architectural styles and historical perspectives on their beloved Kolozsvar (Cluj), de facto capital of Erdely (Transylvania). But this zealous nationalism was born less from self-confidence and more of a deeply rooted insecurity. The overbearing nature of Magyarization belied doubts about Hungarian permanence in a land where they were distinctly in the minority.  This worry had led to such feats of excessive Magyar chauvinism as the Corvinus Monument.

The Romanians would prove that they were no better, even when in the ascendant. After the fall of communism, Cluj elected the ultra-nationalist Gheorghe Funar as mayor. The bench I sat on that day – while pondering St. Michael’s Church and the Corvinus Statue – had not so long ago been slathered with paint in the Romanian national colors. Funar was known as the “mad mayor”, reveling in acts of pro-Romanian nationalism. This ghost of provocations past had since been painted over, but the wounds they had caused ran much deeper. For some Hungarians did not stop running until they were at the border of Hungary proper. I had come to Cluj in search of a vanished past, but at Piata Unrii the past had not vanished. What remained was not invisible nor in ruins, but had been polished, painted and reinterpreted.  The past here was not banished only burnished. Monuments to wrong memories were everywhere. The reactions and counter-reactions of the ruling ethnicities had been created by a nightmare of insecurities. This place was deeply haunted. Ghosts of Saxon burghers, Magyar magnates and Romanian revolutionaries still roamed this square and the surrounding streets of the Old Town.

Banffy Palace - historic postcard image

Banffy Palace – historic postcard image

The View From Above – Apparitions Of History
These apparitions from the history of Klausenberg, Kolozsvar, Cluj or whatever you wanted to call it were at odds with the youthful vibe of the modern city, full of thousands of happy, blissful university students. Their education was much different than mine. They saw what they wanted to see and I saw what I could hardly believe, the most frightening ghosts imaginable, ghosts that could be seen in the bright, broad daylight. Perhaps Miklos Banffy saw something similar when he looked down from the windows of the elegant Banffy Palace on the west side of the square. That masterpiece of Baroque elegance must have afforded him a magnificent view. He saw into this place and into these people. When I looked up at where he might have stood, all I saw was a ghost.

Coming soon: Tradition Never Goes Out Of Style – The Road Through Bontida (An Invitation To A Vanished World – Part Five)

What They Were Fighting For, Was What They Were Fighting Against – Hungarian Soldiers & The First World War

The problem with history is that in the overriding majority of cases, the people being influenced by it, did not have to live through it. The present is separated by years, decades and centuries from the past. The context in which past events occurred is lost over time. Is it any wonder present opinions and values are imposed on views of the past? We who are here today always seem to know better. With such a vague, indirect and indifferent connection to the past it is hardly surprising that we look back through rose tinted glasses, with an air of alarming self-righteousness. Statements are made with complete confidence on how we would have done things differently. It is easy to make such proclamations when you do not have to live with consequences of your decisions.

Hungarian Soldiers in 1914

Hungarian Soldiers in 1914 – Ready for war

We Know Better or They Knew Worse – The Folly of Armchair Historians
Now that the 100th anniversary of the First World War is in full swing the retrospective judgments of a supposedly much wiser public are being posited with little regard to the context in which that ill-fated conflict was fought. Today’s opinion makers and armchair historians love to talk about how blundering diplomats were self-serving at best and willfully ignorant at worst. The nations and empires involved were filled with vile nationalistic instincts. The public was uninformed and naïve. The military strategists on all sides lacked vision and cultivated cataclysm rather than victory. While some of this is undoubtedly true, it is no truer than at any other time in history, especially when it comes to military affairs. What was different during the First World War was the lethal killing power readily available to all combatants. Machine trumped man and ushered in an age of efficiency in the art of murder that was scarcely fathomable then and almost as incomprehensible now, even with the hindsight of a century.

One opinion that is often espoused and quite irksome to hear is that countless lives were lost for nothing. This flows from the idea that the men fighting out in the trenches, across the battlefields and high seas really had no idea what they were fighting for. Even worse, if they did know, they somehow knew they were fighting for nothing in particular, a sort of violence for the sake of violence. Now do not get me wrong, millions of lives were wasted, but I am pretty certain that these men were definitely fighting for something, even if they were not totally conscious of it at the time.

