Historical Background

The Siebenbürger Saxons

The Siebenbürger Saxons, together with the Banat Schwabians – most of whom were settled in modern-day Romania under Empress Maria Theresia – constitute the oldest German-speaking minority in Romania. In fact, Siebenbürgers settled there as far back as the 12th century. The community of Siebenbürger Saxons numbered approximately 300,000 in the year 1930, but by 2007 only 15,000 remained. Many of the Siebenbürgers migrated to Germany in the 1970s and 80s, and even more moved there after the reunification of Germany in 1990.
As I have Siebenbürger and Banat relatives and have travelled to the Siebenbürger region a number of times since 1981 (I also spent some time there while making the film NORDRAND in 1999), I am familiar with the Siebenbürger cultural heritage - and with the national ideology, which is today open to criticism.

95% of the Saxon population have left the countryside over recent decades; the groups that are left are ageing fast (the average age today is about 60). And although the migration has now completely ceased, the number of old people dying each year far exceeds the figure for births. It seems unlikely that those who have left will return in any significant numbers. However, the community has recovered from the shock of migration and regained a certain significance (perhaps partly because of interest generated by the positive influence of having Hermannstadt, Sibiu, designated Cultural Capital of Europe in 2007). At the same time, this applies almost exclusively to the urban communities, some of which are actually growing due to new births and the arrival of immigrants. In most of the villages, by contrast, there are no longer any Saxons under 60 years of age; consequently there is no real prospect of structures being reactivated or recreated here

The Siebenbürger dialect is a variety of ancient Moselle Franconian, which is closely linked to the Luxembourgish language spoken in Luxembourg, and to the dialect of Trier. It was part of a dialect which, during the Middle Ages, was spoken in a relatively large area but was later increasingly overwhelmed and pushed aside by the dominant mainstream languages. Siebenbürger Saxon and Luxembourgish are the last living remnants of this mediaeval dialect. The Siebenbürger dialect is, on the whole, extremely vowel-sensitive, on top of which there are great variations – not just from region to region but even from one village to the next. Here the colourful variety of vowel usage is noteworthy. However, apart from minor misunderstandings, mutual understanding between the Siebenbürger Saxons is possible without any real problems.

At school the Siebenbürger Saxons would use High German rather than their own dialect; up to the 19th century, however, it was quite common for the dialect to be spoken at school while all writing was in German. Thus the dialect was largely limited to the private sphere of oral communication, including language use on the streets.

While Siebenbürger German in written form corresponds to High German writing, the vocabulary is closer to Austrian German. Those Siebenbürger Saxons now living in Germany who spoke their own dialect as children and teenagers, and still do so to a certain extent among the family, can frequently be spotted without any difficulty due to the pronunciation (and recognise one another in this way). Typically, the "R" is rolled, and the intonation varies from that found elsewhere in Germany in other ways. On top of this, some terms are used differently (for example, instead the normal German word Schrank for cupboard or wardrobe, Kasten - in Germany generally the word for box or crate - is used, as is the case in most parts of Austria). At the same time, use of this dialect is declining steadily, since the children of Siebenbürger Saxons who were born in Germany or Austria tend not to learn it; High German is considered to have greater value and a higher reputation. It is therefore quite feasible that this dialect will completely vanish in the medium to long term.

Siebenbürger Saxons in the SS

According to Paul Milata (whose dissertation "Between Hitler, Stalin and Antonescu" was published by Böhlau Verlag in 2007), by the end of the 1930s the Romanian Germans had lost a considerable amount of confidence in Romania as a result of the nationalist policies pursued by Bucharest since the First World War. This contributed to their desire to find support in Germany so they could retain their German cultural heritage, and in turn this gave an impulse for the Nazi "Renewal Movement", which finally gained political leadership of this ethnic group. In 1938 all political organisations of the Romanian Germans were placed under Nazi control, and in 1940 ethnic Germans in Romania were declared subjects of Berlin. The leader of these Romanian ethnic Germans, as appointed by Berlin, was Andreas Schmidt, who regarded Germans outside Germany as part of the Third Reich. This policy led to a weakening of the loyalties felt by the Banat Swabians and the Siebenbürger Saxons towards Romania and a strengthening of links to the Third Reich.

