The Bitter Aftertaste Of Finis Saxoniae

excerpt Let's not be beastly to the nemţi[1], indeed. We owe them solid buildings dating back to prosperous times, they founded many a fortified city and settlement of historic importance; in one of our common sayings, absolute fairness is equated to "splitting costs neamţ-like". Whenever we are reduced to bemoaning our national inadequacy in administrative matters, or in keeping up with the pace of modernisation, we blame it on "lacking nemţi", the only ones credited with the ability to work things out efficiently; whenever referring euphemistically to someone who's been drinking in excess, we're likely to say they're "puffing at the neamţ's pipe", in other words – serenely, tolerably drunk. Any complicated technical device, impossible to understand yet perfectly functional, is dubbed "a devilish invention of the neamţ" in an act of awe-tinged admiration. These are, on the whole, the clichés we associate with a people we're supposed to be fairly familiar with, since we've been living at close quarters with "our nemţi" for centuries. Yet to what extent do these positive clichés reflect the truth, and to what extent do they obscure it? In my dialogue with Mr Hans Herbert Grünwald, an ethnic German journalist of Romania, I've been searching for possible answers. An ill-fitting labelMy dear Mr Grünwald, what does being a neamţ actually feel like in today's Romania? Being labelled as a neamţ actually feels like not being known as one ought to be known. Loosely applying the term to the entire German-speaking population of Romania is, in actual fact, typical of the former Kingdom of Romania. In Transylvania, however, people are more specific when referring to members of the German minority. In keeping with the criteria defining their ethnic background position, they are known as saşi and şvabi (Saxons and Swabians). Those who came here first, in the 12th century, to settle down in Transylvania, hailed from an area located somewhere between Luxembourg and Belgium. The Swabians, mostly living in the Banat, were channelled into that province during the times of Maria Theresa, some of them even earlier, and define themselves as Donauschwaben (Danube Swabians). I couldn't tell you exactly how many of them there were, and if, indeed, they came from Swabia proper. From the outside, to be sure, we are all known as nemţi, and regarded as an extremely closely knit community, though, truth to tell… it ain't necessarily so. When it comes to personal identity, local patriotism turns out to be stronger than blood. Consequently, I, for one, feel closer to a Romanian or a Hungarian from my native town, Sighişoara, than, say, to a Swabian in Timişoara. Would you then say that neamţ, as a generic category, has a slightly disparaging connotation? No. The way I see it, it merely denotes superficiality. Granted, it has acquired traditional status, yet it does belie a mentality restricted to clichés. So what's wrong with that, some might ask. After all, the clichés in question appear to be mostly on the flattering side – the nemţi are peace-loving, hard-working, honest, reliable, thorough, what have you… yet, and the more's the pity, this general approach, positive though it is, is rather vague, nonetheless, and it somehow seems to exempt the majority from taking any trouble to develop greater awareness concerning the reality in question, and thus realising that making Romania an attractive alternative for this allegedly highly appreciated minority entails concrete steps which have been long postponed. It may well be that such steps are not exactly to the majority's liking. I can perfectly agree with the fact that a minority is occasionally perceived as a pain in the neck. Yet it should be cherished, nonetheless, and – consequently – positively discriminated, to a certain extent. That's where awareness is sadly lacking. A minority can endure only as long as it remains impervious to the influences of a majority defined by qualities which are altogether different from its own. Naturally, it was not imperviousness alone that has preserved the minority's specific. Yet the minority as such cannot survive unless granted its own cultural territory, and even a certain autonomy to go with it, too. Positive perception might flatter the minority, yet it does little to keep reality at bay. And what might that reality be? A reality that ought to be soberly approached from both sides, I suppose. Occasionally, the minority might not be much to write home about. The population of German villages, for instance, used to be quite nationalistic – for quite a while, mixed marriages have been routinely frowned upon, and what's more, and we have to admit it, with the nemţi, just like with the Hungarians, a certain arrogance was on display, a certain elitism, not always justified, yet, in retrospect, understandable if we take into consideration historical developments and socio-political data. There was, admittedly, a strain of nationalism in this minority, there was such a thing as exclusiveness back in the days when Saxons were more numerous. Still, the majority, if it does care for this minority, as it claims to whenever the opportunity presents itself, would be well advised not to approach it from the faulty perspective of a positive cliché. I, for one, wouldn't feel particularly flattered if, say, a Romanian of passionately anti-Hungarian convictions chummy-like approached me with "you, the nemţi, never were any trouble for us, like those Hungarians, you're truly our friends". Many a time I've found myself regretting the fact that the nemţi failed to cause any trouble to the Romanians, and lacked perseverance in demanding certain rights, the way Hungarians do.  