Count Istvan Tisza with Hungarian Soldiers on the Italian Front in 1917

The Fight Against – Count Istvan Tisza with Hungarian Soldiers on the Italian Front in 1917

Fighting Against Fate – The March To War
This brings us to the case of Hungary and the Great War. The Kingdom of Hungary lost hundreds of thousands of men on the battlefield in four long, bloody years. To make matters much worse, after the war, Hungary lost 64% and 72% respectively of its prewar territory and population in the negotiated peace. Supposedly this happened because of a war where Hungarian soldiers had no idea what they were fighting for. It was not so much what they were fighting for, it was more like what they were fighting against, specifically losing much of the Kingdom of Hungary. Case in point, the Prime Minister of Hungary, Count Istvan Tisza had been against Austria-Hungary going to war with Serbia. Indeed he had advised both Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef and Austria- Hungary’s Commander-In-Chief Conrad Von Hotzendorf to avoid war. Both the Emperor and Hotzendorf felt otherwise and their power trumped Tisza’s.

Seeing that the dye was cast against him and his country – the Austrian leadership was hell bent on punishing the Serbs – he threw his lot in with the Austrians. Once the decision was made, Tisza and Hungary went full force into the conflict. He surmised, as did so many ethnic Hungarians that this was a life and death fight for the violability of the Kingdom. Self-interest, alliance and honor made any other decision impossible. The truth of the matter is that all those Hungarian men who were struck down in the sand and dust of Galicia, the frozen passes of the Carpathians, across the rugged terrain of northern Serbia and in the lonesome Alps of northern Italy most certainly were fighting for something. This was to keep the Kingdom of Hungary together or put another way, they were fighting against dissolution and revolution, to continue their most favored status in an increasingly unbalanced Dual Monarchy, riven by ethnic tensions.

Map of the Kingdom of Hungary showing the linguistic makeup according to the 1880 census

Map of the Kingdom of Hungary showing the linguistic makeup according to the 1880 census – Hungarians were the most numerous group, but they were not a majority

Fear As A Great Motivator – The Seed of Self-Destruction
What was pushing the entire Kingdom of Hungary over the top? Perhaps, it was the creeping suspicion that a loss would mean the end of their autonomy in the Dual Monarchy or even the end of the Empire itself. Fear is a great motivator and paradoxically it can lead men or whole nations to commit themselves to acts of courage that bring about their own self-destruction. The fear was that Hungary would be subsumed or even worse consumed by Germanic and Slavic peoples. Their power might erode or disintegrate from within the Empire. Every ethnic Hungarian who marched off to the front must have done so in the knowledge that they were fighting to continue being more equal than all the others in the Dual Monarchy. Even those ethnic Hungarians who lived as peasants in the most miserable circumstances were still better off than Slovaks, Romanians, Serbs, Slovenes and Croats.

The ethnic Hungarian was still a Magyar and need not undergo the process of Magyarization that had been fomented with such zeal by the Kingdom’s leadership since the Compromise of 1867 against all the “others.” The ethnic minorities or should we say (gasp), nationalities of the Kingdom really had no active role in the economic, political or cultural life of Greater Hungary. Yes those Hungarian soldiers were definitely fighting both for and against something on all those far flung fields beyond their borders, in battles beyond their worst nightmares. Those who survived the war to see the Kingdom sundered and their ethnic kin in Felvidék (Slovakia), Bácska (northern Serbia),  Erdély (Transylvania), the Bánát (west-central Romania) and Kárpátalja (modern southwestern Ukraine) placed under the rule of Czechs and Slovaks, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and Romanians most have known that this was what they had been fighting against all that time. The resulting dismemberment of the Kingdom bore out this great truth. Did these men die in vain? One could say yes, but if they had been victorious, the Kingdom would almost certainly have remained inviolable.

Trianon Memorial in Barand Hungary showing Republic of Hungary superimposed on Kingdom of Hungar

What They Were Fighting Against – Trianon Memorial in Barand, Hungary showing Republic of Hungary superimposed on Kingdom of Hungary (Credit: Einstein2)

It Was Something & It Will Be Nothing – Of Victory & Of Defeat
Whether or not one believes the cause the Hungarian soldier fought for was worth the terrible human cost, depends largely on one’s ethnicity. A Hungarian would say that it was absolutely worth it or would have been, had they met with victory. Was it still worth it in defeat? Was there any other choice? Many good men have died for all kinds of causes, both right and wrong, but to say that the men who went off to fight the Great War were fighting for nothing, especially in Hungary, is patently untrue. The ethnic Hungarian soldier’s fate was to fight for something that no longer exists. Yet armchair historians would do well to remember that eventually everyone who goes to war – whether they achieve victory or suffer defeat – fights for something that someday will no longer exist.

