Romania Table of Contents

Romania derives much of its ethnic diversity from its geographic position astride major continental migration routes. According to 1987 data, 89.1 percent of the population is Romanian, and more than twenty separate ethnic minorities account for the remaining 12 percent. Although many of these minorities are small groups, the Hungarian minority of about 1.7 million--estimated by some Western experts at 2-2.5 million--represents 7.8 percent of the total population and is the largest national minority in Europe. The next largest component of the population is the ethnic Germans, who constitute up to 1.5 percent of the total population. There are also significant numbers of Ukrainians, Serbs, and Croats, as well as a Jewish minority estimated by Western observers at between 20,000 and 25,000. Although not officially recognized as a distinct ethnic minority, there is a sizable Gypsy population. The 1977 census documented only 230,000, but some Western estimates put the Gypsy element at between 1 million and 2 million, suggesting that Gypsies might be actually the second largest minority after the Hungarians.

Historical and Geographical Distribution

In the region of the Old Kingdom, the population has traditionally been fairly homogeneous, with many areas 100 percent Romanian. The notable exceptions are Dobruja and the major towns in northern Moldavia, as well as Bucharest. Dobruja was an ethnic melting pot, where in the 1980s the Romanian component was estimated at less than 50 percent; it also had large representations of Bulgarians, Tatars, Russians, and Turks. Most of the Jewish population settled in Moldavia, first arriving from Poland and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the nineteenth century. By 1912 there were some 240,000 Jews in the Old Kingdom region alone. At that time they constituted a majority in the ten northernmost towns of Moldavia. Some of the dwindling Jewish population continued to live in that region in the late 1980s-- scattered in small communities of less than 2,000, including some as small as 30-40 members. The largest segment of the Jewish population--some 17,000 people--lived in Bucharest, as did approximately 200,000 Hungarians and a large number of Gypsies, who had given up their nomadic lifestyle.

Historically the most ethnically diverse regions were the former Hungarian territories in the northwest, which encompass more than one-third of Romania's total area, stretching from the deep curve of the Carpathians to the borders of Hungary and Yugoslavia. This part of Romania, most often referred to simply as Transylvania, in fact also includes the Maramures, Crisana, and Banat regions. These areas were settled by two distinct Hungarian groups--the Magyars and the Szeklers. The Magyars arrived in 896, and shortly thereafter the Szeklers were settled in southeastern Transylvania. Although they were of peasant origins, Szeklers were never serfs and in fact enjoyed a fair amount of feudal autonomy. Many were granted nobility by the Hungarian king as a reward for military service. Awareness of a separate status for the Szeklers still exists among other Hungarians and Szeklers alike. The Szeklers are regarded as the best of the Hungarian nation; the form of Hungarian they speak is considered to be the purest and most pleasant. These two groups are further differentiated by their religion, as most Szeklers are Calvinist or Unitarian, whereas the majority of Hungarians are Roman Catholic. Despite cultural distinctions, Szeklers, numbering between 600,000 and 700,000, consider themselves to be of purely Hungarian nationality.

The ethnic German component of the population is also concentrated in Transylvania and is divided into two distinct groups--the Saxons and the Swabians. The Saxons arrived in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries at the invitation of the Hungarian kings. They came primarily from the Rhineland (and so were actually not Saxons but Franks) and settled in fairly compact areas in the south and east of Transylvania. Like the Szeklers, the Saxons were frontier people tasked with defending the region against Turks and Tatars. They were granted a fair degree of political autonomy and control over their internal affairs. In addition, they were given a land base over which they had complete administrative authority. The area, known as Sachsenboden (Saxon Land), was a sort of national preserve, which was protected from political encroachment by other groups. This circumstance, coupled with their early predominance in small-scale trade and commerce, established the Saxons in a superordinate position, which helped to ensure their ethnic survival in a polyethnic environment.

Although there were no large exclusively German enclaves to sustain group solidarity, they were the dominant group in many areas, and cities founded on Saxon trade emerged with a distinctively German character. By far the most important factor in the preservation of their ethnic identity was their adoption of the Lutheran religion in the mid-sixteenth century. Subsequently, Saxon community life was dominated by the Lutheran Church, which controlled education through parochial schools in the villages. Few Hungarians and Romanians in Transylvania converted to Lutheranism. The church became a cultural link to Germany and remained so until after World War II. Thus for centuries the Saxons of Transylvania were fairly well insulated both politically and culturally from their Hungarian and Romanian neighbors.

The Swabians, who are the German population in the Banat region, contrast sharply with the Saxons. They arrived in Romania much later--in the eighteenth century--from the Wuerttemberg area. They were settled in the Banat by the Austrians and have traditionally been involved in agriculture. Unlike the Saxons, they did not convert to Lutheranism but remained Catholic.

The Magyars politically dominated Transylvania until the nineteenth century, despite the fact that Romanians constituted the majority. Although the Saxons and Szeklers were permitted local administrative autonomy, the Hungarian nobility filled the main political and administrative positions. In contrast, the Romanian majority formed a distinct underclass. They were much less urbanized than the Hungarians or Germans. Most were peasants, and the majority of those were enserfed and had little or no formal education. Furthermore, whereas most of Transylvania's Hungarians and Germans are Roman Catholic or Protestant and are thereby more Western-oriented, the great majority of Romanians belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The ethnic Gordian knot of Transylvania, intricately bound with several religious affiliations and complicated by separate social and economic niches, was made even more complex by the desire of both Hungary and Romania to control and claim the region. Throughout the nineteenth century, while Romanians in the Old Kingdom continued to strive for unification of the three Romanian lands--Moldavia, Walachia, and Transylvania--their brethren across the Carpathians were the primary target of a Magyarization policy that aspired to integrate Transylvania into Hungary.

The unification of Transylvania with the Kingdom of Romania in 1918 deeply affected the region's ethnic structure. Approximately one-fifth of the Magyar population departed immediately for Hungary, and those ethnic Hungarians who remained had their land expropriated and redistributed to Romanian peasants. Hungarian administrative and political dominance was swept aside, and a Romanian bureaucracy was installed. At the same time--and perhaps the most shattering blow--Romanian replaced Hungarian as the official language of the region.

The position of the German population in Transylvania was much less immediately damaged. Although the Saxons did eventually lose their communal land holdings, their private property was not confiscated. In Saxon enclaves, they retained control over education and internal affairs as well as cultural associations and still held economic advantages. The ability of the Germans to maintain their ethnic identity was not seriously hampered until after World War II, when all Germans were retroactively declared members of the Nazi Party. On that basis, they were initially excluded from the National Minorities Statute of 1945, which guaranteed equal rights to Hungarians and other ethnic minorities. A considerable portion of the German population--about 100,000-- fled to Germany or Austria as the German forces retreated in 1944. Some 75,000 Romanian Germans were subsequently deported to warreparations labor camps in the Soviet Union. Many died there and many, rather than return to Romania after their release, chose Germany or Austria instead. By 1950 the ethnic German element was half its prewar level, and those German Romanians who did stay suffered the immediate expropriation of their lands and business enterprises. Some 30,000 Swabians from the Banat region were resettled to the remote eastern Danube Plain. Moreover, the remaining German population, like all other national minorities, began the struggle for ethnic survival against a new force, as communist power was consolidated.

National Minorities under Communist Rule

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress