the land beyond the forest

for anyone wondering why I keep talking about Germans and Hungarians. Wasn’t I in Romania?

In ancient days, the place we now call Transylvania was part of the Kingdom of the Dacians, of which much is claimed. In the early second century, Trajan’s legions overthrew the last king of the Dacians, Decebal (“strong as ten men”) and made it part of the Roman Empire for a few centuries. When the Romans withdrew, Transylvania (as with most of Europe) was overrun by a succession of large groups of violent nomads who didn’t leave many written records. Last in this sustained sequence were the Magyars, proto-Hungarians, who settled in the Carpathian basin under István I, but over the next few hundred years it spent as much time acting independently as it did as being part of the various Kingdoms of Hungary. This put it in an interesting position throughout the eons of horrible warfare between Christendom and the Ottomans, and Transylvania took both sides at various times (Vlad the Impaler’s modern-day rep is firstly Dracula shit and second his penchant for killing tens of thousands of people and sticking them on spikes, but he was also famously a highly canny and effective operator who played both sides) but largely falling within the Ottoman sphere of influence as a generally-unreliable vassal state.

The Ottoman Turks, who once occupied almost all the Balkans, went steeply downhill after the enormous Battle of Vienna in 1683 (which also featured a real-life version of that ridiculous cavalry charge in LOTR) and were cleared out of half the Balkans in the next few decades, although there would be centuries of fighting before the issue was completely settled. So for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Transylvania was part of the Habsburg empire, a highly multi-cultural, multi-ethnic entity notable for its enormous longevity and great stability despite a legendarily inbred ruling family and a habit of haemorrhaging money, men and power by losing wars against basically everyone, basically all the time.*

The Habsburgs encouraged craftsmen from all over their vast holdings to settle everywhere, so as well as a majority of ethnic Romanians (known as Wallachs at the time), Transylvania had a substantial population of Hungarians and Germans, and countless minority groups of Serbs, Croats, Poles, Jews etc etc etc. These were largely concentrated in the cosmopolitan towns, or alone in small monoglot villages.

The modern Romanian state is a successor of the Socialist Republic of Romania, which itself was created from the Kingdom of Romania. This kingdom, like the countries of Italy and Germany, came about in the romantic-nationalist wave of the mid-late 19th century,** built around a shared language, a largely invented folk history, and a German prince. Due to shared Wallach heritage, it always had its eyes on Transylvania, and its chance came at the end of the Great War; Romanian troops seized the area from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had been militarily ruined by the Russians, and the occupation was formalised by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon (which gutted Austria-Hungary and [literally] Balkanised the resulting territory).

Modern Romanians, for reasons varying from basic Wallach ethno-linguistic majority to claimed kinship with the Kingdom of Dacia, claim Transylvania is and has always been theirs by moral right. But all over Transylvania there are towns which frontiers have swept across dozens of times, towns with five or six names in five or six languages, the graves of people called Schmidt and Esterhazy in the churchyards, echoes of Saxony in the architecture, a long, long history of complex and frequently violent racial tensions (most of which were only really resolved, and the “solution” here usually had a certain final quality, in the Second World War) and, above all, an absolute shedload of fortifications everywhere. This was for centuries the happy hunting ground of raiding parties, the Military Frontier in the war for the soul of southern Europe, and the playground of noble rivalries, ethnic rebellions and local wars in the off-season.

* It contained the hundreds of little independent states that made up most of modern Germany until Napoleon tore the Empire apart in the 1800s. After his defeat, they were courted by both Austria and Prussia, eventually snapped up by Prussia in the 1860s and 70s for German unification.

** For the casual reader: in the 19th century most of Europe was swept up in nationalist movements, cultural memes where everyone decided that the language you spoke and ancestors you claimed added up to a collective National Identity, and as with most group identities, everyone decided to celebrate it by attacking different identities. This wasn’t much of an internal issue in places like England and France, where the dominant ethnic/linguistic group had long ago destroyed or overwritten local smaller groups like Cornish or Breton and created fairly homogenous “countries”, but a lot of Europe – especially in the East – was far more messily diverse and state boundaries had little to do with ethnic/linguistic ones. The upheaval led, eventually to a very different (generally simpler) map, a lot of attractive nationalist bling, a lot of fakey fake folklore, a lot of murderous, violent sectarian tension, and the occasional apocalyptic war. Some of the most brutal excesses of the world wars resulted from small ethnic groups left on what had become the “wrong side” of some border or other, and it’s echoed in recent ethnic cleansing in the Balkans; same shit, different decade.

Romania 2015

Night Drive through Oltenia – Severin, Iron Gates, Baile HerculaneRoman Sarmizegetusa, Castelul Corvinilor, Alba IuliaTurda salt mines, Sighișoara, BrașovA Brief Interlude on the History of TransylvaniaBlack Church, Peleș, Bran Castle


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