A Shared Legacy: Romanians, Hungarians, Matthias Corvinus & the Identity of Cluj

Cluj-Napoca (commonly known as Cluj), the largest city in Transylvania, holds a special place in the hearts of Romanians and Hungarians. To Romanians it is a university city. The 50,000 strong student population of Babes-Bolyai University gives the city a vibrant, pulsating energy. As one of the largest cities in Romania, it has a thriving economy that has done much better than the rest of the country. This comparative wealth has made it a magnet for the youth of Romania who are looking to get ahead and enjoy a better quality of life more in line with other European Union nations. To Hungarians, it will forever be known as Kolozsvar, once the capital of Erdely (the Hungarian name for Transylvania). Koloszvar was the urban and cultural heart of a land Hungarians see as inseparable from their history. Erdely was cut asunder from Historic Hungary by the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon. This left the ethnic Hungarian population of Cluj isolated deep in the heart of Transylvania. This has left them yearning for what a lost past. This longing colored relations between the Romanians and Hungarians throughout the 20th century and was the central force in Cluj’s history for nearly a century.

Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj

Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj

From Majority to Minority – The Hungarians of Cluj
The fact that Hungarians continued to be the majority ethnic group in Cluj long after the Treaty took effect meant they were a force to be reckoned with in the city’s economic, political and cultural life. Hungary was even able to regain their beloved Koloszvar, along with northern Transylvania, as a gift (or a bribe) from Hitler for entering World War II on the German side. This gift proved to be both ephemeral and costly. It vanished as ill-gotten gains so often do. This left Koloszvar’s Hungarian population in limbo once again. As late as 1948 Hungarians still made up 57% of Cluj’s population. With the communists taking control of post-war Romania, the Hungarian population became a distrusted ethnic group stuck in the wrong country at the worst time. Hungarians had held economic power in the city for centuries. The communists soon limited the civil rights of Cluj’s Hungarian population. Communist oppression proved overwhelming. The ethnic Hungarian populace sought refuge abroad.

Those who were unable to flee the city, suffered mightily under the policies fomented by the iron fisted dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaucescu. Ceaucescu was deeply suspicious of all ethnic Hungarians, branding them enemies of the state. In 1974 the communists led by Ceaucescu decided to change the name of Cluj to Cluj-Napoca. Napoca being the pre-Roman name for a city that stood on the site of Cluj two thousand years before. It was a lackluster attempt to prove that Romanians predated Hungarians in Transylvania by a thousand years. Ceaucescu’s efforts to settle historical disputes with pompous decrees turned out to be short-lived. On Christmas Day 1989, Romanians as well as ethnic Hungarians cheered as he was relegated to the dustbin of history. He was arrested, quickly given a show trial where he was found guilty of crimes against his own people. Within hours he had been executed, along with his wife. As for Cluj-Napoca, nearly everyone still refers to the city as Cluj. After the fall of Ceaucescu, ethnic Hungarians sought to better their fortunes in other countries, namely Hungary. This emigration resulted in a large loss of the ethnic Hungarian population in Cluj. Presently they make up only 16% of the city’s population.

The Matthias Corvinus Statuary Group - in Cluj's Union Square

The Matthias Corvinus Statuary Group – in Cluj’s Union Square

A Shared Legacy – The Birthplace of Matthias Corvinus
The present situation is an improvement over the not so distant past. Both Romania and Hungary are members of the European Union, which acts a strong guarantor of minority rights. This, along with the city’s relative prosperity has caused tensions to wane. Acts of violence by one group against the other are now scarce. The biggest barrier to integration is a deep sense of mistrust. This is the main legacy of the Ceaucescu era. Yet there are still some Romanians who would prefer that all the Hungarians in Cluj and Transylvania move to Hungary once and for all. Conversely, Hungarian nationalists (the large majority of whom live in Hungary) want Kolozsvar and Transylvania given back to Hungary. There is little chance either group of extremists will get there way. Commonalities between the two groups are rarely emphasized in the news. Conflict and controversy sell, peaceful coexistence does not.

