The Fate of the Transylvanian Germans . . . & the Rest of Us
Hungarian version here
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Written & directed by Razvan Georgescu
Trading Germans (otherwise known as Pașaport de Germania in Romanian, Deutsche gegen Devisen in German, and Eladó életek in Hungarian) is a documentary film that was made by a Romanian team and produced by HBO Europe. It was first released in 2014. It has since been broadcast on television in Romania, Germany, and Hungary. It is unlikely to garner much attention elsewhere, however, due to the rather specialized nature of its subject matter: namely, the clandestine sale and emigration of ethnic Germans from Transylvania to Germany during the Cold War, which stands to this day as the largest migration to occur within Europe since the Second World War. This is rather unfortunate given that the film contains a number of important lessons that those who are concerned with the future of the European identity would do well to heed.
The film provides no historical background on the Transylvanian Germans prior to the Second World War, so I will provide some here. Historically, there have been two major groups of Germans in Transylvania: the Siebenbürger Saxons and the Banat Swabians, although there are several other minor groups as well.
The Saxons (so called by the Hungarian crown because the initial settlers were from Saxony, although in fact they ultimately came from all the regions in Germany, as well as from The Netherlands, Flanders, Wallonia, and France) were first invited to colonize the region by the Hungarian King Géza II in the twelfth century in order to help defend it, as well as to develop it by bringing in German techniques of agriculture, architecture, and mining. In the thirteenth century, they were bolstered by a second wave of immigration which accompanied the arrival of the Teutonic Knights, who were based in Transylvania for fourteen years until they were expelled by Hungarian King Andrew II, after which they relocated to Prussia. The Saxons established a network of defensive fortifications, including many fortified churches and seven fortified towns in particular, from which the German name for Transylvania, Siebenbürgen, is derived. These defenses were first used against the Mongols and later against the incursions of the Ottoman Turks, and the Saxons were involved in all of the conflicts which wracked this region.
For centuries the Saxons enjoyed an elite status in Transylvania, although this began to change following the 1848 Revolution, when Hungary revoked these special rights as part of an effort to assert greater control by ethnic Hungarians over the land. Saxons again fought as part of the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War, and the Saxons became Romanian citizens when Transylvania was ceded to Romania as part of the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I have a vested interest in their story, as my mother’s ancestors were Transylvania Saxons who immigrated to the United States in the early twentieth century.
The Banat Swabians, who originated from the Swabian region of southwestern Germany, were invited to settle in Transylvania by the Austrian monarchy during the eighteenth century to compensate for the depopulation which resulted from the wars with the Ottoman Empire, in an effort to restore and reclaim it from devastation and to reestablish a bulwark along the border with the Ottomans.
Trading Germans picks up the story of the Transylvanian Germans at the time of the Second World War, as told by several of its interviewees. In 1939, the number of Saxons and Swabians in Transylvania was eight hundred thousand. As elsewhere throughout the Germanic world, many of the Transylvanian Germans were excited and inspired by the rise of the Third Reich, and National Socialism took root among them as well. Although, as several of the people interviewed in the film state, while many were enthused, many were not, especially as the latter felt that the ideology of Nazism would lead to conflict with their Romanian neighbors. This sometimes even led to disagreements within families, in which some embraced National Socialism while some did not.
When Romania first entered the war in 1940, the Transylvanian Germans at first served in the Romanian army or else volunteered for the Waffen-SS. Following an agreement between Marshal Antonescu and Hitler in 1943, however, the Germans in the Romanian army were transferred (as one of the film’s subjects states, it was known as being by their “compulsory free will”) into the Wehrmacht, or one of the other branches of the German military. Seventy thousand Romanian Germans served in either the Waffen-SS or the German military; of those, one-third were killed in the war.
The war led to the beginning of the mass emigration of Romania’s Germans back to Germany when Romania switched sides to join the Soviet Union in 1944. The German military began to evacuate Transylvania’s Germans to Germany proper before the advancing Red Army, and an estimated one hundred thousand were successfully resettled. Likewise, many of those Romanian Germans who were serving in the German armies found themselves in Germany at the end of the war, and they were allowed to remain. Under family reunification laws that were enacted for humanitarian reasons at the time, the relatives of these new arrivals were allowed to join them in the West.
For those who remained behind, however, things quickly took a turn for the worse. Even before the war had ended, mass deportations of ethnic Germans to labor camps in the Soviet Union were ordered — seventy thousand men and women were seized, fifteen percent of whom died before they could return to their homes. In March 1945, the Romanian government nationalized the property only of ethnic Germans (although this was applied to everyone in 1948), which left them as wage workers employed on land which had been owned and tilled by their ancestors for centuries.
