The Abrogation of Saxon Autonomy

The entrenchment of absolutism brought one disappointment after another to the Saxon middle classes in Transylvania. Initially, they had high expectations of preserving their autonomy, for the Austrian government seemed intent on strengthening the German element in Transylvania by putting Saxons under the authority of the central government. This was the thrust of the imperial proclamation of 21 December 1848, entitled 'To our loyal Saxon people in Transylvania' [Az erdélyi hű szász népünkhöz], and of the ordinance addressed to the Universitas Saxonum; the measures were also designed to impress on Romanians that if they remained loyal to the emperor, they could earn similar rights. But the promise was the child of momentary political necessity, for the Austrians knew that a separate Szászföld could only be created after 'the solution of the Romanian problem.' They were equally aware that even if they managed somehow to separate the various Transylvanian nationalities on a territorial basis, a single privileged nationality would be hard to fit into the system of equal rights generated by the liberal revolution. This ambiguity was already evident in the text of the Olmütz Constitution of 1849. It treated 'the principality of Transylvania' as a homogeneous entity, yet in clause 74 it reiterated the promise that the special rights of the Saxon nation would be maintained within the framework of the new constitution. The systematic curtailment of Saxon autonomy began when, on 18 July 1849, the cabinet handed the supervision of the Királyföld's administration to Governor Wohlbemuth. To be sure, the régime continued to look upon the Saxon bourgeoisie as the mainstay of its support in {3-352.} Transylvania, and the Királyföld remained a 'liberal' island while the rest of the province was under military rule. The Saxons were less affected by the political strictures of the state of siege, and the provisional administrative structure. The latter, in which the Szeben district consisted of several geographically separate parts, clearly served their interests. The Saxon count became the commissioner for civil affairs; the old Saxon széks and districts were preserved, and no sub-districts were formed. The consolidation of the old judicial system gave some assurance to the Saxon middle class, and particularly to civil servants, that Vienna acknwledged their loyalty.

In December 1849, the Universitas convened to devise a political structure that would defend Saxon interests, meet the institutional needs of modernization and, above all, preserve their autonomy under the direct authority of the crown. Obviously, the most difficult task was delineating the borders of their future crown province. Saxon politicians had to contend with the fact that Romanians formed a majority in the Királyföld, and that the newly-created administrative region of Szeben encompassed purely Romanian districts. As the debates dragged on, serious consideration was given to the surrender of all Romanian-inhabited territories. The outcome was but a tentative compromise: the old Királyföld would remain intact by virtue of its historic rights, while in the recently annexed territories the ethnic principle should prevail, and there would be no claims raised regarding the non-Saxon settlements. Thus even the Universitas failed to develop a clear policy on the territorial question.

The Saxons tried to modernize their ancient institutional system along lines suggested by the Olmütz Constitution. In keeping with the requirements of a unified Austrian state, they gave up the practice of electing their own civil servants and severed links between the administration and the judiciary; they even replaced the 250-year old Saxon laws with the Austrian civil and penal {3-353.} codes. To their Romanian neighbours, they promised full freedom of religion and education, and equal access to public office. The Saxon Landtag (provincial assembly) was slated to have forty members — the bigger taxpayers and elected representatives of towns and communes — and to enjoy a limited sphere of authority. The assembly could send delegates to the imperial parliament, thus ensuring representation of this remote German outpost in an Austrian empire ruled — they hoped — by constitutionalism.

In early 1850, the Saxons drafted five substantial memoranda covering their proposals for the territorial organization and administration of the Szászföld, for the election of deputies, and for the proper functioning of their communities. But hopes of winning acceptance for their plans dimmed by the day. The government seemed ambivalent, and ultraconservative Hungarians as well as Romanians who demanded territorial autonomy were opposed to the creation of a Saxon crown province. Thus, as hope waned for a Markgrafschaft Sachsen, with its own government, Landtag, and high court, the Saxons argued more and more vehemently that they were politically and economically indispensable: that they served a stabilizing and civilizing function in the eastern reaches of the empire and would exert a conservative, constitutionalist influence in the Reichsrat. They argued further that if their separate status was not guaranteed, they would disappear as a national entity. The governor of Transylvania regarded the creation of a Saxon crown province as tantamount to dismemberment of the unitary state, and the central government also rejected the proposal; nevertheless, Alexander Bach, who supported the proposal, managed to obtain that at least one Saxon district be given a degree of autonomy under the presidency of the Saxon count.

One month after the proclamation of absolutism, Franz Salmen, a champion of Saxon privileges, was dismissed from his office as count; an exemplary warning that no separatism was permitted in the centralized system, which was being constructed on {3-354.} the principle of 'one ruler, one law, one government.' The governor, for his part, strived to have the Saxon intelligentsia dispersed to civil service posts around country. A month later, Saxon self-government suffered another heavy blow: The Transylvanian supreme court became the court of appeal for Saxons as well, and the Universitas thereby lost one of its important functions. Beszterce and Brassó got autonomous territorial law courts (Landesgericht). Then, on 27 October 1852, the emperor decreed that Saxon local magistrates and szék offices be replaced by state offices. That autumn, the old széks were reorganized into districts and sub-districts; Beszterce was annexed to the region of Retteg, Szászváros to that of Gyulafehérvár, and Fogaras to that of Szeben. With the arrival of non-Saxon civil servants, the political autonomy of the Saxons came to an end. Joseph Bedeus expressed the feelings of the traditional Saxon, middle-class functionary when, in 1853, he wrote: 'We have been executed without a sentence, and buried without cross or candles. This was the reward for all that we did and endured in the time of troubles.'[5]5. Quoted in E. Friedenfels, Joseph Bedeus II, p. 251.

The disillusionment of the Saxon intelligentsia led to political indifference; reflecting the trend in the rest of the empire, they tended to shift their attention from politics to economics and culture. Yet, for all their bitterness, they remained loyal to the dynasty, which they still regarded as the best guarantee of their survival. According to a confidential report prepared in 1856, 'even though the Saxons are dissatisfied with the influx of foreign civil servants, with the suspension of their republican local administration and guild system, and with the concordat, they regard all this as the lesser evil in comparison with the disappearance of their nationality, which would surely come about if the region ceased to be an Austrian province.'[6]6. I. Martius, Grossösterreich und die Siebenbürger Sachsen 1848-1859 (Munich, 1957), p. 71.

Thus absolutism attained its goal with regard to the Saxons of Transylvania. It liquidated their separate status, their local self-government; at the same time, it preserved their antagonism toward {3-355.} Hungarians and Romanians, and sustained the belief among their elites that only the existing system could serve the future of this small nationality. Though they did not necessarily become the partisans of absolutism — an accusation often made at the time by their Hungarian and Romanian rivals — their remaining privileges, and their lingering hopes for a united Germanic state or for new Germanic settlers, prevented them from building better relations with the other nationalities in Transylvania.