[Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [HMK Home] Elemér Illyés : National Minorities in Romania




 A Brief History of Transylvania and Its Peoples.

The history of Transylvania and its nationalities is a specific phenomenon in the development of Europe. Transylvania's ethnic composition is very different from that in the rest of present-day Romania--not only geographically but also historically, culturally, and economically. Even though the ways the national groups have lived and the goals they have pursued have diverged over the centuries, the peoples of the province have nonetheless been linked by a number of shared traditions and a common history. But at least as much as any other factor, European great-power politics have determined much of Transylvania's history and prevented true integration of the nationalities.

Today the name Transylvania is applied to all the territory transferred from Hungary to Romania by the Trianon Treaty of June 4, 1920--a region of about 103,000 square kilometers.1 Before 1920, however, "Transylvania" connoted only part of the Trianon grant--the area of "historical Transylvania" respectively Transylvanian Principality, thus excluded the areas of the Great Hungarian Plain. Historic Transylvania covered 56,883 to 61,622 square kilometers without the area known as the Partium, or "Partes regni Hungariae applicatae~. The Partium referred to those parts of Hungary that came under the sovereignty of the Princes of Transylvania, but did not become part of the Principality. The Partium's territory varied from period to period, at times including territories of northern Hungary, the counties Bihar, Szatmár, Ugocsa, and Máramaros. In time, however, the term Partium came to be restricted to Zarand, Kraszna, and Közép-Szolnok Counties and the Kövár region; areas that had belonged almost permanently to Transylvania (these counties are immediately to the west of historical Transylvania).


The Hungarians

Around 2000 B.C. the territory of present-day Transylvania was inhabited by Indo-Germanic tribes. The Agathurs appeared in the fifth century B.C., followed by the Scythians, who were in turn replaced by the Thracian-Geto-Dacian state. That state was overthrown between 105 and 107 A.D. by the Roman legions of Trajan, and Dacia (a part of present-day Transylvania) became a Roman province. In 271 the area was occupied by the Goths, who a century later (in 376) were expelled by the Huns. The Gepids and the Avars later occupied the area of present-day Transylvania. The Avar Empire, which also extended over the Hungarian Plane, was overthrown by the armies of Charlemagne at the end of the eighth century. Finally, at the beginning of the ninth century, Transylvania came under Bulgarian sovereignty, a change of rule that brought no significant change in the region's ethnic composition: remnants of the peoples of the Avar Empire, including widely dispersed Bulgarian-Slavonic tribes who had been swept into the area by the Avars.

Toward the end of the ninth century the migrations of peoples and the frequent change in sovereignty were brought to an end by the Magyar conquest of the Carpathian Basin. The Hungarians brought order and stability and were the first to establish a permanent state in the area. On the basis of recent archeological research, it seems likely that the Hungarians appeared in the Carpathian Basin centuries before the actual conquest,2 which occurred between the ninth and eleventh centuries. The conquest and the subsequent Christianization of the area made Transylvania part of Western civilization; the region, in turn, served as a bastion of protection for that civilization. From the time of the conquest until 1918, Transylvania shared in the historical development of the Hungarian kingdom and was an integral part of the framework of the Hungarian state.3

As Transylvania became consolidated politically, three groups or "nations" assumed a leading role--the Magyar, the Szekler, and the Saxon. After the Reformation the churches of these nations constituted the four "received" religions (Catholic, Reformed or Calvinist, Evangelical or Lutheran, and Unitarian).