An embarrassment of first-hand knowledgeWhat was your nickname among your Romanian playmates? There were no Romanian playmates to speak of... back in the early sixties, there were only Saxons living in our street, and a couple of Hungarians. As early as kindergarten I'd been warned to guard my mouth when talking to the Romanians, who were somehow regarded as having wholeheartedly sold out to the communists. A superfluous warning, since I couldn't speak Romanian anyway. The problem was that as late as the 60's, when I was seven or eight years old, in the streets where Romanian kids lived, we'd be still branded "Hitlerists", as if only we, Saxons and Swabians, had been Hitler's special allies, and not the whole lot of Antonescu's Romanians as well. We'd get beaten up, too, if we happened to venture into those particular streets, but we'd been expressly instructed to keep out of fights and be good. I do regret "being good" to this day. And another thing… well into my late teens, the Romanians we used to know, if not our close friends, even if they knew our names all right, would never call us anything else but "krauthead", just like Gypsies would get to be called "crows". Stands to reason, now that most Saxons have left, the nickname's become obsolete.  My dear Mr Grünwald, you seem equally cross with the Romanians and with your own ethnic minority – why is that? What angers me about the Saxons is their assumed inadaptability, their inertia, their failure to open up. As the Habsburgs gradually restrained their sovereignty known as the universitas saxonum, they started mourning – in elite Latin, mind you – the finis saxoniae, instead of changing their political language with the changing tide. They overindulged in waxing nostalgic about their twilight, their former social and cultural status, and – on top of it all – took great pride in what they almost managed to achieve: going down not with a bang, but a whimper. What they have yet to realise is that no one seems to notice, let alone care, that they're going down still faithful to their original Weltanschauung, which was perfectly functional during the late Middle Ages as well as during Luther's reform and after, but turned out to be largely inefficient in the 20th century, marked as it is by the challenge of rapid modernisation. And what's wrong with the Romanians? They don't have their own best interests at heart. It shouldn't take great efforts to foster the so-called tolerance – openness, I'm inclined to call it – since it does exist already. Yet it needs to be nurtured. Not even the elements already existing traditionally are turned to good account in view of developing minority-friendly policies. Let's take education, for instance. History, though it might be better to study it in one's mother tongue, can be studied just as well in Romanian. However, studying the history of the Romanians at the expense of Romania's history amounts to deliberately impoverishing the history of an entire community by disregarding the contribution of existing minorities to the process of shaping it into its present state. Romanian children learn next to nothing about the contribution of such minorities as the Germans, the Jews, the Hungarians, etc. to the history unfolding in this space we are all sharing. Yet these minorities did exist and endure, which sheds some light on the spirit of the Romanian people.  So are you cross because, although we've brought evidence of our European spirit, we fall short when it comes to reaping the benefits of that evidence, regardless of the fact that, at some time or another, the evidence in question was, or still is, to a greater or a lesser extent, genuine? That is correct. All the more so since, when I take my personal, self-defining experience into consideration, I don't see myself as a neamţ, as commonly described, but rather as a "Romanian citizen of German nationality", as the former official appellation went, and I feel equally at ease in both capacities. When I was an adolescent, rock'n'roll had come into fashion, and long hair was de rigueur. Yet how was a decent Saxon boy to dance to such tones? We Saxons, were supposed to be dancing to nostalgic, syrupy, spineless tunes, such as Roy Black's "Das Maedchen Carina". I'd defect to the Romanians, therefore. Young people were less conservative over there, more open to nonconformist trends. That's where I'd find the hipsters I was looking for, and we were listening to the Stones' Street FightingMan.  In a Dazzling Light, Interviews Curtea Veche, Bucharest, 2004
[1] Neamţ, (plural nemţi) is a mild ethnic epithet loosely applied both to German nationals living in Romania and to native Germans at large. Its connotations tend to be mostly positive, the term rarely, if ever, lending itself to abusive usage, unlike most other ethnic epithets. Thus, a syntagm such as "a clever neamţ" is traditionally perceived by most Romanians as a pleonasm, while "a stupid neamţ" verges on the oxymoron. (translator's note).

by Hans Herbert Grünwald; Tita Chiper