Klausenberg To Kolozsvar To Cluj – A Transylvanian Transition: The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Three)

Baedeker was nothing if not thorough. Their Handbooks for Travellers contained thousands of details molded into itineraries such as the one that would carry me both backward and forward in time from Klausenberg to Bistritz. The seemingly infinite number of details culminating in a travel itinerary between two of Transylvania’s most important cities. To compare the information from 1900 with everything that had happened to the towns and villages along the route since that time makes for a fascinating journey. One that offers a kaleidoscopic view of a world that has been by turns lost or transformed and in some places, surprisingly unchanged. I began to read, reread and then study in intimate detail the Transylvania section of the Austria Including Hungary, Transylvania, Dalmatia and Bosnia Handbook For Travellers. The world of yesterday and today began to collide, creating something altogether new. Forming by way of comparison, contrast and contradiction. This development melded past with present, allowing me to see how much had changed and discover just how much had not.

Eclecticism & Electricity – New York In Transylvania
Before a turn of the 20th century traveler departed Klausenberg they would have taken some time to tour the city. Following the advice of Baedeker, they could book a room at the elegant New York Hotel, which happened to be the guide’s first recommendation. The New York was a striking four story edifice built in the eclectic style, reflecting that growing architectural trend. Among its most striking features was a turret that topped the apex where both sides of the hotel intersected. The interior offered a new class of comfort. There were 65 rooms, kitted out with plush furnishings. In addition, the hotel had its own generator allowing guests to enjoy electric light, a first anywhere in the city.

The New York also housed a coffee house which was the favorite haunt of numerous authors both those who lived in and visited the city. Among the clientele was Hungary’s most famous writer of that time, Mor Jokai. One of the present-day streets fronted by the edifice is named for Jokai. The hotel was the crown jewel for accommodation in the city. A place where travelers could rest and relax in refined luxury. The New York, like Kolozsvar had an ill-starred future ahead of it. It was later renamed the Continental Hotel.  When the German Army occupied Kolozsvar during the spring of 1944 it acted as the Gestapo’s first headquarters. After World War II it was turned into a youth hostel for students. In the 1960s it was renamed the Continental Hotel until it was sold in the early 21st century and shuttered for a planned conversion into a shopping mall.

Glitter & Rust - The former New York Hotel in Cluj

Glitter & Rust – The former New York Hotel in Cluj (Credit: Acquario 51)

Changing Faces  – Playing The Percentages
The New York Hotel was just beginning to realize its sparkling promise as the new century opened. At that time Baedeker reported Klausenberg’s population as 34,500. Figures given by Romanian sources today show the population at 50,000 (Hungarian sources provide a similar number). The total number is not as important as the percentage of each ethnic group in the city. Klausenberg/Kolozsvar/Cluj* was multi-cultural before multiculturalism happened to be a fashionable idea. In 1900 the city was overwhelmingly Hungarian. Magyars made up 82% of the population. Romanians were the second largest group with 14% and Saxons third at 3.5%. These figures are both enlightening and deceiving. In northern Transylvania, Hungarians were overwhelmingly urban dwellers while Romanians dominated the countryside.

The Hungarian figure was also boosted by 6,000 Jews, because they spoke Magyar as their mother tongue they were counted as such. As an individual class Jews were almost as numerous as Romanians in Kolozsvar and much more powerful due to their varied commercial interests and high rate of employment in the professional classes. Being a German publishing firm, Baedeker refers to the city by its German name, even though Saxons were a minute proportion of the population. Saxons had also been mentioned earlier in the Transylvania section. The introduction included information on each of the region’s five main ethnic groups – Hungarians, Romanians, Saxons, Szekeler and Roma. Hungarians would continue as the city’s majority ethnic group until the 1960’s.

The Romanian communist government’s policy of rapid industrialization went hand in hand with diluting the Hungarian share of the populace. After the execution of dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu at the end of 1989 the borders of Romania opened up to the west. Many of Cluj’s Hungarian residents fled to Hungary in search of greater economic opportunities. The upshot was that by 2011, the Romanian share of Cluj’s population was 81.5% almost the same as the Hungarian majority’s share in 1900. There was one major difference though, the population of Cluj was now 324,000, 16.5% of which was Hungarian. Cluj had become a Romanian city in a matter of a few generations.

A Fleeting Image - Old Kolozsvar

A Fleeting Image – Old Kolozsvar (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Strolling Down The Strada – From Aristocrats To Peasants To The Present
A visitor clutching their Baedeker had two choices when they arrived at Klausenberg’s main train station. They could either choose to head by rail for points further east or take a self-guided tour around the city using the Handbook for Travellers. Baedeker’s chosen route through Klausenberg started at the station then slowly headed westward towards the Belvaros (Inner city), an area stuffed with scintillating architecture. Buildings in the Belvaros showcased a much deeper past than the relatively new train station could offer. Getting to the heart of the city meant a rather long walk down Franz Josef utca. That same street still exists, but the name has long since been changed.

