Magazine | June 24, 2019, Issue

The Decline and Fall of Transylvania’s Ruling Class

Hunyad Castle in Transylvania (Wikimedia)

From The Prisoner of Zenda to The Grand Budapest Hotel, Eastern Europe’s blend of cultural exoticism and Old World familiarity has always been fertile territory for fiction, and no corner of the region looms larger in our collective imagination than Transylvania. Now that tourism has penetrated to the farthest reaches of the Carpathians, Transylvanians have fully capitalized on Bram Stoker’s literary legacy. Despite its tenuous connection to the Dracula mythos, Bran Castle, an imposing medieval relic just outside the Romanian city of Brasov, has been enthusiastically rebranded “Dracula’s Castle.” Local shopkeepers hawk all manner of vampire-related trinkets in the shadow of the old fort.

The legend of Dracula probably originates in Wallachia, a neighboring province with a much closer connection to Romanian history. Transylvania’s biography is quite different. It is, in many ways, the story of Eastern Europe writ small: a wonderfully diverse, cosmopolitan society whose history has been suppressed or forgotten thanks to the upheavals of the 20th century.

To understand Transylvania’s history, you must account for the decline and fall of its former ruling class, an eccentric offshoot of neighboring Hungary’s landed aristocracy. Transylvania has always played an outsized role in Hungarian history — first as the medieval kingdom’s eastern frontier, later as the last region to preserve a degree of autonomy following the Turkish in-vasions, and later still as a center of national culture before it was severed from the rest of the country after the First World War and became part of Romania. Even today, the persistence of Hungarian last names such as “Erdelyi,” “Karpati,” and “Szekely” is a reminder of the connection between the mother country and its lost province. The first two are derived from the Hungarian words for Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains, the last from a Hungarian minority that still exists in Romania.

The eradication of the Transylvanian aristocracy is the story of Comrade Baron, an eminently readable book that doesn’t quite live up to its brilliant title. The book’s author, Japp Scholten, is a Dutchman who married into an old Hungarian family and became fascinated with his wife’s Transylvanian roots. Scholten’s book recounts the idyllic existence of these great Hungarian landowners prior to World War II and their near-total eradication under Romania’s Communist regime. Even after the First World War had cut the Hungarians of Transylvania off from their mother country, life during the interwar period was largely unchanged, a kind of Indian summer that recalled the region’s late-Victorian and Edwardian heyday. Then catastrophe struck — first World War II and later the Communists, who were so intent on destroying the hated ruling class that they blacklisted the sons and daughters of Hungarian aristocrats from polite society even after their families’ land and wealth had been appropriated.

While undeniably privileged, these Hungarian nobles were not a colonial ruling class or a transitory, alien element within Romanian society. They had been there for centuries — throughout Comrade Baron surviving members of these families proudly recall their medieval roots. Now the only reminders of this history are faded inscriptions, old churches, and decaying manors.

The region’s pluralism was not confined to a sliver of aristocrats and great landowners. The Transylvania of the 19th and early 20th century was home to poor and middle-class Hungarians, Roma, a small but economically dynamic Armenian community, Jews, Romanians, Germans, and the Szeklers, a Hungarian subgroup that retains its cultural distinctiveness to this day. Now most of these communities have all but dis-appeared. The pastors of a grand Lutheran church in the Transylvanian town of Sibiu, which looks as if it were plucked directly from an old German burg, still have Teutonic names, but the pews are empty, even on Easter Sunday. A few exchange programs with the mother country are all that remains of the German presence in Transylvania. The region’s Hungarian communities are larger and therefore more visible, but their language and traditions are also fading.

Transylvania before the wars was, in American parlance, a salad bowl, not a melting pot. Its varied communities lived in close proximity but rarely mixed. The region’s diversity was not the product of grand design or political idealism, but of feudal obligation, political upheaval, imperial expansion and contraction across a war-torn region, and successive rulers who actively recruited economically dynamic settlers but were rather less interested in ethnic or cultural integration. The province’s history is also a reminder that broad tolerance and political liberalism do not always go hand in hand: The liberal nationalism of the 19th century was opposed to older feudal and imperial arrangements that were, for all their faults, genuinely cosmopolitan.

Comrade Baron’s account of the disappearance of an entire class is tragic, although it is somewhat undermined by the author’s gauzy portrayal of life in Transylvania before World War II. Certain elements, such as a daughter’s memory of her father’s housebroken pet bear, evoke a fairy-tale atmosphere. In other parts of the book, though, economic and ethnic fault lines can be discerned through the haze of nostalgia. One dispossessed Hungarian bitterly tells Scholten that after the Communists seized power, the clever Romanian peasants carried off the family portraits while the stupid ones pillaged the brandy. Stories like this one subtly undermine the book’s  idealized portrayal of benevolent Hungarian aristocrats and their loyal retainers.

Scholten is not the first outsider to fall hard for Transylvania. Between the Woods and the Water, the second volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s celebrated trilogy about his trek from Holland to Istanbul while a teenager, is focused on the English author’s lengthy detour into Transylvania in the early 1930s. Fermor spends the first book getting from the Hook of Holland to the Slovakian border. He was so charmed by Hungary and Transylvania that the entire second book is devoted to his time in the region.

