1919 – 1933 Ethnic Germans in Romania

Henry A. Fischer

Presentation at Danube Swabian Conference in Mt. Angel, OR, September 2012

As a reward for entering the First World War on the side of the victorious Allies in 1916, Romania was awarded Transylvania, Bucovina and the Dobrudscha and later in 1918 also occupied Bessarabia and as a consequence doubled its national territory.  This territorial expansion created problems in foreign policy with Hungary and the Soviet Union the two countries that had lost territory to Romania.  But as a result Romania was also forced to comply with all aspects of the Versailles Treaty and the new order that was established in Europe.  They became a partner with France in their Balkan policy and one of the members of the “Little Entente” along with the other states in the area who were opposed to any revisions to the Treaty of Trianon.  This policy was easy to carry out up until 1925 because France played the leading political role in Europe and in a real sense acted as Romania’s protector.  After war’s end in 1918, Romania’s relations with Germany were minimal at best.  Since the two nations did not share any borders there were few problems between them in the 1920s and their only relations were diplomatic.

It was, however, another matter when it came to domestic politics in Romania which had become greater.  With the annexation of territory there was also an increase in population that upset the old ethnic homogeneity in Romania.  A third of the population consisted of various nationalities and religious confessions which were other than the more predominate Romanians and the Orthodox Church.  The fledgling Romanian state still had to struggle with its own national identity and did not have the energy nor the expertise to incorporate the new territories into the life of the new state nor to integrate the minorities or to provide them with the rights guaranteed to them in the Treaty of Trianon.  The 2,000,000 Germans in Romania experienced stress and pain with regard to their minority status.  This embittered them since they felt that their ethnic and cultural identity as ethnic Germans was not cause to question their loyalty to the Romanian state since their relations with the Romanian population had always been friendly and cordial going back as far as the Peace of Karlsburg.

Nor was there a desire on the part of the ethnic German population to be free of Bucharest and “join” Germany for after all there was no border between the two nations to make that possible.  An example of their loyalty was the very pro-Romanian position of the ethnic German newspapers in Romania against the Soviet Union over the issue of Bessarabia.  The government in Bucharest did not recognize or bother to acknowledge their support which led to a great deal of dissatisfaction on the part of the ethnic German population who felt undervalued.  They also felt impotent, politically, culturally and economically.  The two major Romanian political parties who belonged to either the liberal of nationalist traditions were both suspicious of all of the minorities and sought to use them for their own purposes.  Added to that were the basic anti-democratic forces always at work in Romanian political life.

The Transylvania Saxons

They entered the area in response to the invitation of King Geza II of Hungary (1141-1162) and came from central Germany, especially the region of Aachen and the Mosel River Valley.  They were granted special privileges including their autonomy as the Saxon nation.  This was further strengthened under King Andreas II in 1224.  This stood them in good stead during the lordship of the Turks over Transylvania in the 16th and 17th centuries and when they faced the Magyarization policies following the Compromise of 1867 which gave birth to the Dual Monarchy:  Austria Hungary.  They saw themselves betrayed by the German Emperor, Francis Joseph, and left on their own and abandoned to face the power of the Hungarian nationalists.  With the rise of Prussia and the German Empire the Saxons picked up the idea of no longer being a nation of their own but a brand of the German nation and its culture.  When they lost their centuries’ old autonomy in 1876 and were divided up among the County jurisdictions they formed a new organizational structure of their Lutheran Church outside of the Hungarian Lutheran Church and as a result rescued their cultural identity.  In this way they sought to find their place in the new Romanian state.

At the Saxon Day Assembly at Mediasch (November 6, 1919) the foundation was laid for the organization of the ethnic German Saxon National Council for Transylvania and representatives were elected to serve for three year terms.  The electoral system was set up in such a way that political parties could not take over the organization.  This would lead to future fractures in the organization after 1922 in conflicts between the young intellectuals and the older leadership.

In the second half of the 19th century and especially at the beginning of the 20th, a business and industrial class emerged among the ethnic Saxons.  There were four classes:  Grossbürgher the so-called chief citizens; Mittelbürgher who were middle class; and the farmers and the industrial workers who were at the bottom of the scale.  Living in a very closed society these class distinctions became rigid.  To a great degree, this stratified society remained in place until the October ethnic Saxon Day in 1933.

With the agrarian reform laws in 1922 the ethnic Saxon “nation” lost its communal holdings; huge forests and large tracts of undeveloped land.  In a real sense they found themselves robbed of their financial resources.  For the first time in the centuries’ old history they had no resources to maintain their social and cultural heritage.  Their senators and other representatives in parliament struggled with these issues but found little support.