Instead of an Emperor, the street is now named after a peasant. Strada Horea commemorates one of the Romanian leaders of the Transylvania Peasant Uprising in 1784. The name may have changed, but the strada sill acts as one of the city’s main transport arteries. Travelers of the past and present followed the same paths. Now shops, restaurants and grocery stores line the route. A sure sign that capitalism in all its varied forms has conquered Romania in a little over twenty-five years. The transition from communism to a free market economy has been so rapid that the visitor is unlikely to even take notice. Only after crossing a bridge over the Somesul Mic River (Little Szamos) and entering the Belvaros does the true splendor of Klausenberg, Kolozsvar and Cluj begin to shine through.

*Note: Klausenberg (German), Kolozsvar (Hungarian) and Cluj (Romania) are used interchangeably throughout this post. In general a specific derivation of the name is used depending on what group administered the city, except in the case of Klausenberg which is used when referring to Baedeker’s text on the city.

Click here for: Arti-factual Details – Kolozsvar & Cluj Transformed: The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Four)

The Things That Mattered Most – Baedeker’s Guide to 1911 Lemberg (Lviv: The History of One City: Part 22)

Baedeker, the name is still spoken with reverence when it comes to travel guides. Prior to the First World War, Baedeker’s travel guides were as much a part of European travel as steam locomotives. The guides acted as the go to source of information for legions of travelers. Kept readily at hand, they were unmatched in detail and breadth of coverage, a direct reflection of their characteristic meticulousness. As A. P. Herbert once said, “Kings and governments may err, but never Mr. Baedeker.” The founding father of the Baedeker guidebooks was Karl Baedeker, born at the turn of the 19th century in Essen, Germany. By his mid-twenties Baedeker was firmly ensconced in the world of book publishing. At the age of thirty-one, he bought a bankrupt publishing house. With this transaction he acquired the rights to a scholarly book that focused on the history and art of the Rhine region. Three years later, Baedeker published an update to this volume, adding practical information, such as the lodgings and restaurants in each city that were best suited to serve a traveler’s needs. Today this type of information can be found in almost every guidebook, in Baedeker’s day this was a path breaking innovation. At the time, no one imagined that he was just getting started.

Karl Baedeker

Karl Baedeker – the man who helped guided millions all over Europe

Touring Lemberg –  Guided By Baedeker
Through the latter half of the 19th century, Baedeker and his family published guidebooks covering much of Europe. The Baedeker brand benefited from being at the right place, at the right time. The 19th century brought the industrial revolution to the European mainland. This meant a growing middle class and mass travel by railroad which beget the birth of modern tourism. The whole of Europe was now within reach by rail travel for those with a good income. This included the multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1896 the Baedeker firm published its first guidebook covering the Empire, Austria : including Hungary, Transylvania, Dalmatia, and Bosnia; handbook for travelers. This included coverage of the far flung reaches of the empire including the province of Galicia, focusing on Lemberg (the German name for Lviv). Between 1896 and the outbreak of World War One, Baedeker’s would publish two more updates of this guidebook. The last one in 1911 was called Austria-Hungary : with excursions to Cetinje, Belgrade, and Bucharest ; handbook for travellers. It provides a fascinating glimpse of Austro-Hungarian Lemberg, a city that just a few years later would undergo a process of upheaval that would change it forever. Baedeker’s coverage of Lemberg in the 1911 guide was two pages in length and chock full of detailed information. An additional two pages was devoted to a map of the city center and its immediate surroundings.

Reading through the entry, it is hard not to notice that the city’s name is given in three languages, German, French and Polish. In retrospect, a specific omission stands out. The Ukrainian name of the city, Lviv, is nowhere to be found. The use of Polish place names is pervasive throughout the entry, befitting a city that at the time was dominated politically and culturally by Poles. A close study of the two page pullout map for Lemberg reveals that the city’s street and boulevards all had Polish and German language names. Svobody Prospekt, the Ukrainian name for the urban heart of the city today, was then known as Waly Hetmanskie. The Marien-Platz – a decidedly German name – which is right in front of the Hotel George, is now named Miskevchya Square. Though the name has been Ukrainianized it still recalls the fervently nationalistic Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz. The first point of arrival in Lemberg, the central Railway Station, is termed the Hauptbahnhof. While the Polish translation of the name, Glowny dworzec, is listed directly below it in parenthesis. Five hotels are deemed worthy of a stay. This of course includes the famous Hotel George which can still be visited. Only one restaurant that was not part of a hotel is mentioned, the Stadtmuller which could be found on Ulica Krakowska (Krakow Street). The Stadtmuller no longer exists, but Ulica Krakowska does. The street’s name has been changed to the Ukrainian language Krakivska.

Postcard of fin de siècle Lemberg

Postcard of fin de siècle Lemberg

Shadows of the Past – Fin de siècle Lemberg
There are other differences between fin de siècle Lemberg and present day Lviv that are more noticeable and with hindsight quite shocking. The population is listed as 11% Jewish, a cumulative total of 22,700. Today Lviv’s Jewish population is about one-tenth that figure, though the city’s population has increased by 250% since 1911. The decline of the Jewish population is due almost entirely to the devastation wrought by the Holocaust. A visitor to the city in 1911 would have experienced a thriving Jewish presence in hotels, restaurants, markets, synagogues and street life. That has all since vanished. Baedeker’s also notes that the 11th Army Corps of the Imperial Army was headquartered in the city. That too disappeared, much of it lost in the surrounding countryside just three years later in the Battle of Galicia, a devastating defeat from which the empire never really recovered.

