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  • Ilinca Stroe

Romania’s Treasures: the German Romanians

“When the Germans came to the country . . . they built a city for the Romanians, they taught them professions, they gave them land when they were fighting . . . The Germans took the Romanians out of their huts, made light for them, taught them what a radio was, started shaping people of culture,” Roma jazzman Johnny Răducanu maintains. [1] Although he was referring mainly to Romania’s royal family (of German descent), positive general stereotypes about Romania’s German ethnics abound, and at their core there’s this notion: the Germans are civilised - the Romanians, less so...

Of course, positive stereotypes can be convenient, as they make a pleasant atmosphere and help set progressive aspirations. But who are the “Germans” in this specific case? The term needs a little clarification and some historical background, before we focus on the contribution of twelve German Romanians to the country’s development.

By ethnic “Germans” in Romania we tend to mean both the saşi/Saxons in Transylvania and the şvabi/Swabians in the neighbouring western province of Banat. The two groups, however, had each its own historical course and distinct historical landmarks.

As far as the Saxons are concerned, after the retreat of the Romans in 271, the population left behind in Transylvania saw, for a few centuries, serial invasions by the Visigoths and Carpi (who lent their name to the Carpathians), the Gepids, the Avars and the Slavs - until the 9th-10th centuries, when the Hungarians arrived, settled in the Pannonian Basin and, conquering Transylvania, initiated the first proto-states there, voivodeships [2].

Thus, during the reign of King Géza II (1141-1162), German Saxon colonists were brought to Transylvania, including both peasants and lower-rank aristocrats, whose main role was to defend the south-eastern Hungarian border against invaders coming from Central Asia (Cumans and Tatars) [3]. To that end, the Transylvanian Saxons founded a number of fortified cities, hence the Saxon name of Transylvania, Siebenbürgen, meaning seven cities [4]: Bistriţa (Bistritz), Braşov (Kronstadt), Cluj (Klausenburg), Mediaş (Mediasch), Orăştie (Broos), Sibiu (Hermannstadt) and Sighişoara (Schäßburg). Indeed, the know-how of city organisation and administration, including the guilds’ traditions, represented the Saxons’ pivotal contribution to life in those territories [5].

On the other hand, the arrival of the Swabians in Banat is related to the conquest of that province by the Habsburg Empire in 1716, following the Austrian-Turkish war. After the conquest three migration waves took place, with Swabians (apparently called like that by the name of the German region where they embarked on the boats which brought them to Banat along the Danube) arriving between 1718-1740, then 1744-1772, and then 1782-1787. They belonged to all social classes, from small farmers, craftsmen and teachers to minor offenders [6], and they made a major contribution to the agricultural prosperity of the area by engineering the course of the river Bega, as well as to the industrialisation of the region [7].

So while historically and geographically the colonists who came from places which today are part of Germany to territories which are today part of Romania can be divided into Transylvanian Saxons and Swabians from Banat, culturally it is common to refer to both groups as German ethnics in Romania. This is the conventional reference we will use in the remaining of this article, too, therefore the German contribution to the development of modern Romania that we will highlight here refers to input by both the Saxons and the Swabians.

One of the first major German ethnic contributors to modern Romania’s evolution was Johannes Honterus

(1498-1549), the Braşov-based humanist who made one of the very first maps of Transylvania, founded a humanist gymnasium school nowadays still functional and bearing his name, and is buried in the famous Black Church in his city of Braşov. Honterus’s story is very similar to that of so many other historical personalities in neighbouring Wallachia and Moldavia: he left his native land to acquire knowledge in the West and then returned to his city to put that knowledge to work for the benefit of the land and its society. In his specific case, Honterus first studied at the University of Vienna (1520-1525), then moved to Regensburg and in 1530 he took up a teaching post at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, where he published a cosmography manual and a Latin grammar book. Then he lived in Basel for a few years, learning and practising wood engraving, becoming familiar with the tenets of Renaissance humanism via the influence of Erasmus of Rotterdam, and publishing, in 1532, a cartographic work on Transylvania, Chorographia Transylvaniae Sybembürgen. In 1533 he returned to Braşov, where, over the following years, he set up the aforementioned school, as well as one of the first printing presses in Transylvania and a paper factory which supplied paper to Wallachia and Moldavia, too. What’s admirable about Honterus is that, using his West-derived expertise, he opened up new perspectives in and about his native land, with pioneer projects like the printing press here and, on the other hand, facilitating the West’s access to Transylvania by doing mapping work.

After Honterus’s humanist input, Samuel von Brukenthal (1721-1803) brought about an Enlightenment-inspired transformation in Transylvania, particularly the city of Sibiu. Born near that city, young Brukenthal worked as a clerk in Sibiu before going to Halle and Jena to study law, philosophy and political science without, however, getting a degree. Well received by the aristocratic circles in Berlin, Brukenthal was able to secure a provincial chancellor position in Vienna, where he also started putting together a valuable art collection and library. In 1745 he returned to Sibiu and made his way through the administrative ranks of the local administration Chancellery, reaching the position of vice-notary of the city, then becoming personal adviser to Empress Maria Theresa and head of the Imperial Court Chancellery, only to be appointed Governor of Transylvania in 1777 [8]. Two years later he built in Sibiu a Baroque palace where he hosted musical soirées frequented by the city’s artistic elite, a building which he then opened up to the public; his European art collection was thus converted into a public gallery in 1790, which was, for comparison, three years before the Louvre in Paris was inaugurated. Overall, Brukenthal’s contribution as an art collector and philanthropist facilitated in Transylvania Western-style access to high arts.