This was followed by the Bărăgan deportations in 1951, when, on the night of June 18, the Romanian government seized forty-five thousand people in the Banat region — not only Germans, but also ethnic Serbs and Aromanians, and others deemed a threat to Communism — and were deported to Bărăgan, otherwise known as the “Romanian Siberia,” where they were left without even basic housing and expected to fend for themselves. Again, many died before they could return.
In spite of these hardships, the Transylvanian Germans nevertheless fared better than the ethnic Germans anywhere else in the Eastern bloc — in every other country, the German populations were forcibly deported in the aftermath of the war. This was in recognition of the important role the Germans played in the economic life of Romania. They were likewise allowed to continue speaking German and even to take educational degrees in German, which was to prove a great advantage when they later emigrated to Germany. Nevertheless, several of the subjects interviewed in the film state that Germans were a disliked minority in post-war Romania.
This is when the story that the film revolves around really begins. As a result of the harsh treatment they had received following the end of the war, compounded by the difficult living conditions of life in Communist Romania (which included shortages, restrictions, and the burden of having to navigate the bureaucracy which dominated all aspects of life), by the 1960s a large number of Romania’s Germans had a strong desire to leave the country. The writer Johann Lippet, one of the film’s interview subjects, states that the mood which prevailed among the Germans in Romania was reflected in the poetry that their writers were producing at the time (some of which he recites), which depicts a hopeless and apocalyptic sensibility.
It was at this time that the West German government recognized that a humanitarian crisis was occurring among their brethren in Romania. The German nationality law states that those of ethnic German origin in Eastern Europe are understood as being Germans and that they are eligible for citizenship (this law has been tightened since 1990). They then reached out to the Romanian authorities — and the Romanian government saw an opportunity.
The German official who led the secret negotiations was Heinz Günther Hüsch, who held this role from the beginning of the trade in 1968 until it ended with the fall of Romanian Communism in 1989. Hüsch is one of the primary interview subjects in the film. He made hundreds of trips to Romania during these years in no official capacity beyond that of a tourist; in other words, with no diplomatic protection whatsoever. He describes how in the beginning he had had to carry millions of Deutschmarks on each trip in a suitcase, with no security beyond a handgun that he carried with him — later, apparently, they switched to bank transfers. On each trip he would make arrangements for thousands of Romanian Germans to be allowed to emigrate to Germany. He continued this work under four German Chancellors. Neither country ever officially acknowledged that the trade was happening; indeed, Hüsch explains that they were never even certain exactly who they were dealing with at the time, although their presumed partner was the Securitate, the secret police (which, in fact, it was).
The film tells the story of this mass migration from the perspectives of both the political and the personal realms through interviews. The political side is narrated through the eyes of some of the German and Romanian officials who were involved, including Hüsch and the well-known politician Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Germany’s Minister of the Interior from 1969-1974 and then Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor from 1974 until 1992, as well as Stelian Octavian Andronic, who was the chief negotiator on the Romanian side during the 1980s. The impact of this trade on those who left is described by migrants Johann Lippet, a Swabian writer; Karl Hann, an organic farmer; Hans-Günther Schmidt, a famous Swabian handball player who was a rising athletic star in Romania until he defected to West Germany in 1963, where he became a famous player for them during the 1960s and ‘70s; Hartwig Ochsenfeld, a Swabian translator; Erika Lazar, a medical assistant; and the couple Helmut and Christine Bader, an IT specialist and a teacher, respectively.
One thing that all of the migrants seem to agree on is that, in spite of their strong desire to leave Romania for the West, they nevertheless did not feel happy about leaving their homes and the land of their ancestors. As Erika Lazar says, however, “But that was the course of history and no one could avoid it,” suggesting that the Romanian Germans were resigned to their fate, given that they saw no future in their homeland. Erika further says that they had the sense of returning to the original homeland of their ancestors, and that while there was a period when they had to adapt themselves to their new country, given that they were Germans, this went quickly and easily.
Still, some of the migrants interviewed explain that things were far from ideal when they arrived in Germany. Christine Bader says that before leaving, they had been told about the material benefits to be had there, but that nobody had anticipated the ensuing homesickness that they would suffer from, or the fact that the native Germans would not be entirely welcoming. Likewise, Karl Hann describes being disappointed in West Germany, which he found to be missing the “human factor,” and where life was dominated by consumerism. (Conversely, Hartwig Ochsenfeld describes being primarily attracted by the shopping to be had in Germany.) Indeed, Hann soon left Germany for Switzerland and then Canada, and then ultimately returned home to Transylvania, where he is now an organic farmer. Regarding this, he makes this interesting comment: “If you think how much unused land there is here, how many people work in other countries to earn a couple of euros, and here everything lies untilled . . . It is a country with a future. Therefore, the future does not lie in the West for me anymore, but in the East — that is, in Transylvania.”