Reading Baedeker’s makes one realize that some things in the city have not changed. Among the major attractions listed are such famous religious buildings as the Roman Catholic Cathedral (Latin Cathedral), the Boimow Chapel (Boim Chapel), the Dominican, Armenian and Greek Catholic (St. George’s) Cathedrals. The Rathaus (Town Hall, now known in Ukrainian as the Ratusha) is also noted for “its tower 213 feet high – good survey of the town from the top.” Looking out from the pinnacle of the Rathaus at the skyline of the Old Town in 1911, a visitor would have much the same view as today. There are two present day attractions in Lviv that Baedeker’s did not deem worthy of mention for good reason. Lemberg’s famous Opera House was just over a decade old in 1911. Its newness was probably the reason that it was overlooked.

Baedeker's Guide to Austria-Hungary

Baedeker’s Guide to Austria-Hungary

The Ultimate Omission – Lemberg Without Ukrainians
The other notable absence concerns the famous Lychakiv Cemetery. The lone mention of Lycakov (Lychakiv in Ukrainian) comes as one of the city’s four main suburban distrcits. The cemetery is nowhere to be found. To understand this calls for a bit of historical context. The Lychakiv Cemetery of today is given much of its meaning by the loss of multi-cultural Lviv in the first half of the 20th century. In 1911 no one could envision that the city was on the cusp of multiple cataclysms that would wipe out almost all of its Polish, Jewish, German and Armenian citizens. Each one of these groups is mentioned in Baedeker’s 1911 Austria-Hungary guidebook entry for Lemberg. The only group missing happens to be the one that dominates the city today, the Ruthenians (as Ukrainians were then known). It turns out that Baedeker’s guidebooks were not as thorough as many believed.

Massacre At Madefalva – Tragedy Of The Szekely People

January in the Olt River valley of Romania is not for the faint hearted. Temperatures plummet to -30 degrees Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit) or worse. Snow covers the ground for several months. The inhabitants spend much of their time huddling close to wood stoves or other sources of heat. Time spent outside is kept to a minimum. The days are short and the long cold nights continue for weeks on end. Every year there is one event that breaks this bone chilling monotony, the commemoration of the massacre at Madefalva, also known by its Latin name of Siculicidium. The massacre occurred in the dead of winter almost exactly 250 years ago when over 200 Szekelys –a Hungarian speaking ethnic group – including women and children were murdered by Habsburg Imperial forces. The memory of that fateful night has been burned into the collective conscious of the Szekely.

Winterscape in Szekelerland - Harghita Mountains

Winterscape in Szekelerland – Harghita Mountain (Credit: Albertistvan)

Guardians of the Eastern Frontier – Independence or Imperialism
The village of Madefalva (Siculeni in Romanian) lies in the heart of Szekelerland, a name given to the mountainous region of the Eastern Carpathians dominated by the Szekely people. Scholars have not been able to determine exactly where the Szekely came from, but they have inhabited the area since the Middle Ages. Whether or not they are ethnic Hungarians has been the source of countless studies. One branch of scholars believes they descended from Turkic peoples who were Magyarized, while another branch posits the theory that they were Magyars (ethnic Hungarians) settled along the frontier. Whatever the truth, the Szekely are a Hungarian speaking island, amidst an ocean of ethnic Romanians.  Historically the Szekely enjoyed a privileged position in the region. They provided service to the Kingdom of Hungary as border guards on the eastern frontier. In return, they were given titles of nobility and allowed to administer their own affairs. They practiced self-government with their own courts and legislative bodies. Even during the Ottoman Turkish occupation across much of historic Hungary, when the Principality of Transylvania was a vassal state, the Szekelys were able to hold on to their privileges.

Szekely populated areas in Romania

Szekely populated areas in Romania

This began to change during the 18th century as the Habsburgs centralized control of the region. Habsburg rule tended towards absolutism. Increasing centralization took place during the long reign of Maria Theresa (1740 -1780). In Szekelerland, the Habsburg’s wanted to set up a border guard force that would be loyal to the crown. This was to include both Szekely and Romanian regiments. The recruitment was part voluntary/part compulsory. In response, the Szekely demanded that they keep their own leaders rather than come under the control of imperial officers. The Habsburg leadership would not hear of such a suggestion and were not willing to negotiate. Conversely, the Szekely were ferociously protective of their independence. They sought to limit outside influence in their affairs. The draft went forward, but was largely a failure. The Szekely that were drafted and reported had rifles issued to them. As resistance stiffened, they deserted and kept the weapons.

The Szekely continue to honor their traditions today

The Szekely continue to honor their traditions today (Credit: Derzsi Elekes Andor)

A Massacre & A Migration – The Consequences of Madefalva
Many of these Szekely made their way to Madefalva. The situation was turning into a test of Imperial control. Would the Habsburgs break the Szekely will? Could the Szekely hold on to the privileged existence they had enjoyed for centuries? On the snowy night of January 7, 1864 the Szekely were planning to meet in council at Madefalva to plan their next course of action. Unbeknownst to them, the Habsburgs were well aware of this meeting and planned to snuff out resistance before it turned into a full-fledged rebellion. In the frigid, snow covered town 1,300 Imperial forces struck swiftly, dealing a deadly blow to the unsuspecting Szekely. Over two hundred Szekely of all ages, from children to the elderly were murdered in a matter of hours. Thousands of Szekely fled into the mountains. They then left the region, traveling overland hundreds of kilometers to the east or south, eventually resettling in Moldavia or Bukovina. The Szekely leaders who were unable to elude capture suffered impeachment or worse. Resistance had been quelled.

