Into Transylvania!


As some of you know, I was a huge devote of the American Civil War as a child. I memorized the Gettysburg Address for my First Grade talent show. I could recognize the names of major Civil War battles before being able read basic prepositions. In Kindergarten art class, I drew clashing, moving squares of blue and gray signifying clashing Union and Confederate armies. (I did have friends, for the record). So it was fascinating to see in my guidebook that my destination this past weekend, Transylvania (specifically Brasov and the surrounding area), was used by filmmakers for the 2003 Civil War epic Cold Mountain (staring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, and Rene Zellweger). Apparently the Carpathian Mountains are better for capturing the Blue Ridge Mountains than the actual mountain range itself!

As these photos attest to, you can see why. Even before embarking in Brasov, I knew through the train ride that this region warranted its rising popularity for travelers (hikers especially). Transylvania’s importance goes far beyond its function as the setting for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It was one of the most critical regions for both the Holy Roman and Habsburg Empires. After the fall of Constantinople and the Ottoman advance into the Balkans, it was the critical demarcation of the Christian West against the realm of the dreaded Sultan. Countless cultural groups can all lay claim to the region’s achievements, best exemplified in the sophistication, architecture, and charm of the region’s main cities that can give well known Central European cities (Krakow, Prague, L’viv, Salzburg) a run for their money. And yet, as the Hungarian writer Miklos Banffy wrote in The Transylvanian Trilogy, Transylvania was more than an extension of either its Hungarian elites, Hapsburg rulers, German colonists, or Romanian peasants. Something about the region spoke instead of a unique “living form of national consciousness”, a “distinct microcivilization” to quote Robert D. Kaplan’s recent book on Romania.

If you visit Brasov, you are indeed obligated to check out Bran Castle. This is among the main sights for Dracula tourism or a vampire pilgrimage. The castle only has the most bare connection to the actual Count Dracula, the brutal medieval ruler (“Vlad the Impaler”) who inspired Bram Stoker’s novel. It was probably captured by the Romanian prince but there is no evidence he lived there, although the Romanian royal family (and one of its most popular members, Queen Marie) used it as a residence.

The castle presentation had a rather contradictory treatment of Dracula. On one side, they milked the legend for all its worth. There is a Haunted House night inside the castle on Halloween. Various dressed up zombies and ghosts parade the entrance. Tacky signs warn you not to walk alone at night if you want to avoid becoming “the Count’s next victim”. At the same time, the castle’s exhibits offered an apology of sorts for the historical Prince Dracula. He was unambiguously not a vampire, and his name (Dracula) meant “son of the Dragon” (in reference to a medieval order), not “son of the Devil”. Vlad’s love for impaling his enemies and even disobedient subjects (contributing to an impressive low crime rate!) did not make him anymore barbaric than his Western European contemporaries. He was a great defender of the West against Ottoman encroachments and a Robin Hood who stole from the local elites and gave to the poor. Most of the attacks on this Romanian prince were slander conjured by disgruntled old German historians. The clash between the global and Romanian image of Count Dracula was on no better display than in this parliamentary election poster, where the party’s logo was of the world’s most famous vampire!


More charming than Bran Castle was Rasnov, a former Roman imperial outpost and later a castle of the Teutonic Knights. The views were incredible.

In the midst of these medieval ruins, there was a random but fascinating exhibit. It showcased advertisements for Romania during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Even during the heights of Romania’s experiment with Communism (and truly the Stalinist variation for that matter), Europeans still found this country worthy of a visit in spite of all the hurdles.

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The real highlight of this trip was getting a feel for Brasov as a city truly of Central Europe. Over four days, I spoke Greek, overheard mostly Romanian, attended mass in Hungarian, and attended a concert of German Baroque music. Brasov became a major site for German nobles, traders, and merchants; as a result, the towns’ architecture certainly feels Saxon. Their legacy of pastry shops is also appreciated.