The Szeklers, about one-third of the Hungarians in Transylvania, differ neither linguistically nor ethnically from the other Hungarians; the name was an inheritance from their historical development.4 The rulers of Hungary ordered the Szeklers to protect the kingdom's eastern frontiers at a time when Transylvania became consolidated in the Carpathian Basin. The Szeklers were "free border guards" with privileges similar to those granted to the Saxon settlers. Although most of the Szeklers were of peasant origin, a large proportion of them were granted nobility by the Hungarian kings as a reward for outstanding military service. By the fifteenth century the feudal political structure in Transylvania had consolidated and was organized locally into Hungarian counties and the Szekler and Saxon "seat" (szé k, Stuhl), an organization of public administration that lasted for four centuries.5

The Szekler region, the area where they settled in the early Middle Ages, in southeastern and central Transylvania, consisted of the following counties: Udvarhely/Odorhei, Csík/Ciuc, Háromszé k/Trei Scaune, Maros-Torda/Mures, Aranyosszék, and Brassó /Brasov.6 At the time of the annexation of Transylvania by Romania, there were approximately 600,000 Szeklers in the region. The Transylvanian Hungarians and Szeklers are largely Roman Catholic, Reformed, or Unitarian.

Another group of ethnic Magyars, separated in the course of time from the Szeklers, is the CsángóHungarians:7 the Gyimes Csángós in Transylvania in the Trotus/Tatros River valley; the Hétfalu Csángós in and around the town of Sacele/Szecselevaros near Brasov/Brassó; and other Csángós living outside Transylvania and the Carpathian Basin, in the territory of present-day Moldavia and Bucovina.8 Exactly when the Csángós settled in the area between the Carpathian Mountain and the Siret/Szeret River has not been conclusively established. It is probable that they migrated from northern Transylvania in the twelfth or thirteenth century when the Árpád kings ruled the kingdom, but several Hungarian historians claim that the Moldavian Hungarians are a splinter group that separated from the Hungarians at the time of the conquest.9 Other historians support the view that the Moldavian Csángósettlements along with all Hungarian settlements beyond the Carpathians must be regarded as the final phase in the conquest.10


The historical vicissitudes of the region tended to increase the number of Moldavian Magyars; but the process of Romanianization, already begun in the seventeenth century, continued into the nineteenth century and increased as a result of the oppressive Romanian nationality policy pursued by the Bucharest government between the two world wars. The four-century policy of Romanianization has yielded some results. As early as the eighteenth century, the Romanian language and Orthodox religion gained the upper hand in the towns and cities where the Magyars were assimilated by the Romanians. But in the villages the Hungarians retained their identity; and although Hungarian-language schools functioned only between 1949 and 1956, the people have managed to preserve their archaic dialect, their ancient folk culture, and their Catholic religion to this day.11

According to the 1930 Romanian census, if counted by national origin there were 20,964 Hungarians in Moldavia; if by native language, 23,894. Yet at the same time the census recorded 109,953 Catholics in the area, most of whom had to be Hungarian, since the Romanians of Moldavia belong to the Orthodox Church. The number of Csángó-Hungarians with Hungarian as their mother tongue can therefore be estimated in 1979 at roughly 100,000, if their high birthrate is also considered. Those whose mother tongue is not Hungarian--that is, those who speak Romanian--are hard to estimate; but on the basis of the number of Catholics shown in the older statistics their number can be put at roughly 60,000 to 80,000. These people are, however, Hungarian by ethnic origin as well as by their way of life.

The Saxons

The first group of German-speaking people to migrate to Transylvania were the Saxons (Siebenburger Sachsen). It is now generally accepted, that the Transylvanian Saxons immigrated primarily from middle Franconia (Moselle-Franconia) and the left banks of the Rhine and Moselle rivers (Cologne, Luttich, Aachen, Trier and Luxembourg). A small part of them came from Westfalia, Hesse, Bavaria, and Thuringia.12 The Hungarian King Geza II (1141 - 1162) called (vocati) these Saxons to come to Transylvania as "guests" (hospites) to defend the southeastern frontier and to settle in the so-called Königsboden region13 then uninhabited and lying between Hermannstadt/Sibiu (Altland),


Leschkirch and Grosschenk. The Germans were also settled in northeastern Transylvania near Bistritz/Bistrita ( snerland), Rodna, and Sachsisch-Regen/Reghin during Géza II's reign. In 1211 King Endre II (1205-1235) permitted the Teutonic Order to settle in the Burzenland/Barcaság/Tara Birsei,14 an area that had been depopulated by repeated Cumanian incursions. The Teutonic Order built protective forts and also established several towns beyond the Carpathians but was soon expelled because of its independent political ambitions (1225). However, the settlements near Kronstadt/Brasov continued to be inhabited by Germans.