In the ensuing months, the draft was successfully carried out. The Habsburgs were now masters of the Szekely or so it seemed. Much of the Szekely’s historical autonomy was ended. Imperial officials now exerted control over the Szekely judicial, educational and agricultural systems. They interfered in everything from real estate to marital transactions. Yet on a micro level the Szekely were able to retain many of their age old traditions, including election of their own local judiciary and governing officials as well as decisions on infrastructure improvements. The distance and remoteness of Szekely communities from their Habsburg overlords contributed to their continued ability to enjoy a degree of independence.

Monument to the Siculicidium in Madefalva (Siculeni, Romania)

Monument to the Siculicidium in Madefalva (Siculeni, Romania)

Miracle of the Miraculous – The Szekely Achievement
Each January hundreds of Szekely gather in Madefalva to remember their ancestors who were massacred by Habsburg troops in January of 1864. They gather at the SICVLICIDIVM monument set on the Veszhalom (Hill of Death), a mass grave where the murdered Szekely were buried. The monument contains an obelisk topped by the mythical Turul bird, an enduring symbol of the Hungarian origin myth. It is the Szekely adherence to tradition, the memory of their ancestors and a ferocious spirit of independence that has allowed them to endure the darker moments of their history. They have long since overcome the massacre at Maldefalva, but still pay solemn tribute to those who were murdered on that chill winter night.

This is one of many such incidents that have marked Szekely history. Despite the absolutism of the Habsburgs, despite a 20th century campaign of Romanization and despite the depredations committed against the Szekely by the notorious dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu, the Szekely have endured. Paradoxically, the Szekely may have endured not despite, but because of the forces arrayed against them. These forces helped cultivate an exceedingly stubborn streak of independence that resisted ideology, modernity and tyranny. The continued existence of the Szekely, Szekerland and a unique culture is the most miraculous achievement of a miraculous people.

The Architecture of Self-Destruction – Nevitsky Castle, Ukraine: A Lesson In Ruins

The extension of the Soviet Union’s borders westward in the aftermath of World War II brought the Transcarpathian region into Ukraine. One of the results of this was that Ukraine would inherit the historic sites in the region, which had very little to do with the overriding majority of Ukrainians. By and large Transcarpathia had a very different history from the rest of Ukraine. The area had been a fringe zone where Hungarians, Poles, Romanians and Rusyns vied for control. One of the sites in the region was Nevitsky castle. It might be said that though the castle is in Ukraine, it is not quite of Ukraine, at least from a historical standpoint.

 Ruins of Nevitsky Castle

The ruins of Nevitsky Castle – evocative and instructive (Credit: Masha Kovalchuk)

Ascendants & Descendants – Nevitsky Castle : The First Two Hundred Years
The history of Nevitsky castle is to a great extent a microcosm of the Kingdom of Hungary’s history during the Middle Ages. It does have some tangential connections to the history of the Ukraine, but these are not nearly as obvious. The first version of the castle was constructed in the early Middle Ages to help protect Hungary from possible invasion by way of the Carpathian Mountain passes to the north. The Hungarians knew from first-hand experience that these passes must be guarded. During the late 9th century, the Hungarians had used one of these passes to sweep into and conqueror the Carpathian Basin. The Hungarians did not want to fall prey to the same stratagem they had used. Thus in the 12th century, Nevitsky Castle was constructed on a 260 meter high volcanic rock outcropping above the Uzh River. This highly strategic point guarded both trade and possible invasion routes. The first version of the castle did little good in slowing down the Mongol advance which came roaring through the area in 1241. The land that is presently Ukraine had already been ravaged by the Mongols, the Kingdom of Hungary was to be next. The Mongols put Nevitsky’s wooden structures to the torch, resulting in its utter ruin.

The Mongols only stayed in the Kingdom of Hungary temporarily before they retreated eastward. The upshot of the Mongol Invasion was an order by Hungarian King Bela IV for stone castles and fortresses to be built in order to better protect the Kingdom. Nevitsky was soon restored and refortified in a much more substantial manner. While Hungary was able to recover from the Mongol disaster relatively quickly, the course of Ukrainian history was irreparably altered by the invasion. Kievan Rus ceased to be the center of power for the Eastern Slavic world. The power base of the Slavic world gravitated to the Grand Duchy of Moscow, what would eventually grow into Tsarist Russia. Meanwhile, as the 14th century dawned Nevitsky once again came under foreign rule, but this time it was not from invasion, but by invitation.  The King of Hungary at the time, Charles Robert, transferred ownership of the castle to members of an Italian family of French origins, the Drugeths. This made sense in light of the fact that Charles Robert had the same ethnic background as the Drugeths. Members of the family had loyally fought on the side of the king in helping defeat rebellious aristocrats to secure his rule. The Drugeths were richly rewarded for their service. Nevitsky was just the start as the Drugeth family began their meteoric ascent to become the largest landowners in the Kingdom of Hungary. Like seemingly everything in the fringe area of Transcarpathia, it would not last.