Strangely enough in Cluj’s main square, Piati Unirai (Union Plaza) there is a statue that has proven contentious, despite the fact that it serves to emphasize a common historical figure who was both Romanian and Hungarian. This is the equestrian statue of the Great “Hungarian” King, Matthias Corvinus. Corvinus is remembered as the king who kept the Ottoman Turks at bay in the late 15th century. In addition, under his rule, Hungary became the first European state outside of Italy to experience the Renaissance. One of the most famous Corvinus historic sites, his birthplace, can be seen in Cluj.

St. Michael's Church - legacy of the Saxons

St. Michael’s Church – legacy of the Saxons

Identity Crisis – The Roots of a King
In the winter of 1443, Corvinus was born at a small guesthouse in Cluj. His father was none other than Janos Hunyadi (Ioan de Hunedoara to Romanians), Voivode (Governor) of Transylvania. A famed military figure who had worked his way through the ranks of the nobility to a leading position in the Kingdom of Hungary. Corvinus mother, Erzsbet Szilagyi, came from an influential Hungarian family. Now what’s interesting is that Hunyadi, who is celebrated as a national hero by Hungarians was also partly Romanian. He descended from a noble family of Wallachian origin. Wallachia was the historic heart of Romania. At the time, chronicles referred to Hunyadi as Valchus (the Wallachian). This means that Corvinus was half-Hungarian and half Romanian. Both Hunyadi and Corvinus are lauded as Hungarian national heroes, but no one much bothers to mention their Romanian blood. At the heart of Cluj’s inner town lies the Matthias Corvinus statuary group.

Ever since the Iron Curtain was swept aside there has been talk of removing the statue. The larger than life sculpture portrays Corvinus in heroic fashion, towering above the viewer. Below him are four of his leading generals (admittedly they were all Hungarian). Instead of arguing about whether the statuary group should be removed, perhaps an information board or plaque of some type should be placed close by to inform visitors, especially Cluj’s citizenry, that it’s most famous son is reflective of the city’s multi-ethnic history. Corvinus was one of the greatest kings in history. That is something everyone in Cluj should be proud of. His dual ethnicity illuminates the complex and conflicted history of the area. Cluj and Transylvania was an ethnically mixed place, it still is today.

Speaking of mixed up, the Corvinus statuary group stands in front of St. Michael’s Cathedral. This mighty Gothic structure is one of the finest examples of a medieval hall church in Europe. It is a product of the German Saxons who called the city Klausenberg. In Transylvania, the deeper one digs into history, the more complicated and diverse it gets. No one in Cluj really owns the past, instead they all share it.

Failure to Assimilate: Count Apponyi & the Fate of Historic Hungary at the Paris Peace Conference

At 2:30 p.m. on January 16, 1920 at the Quai D’Orsay in Paris, Count Albert Apponyi prepared to give a verbal presentation of the Hungarian position on the peace terms submitted to Hungary by the Allied powers. The terms of the treaty to be imposed on Hungary were shocking in the extreme. If there were no alterations, the Kingdom of Hungary would lose over two-thirds of its land base and population. Even worse, one-third of the Kingdom’s ethnic Hungarian population would end up under foreign rule. The redrawn borders would sever ancestral homelands. Such historic territories as Transylvania (Erdely in Hungarian) and Upper Hungary (Felvidek) would be taken away. The rulers were on the verge of becoming the ruled.

Count Albert Apponyi - man of letters & proponent of Magyarization

Count Albert Apponyi – man of letters & proponent of Magyarization

Speaking In Tongues – Historic Hungary & The Nationalities
Apponyi must have been unsettled by the historically twisted position he found himself in. As Minister of Education for the Hungarian Kingdom thirteen years before, he had been one of the main proponents of what became known as the Apponyi Laws. These laws required that instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic for students could only be given in Hungarian. This had been the ultimate outcome of a process known as Magyarization, in which ethnic subjects of the Kingdom – whether Romanian, Slovak, German, Serb, Slovene, Croat, Rusyn or Jew – were to be educated socially and culturally in Hungarian. They were to be transformed from Slav, Teuton and Latin into loyal Magyar subjects in the Hungarian half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Count Albert Apponyi had been born into one of the most ancient and noble families in Hungary. He was uniquely qualified for the role he was about to play in Paris. He was extremely accomplished in politics and literature. A man of vast intellectual gifts, over the final twenty-two years of his life he would be nominated no less than five times for the Nobel Prize. A successful career in letters saw him pen eleven books. These focused mainly on politics and philosophy. A brilliant orator, fluent in six languages, his speech at the Quai d’Orsay was to be given first in English, followed by French and Italian. None of these three languages were his mother tongue. That is revealing.