In 1224 Endre II granted territorial, political, and religious autonomy to the Saxons in his so-called "Golden Charter" (Goldener Brief, Andreanum).15 The Saxons now formed the third privileged "nation" (alongside the Hungarian nobles in the counties and Szeklers) in Transylvania. In 1486 the privileges granted in the Andreanum were confirmed and extended to other Saxon settlements by King Matthias Corvinus (1458-1490). This second grant established a basis for the so-called "University of the Saxon Nation" (Sachsische Nationsuniversitä t, Universitas Saxonum), i.e., the whole of the Saxon settlements and also an institution that represented the interests of the entire Saxon nation and for centuries guided the destiny of the Saxon people. The University's sphere of authority included the administration of justice, the management of the Saxon economy, and the working out of internal regulations. The University was headed by the Count of the Saxons (Sachsengraf, Comes Saxonum), who was freely elected and whose seat was in Hermannstadt. The Saxon Assembly (Sachsentag) was both an advisory and an executive body. The Transylvanian Saxons have been Lutherans since the Reformation.

The autonomy of the nigsboden and of the Transylvanian Saxons was temporarily abolished by the reforms of the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II (1780-1790) but was restored by his brother and successor Leopold II (1790-l792). In 1876, many of the Saxon privileges dating from the Middle Ages were eliminated, namely, those that had guaranteed the territorial autonomy of the nigsboden. However, the Saxon Assembly remained, and the University of the Saxon Nation was retained as a cultural foundation.


The historic privileges enjoyed by the Transylvanian Saxons were severely limited when the province passed to Romania.16 The Romanian land reforms destroyed the Saxon communal landholdings; and on March 20, 1937, the University of the Saxon Nation was abolished and its remaining property divided between Saxons and Romanians. The Transylvanian Saxon Evangelical Church became and has remained the legal heir of the Saxon part of that legacy. A common national and political consciousness among ethnic Germans in present-day Transylvania did not develop until the period between the two world wars--a phenomenon that was a result of their different origins, language, and time of settlement.

The intellectual and economic development of Transylvania owes a great deal to the Saxons. They founded the great majority of the province's towns and cities, pioneered its education, and contributed greatly to the development of an urban bourgeoisie. They laid the foundations of banking institutions and of industry in the midnineteenth century through their industrial associations, system of guilds, cooperatives, and credit institutions, most of which were significant economic factors in Transylvania right up to the end of the Second World War.

The vitality and survival of the Saxons in Transylvania has been due primarily to their first-rate cultural institutions and their ecclesiastical, economic, and democratic political organizations. At the time of the Romanian annexation of the province in 1920, there were approximately 234,000 Transylvanian Saxons. At present they represent the remnants of the eastern-most limit of German culture. 

The Romanians

The origin of this southeast European people is still disputed and subject to various interpretations, which are not analyzed in this work. According to Romanian and certain other historiographers, the Romanian people grew out of the intermingling of Dacians with Romans (the Daco-Roman theory).17 Documents place their final settlement in the southern Carpathians at the end of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth centuries,18 at a time when Transylvania's inhabitants also included, in addition to the Hungarians and Saxons, some sparsely settled Slav-Bulgarian tribes. Documents show that small patriarchal Slavonic-Romanian communities--smaller or larger clans acting as the early cells of social development--were found in Transylvania only after 1200. These Romanian hamlets, according to later (thirteenth- and fourteenth-century) documents were administered by the Hungarian state when fortified border areas were organized and put under the direction of a Hungarian official, the ispán.19 But because they were semi-nomadic shepherds, the Romanians were not able to develop well-defined territorial settlements until much later. When the first semi-nomadic Romanians arrived in


Transylvania, they sought refuge from invading and marauding Turks and found it in the mountains and isolated valleys of the region. By the fourteenth century they had begun to give up their nomadic way of life and to settle in villages. But the process was still incomplete as late as the eighteenth century, and a Romanian middle class did not develop until the nineteenth century.