View over ruins of Nevitsky Castle toward the Uzh River

View over ruins of Nevitsky Castle toward the Uzh River (Credit: Юрій Крилівець)

Enemies Within – The Ruin Of Nevitsky
The decline of the Drugeths and Nevitsky as an active castle came not from without as so often happened in the Kingdom of Hungary’s history, but from within. Family infighting plagued the Drugeths for decades. This led to such bizarre situations as the time when in 1600 one family member besieged the castle with a 3,000 man strong army. Inside the walls were the wife and children of the recently deceased head of the Drugeths. They were forced to flee and leave the country. Land and power trumped bloodlines. The end for Nevitsky came less than half a century later. The Drugeths were supporting the Catholic Habsburgs. In the Middle Ages, religion was a much stronger identifier than nationality. The problem for the Drugeths is that Nevitsky was situated in an area consumed by Protestant fervor. They incurred the wrath of the powerful Transylvanian princes. In 1644, Gyorgy Rakoczi I, Prince of Transylvania captured Nevitsy, destroying much of the castle. A new chapter in the castle’s history dawned that continues up through the present, the castle as a ruin.

Today when visitors go to Nevitsky they can see one of the original towers still intact. There are also substantial portions of the walls. There is always something romantic and evocative about ruins that lends them to the imagination. The act of imagination can also distract from the lessons and instructiveness of such ruins. Despite its position towering above the Uzh River, despite multiple constructions that upgraded its defenses, despite the wealth and power of the Drugeths, Nevitsky eventually failed. The seeds of its destruction came from within. For all the chaos and violence imposed on Hungary by the Mongols, Ottoman Turks and the Habsburgs, the ultimate problem came from within. Whether it was the divisions of a family, of the nobility, of religion, or of nationalities the weakness engendered by internecine disputes was ultimately a fatal flaw that time and again brought the Kingdom of Hungary defeat and eventually destruction. The ruins of Nevitsky Castle can be seen as a physical manifestation of this trend.

The ruins of Nevitsky castle

The ruins of Nevitsky castle – a window into the past (Credit: Anatoliy Fedusenko)

Disunity – A Warning To Ukraine
Nevitsky Castle’s ruins are now a much visited tourist spot in modern Ukraine. The place and its history would seem to have little to do with Ukrainians, but it still offers lessons. Presently Ukraine is embroiled in a war on its eastern border. Russia has done much to bring this about, fomenting discontent and violence. These insidious efforts have been aided by disunity inside Ukraine. This war is not just between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, but also between Ukrainians themselves. There are regional differences, religious differences, generational differences, economic differences. All these divisions only serve to weaken Ukraine. What will the end result be? The ruins of Nevitsky Castle serve as a warning of what the future might hold for Ukraine if it fails to unite.

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.

Sedentary Vengeance – Vlad Tepes (The Historical Dracula) Imprisonment at Visegrad

The real life historical Dracula, Vlad Tepes or “Vlad the Impaler,”  is most often remembered for the extreme bloodletting he unleashed in Transylvania and Wallachia – both parts of present day Romania – in the 15th century. During Vlad’s multiple reigns as Prince of Wallachia he displayed a level of cruelty unmatched in medieval history, which considering the times is really saying something. The list of those who suffered his wrath was long and notable. These included rich landowning boyars, Saxons, Ottoman Turks and Hungarian nobles. Vlad’s macabre designs were not only reserved for elites and foreigners. Peasants and the destitute were also among the many thousands of his victims.

Vlad Tepes - known to history as Vlad the Impaler

Vlad Tepes – known to history as Vlad the Impaler

Betrayal & Confinement– The Prince of Darkness at Peace
The popular conception of Vlad’s life might lead one to believe that he was forever at war, constantly engaged in torturing or killing his many enemies. To be sure there was plenty of that, but there was also a long period he spent in confinement, far from his homeland. During this time, he did not engage in warfare or for that matter much of anything. This period is much less well known and even less discussed. It took place along the Danube in Hungary. Beginning in 1462 he would spend a decade under house arrest in Visegrad at the summer palace of the Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus. During this time he was the political prisoner of the king. For ten years Vlad’s life was sedentary and domesticated. This is the polar opposite of the usual image of him as a bloodthirsty avenger. Vlad Tepes spent one-fifth of his life in relative solitude waiting for the moment when he could return to the warpath.

Why was Vlad imprisoned at Visegrad? The simplest explanation of Vlad Tepes’s imprisonment at Visegrad is that he was betrayed. In 1462 he had traveled to the Kingdom of Hungary seeking money from King Matthias to continue his campaigns against the Ottoman Turks. At this point, constant warfare had nearly bankrupted Vlad who was no longer able to pay his mercenary forces. Unbeknownst to Vlad, the king was in no position to loan him money. Matthias had his own financial worries. He had already spent a large sum of money that had been given to him by the Papacy for the purpose of carrying out expeditions against the Turks. He was more interested in cultivating the Renaissance in his homeland, rather than fighting yet another war.

Matthias took Vlad prisoner and had a letter drawn up showing that Vlad had actually proposed peace with the Turks. Thus Matthias had made it look as though Vlad had committed treason. This letter soon made its way to the pope. The upshot was that Matthias imprisoned Vlad for the foreseeable future. At the same time, the king had distracted the papacy with this incident. To the point, where they forgot about the debts Matthias owed them. As for Vlad, he was now a vassal of the Hungarian king. Confined to a palace in Visegrad, the feared Vlad would become a useful political tool.