The leading personalities among the ethnic Saxons after 1918 came out of academic circles and were from the Grossbürgher class.  The Lutheran bishop and the president of the National Council were the chief representatives of the ethnic Saxon people.  The Romanian government recognized the importance of the bishop and appointed him as an ex-officio senator.  The clergy of the Lutheran Church, with few exceptions came from the Bürgher classes and most of them were trained to be both pastors and teachers and a change from one profession to another was common.  Up until 1940 the members of parliament and other elected officials came from the two Bürgher classes.

The Banat Swabians

The ethnic German settlers in the Banat who would later become known as the Danube Swabians colonized the wilderness left behind by the Turks during the reigns of Charles VI and later his daughter, Empress Maria Theresia.  They came from the Rhine and Mosel regions and the cities of Mainz and Heidelberg and then later from Hesse, Moravia and Bohemia.  The last major settlement of the Banat was under the auspices of Joseph II.  Along with colonization and establishing a viable economy they also had to provide for defence against the Turks on the south eastern frontier.  As a result of their success on all three fronts, Temesvar became the centre of central European culture.

The Swabians were unable to withstand the onslaught of Magyarization primarily due to the fact that the vast majority of them were Roman Catholics and were under the jurisdiction of Hungarian bishops and part of Hungarian dioceses which in the last half of the 19th century were occupied by Hungarian nationalists.  Their social structure consisted of massive numbers of farmers with both large and small landholdings and a very small group of Bürghers consisting of clergy and some academics.  Most of them were employed by the Hungarian government in the field of administration.  It was only at the close of the 19th century that any attempt was made to organize the Swabians in any way and it would take until after 1918 for it to emerge once again.  Any would-be-leader of a movement to further the language and culture of the Swabians had to face the fierce opposition of their assimilated Roman Catholic clergy.  The small upper class among them had already assimilated and there was no support or any resources available from that quarter either.

After 1918 two groups emerged.  The first was the Swabian Autonomy Party which had the support of the vast majority of the Swabian population and was led by a Roman Catholic prelate named Blascovics along with Dr. Muth and Dr. Kräuter.  They sought to form an independent Banat and were opposed to their annexation to Romania.  The other was the ethnic German Party lead by Dr. Gabriel and, Dr. Kausch.  They sought to join forces wit the Transylvania Saxons in working with the new Romanian state.

But as the Romanian government began to pressure the minorities at the beginning of 1921 the Danube Swabians closed ranks and formed a united front.  A national organization was to be formed with no official connection to the ethnic German Party.  Such an organization was founded in Temesvar on March 13, 1921:  the Swabian National Society.  They elected Dr. Kaspar Muth as its first leader a former representative of the now defunct Swabian Autonomy Party.  He would remain in office until 1936.  The new National Society was no longer in close contact or relationship with the Roman Catholic clergy and hierarchy.  This was done so that in dealing with the state of Romania the Swabians could relate politically and outside of the jurisdiction of the confessional issues that were in dispute.  As in Transylvania the schools were placed under the jurisdiction of the churches.

Despite of his extensive efforts, Dr. Muth, was not able to unite the various Swabian political groups.  As a result the Swabian National Society splintered into various new groupings in 1932.  In the election of parliamentary representatives the final break came late in 1932.

The Szatmar Swabians

The Szatmar region was resettled in 1712 following the expulsion of the Turks.  This colonization period would end by 1815.  The most zealous colonizer in addition to the Habsburg Emperor at this time was Count Alexander Karoly to whom most of Szatmar County belonged.  On July 14, 1712 the first group of colonists arrived at Nagy Karoly and soon others followed.  The settlers came mostly from southern Württemberg along with a few families from Baden and Bavaria.  They also settled in Salaj County.  In the annexation of the Szatmar region to Romania, Nagy Karoly and the districts around it became part of Salaj County.  The Swabian villages were built on the site of Hungarian settlements that had been destroyed by the Turks.  They took over the old names and after the Romanians took over they were changed to Romanian ones.

Like the Swabians in the Banat, the intelligentsia were assimilated and were Hungarians to all intents and purposes and opposed the Romanian takeover in 1918.  It took time for them to gain a Swabian consciousness and it was only in 1926 when a local organization was formed in Nagy Karoly under the leadership of Dr. Winterhofen.  With the help of the Saxons and the Banat Swabians a course for German teachers was established over against the opposition of the Roman Catholic bishop.  This would become a Kirchenkampf (church struggle) according to Dr. Muth as two groups polarized around the school issue.  Because they were unable to overcome the division Bishop Blascovics worked to establish a neutral position for the church.  There were approximately 40,000 to 60,000 Swabians involved of whom 25% had become solely Hungarian speaking.  Efforts were made by the Banat Swabian leaders to win them over to their cause as a kind of northern Romanian extension of themselves but with little success.  They were far too independent or stubborn.