At first the Romanians enjoyed certain autonomous rights under their leaders (called voivod and knezen); but with the development of the feudal order these leaders, who were largely of non-Romanian origin (Cumanian, Slav, Petchenegue or Hungarian), became nobles and the Romanian people sank into serfdom; their small communities remained primitive; and their own leaders now became their oppressors. The Transylvanian Romanians did not constitute one of the privileged "nations", nor was their Orthodox Church one of the "received" religions.

The development of Romanian national consciousness began around 1700. At that time a part of the Transylvanian Romanian intelligentsia20 adopted the Uniate (or Greek Catholic) faith with its spiritual center at Rome, and hence they came into contact with Western culture and with the national consciousness that began to develop in Central Europe in the course of the eighteenth century. Although the national endeavors of the Transylvanian Romanians found some support in the policies of the Habsburg rulers, for various reasons none of the Romanian demands for political rights was fulfilled prior to 1848 when the old feudal order was abolished and the Romanian serfs were emancipated. Under the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary and its nationality law of 1868, the Transylvanian Romanians became a lawful Transylvanian nation (alongside the Hungarians, Szeklers, and Saxons) even though their collective rights were still not guaranteed.


From the last quarter of the nineteenth century on, there was increasing deterioration in the relations between the Hungarians and the other nationalities living under Magyar rule. The Transylvanian Romanians became more and more anti-Hungarian as their own national movement grew. But political power in the Hungarian lands remained a privilege in the hands of a few, until finally the alienated nationalities began to call for their own independent national states.

Population Movements and Changes

In the area of present-day Transylvania the ethnic Hungarians enjoyed a numerical preponderance until the eighteenth century.21 In the first centuries of the Hungarian kingdom (tenth to thirteenth centuries) the Hungarians were virtually the only group within the Carpathian Basin, but at the beginning of the thirteenth century (1211) the Hungarian population of the Barcaság region was almost completely wiped out by Cumanian incursions. In this same period, especially after the settlement of the first Germans, smaller Romanian ethnic groups appeared in Transylvania for the first time, spurred to migrate by the first great Tatar invasion (1241). As a result, the expansion of the Hungarians beyond the Carpathians was halted.22

From the fifteenth century on, Romanians were settled in Transylvania in a regular manner. Their growth was augmented by the high Romanian birthrate and by the continuous decline in the Hungarian and German populations decimated in the defensive wars: the Hungarians and Germans living on the plains and in the river valleys were the first to encounter the invaders, while the Romanian shepherds were safe in their mountain hiding places. Romanian settlers also moved in to take the places left by Hungarian serfs, who were moving to the towns as the process of urbanization began. This migration of Romanians from the mountains to the river valleys began in the fifteenth century and resulted in greater contact between the Romanian, Hungarian, and German populations; dual place names and borrowed words are an indication of that contact.

Beginning with the period following the Reformation, population data were collected according to denomination and/or nationality. According to certain sources from the end of the sixteenth century, in historic Transylvania there were 255,000 Hungarians, 100,000 Romanians, and 70,000 Germans.23 At the same time, another source records that the total population of Transylvania rose from 425,000 at the end of the fifteenth century to 700,000 by the end of the sixteenth century.24


The continued settlement of the Romanians in Transylvania in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries25 was the consequence of the vast movement of peoples that occurred in East-Central Europe under the pressure created by the Ottoman Turks as they moved through the Balkans into Europe. This increase in the Romanian population was exacerbated by the extension of Turkish rule over the Romanian principalities26 and by the destruction wreaked by Turkish-Tatar punitive expeditions (1599 to 1661) into Transylvania. Further contributing factors were the invasion of Transylvania by Voivod Michael the Brave of Wallachia (1599) and the reign of terror that the Habsburg General Basta exercised over Transylvania (1600-1604), as well as sickness and starvation, (1628 to 1636 and 1640 to 1646) all of which hit the Hungarian and German populations living on the plains and in the valleys. The Romanianization of the Transylvanian areas with a mixed population took place particularly rapidly.