Aerial view of the ruins of the Royal Palace at Visegrad (Credit: Civertan)

Aerial view of the ruins of the Royal Palace at Visegrad (Credit: Civertan)

Frozen In Fear – The Domesticated Impaler
What was Vlad Tepes up to during all those years? Was he plotting revenge? Planning an escape? Wondering if he would ever regain power? Did he spend his time walking in the lavish courtyard of the palace, staring at its magnificent hanging gardens, visiting with other guests who were staying in one of the palace’s 350 rooms? Did he examine the ongoing work at the palace? This might have brought about a stinging realization. The money which could have funded Vlad’s campaigns against the Turks was instead being used to adorn the palace with Renaissance style flourishes. What little information is available about Vlad’s time at the palace seems to confirm that he had not changed much. He was still able to satisfy his lust for torture. According to a Russian Ambassador to the court, Vlad occupied himself capturing birds, then cutting off their heads or plucking them free of their feathers. An Italian bishop reported that Vlad cut up mice and then impaled their body parts on small sticks.

In the hands of King Matthias, Vlad also became a political weapon against the Turks. When the Sultan’s diplomats arrived at Visegrad to talk over the terms of an armistice that had went into effect, they could not help, but notice that Matthias had Vlad present. The emissaries must have frozen in fear. This would have sent shivers through the entire Ottoman leadership. Almost certainly, the news of Vlad’s presence was relayed all the way back to Sultan Mehmed. After all, in 1462 Mehmed had ordered his army to retreat when he came upon a horrific sight, a forest of 20,000 impaled corpses left behind by Vlad and his mercenary forces at Targoviste in Wallachia. Eventually Matthias moved Vlad to a house further down the Danube at Pest before finally freeing him from twelve years of captivity. Vlad was sent back to Wallachia to deal with local forces that had allied with the Turks.

Statue of Vlad Tepes in his birthplace of Sighisoara, Transylvania (Credit: Sailko)

Statue of Vlad Tepes in his birthplace of Sighisoara, Transylvania (Credit: Sailko)

An Uneasy Peace – A Paradox at Visegrad
Most likely the years at Visegrad extended Vlad’s life. He was assassinated a mere two years after he had regained his position as Prince of Wallchia. He was forty five years old when he died. Vlad Tepes had lived longer than most of his kinsmen. Then again he had been singularly responsible for lowering the life expectancy in any area he occupied for long. The only exception in his life was his time at Visegrad. There, on the banks of the sullen gray Danube, amid the splendor and refinement of a Renaissance palace, the Prince of Darkness was confined to a life of uneasy peace.

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.

Miracle of Illogic – The Austro-Hungarian Empire In Hindsight

Deep within the dusty tomes of long forgotten history books, hidden nuggets of illuminating information have been known to arise. The old saying that the truth is stranger than fiction can have a much deeper meaning when a fresh light is cast on a once obscure past. As we happen to be on the cusp of the 100th Anniversary of the First World War I have been doing some research on one of my favorite subjects, the Austro-Hungarian Military. Lately I have had the distinct pleasure of reading through Austria-Hungary’s Last War 1914 – 1918 prepared by the Austrian Federal Ministry of the Army and War Archive. This seven volume set was first published in 1930. Up until just a few years ago there was no English translation available. In 2010, a translation was finally completed by historian Stan Hanna. What an incredible achievement! The seven volumes run to several thousand pages in length. One hazards to guess how Hanna was able to do it all. With this translation English speaking military history buffs now have a window into nearly every facet of the Austro-Hungarian military apparatus during the Great War. A panoramic view is now available of the most multi-cultural empire in European history.

Ethnic map of Austria-Hungary

Ethnic map of Austria-Hungary

To the Ends of an Empire
Consider that it was almost exactly one hundred years ago when the Austria-Hungary went to war with a polyglot group of Central and Eastern Europeans who were tied together for better or worse by an old and faltering monarchy. The empire was home to 51 million people, consisting of nine different ethnic groups of at least a million or more in population. This demographic breakdown still has the power to amaze and confound. How such a multi-cultural, ethnic stew stayed together as long as it did, has become the subject of many debates.

Even more astonishing is the fact that during World War One, the army fought on three separate fronts, suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties, numerous setbacks and yet still somehow held together until the very last months of the conflict. Seemingly against all logic, a motley collection of ethnicities carried on a war in some of the most undesirable circumstances and locales experienced by any army in the modern age. Yes there were mutinies at times, yes there were disgruntled soldiers, desertions and surrenders, yes the empire disintegrated at the end of the war. These facts are all indisputable. Yet the empire also lasted for nearly the entire duration of the war, despite a panoply of competing cultures and nationalities vying for freedom, respect and independence.

All for One, One Against All
Perhaps the best way of trying to understand the miracle of illogic that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire is to breakdown just one of the many fascinating statistics found in the seven volumes. On page 42 of Austria-Hungary’s Last War, 1914 – 1918, Volume 1 is the following sentence: “Out of every 100 soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian Army there were 25 Germans, 23 Magyars, 13 Czechs, 9 Serbo-Croats, 8 Poles, 8 Ruthenes, 7 Romanians, 4 Slovaks, and 1 Italian.” This breakdown is quite compelling when viewed with hindsight. Today we know what became of the empire’s ethnic constituents.