Historic Land Grab – The Ethnic Backlash
Apponyi’s first language was Hungarian. The overriding majority of those present on that mid-winter’s day would have scarcely understood a word of Hungarian. The fact was that those who sat in judgment of Hungary knew very little about it. What mattered was that it had ended up on the losing side of the Great War as one-half of the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire. Most importantly, the lands of historic Hungary contained a majority of ethnic minorities.

This transformation, which had been greatly resisted by the subject peoples, had been halted by the First World War. Now these same ethnic groups had thrown off the yoke of servitude and were in the process of either creating new nation-states or expanding their existing borders at the expense of historic Hungary. Meanwhile the Hungarians lay defeated, torn asunder by internal tumult as rival democratic socialist, communist and nationalist forces took control of a rapidly dwindling homeland. Parts of the nation were occupied by Romanian, Czechoslovak and Serb forces. A historic land grab was in progress.

Treaty of Trianon - this map shows the vast consequences of the Paris Peace Settlement which dismembered Historic Hungary

Treaty of Trianon – this map shows the vast consequences of the Paris Peace Settlement which dismembered Historic Hungary

The Last Bastion of Defense
Count Apponyi’s words would be the last bastion of defense for Historic Hungary. Nothing less than the Magyar homeland was at stake. In accented English he began to speak:

In the first place we cannot conceal our astonishment at the extreme severity of the conditions of the peace. This astonishment can easily be explained. The conditions of the peace treaties contracted with the other belligerent nations, with Germany, Austria and Bulgaria were certainly also severe. But not one of these contained such significant territorial changes inevitably affecting the national life, as those we are called upon to accept.

You, Gentleman, whom victory has placed in this tribunal, you have pronounced guilty your former enemies, the Central Powers, and have decreed that the burden of the war should be cast upon those responsible for it. So be it in that case, I think, in dividing the burden, the measure of guilt should decide the proportion. Hungary being punished by the most severe conditions, threatening her very existence, one would think that of all nations she was guiltiest.

…the peoples right of self-determination should be considered. A statement might be hazarded as to the rights of minorities being more effectually assured on the territories of the new states than they were in Hungary.

I do not, on this occasion, wish to plead the case brought against Hungary relative to the alleged oppression of the non-Hungarian races. I will confine my words to declaring myself well pleased should our Hungarian brethern on the territories torn from our country enjoy the same rights and facilities as the non-Hungarian citizens of Hungary enjoyed.

Hungary was in possession of every condition of organic unity with the exception of one: racial unity. But the states to be built up on the ruins of Hungary – according to the terms of the Treaty – will also lack racial unity, the one condition of unity missing in Hungary – nor, may I add, will they possess any other.

Count Apponyi - in his later years he represented Hungary at the Paris Peace Conference, but failed to get the peace terms changed

Count Apponyi – in his later years he represented Hungary at the Paris Peace Conference, but failed to get the peace terms changed

Actions Versus Words – A Failure To Assimilate
Apponyi’s oration stated the Hungarian position precisely while at the same time exposing its fatal flaws. The ethnic minorities of Hungary had been given extremely limited rights when it came to the use of their mother tongue. The basic right they had been given: was to become Hungarians. This was something they would never be, because this was something they never wanted to begin with. Even after decades of forced Magyarization, they still spoke their own languages, kept their own customs and obeyed their historic traditions. The failure to assimilate these minorities was fatal to Historic Hungary.

Apponyi as the former minister of Education surely understood all this very well. He had tried – along with many of his countrymen- to make Hungarians out of people who were not. His speech in defense of historic Hungary was in vain. The terms of the Paris Peace for Hungary went unchanged. They would be imposed later that same year. It was not so much that Apponyi had failed that day in Paris, it was more that he had failed with his education policies many years before. His actions had already spoken and they were much more convincing than his words.