At the end of the seventeenth century the Great Hungarian Plain was liberated from Turkish rule, and the movement of the Hungarian population from the Great Plain into Transylvania abated. But since the Danubian Principalities remained under Turkish rule for another 150 years, the Romanian population there, seeking refuge from Turkish oppression, now fled to Transylvania. The result was that by the beginning of the eighteenth century the national composition of the Transylvanian population had changed significantly.

During the entire eighteenth century and right up to 1821 when the rule of the Fanariots27 in the Danubian Principalities ended, the migration of Romanians into Transylvania continued. The number of Romanians who settled in the territory of the entire Habsburg Monarchy between 1720 and 1787 has been estimated at between 350,000 and 400,000.28 In 1730, according to Austrian statistics, the total population of Transylvania was approximately 725,000, of which 420,000 were Romanian, 190,000 Hungarian, and 110,000 Saxon.29 Hóman and Szekfü record that in 1765 the total Transylvanian population was one million, of which 550,000 were Romanian, 260,000 Hungarian, and 120,680 Saxon.30

In the eighteenth century most of the Romanians in Transylvania were still new settlers or at most the descendants of the first generation born in Transylvania. The deteriorating economic and social situation of that time was better weathered by the Romanians, who were used to poor circumstances, than by the Germans or Hungarians,


who were accustomed to higher standards of living. Serfdom, an important factor in the demographic developments, underwent many changes in that century. While, for example, the more demanding Hungarian population left the serf-holdings en masse and either migrated out of the province or sought a livelihood in the Transylvanian towns, the Transylvanian landlords, left without serfs, were glad to take on the cheaper labor force they found in the less demanding Romanians.

According to Austrian statistics of 1857, the population of historical Transylvania included 1,287,883 Romanians, 569,742 Hungarians, and 202,114 Transylvanian Saxons;31 by the end of the century the 1890 census showed 1,276,890 Romanians, 697,945 Hungarians, and 217,670 Germans on the same territory. At the turn of the century, as recorded in the 1900 census, the population of Transylvania totaled 2,450,000: 1,397,282 Romanians, 814,994 Hungarians, and 233,019 Germans by nationality.32

Later Immigrants

The so-called Swabians of the Banat33 are another large ethnic German group in present-day Transylvania. The most of them came originally from middle Franconia (Moselle-Franconia) and the left banks of the Rhine River (Rhineland-Palatinate, Trier, Lorraine), while a small part of them immigrated from Wurttemberg, Bavaria and Austria in the course of the eighteenth century. (1718 to 1739 and 1756 to 1766). They came in response to a Habsburg appeal and settled in the Banat,34 a region that had been devastated by the Turks. In a virtually enclosed area of the eastern Banat, the Swabians formed one of the largest nationalities--almost one-third of the population of TimisTorontal/Temes-Torontal County. Those in the Banat Hegyvidek (Banater Bergland) came from Austria, Bohemia, and Slovakia (the Zips Germans). The Romanian census combines the population of the German settlements in Arad County with the Swabians of the Banat, calling them all "Swabian."

The Swabians created an exemplary agricultural system in the devastated, infertile, marshy Banat. A middle class made up of artisans, merchants, and intelligentsia also developed, as did a wealthy peasantry; and important local political decisions were made by the Swabian Council (Schwabenrat). But unlike the Transylvanian Saxons, the Banat Swabians never achieved a national-political representation, because of their distinct historical development. Certainly, the fact that a large part of the German intellectuals in the Banat in the last century were assimilated by the Hungarians played no small role in this development.


The Banat Swabians were by and large Roman Catholic; by the time Romania annexed Transylvania and the eastern part of the Banat, there were 293,000 Swabians in the Banat and another 30,000 to 40,000 around Arad.