This sense of disappointment is reflected in a poem of Lippet’s that he recites: “This is where I live now, in Sandhausen, Heckengarten. Behind and around this area — the burden: streets bearing the names of Mörike, Hauptmann, Lessing, Brecht, Hölderlin, Kant, and Hegel, but if you look closely, though, they are only alleys. Will everything be fine? The view is straight over Odenwald. And no sooner had I learned to write again that I now have to learn anew. The new orthography requires it. But this I can avoid.” To complement his words the filmmakers end their accompanying montage with a shot of a McDonald’s in Lippet’s neighborhood in Germany.
But we should not dwell too much on this sense of alienation, which is only to be expected when exchanging one homeland for another. All of the people interviewed in the film make it clear that they very much appreciate the lives they have lived since leaving Romania. And certainly the saga of the mass migration of the Transylvanian Germans has a much happier raison d’être and ending than most other historical migrations of the sort. With the exception of Hann, all of them continue to live in Germany today. Likewise, Ochsenfeld describes how he managed to make peace with his dual identity. When he first came west, he says, he would have given anything to become a native German; today, however, he says that he values his Banat Swabian origins and would not exchange it for anything. He also comments that his youth in Transylvania, which is a region comprised of many different ethnicities living side-by-side, prepared him for the globalized world that Europe is now entering.
To conclude the story of the trade program, Trading Germans describes the various obstacles that the Romanians introduced over the years in order to extort more money. Many of the immigrants were unaware of the fact that Germany had already paid for their release; Romanian officials exploited this fact to force them to pay again, sometimes to the tune of tens of thousands of Deutschmarks (a currency which was actually illegal to possess in Communist Romania). Also, during the 1980s, the Romanian government suddenly introduced a requirement that Germans had to pay back the cost of their higher education — which, as the Romanian negotiator Andronic points out in the film, had been paid for by the state — before they could leave the country, and they were forced to pay it in foreign currency. Andronic defends this by stating that the Romanian government saw it as a way of protecting themselves from a brain drain which would have resulted from the loss of individuals who had been educated through Romania’s educational resources. Hüsch responds that this was clearly a lie since many of the people who were asked to pay were either elderly or children, and that only a quarter to a third of the migrants were of working age. He further explains that Germany assumed the pensions for those retirees who emigrated, and paid for the educations of the younger migrants, thus relieving Romania of the burden; likewise, many of those Romanian Germans who held educational qualifications were still unable to work in Germany without additional training due to the difference in standards. Nevertheless, Germany resolved the crisis by increasing the price it paid per person.
Near the end of the film, Andronic and Hüsch are shown meeting again in 2014 to reflect on the work they had done together, leading to the following amusing exchange:
Andronic: It was first of all a humanitarian question.
Hüsch: From our point of view.
Andronic: From yours and from ours.
Hüsch: No, it was business!
Andronic: We didn’t consider it business because it was a business lost . . .
Hüsch: Loss of people, indeed, but gain of money. . . . I agree it was a great loss for Romania and a gain for Germany. But mostly it was a gain for liberty.
One of the last people we hear from in the film is Viorel Bucur, a Romanian police captain who had been involved in the trading (and from which, by his own admission, he made a great deal of money). He praises his former business partners: “I bow to Germany. All my respect. If someone else other than Bucur had asked for one more payment, rest assured that the Germans would have paid — only to be able to take home their own people. The reunification of the nation: you’ll never see Romanians do that!”
The trade in Germans continued right up to the overthrow of Communism in Romania in December 1989. The film ends by informing us that two hundred forty thousand ethnic Germans left Transylvania under the aegis of this program; from eight hundred thousand in 1939, the most recent Romanian census indicates that fewer than thirty-eight thousand remain today. It neglects to mention what happened immediately after this: with Romania’s borders suddenly thrown open, the vast majority of the remaining Transylvanian Germans seized the opportunity to leave, fearing that the window of opportunity might soon pass: in 1990, hundreds of thousands more fled the country for Germany, Austria, the United States, and other destinations. This has left many of the centuries-old German towns and villages of Transylvania empty and abandoned; nowadays gypsies have moved into many of them, paying scant respect for the remains of the once-flourishing German communities, and many of them now lie in ruins.
As Lippet mentions, while the Transylvanian Germans may have gained their freedom, entire European ethnic communities with unique, centuries-old traditions have been rendered extinct as a result. While this destruction may have occurred peacefully and voluntarily, it is nevertheless a great tragedy. All of those interviewed are aware of what has been lost; Helmut Bader, when asked to define the concept of homeland, says, “Homeland is like music” in that it is something undefinable and beyond language. While the Romanian Germans have been successful in integrating into their new home, they had to sacrifice their actual homeland in order to do so.