The Hungarian aristocrats of the era were confirmed Anglophiles, and they welcomed Fermor with open arms. He played bicycle polo on the Hungarian plain, was fêted in elegant Budapest townhouses and grand country manors, and even began a discreet affair with a married woman from a distinguished Transylvanian family. His visit afforded, in many ways, a final glimpse of pre-20th-century Transylvania — the province’s separation from Hungary and Romania’s halting interwar land reforms presaged more-traumatic upheavals to come. Even as the debts of these old families mounted and more-serious troubles loomed on the horizon, their open-handed generosity to a penniless traveler was undeniably charming. When The Writing on the Wall, a cycle of three Hungarian novels set in the region, was finally translated into English in the late 1990s (it was published in Hungarian between 1934 and 1940), Fermor fondly recalled his reception in the books’ foreword.  

If Scholten documents the fall and Fermor the decline, The Writing on the Wall is the definitive account of Hungarian Transylvania at its peak, even as its impending collapse is fore-shadowed. The author, Miklos Banffy, epitomized the best qualities of the old aristocracy that Scholten so admires: liberal-minded, cultivated, conscious of the duties and obligations imposed by his privileged upbringing. Banffy was a liberal politician in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the First World War, foreign minister to an independent Hungary after the war redrew the boundaries of Eastern Europe, and the prime mover behind an abortive Hungarian-Romanian plan to abandon the Axis powers during World War II. (Naturally, the negotiations foundered over Transylvania’s post-war status.)

Where Scholten romanticizes, however, Banffy is a more subtle observer of human nature. Close familiarity with the Transylvanian nobility bred, if not contempt, at least a fuller understanding of their faults and foibles. His trilogy — They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, and They Were Divided — follows two young aristocrats, Balint Abady and Laszlo Gyeroffy, in the years before the First World War. Gyeroffy is a talented musician who fritters away his inheritance at the card table while descending into alcoholism. As readers follows Gyeroffy’s tragic decline, they are introduced to a series of characters who embody the insularity and small-mindedness of Transylvania’s (and Hungary’s) pre-war ruling class. There is Antal Szent-Gyorgyi, a man so well bred that he disdains to involve himself in politics, even as the threat of war looms on the horizon; Uncle Ambrus, the bluff country squire who is idealized by a pack of young swells despite being a blowhard and a boor; and Neszti Szent-Gyorgyi, who settles Gyeroffy’s massive debts at a Budapest casino for the sake of the young man’s distinguished family name but who is otherwise indifferent to his fate.  

Count Balint Abady, the other main character, is less obviously doomed than his childhood friend Gyeroffy. His career seems loosely based on Banffy’s own — Abady is a liberal, reform-minded politician and a conscientious landlord to his largely Romanian tenants. Despite this eminently respectable career, Abady is consumed by a secret love affair with a married countess (shades of Leigh Fermor) and haunted by premonitions of impending disaster. Throughout the books, he is one of the few members of his class to appreciate the underlying fragility of Transylvanian society and the Austro-Hungarian Empire more broadly.

We can only guess at the true extent of the parallels between Abady’s life and the author’s own, but several passages are quite suggestive. Abady’s sense of noblesse oblige and his liberal politics clearly reflect Banffy’s personal outlook. When Abady recalls a childhood lecture from his uncle warning him not to be too proud of his famous name and explaining all that is expected of the young count, the reader imagines Banffy hearing something similar from his father. A speech that Abady delivers on the subject of Transylvanian autonomy borrows liberally from one of Banffy’s parliamentary addresses. And when Abady reverentially reflects on his family’s centuries-old patronage of a Calvinist chapel, it feels like a window into Banffy’s own respectful but distant relationship to the Church. The connection between Abady’s secretive pursuit of a married woman and the author’s personal life are also obvious — Banffy famously had to wait to marry an actress until his father died.  

Abady’s farsightedness is the exception, not the rule, among members of his class, something that probably reflects Banffy’s own frustrations with his peers. Despite their wealth and sophistication, the aristocrats depicted in The Writing on the Wall were shockingly heedless of the changes that would soon wreak havoc on their comfortable world. A series of escalating international crises foretell the coming of the Great War, but Hungary’s ruling class can only obsess over the archaic political arrangements that prop up the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire. Meanwhile, far-reaching social and economic changes are penetrating even into Transylvania. Gyeroffy loses his estate thanks to his own financial illiteracy and the sharp practices of a business-savvy but unscrupulous lawyer, while Abady discovers that the Romanian peasants on his land are being victimized by moneylenders, attorneys, and petty bureaucrats. Capitalism and the administrative state have finally reached Transylvania, and new power brokers — professional politicians, financiers, lawyers, the emerging middle class — are on the verge of supplanting the old nobility. The Transylvanian aristocrats who affect British mannerisms, wear Savile Row suits, and speak English at parties are oblivious to the fact that the same globalizing currents that shape high society are undermining the very social structure on which they depend.