About half a century later, two other German ethnics contributed to their country’s progress in more

political ways: Stephan Ludwig Roth (1796-1849) and Christian Tell (1808-1884), both supporters of the 1848 Revolution and its ideals. Roth was an Enlightenment humanist who studied in Sibiu and Tübingen, where he obtained his PhD degree, after which he returned to Mediaş and started championing ideas such as the emancipation of the (Romanian) Transylvanian peasants and the promotion of Romanian as an official language in Transylvania, including the right for the majority Romanian ethnics in the province to access education in that language [9]. Because he supported the national ideal typical of the 1848 revolutions, which in the case of Transylvania meant its independence as a three-nation state, with the Hungarians, Germans and Romanians enjoying equal rights in a country separated from Hungary, Roth was arrested in 1849, trialled, sentenced to death and executed within three hours from the pronouncement of the sentence. But the work that Roth left behind, Der Sprachenkampf in Siebenbürgen / The War of Languages in Transylvania, remains a passionate and wonderful plea in favour of a respectful multiethnic society where coexisting ethnicities can live in harmony and mutual benefit.

Christian Tell, a native of Braşov but educated in Bucharest at the prestigious “Sfântul Sava” High School, supported the 1848 Revolution in more pragmatic, i.e. military ways. Having acquired military expertise fighting in the Ottoman army during the Russian-Turkish war of 1828-1829, Tell enrolled in the newly formed army of Wallachia and made his way swiftly up the army ranks. When the Revolution broke out, he mobilised his troops in favour of the revolutionaries, getting the nickname of “sword of the Revolution”, and became a member of the revolutionary provisional government. Following the defeat of the Revolution, Tell was exiled to France and Greece for about ten years. When he returned, still loyal to the Revolution’s ideals, among which was the unification of the Romanian provinces, he supported the election of Alexandru Ioan Cuza in both Moldavia and Wallachia and could finally enjoy the fruit of his life-long political labour, i.e. the emancipation into one nation-state of the two principalities. Tell continued to be a respected politician who held the charge of Minister of Education twice after the union, was well appreciated by King Carol I in the 1860s, and is probably the most important Transylvanian Saxon, politically speaking, who had a highly positive influence on the destinies of Wallachia and Moldavia.

Another Saxon who, like Tell, lived out of Transylvania was Alexandru Adolf Flechtenmacher (1823-1898). Born

in Iaşi, where his father Christian had migrated, Flechtenmacher was a musician who headed the Music and Drama Conservatoire in Bucharest between 1864 and 1869, and worked as a conductor from 1853 to 1858 in Craiova. He composed mainly light opera, including vaudevilles and operettas from the popular Coana Chiriţa series, based on Vasile Alecsandri’s plays, but his best-known composition is by far “Hora Unirii” (lyrics by Alecsandri, too), which was the national anthem during Alexandru Ioan Cuza’s reign, celebrating an achievement as important as the union of Moldavia and Wallachia. The old anthem is still frequently used today at official events, rallies and demonstrations, its pleasant lyrics and luminous tune still have the power to stimulate a deeply emotional response in the (patriotic) listeners.

Changing fields, the German contribution to the arts of Romania comes from artists like Ştefan Jäger (1877-1962) and Margarete Depner (1885-1970). Jäger realised he was drawn to painting while in high school, so when he turned 18 he went to an arts school in Budapest, where he also sold his first paintings, mainly still natures and landscapes. He was reasonably famous in the region around the turn of the century, and in 1910 he settled in Jimbolia and focused on depicting local village life, with its cutoms, costumes, pace and celebrations, in such a lively, colourful style that he was dubbed “the painter of the Swabians” [10] – and the museum which holds many of his paintings confirms that status.

Sculptor Margarete Depner, on the other hand, was the daughter of an industrialist, and she was born and lived in Braşov almost all of her life. As a schoolgirl she took private classes of drawing with teachers from the “Johannes Honterus” gymnasium school, and later on she studied arts in Berlin and Paris. Her works capture the aura of fine femininity, are kept at museums in Romania and Germany, and were collected in an art album edited by her grandchildren.