Groups of German settlers arrived in the region of present-day Satu Mare/Szatmár as early as the thirteenth century, but they were annihilated in the struggles of later centuries. The settling of the present-day Szatmár Swabians (Sathmarer Schwaben), who came from the Wurttemberg region of the German Empire, began in the early eighteenth century (1712). They, too, came as part of the Impopulatio or repopulation program of the Habsburgs after the Turks had been pushed out of the region.

The Szatmár Swabians live in northwestern Transylvania, primarily in the town Carei/Gross Karol/Nagykároly and in the neighboring villages. The 1920 Romanian statistics show about 36,000 Szatmá r Swabians, while another source35 puts their number at 43,000 at the beginning of the 1920s, in addition to another 4,200 ethnic Germans in Bihor/Bihar County. A large proportion of these Swabians were assimilated by the area's Hungarian population, but the Romanian authorities have been re-Germanizing them since 1921.

The first Armenian immigrants appeared in Transylvania in the Middle Ages; a second group arrived between 1654 and 1672, seeking refuge from religious persecution; but the bulk of them settled in the course of the eighteenth century, when Gherla/Szamosújvár, and Dumbraveni/Erzsé betváros were founded, although Armenians also lived in and around Gheorgheni/Gyergyószentmiklós. By religion Gregorian-Armenian and since 1686 Armenian-Catholic, they developed a lively commerce and a sizable intelligentsia. Over the past century most of them have been almost completely assimilated by the Hungarians around them: in 1850 there were approximately 7,000 Armenians in Transylvania and by the turn of the century 12,000;36 but by 1930 only 1,041 and in 1956 a mere 365 claimed Armenian nationality, of which 57 percent spoke Hungarian, 23 percent Armenian, 16 percent Romanian, and 2 percent other languages as well as their mother tongue.37


The settlement of the Jewish population in present-day Transylvania occurred at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Jews came mainly from the eastern European area, after the dismemberment of Poland (1772 and 1793) and settled in Maramures/ Maramaros (about 30,000 to 40,000) and others in Satu Mare/Szatmár and Bihor/Bihar Counties. They were not counted as a separate nationality until the 1920 Romanian population registration: those of Jewish nationality, who did not list Yiddish as their mother tongue, considered themselves members of the Hungarian, Romanian, German, or other nationalities. According to the 1920 data, they numbered 171,443 in Transylvania.

Like the Armenians, the Transylvanian Jews have engaged almost exclusively in commerce. But a stratum of the intellectuals who regarded themselves as Hungarian have enriched the Transylvanian press, literature, and the arts with outstanding creations, particularly in the period between the two world wars.

At the time of the annexation of Transylvania, Jews lived all over the province, but they were concentrated in the larger towns and cities; about 11 percent of the urban population and 2 percent of the rural population belonged to the Jewish faith, and most of them regarded their mother-tongue as Hungarian.38 In the Romanian Banat a third part of the Jewish population regarded their mother-tongue as German.

The ethnic groups of Slav origin settled in Transylvania mainly in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, there had been Slav tribes in Transylvania as early as the Middle Ages. Although at first they adopted Hungarian language and culture, they were later assimilated by the Romanians, a process facilitated by a shared Orthodox religious faith. Of the ethnic Slavs in Transylvania, the South Slavs and Bulgarians live in the Banat; here, one can hardly speak of assimilation. ln the Romanian Banat, for instance, there are six Czech settlements as well as 8,000 ethnic Croats in the Kroschowa/Karasova District. The Slovaks, who came as forestry workers in the nineteenth century, and the Ruthenians live in the northwestern and middle parts of Transylvania.



Wandering gypsies appeared in Transylvania for the first time during the Turkish wars. The gypsies who settled in the region have lived primarily on the periphery of towns and villages, in separate districts.

According to the Hungarian census of December 31, 19l0,39 and similar Romanian statistics, there were about 5 million inhabitants in the territory of present-day Transylvania. Table I-1 shows that population according to language, as given in the census reports.

 [Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [HMK Home] Elemér Illyés : National Minorities in Romania