The Writing on the Wall foreshadows the collision between old Transylvania and the onrushing 20th century in subtle and often humorous ways. When Abady exchanges a few heated words with a friend after being jostled, a duel ensues. The entire episode is darkly comic: Neither man wants to fight, but they are obliged to go through the motions, egged on by friends, relatives, and a self-important old major who delights in supervising affairs of honor. The actual duel ends almost as soon as it begins — the combatants suffer minor saber cuts, and the doctors promptly declare that both men are too injured to continue. Honor has been satisfied, and everybody retires for beer and sausages, a result that perfectly encapsulates the Transylvanian nobility’s obsession with its comically obsolete rituals and traditions.

Blindness to looming disaster was not a uniquely Hungarian sin — the British popular press of the early 1900s was obsessed with the prospect of a French invasion, and a best-selling book of that era, The Great Illusion, confidently predicted that economic interdependence had made war a thing of the past. But the Hungarians have always been especially prone to national insularity, a failing that is likely related to their charming yet bizarre language, so different from any of its Germanic, Slavic, or Romance counterparts. And the Transylvanian branch of the Hungarian ruling class was the most self-regarding and insular of the lot, consumed by petty provincialism and personal squabbles to the very end.

But as these doomed aristocrats stumble from one crisis to another, their foibles and intrigues make for fascinating reading. Banffy’s secondary characters are brilliantly realized — he had a talent for capturing their essential traits in one or two short paragraphs, a style that recalls Joseph Conrad. He was also a deft hand at inserting humor into a story that would otherwise be unbearably tragic. Abady’s farcical duel, his lover’s gentle tolerance of her aging father, whose idea of managing his estate consists of yelling at farmhands and stable boys, the surprise appearance of an impoverished but pompous country squire at a village banquet — all of these scenes are slyly funny and perceptive.

The Writing on the Wall was suppressed in Hungary for most of the Communist era, only to reemerge to widespread national acclaim in the 1980s. The English version is a labor of love,  translated by Banffy’s granddaughter and a non-Hungarian-speaking editor. This is, unfortunately, where the seams show. The translation is marred by the occasional typo and a few awkward passages that likely do not do justice to the original text. (One wince-inducing line in the first book likens a blond woman’s pubic hair to “golden moss.”) Other details are simply wrong — the Hungarian Parliament building, completed in 1904, is impressive, but it is not an “ancient citadel” by any stretch of the imagination. The translators also felt compelled to insert several lengthy passages explaining the Hungarian political scene of the early 20th century. It’s an understandable expedient, but these additions often detract from the books’ narrative momentum.

The translators’ treatment of the books’ wonderfully baroque Hungarian names, which are neither anglicized nor preserved in their original forms, is also frustrating. Many of these names have no direct English equivalent, and keeping their original spellings — tongue-defying accents and all — would have been a small but effective way of conveying Hungary’s linguistic distinctiveness.  

The Hungarian language is still wonderfully strange, but little remains of Banffy’s world. In the 1980s, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu bragged that his country’s two biggest exports were Jews and Germans, a cynical reference to his regime’s policy of trading minorities for ready cash from Israel and West Germany. After the fall of Communism, according to Scholten, several Hungarian-speaking Transylvanians were saved from Romanian lynch mobs only by their Roma neighbors. Just last year, the Romanian foreign minister said that any Hungarian Szeklers who displayed their national flag should be hanged next to it. From the old Lutheran church in Sibiu to the Jewish Quarter in Krakow to the synagogues of Vilnius, the architectural signifiers of a tenuous, fragile pluralism remain throughout Eastern Europe, but the peoples who built them have largely disappeared.

Eastern Europe has always had the misfortune of absorbing the brunt of Western Europe’s ideological fads. The nationalist movements of the 19th century erupted in the region with a vengeance, redrawing borders and inflaming sectarian tensions. The genteel Victorian liberalism of Banffy quickly gave way to Fascism and Communism, which left their own physical scars on the region, to say nothing of the human toll. Eastern Europe’s post-1989 transition has also been fraught with difficulty. As ably recounted in Comrade Baron, Romania’s economic liberalization was warped into a kind of gangster capitalism by the former spies and apparatchiks of the Communist Party, who leveraged their connections to profit handsomely under the new system. The old Transylvanian elite’s code of honor seems outmoded and faintly absurd in The Writing on the Wall, but compared with the naked avarice of their successors, Banffy and his compatriots were model citizens.

Occasionally, you’ll still hear a reminder of the old world while traveling through the region: a snatch of Hungarian on the streets of the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca (formerly Kolozsvar, or Klausenburg, depending on whom you ask), Catholic-church bells ringing through an overwhelmingly Orthodox town, or the szerenad, a Hungarian high-school tradition of students’ singing to their teachers that recalls Banffy’s depiction of lovesick Transylvanian swells serenading married women. But these are fading echoes of an old song. The stately old buildings remain. Banffy’s Transylvania is gone forever.

This article appears as “A Transylvanian Tale” in the June 24, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Will CollinsMr. Collins is a high-school teacher in Eger, Hungary.

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