Transylvania, which today forms part of Romania, is a Central European region located in the eastern half of the Carpathian Basin. Bounded in the east and south by the Carpathian mountain range, historic Transylvania extended in the west to the Szigethegység (Apuseni Mountains); however, since 1919, Transylvania also encompasses, in the north, the Partium (Regni Hungariae Partes), lands that were once part of Hungary proper, and, in the west, a slice of the Banat. The Latin name Transylvania is rendered in Hungarian as Erdély; in Romanian as Ardeal (a derivation of Erdély) or, in more recent times, as Transilvania; and in German as Siebenbürgen.

The region that is known today as Transylvania encompasses 102,000 square kilometres, and borders on Hungary, Ukraine, and Yugoslavia as well as the Romanian provinces of Wallachia and Moldavia. Its principal waterways are the Szamos, Maros, Nagy- and Kis-Kőrös, Küküllő, Zsil, and Olt rivers. Transylvania enjoys a continental climate and, as its name implies, is richly endowed with forests; the varied topography allows for sheep grazing as well as for viticulture and the cultivation of wheat, corn, and potatoes. The mining of gold and salt dates back to ancient times; there are also deposits of iron, hard coal, non-ferrous metals, and natural gas. A manufacturing industry developed in the mid-19th and 20th centuries.

Since the Middle Ages, the region has been inhabited by three main ethnic groups, the Hungarians (Magyars and Székelys), Romanians, and Germans (known indiscriminately as Saxons, or, in the Banat, as Swabians). According to the 1992 census, Transylvania has 7.7 million inhabitants, including 5.7 million ethnic {1-2.} Romanians and 1.7 million Hungarians, who account respectively for 70 and 20 percent of the region's population. The Romanians speak a Neo-Latin tongue; they trace their ancestry to the indigenous Dacians and their Roman conquerors (2nd and 3rd centuries A.D.), although by other accounts their ancestors migrated from the Balkans. The Hungarians, whose language belongs to the Finno-Ugrian group, moved westward from the region of the Urals and settled in the lands now encompassed by Hungary and Transylvania in the last decade of the 9th century. Some of the Hungarians in Transylvania are known as Székely (from "szék," meaning seat, the distinctive name given to their administrative districts); the historic designation of the east-central region in which they are concentrated is Székelyföld, or Land of the Székelys. In the Middle Ages, Hungary's kings promoted the immigration of Saxons, most of whom settled in the so-called Királyföld (Fundus Regius, or Königsboden). The Swabians of the Banat settled much later, in the 18th century. At the beginning of this century, there were some 700,000 Germans in the region, but emigration — mainly to Germany — reduced their number to 100,000 in 1992, and the decline continues.

The population also came to include Gypsies (Roma) as well as smaller complements of Armenians, Jews, and other ethnic groups. The Gypsies, whose adopted tongue is variously Hungarian and Romanian, number around 200,000, or 3 percent of the region's population. The presence of Jews in Transylvania can be traced back to the Middle Ages, and by the early years of this century their number may have reached 300,000. The majority fell victim to the nazis, and most of the survivors eventually emigrated to Israel; barely 2000 Jews remain in Transylvania. The first Armenians were invited to settle by Transylvania's princes in the 17th century. Most of them assimilated to the Hungarians, and in the latest census no more than 724 people claimed to be Armenian.

{1-3.} This ethnic diversity coincided to some extent with religious denomination. Among ethnic Romanians, the majority belong to the Greek Orthodox Church, but in the early 18th century some of them adhered to the Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church, which acknowledges the authority of the Pope. Since the Reformation, the Hungarians have belonged variously to the Roman Catholic, Reformed (Calvinist), and Unitarian Churhes, the Saxons to the Lutheran Church, and the Swabians to the Roman Catholic Church. In 1568, Transylvania's Diet granted full recognition to the Catholic and Protestant faiths, and 'tolerated' status to the Greek Orthodox religion. This display of religious tolerance was unique in Central Europe and nurtured a degree of cultural pluralism.