Start with the fact that all of the above ethnic groups were squeezed within the borders of a single governing entity. The pressure of that squeeze caused fissures and faults along ethnic lines. The cracks exposed new nations and states, some of which have stood the test of time and others that have long since been resigned to the dustbin of history. A look at what became of these peoples in the aftermath of the empire’s dissolution is revealing. The Germans were predominantly from what would become the nation of Austria. It has been a successful state by any measure, excepting the period when it was sucked up into the vortex of Nazism. Other groups of Germans were scattered in several areas further east. Following the Second World War, luck, fate or a combination of both led them back to Germany via expulsion. The Magyars became a nation, now that they were no longer allowed to be the Kingdom of Hungary. For those Hungarians who still long to right the injustice of the Kingdom’s dismembering by the postwar Treaty of Trianon, they need to keep in mind that in the kingdom, Magyars were barely half the populace. In Hungary today they make up over 90% of the population. The war tore apart the Kingdom, but gave them a nation they can always call their own.

Austro-Hungarian soldiers in 1915. Ready for war or the end of an empire

Austro-Hungarian soldiers in 1915. Ready for war or the end of an empire

A Constant State of Becoming
The Czechs united with the Slovaks, creating a state which only lasted until the next war. It rose again after the war, but was peacefully sundered from within. Less than five years after the iron curtain ceased to exist so did Czechoslovakia. The Serbo-Croats started a South Slav state of their own, which descended into warring statelets due to the Second World War. Afterwards it was put back together again, but fell apart once and for all time following the end of communism. Freedom had a strange and unsettling effect on became known as the former Yugoslavia. The Poles finally got their nation back following the Great War, only to have it blown into near oblivion by the Nazis. Somehow it survived. Today it represents a successful, if precarious example of a successful post-communist state.

Then there was the Ruthenes, a people who have become the heart of Ukrainian nationalism in the western Ukraine today. Turning towards the west and then forced east, they are in a constant state of becoming. The story is much the same today as it was during the final decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Galicia playing its stereotypical role as impoverished backwater has been Europeanized with some success. The Romanians already had their nation, but to them it was never complete without Transylvania. They have pretty much had it that way – with one notable Hungarian forced exception – since the Great War. They have Transylvania, but will they ever have prosperity? And then there were the Tyrol Italians, caught between the Germanic and Latin worlds. They say you can’t have your cake and eat it too, but freed from the shackles of empire these Italians were gluttons who managed to escape the punishing legacy of a post imperial world.

Vanishing Act
In a nutshell, this is the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s constituent parts. What had been all for one prior to the Great War, became every ethnicity for itself at the end of the war. It was self-interest over collective interest. This was the ultimate betrayal of Austria-Hungary and led directly to its ruin. The results were or still are today: Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Poland, Greater Romania, the Soviet Union, Ukraine and Greater Italy. The loosely unified yet fatally flawed empire is today twelve disparate nations. A whole new world has come into being, born from a vanished one.

The Dark Side of Twilight – Dracula & Bistrita

The Dracula myth has become a staple of popular horror culture. Today Transylvania is not so much known for its stunning beauty and wildness, as it is for being the home of Dracula. It has gotten to the point where anyone who visits the region can pretty much claim they saw something connected with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Find a castle, any castle in a remote area of the Carpathian Mountains and it surely must be where Count Dracula made his home. Conversely, a great deal less is known about the specific locales where Stoker places the events of the book that occur in Transylvania. Foremost of these is Bistrita the only real Transylvanian town given any description in the novel. It is located in a rather remote area of northeastern Transylvania. Relatively few people go all the way to Bistrita to visit the actual place, since there are more accessible – and less accurate – Dracula sites on the tourist path.

Bistrita as it looks today

Bistrita as it looks today

Dracula Slept Here – Tourism & Transylvania
The fact that Bram Stoker set part of Dracula in Transylvania has brought that beautiful land great fame. Along with it has also come the inevitable Dracula themed tourism. Visitors who spend any amount of time in Transylvania will come across many attractions that reputedly showcase Dracula. The veracity of those on offer is disputable. Take for instance the so-called “Dracula’s Castle.” This happens to be Bran Castle near Brasov, which was used by neither Stoker’s fictional Dracula nor the historical one, Vlad the Impaler. Nevertheless since the castle looks the part and Vlad may have spent a night or two in the place, it is passed off as the real thing.

Perhaps Bran Castle is what Bram Stoker had in mind when his character Jonathan Harker describes, a vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light, and whose broken battlements showed a jagged line against the moonlit sky.” There are a couple of problems with this. Namely that Bran Castle is kept in excellent condition. Also, there is no documentation showing that Stoker knew where Bran Castle was located, let alone what it looked like. One literary sleuth claims that Stoker may have created Dracula’s mythical castle from a photo he saw of Bran Castle in a book. Myth and reality rarely mesh when it comes to Dracula. Whereas Stoker’s Count Dracula was ensconced in a castle high up on a rocky, inhospitable precipice, the historical Dracula, Vlad the Impaler was actually Voivode (Governor) of Wallachia, which lies south of Transylvania and is a land of rolling plains. The idea of Dracula does not bring to mind yeoman farmers. To get a feel for Stoker’s Dracula the visitor can make a trip to Bistrita, but be forewarned, this is not easy.