The tensions in Romania increased after 1918 because the minorities were not granted their equal rights before the law nor did the government consider implementing the protective legislation guaranteeing them.  Only two groups among the minorities were officially recognized by the Romanian state:  the Saxons and the Szeklers (the most easterly Magyar tribe).  In that sense the Saxons had advantages that were denied to the other ethnic German groups in the Banat, Szatmar, Bessarabia, Bucovina and Dobrudscha.  As a result of having recognized the Saxon nation in their midst the Romanians lacked leverage that they could apply to the other ethnic Germans and were unable to break down the economic and cultural strengths of the Saxons.

A special Anglo-American Commission investigated the religious rights of the minorities in Transylvania in 1924.  The report indicated that the right of assembly was denied to Protestant believers; their schools were being controlled by the government and the majority of the schools of the Reformed Church were closed and the church was forbidden to carry out any educational work.  All employees of the government and its agencies who were members of one the minorities had to send their children to the state run school.  The Ministry of Education would only certify teachers who took their final examination in Romanian.

The upkeep of their ethnic German schools was maintained by the Romanian government through doubling the taxes of the Transylvania Saxons who along with the Banat Swabians and the Szatmar Swabians were already paying the highest taxes.  In addition to the taxes the Saxons paid to the state they also had to pay a church tax to the government equal to 100-150% of that amount.  This caused great difficulties for the Lutheran Church.  Because of the economics involved the church faced two possibilities: it could either turn its schools over to the state or lodge a protest with the League of Nations over the failure of the Romanian government not living up to its responsibility to maintain the rights of its minorities.  Prior to action on either, the Saxons leaders sought to discover the mind and attitude of the government of Germany and what legal or diplomatic recourse they had.  The government of Germany was well aware of the both the social and cultural disadvantages the ethnic German minority in Romania were facing and sought to lessen the pressures used against them and maintained close contact with their leadership.  In this way the Transylvania Saxons were able to maintain much of their culture while the Swabians in the Banat and Szatmar were able to recover much of what they had lost.  This of course angered the Romanian government greatly whose objective was to destroy the ethnic German educational system entirely.  But the state schools established by the Ministry of Education employed unqualified teachers that were unacceptable in the church schools and the ethnic German minority looked for excuses to have them closed.

In the school term of 1927-1928 a new series of regulations by the Ministry of Education were set in motion.  This new rules were designed to target the closure of the middle schools operated by the churches of the various minorities.  It affected all of the ethnic German schools in Temesvar operated by the Roman Catholic Church and in numerous other places:  Orawitza, Perjamosch and Gross Sankt Nikolaus in which Romanian was immediately to be the language of instruction and the language to be used in the writing of all final examinations.  The same regulations were put into effect in the boy’s schools and high schools that were operated by the Lutherans in Hermanstadt and Bistritz.  But the better organized Saxons were able to intervene with the government in Bucharest and the regulations were not put into effect.

In Szatmar it was a totally different situation.  Dr. Winterhofen’s intervention on behalf of the Swabian population with the Minister of Education, Angelescu, the Romanian government ordered the compulsory use of German in all of the Roman Catholic schools and the elimination of the use of Hungarian.  This action led to an angry response on the part of the Hungarian People’s Party.  Their leader, George Bethlen, approached Dr. Hans Otto Roth, one of the leaders of the ethnic German Party in parliament to negotiate the matter between the two parties.  At an assembly of the German parliamentary party on May 11, 1928 in which Bethlen participated, it was decided that the German Party was to direct all phases of German education in the Szatmar region but they failed to get the full support of the Swabian population in the Szatmar in their endeavours.

The school question continued to create a great deal of unrest in the ethnic German areas of settlement up to 1933.  But it was not the only issue that angered or upset the ethnic German minority.  Ethnic Germans who had held positions of authority up to 1918 all lost their jobs or failed to achieve any future promotions.  Businessmen and tradesmen as well as industrial workers also felt hemmed in due to restrictions and government regulations imposed upon them in particular.  It is no wonder that the young intellectuals took the initiative to speak out against the discrimination they experienced.  There were already National Socialist tendencies in evidence in the ethnic German communities early in the 1920s as a result of Fritz Fabritius’ work begun in 1922 as the “Self Help” movement.  They were opposed to the tactics and programmes of the ethnic German Party in parliament that they believed led to the impoverishment of the ethnic German minority and the conservative status quo position of the National German Council that stood in the way of progress.