In the Middle Ages, Transylvania's political system was based on the privileged status — enacted in 1437 — of the "three united nations" (unio trium nationum). This institution was designed by the Hungarian nobility, the militarized Székelys, and the privileged Saxons to exclude serfs and villeins of various ethnic backgrounds and to serve the needs of defence against the Ottoman Turks; in the event, it endured until the emancipation of villeins in 1848. The feudal relationship between landowners and villeins was marked by tensions that occasionally led to violent confrontation, notably in 1437, in 1514, and at the end of the 18th century. The privileged castes lived off the income of their estates; the Hungarian villeins engaged in agriculture and the exploitation of forests; the Saxons farmed and, in their towns, fostered crafts and commerce; while the Romanian villeins worked on the land or tended sheep. After some tentative beginnings, the mining and manufacturing industries entered a phase of dynamic development in the second half of the 19th century.

By the late 17th century, ethnic Romanians had come to form the majority of Transylvania's population, and their Greek Catholic intelligentsia began to propagate the notion that the Romanians originated in Dacia (the Roman province that encompassed the {1-4.} future Transylvania) and that therefore their settlement antedated that of the other ethnic groups. This thesis informed the 1791 petition, Supplex libellus Valachorum, in which the two Romanian Churches requested that the Romanians' privileged strata be recognized by Transylvania's Diet as a fourth feudal "nation". The Diet rejected the petition, and Saxon as well as Hungarian historians dismissed the theory of Daco-Roman continuity. They maintained that the Romanian people originated south of the Danube and spread only later to the region that became the Romanian principalities and to Transylvania; the first documentary reference to their presence in Transylvania dates from the early 13th century.

With the emergence of nationalism in the early 19th century, the debate acquired a political-ideological character. In 1848–49, during the Hungarian War of Independence, the competing forces of Romanian and Hungarian nationalism provoked a minor civil war. While Hungarian liberals called for the reunification of Transylvania with Hungary, Romanian leaders demanded recognition of their community's collective, political and cultural rights, and the preservation of an independent Principality of Transylvania. The pattern was set: Romanian nationalism found strength in the majority status of ethnic Romanians and the theory of Daco-Roman continuity, and confronted the Hungarian nationalists' insistence on reunification and the preservation of historic Hungary.

In the peace settlement after World War I, historic Transylvania and some additional Hungarian territory were annexed to Romania. Northern Transylvania, where Hungarians were in the majority, was reannexed to Hungary in 1940, then returned to Romania in the armistice and in the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947. The treaty offered no guarantees of minority rights, but Hungary's communist government considered that each state was responsible for the welfare of its own ethnic minorities. Hungarian historians were left to investigate past evidence of accommodation between the two nations.

{1-5.} In Romania, a certain official tolerance with regard ethnic minorities soon gave way to aggressive nationalism, and historians followed suit. Romanian historiography affirmed the theory of Daco-Roman continuity, claiming that Romanians had been present in Transylvania for several centuries before the arrival of the Hungarians. It was argued that in the Middle Ages, Transylvania had been an autonomous voivodeship within Hungary; that in the Ottoman period, Transylvania's status was similar to that of Moldavia and Wallachia; and that ethnic Romanians had always formed the majority of the region's population. Romanian historians held that the Romanian uprising in 1848–49 had been directed against the Hungarian revolution and War of Independence and tended to ignore the fact that the uprising enjoyed the political and military support of the Habsburg government. With regard to the 1867–1918 period, the historians focused on Budapest's policies of assimilation, neglecting to note the economic progress fostered by Hungarian liberalism among Transylvania's Romanians. In postwar Romanian historiography, the tendency was to attribute the terms of annexation in the Treaty of Trianon (1920) to the will of Transylvanian Romanians; that the Entente powers had promised the region to Romania as early as 1916, and that there was no attempt in 1918–19 to canvass the views of Transylvania's Hungarian population, were facts seldom evoked. Romanian historians highlighted the repressive measures taken by the Hungarian authorities against ethnic Romanians in Northern Transylvania between 1940 and 1944, but ignored the anti-Hungarian rampages of the so-called Maniu Guards in 1944–45. They held the Hungarian authorities to have been fully responsible for the deportation of Jews from Northern Transylvania, but passed over in silence Romanian involvement in the persecution of Jews in Moldavia and Transnistria.

Official policy turned virulently nationalistic in the Ceauşescu era. The above-noted theories and biases became firmly entrenched, and political as well as administrative measures were {1-6.} applied to repress the Hungarian minority in Transylvania. Hungary's persevered in its policy of accommodation, but hopes dimmed regarding its effectiveness. The growing stream of biased interpretations from Romanian historians impelled scholars in Hungary to emerge from their officially-sanctioned silence. In the late 1970s, the Historical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences rose to the challenge. The result was the three-volume Erdély története (History of Transylvania), published in 1986.