The Dark Side of Twilight – Traveling to Bistrita
Bistrita does not get as many Dracula tourists as one might imagine despite its connection with the famous novel. This is mainly due to the difficulty of getting there. A traveler coming from Bucharest finds the historic Transylvanian city of Brasov much more easily accessible. It takes just over two and a half hours to get to Brasov by train from the capital. It is the most fashionable tourist destination in Transylvania because of its historic center and Saxon influenced architecture. In contrast, the quickest a train goes from Bucharest to Bistrita is at least eight and a half hours, with a minimum of one change. Anyone who has ever ridden the rails in Transylvania knows to add an hour or more to arrival times. In other words, to visit Bistrita a tourist has to really want to go there.

Bistrita might not be the fashionable place to go, but if a visitor wants to follow in the footsteps of Jonathan Harker it seems a good place to start. The town makes an appearance at the end of the very first diary entry in the novel when Harker says: It was on the dark side of twilight when we got to Bistritz, which is a very interesting old place. Being practically on the frontier—for the Borgo Pass leads from it into Bukovina—it has had a very stormy existence, and it certainly shows marks of it. Fifty years ago a series of great fires took place, which made terrible havoc on five separate occasions. At the very beginning of the seventeenth century it underwent a siege of three weeks and lost 13,000 people, the casualties of war proper being assisted by famine and disease.” (Note: Stoker uses the German spelling of Bistritz. This blog uses the current Romanian form, Bistrita, since that is where the city is located today. When Stoker wrote Dracula, Bistrita was part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. At that time, the city would have officially been designated by its Hungarian name, Beszterce.)

City of the Saxons
Stoker had definitely done some historical research on Bistrita. Indeed, the city had been plagued by multiple fires during the 19th century. During a fifteen year span beginning in 1836 the town suffered no less than five conflagrations. These fires decimated the town’s medieval citadel which dated all the way back to the early Middle Ages. In 1857, yet another fire destroyed the Saxon fortified church’s tower, roof and bells. At the time Stoker wrote Dracula in the mid-1890’s, Bistrita had a population of 9,100. The most numerous ethnic group was Saxons. Bistrita was one of the Siebenburgen or “Seven Fortresses” which were the Transylvanian Saxon cities. The second and third largest ethnic groups were respectively, Romanians and Magyars. Nearly all of the Saxons left the city after the wall fell. As Auslandsdeutsche (Germans abroad) they were entitled to German citizenship, which most of them took along with the better economic opportunities Germany offered.

Coroana de aur Hotel in Bistrita - Jonathan Harker would have loved it

Coroana de aur Hotel in Bistrita – Jonathan Harker would have loved it

A Night At the Golden Krone
When Jonathan Harker arrives in Bistrita the reader doesn’t learn anything about the Saxons, but there is some local flavor of at least the fictional kind. Harker alights for the evening at the Golden Krone Hotel. At the time Stoker wrote Dracula there was no such hotel in Bistrita. That is not true today. Attempting to turn a quick buck on Dracula tourism, some enterprising Romanians have built the “Coroana De Aur” which when translated goes by the same name as the lodging in Dracula. Online reviews of the hotel give it a rating of above average. No word yet on whether anyone has had the same disconcerting experience that Harker did at the Golden Krone. All seems well when Harker arrives, why he even receives a greeting from the count, “My Friend.—Welcome to the Carpathians. I am anxiously expecting you. Sleep well to-night…”

The next day though when Harker asks the hotel proprietor about Dracula the ominous forebodings begin. “When I asked him if he knew Count Dracula, and could tell me anything of his castle, both he and his wife crossed themselves, and, saying that they knew nothing at all, simply refused to speak further. It was so near the time of starting that I had no time to ask any one else, for it was all very mysterious and not by any means comforting.”

The Last Glimpse
Comfort was something Harker would experience very little of the rest of his trip. It is doubtful that a visitor who spends some time in Bistrita will have that same experience. With modern technology checking in and out of the “Coroana De Aur” probably takes nothing more than a couple of keystrokes. It is doubtful that any tourist would want to repeat the sendoff Harker got as he left Bistrita by wagon coach: “When we started, the crowd round the inn door, which had by this time swelled to a considerable size, all made the sign of the cross and pointed two fingers towards me. With some difficulty I got a fellow-passenger to tell me what they meant; he would not answer at first, but on learning that I was English, he explained that it was a charm or guard against the evil eye. This was not very pleasant for me, just starting for an unknown place to meet an unknown man; but every one seemed so kind-hearted, and so sorrowful, and so sympathetic that I could not but be touched. I shall never forget the last glimpse which I had of the inn-yard and its crowd of picturesque figures, all crossing themselves, as they stood round the wide archway, with its background of rich foliage of oleander and orange trees in green tubs clustered in the centre of the yard.”

If a trip to Bistrita to stand in the footsteps of Harker does approximate that experience, what else might happen is probably best left to the imagination. Bistrita may not be on the well-traveled tourist path, but it is certainly a place where true Dracula buffs will find a little bit of reality mixed with a whole lot of myth. In so many ways that makes it just like Dracula.