German immigrants began settling in Siebenbürgen (Transylvania) in 1143. The German-speaking enclave that formed in the Carpathians as a result was the easternmost such area in the Middle Ages. The new arrivals were referred to as 'Saxons', but in fact they came from the valleys of the Rhine and Moselle, from Flanders, Lorraine, Alsace and Luxembourg. The first Germans to settle here were, like others who came to inhabit the Zips (Spiš) region, invited by King Géza II of Hungary to live on crown territory and were awarded privileges. Royal charters, among them the Andreanum issued by Andreas II in 1224, granted the settlers more rights than any other German group in eastern Europe had ever received before. The newcomers were supposed to secure Hungary's eastern borders and to develop the rural economy. They established almost 300 villages, most centred on the characteristic fortified church, as well as a number of towns that served as staging posts for long-distance trade. Among the latter were Hermannstadt (Sibiu), Kronstadt (Braşov), Schäßburg (Sighişoara) and Bistritz (Bistriţa). Transylvania is the easternmost part of Europe to have towns of a visibly central European character.
The country's fortunes were determined by its three largest ethnic groups: the Hungarians, the Germans and the Romanians. Another large ethnic group was the gypsies, who were, however, excluded from state administrative positions. The long-established Siebenbürger Saxons, who since the Reformation had been strictly Lutheran, were joined in the 18th century by the Landler, Protestants who had been deported from their Austrian homeland. From 1867 onwards, official policy encouraged assimilation to Hungarian culture. After 1918, when the Siebenbürger Saxons voted to join Romania, they faced a policy of assimilation to Romanian culture. This was successfully resisted by the economically strong and politically and culturally well-organised minority. In around 1910, there were some 250,000 'Saxons' living in Transylvania, rising to almost 300,000 by the beginning of the Second World War.
The ethnic German farmers of Transylvania were generally prosperous. They adopted many aspects of the lifestyle of the urban patricians, such as the Baroque ornamentation of their houses. This was by no means unusual: rich farmers followed the fashions set by the nobility and the bourgeoisie all over Europe.
The wealth of these Siebenbürger Saxon farmers found its most conspicuous expression in the many ornaments they owned, which were worn by women, girls and especially brides. As paintings show, their jewellery imitated that of the urban upper class from the 17th century onwards, if not earlier. The latter was influenced more by Tartar and Ottoman jewellery than by that of Western Europe. This was due to the trading ties with the Orient built up by Siebenbürger merchants. Typical women's accessories included necklaces, brooches, and earrings, as well as hairpins and magnificent belts. The jewellery was made of silver, gilded in parts, and embellished with gemstones or, in the case of less wealthy farmers, glass. Custom dictated which accessories could be worn on a specific occasion – and by whom. The opulence of the jewellery was matched by the textile decoration on the farming community's traditional costumes.
The fortified churches of Transylvania are among the most impressive examples of mediaeval architecture in Europe. Almost two hundred such churches with fortified enclosures still exist today. The local inhabitants built them in the Middle Ages, as a refuge in times of war. They were equipped for warding off attackers, with battlements, towers and embrasures. Inside them were store rooms and courtyards with plenty of space for provisions and the farmers' livestock.
The Siebenbürger Saxons had been settled by the kings of Hungary along the country's eastern border to secure it against hostile attacks. Fortified churches do exist in other parts of Europe, but they are especially numerous in Transylvania. Around a dozen fortified churches are listed by UNESCO as world cultural heritage sites. Their future, though, is uncertain. Since the departure of the majority of ethnic Germans from the area, it has been uncertain for how long the small remaining Protestant communities can manage to maintain their places of worship.
After the occupying Ottomans were driven out of Hungary in 1683, the Austrian government and private landowners systematically brought German settlers into the region along the middle reaches of the River Danube. This repopulation occurred in several stages up until 1790. These settlers mostly came from Swabia, in south-western Germany. It was not until after the First World War that the term 'Danube Swabians' was coined for them.
Austrian imperial policy at the time, influenced by mercantilism, assigned the State an active role: the planning and implementation of the settlement programme reflected ways of thinking rooted in rationalism and the Enlightenment. The government in Vienna had clear expectations of the settlers: they were to bolster the absolutist, centralised state. To this end, settlers with a particular religious, ethnic and economic background were sought. Carefully planned settlements, farms and communal buildings were built according to strict requirements of standardisation and control.
The territory concerned was part of Hungary until 1918, when the borders were redrawn, apportioning it between Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia (now in Serbia and Croatia). Thanks to fertile soil and good husbandry, the Danube Swabians turned their farmland into one of the most productive in south-eastern Europe. They were known for optimising technical processes and labour practices, for introducing new technologies quickly, and for continually increasing their yields. Their economic basis also included small rural industries and town-based craft trades. After 1867, the ethnic Germans underwent a process of cultural assimilation into the Hungarian majority, especially in the towns. Around 1940, the Danube Swabians numbered some 1.25 million. Even today there are still small German minorities in Hungary and Romania, and even smaller ones in Serbia and Croatia.
The patents of settlement gave the German colonists favourable conditions to start from in difficult natural surroundings. Largely freed from bondage, the colonists set about cultivating the land. They drained the marshes in the Banat and in 'Swabian Turkey' (now south-western Hungary), built dykes against flooding on the Danube and the Theiss (Tisza) rivers, and cleared forests in the Hungarian highlands to provide new farming land. This activity brought about a boom in crop and livestock farming. The richness of the soil and the systematic rotation of crops were the main factors contributing to high yields. The settlers also found out how to make the best use of the prevailing climatic conditions and natural environment. The dark humus soil was mostly sown with wheat. Beside the 'Banat Gold', as it was known, maize and hemp were the main crops. Phases of technological innovation during the second half of the 19th century enabled the farmers to increase their yields even more, and they began exporting their products to other regions. Agriculture in its various forms continued to be highly profitable there until the Second World War.
The settlement programmes of the 18th and 19th centuries should be seen as the implementation of absolutist concepts of the state. The settlements were mostly built according to plan. The government in Vienna aimed to implement the colonisation according to rational considerations. Designed on the drawing board, the villages were seen as the most suitable form for developing the land. The geometrical appearance of the settlements was also intended to reflect and reinforce the State's efforts towards centralisation. The broad streets, up to 40 m wide, were usually lined on both sides by mulberry and acacia trees. The settlers received rectangular plots of land, around 25 m wide and 60-70 m long. Building materials – and in some places even finished 'colonist houses' – were also provided for the newcomers. Each property included living quarters and farm buildings, as well as an extensive orchard and vegetable garden, developing in time into a typical 'Danube Swabian' style. The social structure of the village was also provided for in its planned layout, with the religious and secular buildings being grouped around the village square to provide a focus for village life.