In the extras on the DVD, some consolation is offered in that it is explained that the post-Communist Romanian government has been very active in trying to preserve the German traditions of Transylvania in spite of the loss of the Germans themselves: local Romanians now learn their dialects and study their crafts, for which they were renowned. Perhaps this is the greatest tribute to their legacy that can be offered, when their former neighbors see it as something worthy of saving to a greater extent than the Germans themselves do. Also in the extras, Hüsch says that he was always conscious of the fact that something was being lost as a result of his work, although he asserts that the responsibility for this lies with the Romanian Communists and the conditions they had created, and not with the Germans.
If any fault could be found with this film, it is only in that it remains very narrowly focused on the trade itself; the many consequences following it are only touched on briefly, if at all. The interview subjects only mention what became of them after their migration in passing; it would have been interesting to know more about this, and perhaps also about what the statistics show concerning the subsequent lifestyle and welfare of the migrants in Germany as a community over the past few decades. Also, in spite of the fact that the migration began half a century ago, the issue of first- or second-generation immigrants from Transylvania isn’t discussed at all, even though this is obviously a crucial part of the story. (Hopefully, another documentary that was recently completed will cover this ground.) Likewise, the subsequent mass migration of the remaining Germans following the collapse of Communism is completely ignored. (I was also annoyed by the cheesy “scary” music that was played in the background when archive footage of National Socialists in Transylvania during the Second World War was shown, to remind us of how “evil” what we’re seeing is, although this is a minor quibble.)
Despite these drawbacks, Trading Germans does more than simply provide an interesting history lesson regarding a little-known episode of the Cold War. It also contains lessons which are of interest to anyone with an interest in the future of European identity. I imagine that many liberals watching it would want to draw a comparison between this humanitarian migration action and the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe today. This comparison can be easily refuted, however, by the simple fact that the Transylvanian German migrants were already part of the same ethnic community as the Germans, and they shared all the same fundamental cultural suppositions and foundations; this cannot be said for those who are currently colonizing Europe. (Although of course radical neoliberals would have us believe that the concept of ethnic identity is nothing more than an invention.)
No, the real lessons of Trading Germans lie deeper in terms of what it says about identity, and also about ethnic loyalty. Bucur is right to praise Germany for its willingness to spend billions to bring their kin home, to a safer place. This is the sort of ethnic consciousness that we, as European identitarians, should extend not only to our own ethnic kin but to all those of European descent in this time of crisis. Germany stood up for its own. The failing of the contrasting approach is exemplified by the actions of the Romanian Communists: out of bigotry and the desire for short-term material gains, they were willing to turn their backs on their German countrymen rather than attempt to address their problems; as a result, Transylvania has suffered severe long-term economic and cultural damage from the ensuing vacuum. It’s simply unfortunate that the German government cannot make a distinction between the humanitarian action it took during the Cold War and the welcoming of millions of “refugees” today.
The fate of the Transylvanian Germans can also act as both a warning and as a harbinger of things to come. Today, it is not only the fates of minority communities that are being threatened with extinction. Even the traditional identities of large communities are under assault, both from within by neoliberalism and multiculturalism, and from without by mass immigration. And the fact is that even we, as identitarians and nationalists, cannot stop the tide of change. Soon, if it hasn’t happened already, those things which have defined the identity of our peoples for centuries will be abandoned, like many of the towns of the Transylvania Saxons, and relegated to museums, and only brought out rarely for special commemorative occasions, just like the Saxons’ colorful and exotic apparel for which they were renowned.
No matter what happens, and in spite of our best efforts, the future of the English, French, German, American, or any other identity will never return to what it was in the past. Such a notion is quixotic. The world is changing at an ever-accelerating rate. Rather than trying to repeat the past, like Gatsby, we should instead seek to shape a new identity for our future — one that will be based on a deep understanding of our own ethnic and historical traditions, of course, but also which is not slavishly bound to them. We can still welcome change while at the same time retaining our sense of who we are and rejecting the notions of plastic identity that are propagated by neoliberalism. More importantly, as a greater number of European and American nationalists are beginning to look toward Central and Eastern Europe for inspiration and as a possible refuge to escape the problems in their own countries, the saga of the Transylvanian Germans should offer a sense of hope: as a last resort, if all else fails, we may have to relocate in order to save ourselves, but in spite of the difficulties involved, it is possible to adopt and thrive in a new homeland based on the values and traditions that we cherish. For some of us, then, the fate of the Transylvanian Germans may soon become our own.
Trading Germans is not available in its entirety online. However, a DVD, which includes subtitles in English, German, and Romanian, as well as seventy minutes of additional material, is available for purchase only from Romania. The Website is only in Romanian but I managed to order a copy with the help of Google Translate (although it is currently showing as out-of-stock). A somewhat modified version of the film with English narration was produced for television. It has been posted twice on YouTube, here and here, but both unfortunately and inexplicably cut off abruptly after about an hour, but feature different contents.