The first cases of individual Romanian Germans joining the Waffen SS date back to the period between 1937 and 1939; by 1st May 1940 this group was believed to number 110 men. The "Thousand Men Mission" in June 1940 comprised 1060 young men; it was considered a masterstroke on the part of Andreas Schmidt, and - according to Milata – formed a pilot project for the later recruitment of ethnic Germans into the Waffen SS, which now proceeded in increasing numbers. So much so that by the end of the war 56% of the Waffen SS (510,000 from 910,000) were citizens of countries other than Germany. From September 1940 to March 1943 there was a "discreet" and actually unauthorised recruitment of about 6000 men into the SS; they were transferred to SS units and considered to be deserters. After the catastrophe of Stalingrad several thousand Romanian Germans (estimates vary from 5,000 to 10,000) are said to have deserted from the Romanian army and entered the German army.

As for the motivation of these Romanian Germans who joined the SS, Milata writes: "Neither force nor the ’call of the blood’ can completely explain the choice these people made; instead, it was the result of individual decisions based on various factors."

Faced with the alternatives of joining the Romanian armată, which enjoyed a bad reputation, or being recruited to the better equipped German army, the majority of able-bodied German men chose the latter, especially since it was felt that death rates at the front were lower than in the Romanian units. Paul Milata lists other "arguments in favour of the Waffen SS":

  • The German authorities promised to support the family members of those who joined up, while those who joined the Romanian army were merely paid a small wage.
  • The Romanian Germans subscribed to the Deutschland mythology and tended to admire Germany uncritically, while also being grateful that their German legacy had been protected by the Fatherland.
  • National Socialist propaganda had had considerable effect, especially with younger people, and the glorification of the SS as an elite organisation added to the sense of adventure.
  • Bucharest had promoted an increasingly nationalist policy, often to the disadvantage of ethnic minorities in Romania.
  • The Romanian state displayed an understanding attitude towards men who wanted to join the SS, who were thus encouraged to feel that by doing so they would not be expressing any disloyalty towards Romania and would be fighting a common enemy.
  • Within the group of ethnic Germans in Romania there was pressure on men to join the SS, originating with the political leadership of this group.

In view of the circumstances most men of appropriate age volunteered - although it should not be forgotten that they were under considerable pressure to do so. Approximately 50,000 men were conscripted, and by the end of the war approximately 63,000 were serving in the SS and the German Army. In the summary at the end of his book Milata makes the following comment: "The majority of the 63,000 Romanian German Waffen SS men choose to join the ‘Germans‘ voluntarily. However, the decision to do so was not so much a momentary impulse based on political and cultural factors but more the result of a sober assessment of the possible alternatives known at the time within the three-way conflict between Berlin, Moscow and Bucharest. For Romanian Germans, entering the Waffen SS was not only a gesture of support for Nazi Germany – due to or even despite Hitler – but also a reaction to the nationalist system introduced in Romania after 1918, and a clear statement of opposition to the Stalinist influence of the Soviet Union."

Siebenbürger Saxons as Concentration Camp Guards

After medical examination in Vienna and three months’ basic training, these men were deployed in practically all SS units, from field divisions, concentration camps and administrative units to security groups and special squads. The recruits themselves had no influence on where they were deployed. There is evidence that 336 of them were appointed guards in concentration camps, some of them taking the rank of NCOs. However, there were in fact far more of them. Taking information from various sources, Milata estimates that 2,000 of these men were concentration camp guards. Corresponding to their rank in the SS hierarchy, they were - according to accounts by this author, implicated in the events which took place there. After the war several of them were convicted; a doctor called Fritz Klein was condemned to death, while the apothecary Victor Capesius was imprisoned for nine years. Approximately 46,000 Romanian German members of the Waffen SS survived the war; of these, however, only between 7% and 33% return to Romania.

In interviews former SS guards repeatedly claimed that "ethnic Germans" were assigned to do "the dirty work" more than other Germans. Unfortunately it is all too easy to imagine precisely what is meant by "dirty work" in this context.

Auschwitz I + II (Auschwitz-Birkenau)

A total of over 1.3 million people from all over Europe were transported to the Auschwitz concentration camps. It is estimated that 1.1 million people were murdered here, a million of them Jews. Approximately 900,000 of these people were slaughtered in the gas chambers, or shot, immediately after arriving. A further 200,000 people were killed by the SS later on, by being starved, abused, subjected to medical experiments or gassed… or allowed to succumb to sickness. Today large parts of the concentration camps are still standing or have been reconstructed along original lines. There are open to the public as part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Holocaust Memorial and Jewish cemetery, on the premises of the former concentration camps I and II. The museum is both a memorial and an international Holocaust research centre. It has been declared by UNESCO a site of world cultural heritage under the name Auschwitz-Birkenau – German National Socialist Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940–1945).