Moving on to science, physicist and engineer Hermann Oberth (1894-1989) was born in Sibiu and when he was a teenager, inspired by Jules Verne’s writings, he built his first model rocket,

prefacing the subsequent achievements of the man who was to be called “one of the founding fathers of rocketry and astronautics” [11]. But before reaching the field of physics, Oberth studied medicine, during World War I he fought on the eastern front and was assigned to a medical unit in Sighişoara, and only in 1919 was he able to study physics in Munich and Göttingen. His doctoral thesis, on rockets in the outer space, was rejected as “utopian” in Germany, but the young scholar was determined to succeed, and so in 1923 he resubmitted it at the University of Cluj and was awarded the title. International recognition came with a French Astronomical Society prize awarded to Oberth in 1929 for his PhD-based book, Wege zur Raumschiffahrt / Ways to Spaceflight, and its relevance to astronautics. Later on, Oberth worked with Wernher von Braun, the co-designer of the Saturn V rockets that enabled the 1969 Moon landing, who said about the Sibiu-born German that “A place of honour should be reserved in the history of science and technology for his ground-breaking contributions in the field of astronautics” [12].

In literature, apart from Nobel winner Herta Müller, the German ethnics from Transylvania are well represented by Sibiu-born poet and translator Oskar Pastior (1927-2006). As a teenager, Pastior was deported to the Soviet Union, where he survived life on a forced labour camp until 1949, when he was allowed to return home. Back here, he had to earn his living doing tough unskilled work, before he was able to finish high school and then get admitted, in 1955, to the University of Bucharest. He made his debut in 1960 and published in his lifetime almost 45 works, of which Poempoems (1992) and Many Glove Compartments (2001) are available in English. After being blackmailed into becoming a Securitate informant, in 1968 Pastior managed to free himself and emigrate to West Germany, where he kept publishing in German while also translating from Romanian works by Mihai Eminescu, Lucian Blaga, Tudor Arghezi, etc. He collaborated with Herta Müller, whose novel Everything I Possess I Carry with Me is partly based on Pastior’s Soviet ordeal, and won the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize in 2006, for his poetry, in which “words ring and sing and meaning whirrs and whizzes” [13].

Contemporary German ethnics coming from different walks of life include footballer Helmuth Duckadam

(born in 1959 at Semlac), physicist Stefan Hell (1962, Arad) and soprano Anita Hartig (1983, Bistriţa). Duckadam was raised by his maternal grandmother and started playing football in 1974 in his village team; he attended the “Gloria” Sports School in Arad, where he also debuted in 1978 as a professional goalkeeper in a third-division local team, before being transferred to top club Steaua Bucharest. He was between the posts with the latter team in the 1986 European Cup final against FC Barcelona, and during the shootout of that match he saved as many as four consecutive penalty shots, bringing a fantastic victory to his team. That feat, comparable to Nadia Comăneci’s perfect 10 at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, set a world record included in the Guinness Book and brought Duckadam the nickname of “the hero of Seville”, which is where the final was played [14]. After that peak of his career, Duckadam retired from professional football and became a customs officer, but he is still involved in the running of a football academy based in his native village and bearing his name, where he aims to cultivate football talent [15].

Stefan Hell grew up and went to primary school in a village near Arad. When he was 14 he started attending the “Nikolaus Lenau” High School in Timişoara, but after the first year there his family emigrated to Ludwigshafen in Germany, in 1978. As a student, Hell enrolled at the Heidelberg University, where he also completed his PhD in physics in 1990. Teaching and research positions followed, at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, the University of Turku in Finland and the University of Oxford before 2002, when Hell became director of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen. For his research into microscopy, particularly “the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy”, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014, together with two other scientists. Hell thus became the second Banat Swabian to win the award after writer Herta Müller, and it is significant that he remembers his Romanian school teachers as instrumental in his early development as a scientist [16].

Anita Hartig studied at the “Gheorghe Dima” Music Academy in Cluj, which she graduated in 2006. She made

her operatic debut at the Romanian National Opera in Cluj while still an undergraduate, as Mimì in La Bohème – a role in which she has been exceptionally successful throughout her career. Between 2009 and 2014, Hartig was a member of the Wiener Staatsoper ensemble and since then she has performed at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Teatro Real in Madrid and Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, in operas like La Traviata, Turandot, Carmen or Le Nozze di Figaro. Hertig received critical acclaim for her performance from the New York Classical Review, which describes her voice as “a gorgeous instrument”, The Financial Times, which praises her “lovely purity of sound” [17], and The Telegraph, which refers to her as one of the “great Romanian operatic sopranos” [18].

Now, are you ready to re-witness the feat of a German Romanian goalkeeper who, one magic football night back in 1986, made about 23 million fellow nationals ecstatic, in the otherwise sad years of Ceaşescu’s dictatorship?

Notes & Sources

[3] “Transylvanian Saxons”. Wikipedia. Accessed 10 Nov 2018. <>

[4] Djuvara, Neagu. O scurtă istorie ilustrată a românilor. Bucharest: Humanitas, 2013. Print. Page 55.

[5] Ibidem, page 103.

[6] “Şvabi bănăţeni”. Wikipedia. Accessed 10 Nov 2018. <>

[9] “Stephan Ludwig Roth”. Wikipedia. Accessed 10 Nov 2018. <>

[11] “Hermann Oberth”. Wikipedia. Accessed 10 Nov 2018. <>

[12] Ibidem.

Picture credits

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