One Man, One Policy: 850 Years of History – Geza II & The Saxons

The Saxon legacy in Transylvania is impressive. The numerous fortified churches, magnificent town squares and quaint houses with gabled roofs scattered in towns throughout the region are a testament to their faith, determination and industriousness. Though there are very few people of Saxon descent left in Transylvania today, their legacy is secure. Nostalgic impulses by those of Saxon descent have led to the creation of associations dedicated to preserving the architecture and culture of their ancestors.

One Man, One Policy 
Over eight hundred and fifty years have passed since the first Saxons settled in the area, but go to Brasov or Sibiu (known to the Saxons as Kronstadt and Hermannstadt) to witness the resurgence of Saxon heritage. It is likely that in the coming years, if anything the Saxon nostalgia in Transylvania will be the focus of even greater efforts. It is certainly given a prominent place in marketing by Romania’s growing tourist industry.

This focus on the Saxons historical accomplishments is delightful and definitely worth seeking out as a travel experience, yet it obscures the fact that if not for the decisive policy of one man none of this would have been possible. This man happened to be neither Saxon nor Romanian, but instead Hungarian. The eight and a half centuries of Saxon achievement began with a king that very few Saxons today would be able to identify. This was Hungarian King Geza II who reigned from 1141 – 1161. He was the leader who took the foresighted decision to allow Saxon settlement in Transylvania. His life and legacy should be the starting point for efforts to understand the very beginning of Saxon settlement in the Carpathians.

Géza II as depicted in the Chronica Hungarorum

Géza II as depicted in the Chronica Hungarorum

A Miracle of a Man – The Roots of Geza II
Geza II was something of a miracle. Even by the standards of the violent and precarious early Middle Ages he needed more than his fair share of fortune to survive childhood, let alone gain the throne. His father is known to history as Bela the Blind. Both Bela and his father were blinded by his uncle, King Coloman in the early 12th century. They were then sent to live out their lives in a monastery. Bela’s father continued to prove a threat, to the extent that he was eventually forced into permanent exile. As for Bela, his luck rapidly changed after Coloman died and his son Stephen II ascended to the throne. Stephen II had a big problem in that he was unable produce a royal heir. Luckily for Stephen his father had not managed to execute Bela. It is said that Stephen was filled with joy when he discovered that Bela was still alive and well at a monastery. A possible royal successor who had been blinded in most cases have had little chance to gain the throne, not to mention produce an heir. The chronicles state that Bela was also slated for castration, but the military officer charged with the duty lost his nerve and could not commit such an act.

The upshot of all this is that Bela ended up in line to succeed Stephen. He also made a smart marriage to a Serbian Princess, Helena of Rascia. In 1130 they produced their first son, a boy who would eventually become known to history as Geza II. Geza, born to a blind father who was supposed to have been castrated, would one day come to rule the Kingdom of Hungary. If all these turns of fortune were not enough, the family was allowed to live on a large estate bequeathed to them by Stephen II. Instead of seeing Bela and his family as a threat or believing that Bela was unfit for the throne because he had been mutilated, Stephen instead placed him in position to lead the Hungarian Kingdom. And that is just what occurred in 1131 when Stephen died. Bela the Blind ascended to the throne and reigned for a decade.

The Virtues of Loyalty & Privilege
In 1141 the blind king died. Suddenly, improbably, Geza II was the newly crowned king at the tender age of eleven. For the next five years his mother, with the assistance of her brother, led the Kingdom until young Geza came of age. When he eventually took charge, Geza quickly proved himself as a ruler, securing his throne by outwitting usurpers, many of which were close relatives. He also was adept at involving himself in foreign affairs and succeeding. The main trend of Geza’s reign is that he was almost constantly at war. The kingdom was externally vulnerable on multiple fronts. This called for Geza to place strategic thinking over tactical discipline. At one time or another he was at war on his western flank with the Holy Roman Empire, in the south with Byzantium and in the northeast with the Polish crown. In addition, he had to deal with German forces that crossed Hungary on their way to the Second Crusade. He was able to fend off each of these threats. An understanding of external threats may have led him toward a strategy of securing one of his frontiers by bringing in the Saxons. He adeptly made the far sighted decision to allow Saxon settlement in Transylvania as guardians of the Kingdom’s southeastern flank. (Note: Saxons has a different meaning in the context of Transylvania. The first settlers were not from Saxony, but Luxembourg and the Moselle Valley. Their name came from the fact that the Hungarian chancellery referred to these groups as Saxons.)