Fabritius and his fellows sought to form a “new National Folk body” in Romania of which all ethnic Germans were to be a part.  They sought to transform their idealism into power by establishing structures to carry them out.  There were many who responded to their idealism and visionary undertones that resulted in an upswing in National Socialism and its ideology in the years from 1930-1933.  This radicalism spread among the ethnic Germans in Romania as a result of the pressures that were directed against all of the minorities as well as the economic situation that was much like what was transpiring in Germany.

The first public manifestation of Nazism in Romania was the programme carried out during the National Saxon Day held on October 1, 1933 as Fabritius and his followers began the task to educate all aspects of the life and organizations of the ethnic German minority in Romania with their ideology.  Their influence grew and their goals were set in motion for a collision course with the Romanian government’s failure to abide by the Karlburg Treaty of November 18, 1918 and their minority rights.  This also drove a wedge between the minority and the old liberal leadership of the National German Council.  In the election of the Saxon representatives to the leadership in November of 1933 the followers of Fabritius were able to make inroads but did not constitute the majority.  Strengthened through this their first show of power they launched strenuous attacks against all of the leading Saxons not in their camp.  For the first time in their 800 year history, the Saxons were divided among themselves.  They had lost their unity:  the bond that had always held them together in the past against great adversity and near annihilation.

There was a similar story and situation in the Banat.  Here the economic situation was an issue but more importantly the people felt impotent.  Young intellectuals criticized their leadership that simply perpetuated itself in order to maintain control of the major positions and offices of their National Council even though they were unqualified.  Among the dissatisfied were the journalists who attacked these leaders especially in the Arader Zeitung (Newspaper of Arad) and the Lugoscher Zeitung (Newspaper of Logosch).

All of the opposition forces gathered together and called themselves:  The Young Swabian Movement.  In mid January 1930 they made a public declaration that outlined their programme.  They sought to formulate a new minority politics for the Banat Swabians but also declared that they were not out to destroy the existing National Folk Organization.  This was the opposite of the tack taken by their confreres among the Saxons.  Alongside of them were the so-called:  Hollinger Party.  The man after whom the group was named was chiefly supported by the businessmen and merchants whose major concern was the economic situation.  He allied himself with the Hungarians and the Social Democrats in the County elections in February 1930.  But he proved unsuccessful in establishing a base for his party.  The major difficulty he faced was the opposition of the Roman Catholic clergy who were hard to win over to the German “cause” in the 1920s.  At the beginning of the 1930s there was notable change of mind among many of the clergy who formed a united front with the leadership of the National Folk Organization.  This change was due to the fact that the ethnic German youth were now educated and raised as Germans and had teachers who raised the consciousness level of their German identity.

In Szatmar the struggle was different.  Even though the Roman Catholic clergy held rigidly to their Magyarization policies an ethnic consciousness on the part of the Swabian population was awakened in the early 1920s.  Dr. Winterhofen working along with the Banat Swabian National Folk Organization was able to organize those who had been politically awakened in 1925.  The call for ethnic German schools and ethnic German parish priests was raised by this movement.  At the second assembly of their Swabian movement in 1926 they faced open conflict with the well organized Hungary Party that was spread throughout Szatmar.  The Bishop of Szatmar sent out an Episcopal letter to all of the parishes warning the people against the leaders and members of the Swabian Movement which he declared to be non-Christian.  It was only Father Ettinger in the parish of Scheindorf who supported the Swabian Movement and as a result he was shunned by the other Roman Catholic clergy.  A battle ensued in every parish led by local priest.  In many parishes greeting one another in German was forbidden and children were forced to speak only in Hungarian.  Attempts by the Dean in the cathedral in Temesvar and a prelate in Stuttgart to call for a more rational approach about the issue were ignored.  The attacks by the clergy were supported the Hungarian Party and poisoned both church life and local politics.

When Fiedler was named bishop of Szatmar, the leaders of the Swabian Movement believed he would support them.  The Swabian bishop was too much a German in the best sense of the word to allow another nationality to deal so unjustly with his own people.  Until 1933 nothing much would change except that the Swabian movement had some success in the matter of ethnic German parish schools.

The relationship of the ethnic German minorities and the Romanian government were constantly strained.  Due to the clever diplomacy of the representatives of the ethnic German Party under the leadership of Dr. Hans Otto Roth, the attacks against the ethnic German minority by the Romanian government were held in check and hindered to a great degree.

After 1918 the Roman government had the goal and objective to bring about a decline of the political power of the ethnic German minority and weaken their economy and eradicate their culture.  It was hardly any wonder that the ethnic German minority would seek help and assistance from the Motherland in their unequal struggle.  The financial and moral support that the German government provided to the ethnic German minority awakened in them a trust in the German state and its leadership.  That is why it was so easy to win them over to the politics of the Third Reich after 1933.