Likewise, Hungarians, both before and during the Habsburg Empire, comprised most of Brasov and the region’s middle class and nobility. The relationship between these two minorities and the Romanian population has traditionally been fraught with tension. The Hungarian and German presence undoubtedly brought more trade and wealth to the region; they served too as conduits for bringing Western ideas to Romania, keeping the “country” (not actually existing until 1878) more firmly rooted in the West than other Balkan nations (Romanian being a Latin language helped enormously too). At the same time, Transylvanian Hungarians and Germans jealously guarded their privileges and forced most of the area’s Romanians (a narrow plurality of the region, not a majority) into a permanent state of impoverished peasantry. When the Habsburg Empire was destroyed after World War I, the Allies handed Transylvania over to the Kingdom of Romania.

Sadly, Romania did not demonstrate magnanimity in her victory. From 1920 until the early 1990’s, there were systematic attempts to dilute Hungarian culture and influence. Before the Communist takeover in 1948, Romania had a marginal industrial class, a minimal history of leftist activism, and a very conservative peasantry. Consequently, the new Communist elite relied extensively on chauvinistic nationalism for winning popular consent, and thus wrecking much pain on the country’s remaining Jews, Hungarians, and Germans. This persecution incidentally served as an effective financial scheme for Ceausescu’s regime; the governments of Israel and Germany paid the Romanian state when they accepted respective refugees fleeing persecution and harassment. Riots between Hungarians and Romanians in Transylvania sparked anxieties that the Yugoslavia’s demonic ethnic violence would manifest itself in Central Europe. Fortunately, the ascension process to EU and NATO membership forced the Romanian government to pursue a more responsible, pluralist course.

But tensions still simmer. At a hipster café of sorts, I ended up talking for a few hours with six very bright Hungarian-speaking high school students. These students were extremely proud of their language and history. The community here is quite resilient; they attend the city’s Hungarian school (evidently a fine one given their English abilities and overall confidence) and go to annual summer wilderness camps that bring Hungarian young people together from across Transylvania. But they told stories of how their parents in older times could only speak their first language privately at home; singing the Hungarian national anthem was strictly illegal. Even now, Romanian kids tell these students to “stop speaking Hungarian” or “go home to your own country”. Very few of their close friends were Romanian.  A very flustered older Romanian man clearly left a nearby table early in disgust at overhearing our conversation, calling Hungary’s current Prime Minister “a crook” as he departed. The most impressive kid in the bunch said she had no intention of staying in Romania but would start university next year in Budapest. They do not root for Romanian sports teams. When I conceded to them that both their English and knowledge of the United States was more impressive than many of my university students in Constanta, one smirked: “They’re Romanian? Why are you surprised?” My café banter was obviously not a systematic study. Then again, I heard from a fairly large group, not one or two. The kids also said that their attitude was fairly reflective of other Hungarian youth.

National and cultural identity still mattered to these young people. They were not millennial cosmopolitan “citizens of the world”, recipients of a vortex of social media and global celebrities uprooting deep attachment to place and history. The loyalties of their “provincial”, “parochial” elders still meant a great deal for them. In all likelihood, this will be for the good, a healthy resistance to the bland offering of a purely global or European identity.

On the other hand, who knows where the deep-rooted alienation between Hungarians and Romanians may lead? I do not want to get carried away here. But bear in mind that the second-largest party in Hungary is Jobbik, a fascist party that has even mobilized in Hungarian communities in Romania. For all the slights and discrimination these young people experienced, Romania has not seen a far-right ascendency for almost a decade. The country’s impressive growth rates may account for this turn to the center. But rampant corruption and poverty could prove fertile ground for a more toxic nationalism. Given the many weaknesses of both the EU and NATO, you can bet Russia is looking for any chance to spread chaos “in the neighborhood”. Europe post-2008 has indeed taught us that historical memory is a powerful force. Ukraine. Separatist movements in Catalonia and Scotland. The comparisons of Syrian refugee entry to the “Ottoman hordes”. The Greek left’s equation of German-backed austerity measures with the humiliating Nazi occupation. The continent’s leaders should take head of Faulkner’s words: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

But to end on a brighter note, it was a lovely visit. I look forward to returning in Spring or early Summer when hiking awaits!


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