The Saxons were given privileges which allowed unheard of independence for the time, including freedom of religion and self-rule. The lone requirement was that they provide military service to the king if he went to war. They were only required to do this for the crown, not the nobility. It was a good deal for them and the Hungarian Kingdom. This can be seen by the fact that in the 13th century Hungarian Kings offered much the same terms to successive waves of Saxon settlers. The Saxons were loyal to the throne, but were otherwise left to conduct their internal affairs as they pleased. More of these settlers poured into Transylvania. It was not long before they were referring to the area as “Siebenburgen” meaning the land of seven fortresses, a reference to the main Saxon cities in Transylvania.

Saxon foritifed church in Biertan, Romania - Not just a Saxon legacy, but also Geza II's legacy

Saxon foritifed church in Biertan, Romania – More than a Saxon legacy, also Geza II’s

More Than A King – A Visionary
Geza II died in 1161. Today he is remembered as one of the best Hungarian kings of the time. His improbable rise was only matched by his uncanny success in managing foreign policy. He dealt with multiple threats to the Hungarian Kingdom’s frontiers with great vision and foresight. By bringing in the Saxons as guardians of the Kingdom’s southeastern frontier he set into motion a policy that paid dividends for centuries to come. It led directly to the rise of the Saxons in Transylvania. From this beneficial start they went on to construct an economic, political and cultural civilization that rivals any in the history of European minorities. Thousands of their ancestors still travel to Transylvania each year to witness firsthand what the Saxons created and cultivated for centuries on end. Few if any of these visitors know who started it all. Geza II deserves to be remembered as more than just a king, he deserves to be remembered as a visionary.

Beyond the Woods: The Land of Seven Fortresses – Ultra Silvam, Erdely, Siebenbergen, Ardeal, Transylvania

Where does history begin? That’s a big question with no certain answer. Perhaps the best answer is that it depends on the subject. In this case, the subject is Transylvania. Where then  does the history of Transylvania begin? The area has been occupied for several thousand years. There are a multiplicity of starting points for the human history of the region. These starting points are variable. The history of the region can start with either the Dacians or the Romans who conquered them. It can start with the Hungarians or the Romanians, depending upon which nationality one prefers. It cannot quite start with the Saxons, since they were invitees, but there presence illuminates the growth , development and major historical trends of the area for nearly nine hundred years.

Beyond the Woods – The Land of Seven Fortresses
As for the place that today is known as “Transylvania”,  its written history starts in the 11th century. In 1075 for the first time Transylvania was written down as the wonderfully evocative, “Ultra Silvam” in a medieval Latin document. Translated, this means “beyond the woods.” Later “Ultra Silvam” was changed to “Trans-Silvania” and kept the same meaning. Romanians who are the majority population in the region today and speak a Latin language call the region Transylvania or “Ardeal.”

Hungarians, who conquered the region in the late 9th century, did not put their name for the region, “Erdeuleu”, into writing until it appeared in the famed Gesta Hungarorum of the 12th century. The term has now become “Erdely”, which means “the land beyond the woods.” As for the Saxons they came a little bit later to the area, but gave it perhaps the best name of all, “Siebenburgen” which means “seven fortresses” after the seven fortified cities they built across the region. These terms taken together, define Transylvania as a remote place with fortified cities. Sounds like a classic frontier.

The Land Beyond theWoods

The Land Beyond the Woods

Mysterious Beginnings
The focus on 1075 as the start of “Transylvania” seems arbitrary. Of course, the human history of the place did not begin on that date. The people who are most closely linked with the region’s history, the Hungarians and Romanians were already there.  Yet a lack of archaeological and written evidence on these peoples and their activities predating the year 1075, leaves that date as the logical starting point for Transylvania’s past. Intriguingly, for a region that has been shrouded in myth and legend it has a historical starting point just as mysterious.

The year 1075 really doesn’t tell us much. There was no major historical event that occurred in “Ultra Silvam” that year, at least not in the traditional sense. The only real thing of note is that the place was finally written into the annals of history. Sometimes history is made by great men or women achieving the improbable, sometimes it is made by anonymous social and economic forces, but in the case of Transylvania, history was made by someone simply writing down the words “Ultra Silvam.” And the rest, as they say, is history.