The Politics of Dracula – Romania

The Politics of Dracula

For much of the world outside of Romania, the name Dracula conjures up the image of an evil vampire nobleman living in a sinister-looking castle perched high on a mountainside somewhere in the haunted land of Transylvania.

In Romania, Dracula is seen in two ways. One view is of a mishmash caricature of history and fiction which serves as a generator of tourist dollars. The other view is of a national hero who fought to preserve Romanian identity and independence.

Dracula’s real name was Vlad III. His father Vlad II was knighted by the Holy Roman Emperor and was made a Knight of the Order of the Dragon, a royal fraternity of knights pledged to defend Christianity. In 15th Century Eastern Europe, it wasn’t vampires the people feared. It was Turks. The Ottoman Turks were a growing threat to the whole region. The Royal Dragon Knights were sworn to fight this threat.

Vlad Tepes gets a kiss
Vlad Tepes gets a kiss
In Romanian the word for “dragon” is “dracul” and “dracula” or “draculea” means “son of the Dragon”. Vlad II was lord of Transylvania at the time and at his knighting, he was named Prince of Wallachia, a region in the south of modern-day Romania. He adorned his clothing with the Order’s symbol, a dragon suspended from a cross, and minted the symbol on his coins. He was called “Dracul” and sometimes “Dracula” to signify his membership with the Order of the Dragon.

“Dracul” has a double meaning which is “Devil”. Enemies of Vlad III began to use this meaning, implying that he was the “son of the Devil” because as Prince, Vlad III was one mean son of a bitch. This double meaning is what centuries later would inspire Bram Stoker to use the name “Dracula” as the name for his vampire villain.

Vlad III was born in Transylvania in 1431. He was later sent as a hostage to Turkey along with his younger brother to ensure his father’s behavior. After his father and older brother were assassinated by the local nobles, Vlad III returned to become Prince. He was quickly driven off by his enemies. Vlad returned a few years later to kill his rival and become Prince. Vlad would reign for six years.

It was during this time he earned the savory surname of “Tepes” (the Impaler) out of his habit of impaling criminals, traitors, Turkish prisoners, corrupt merchants and anyone he just didn’t like. To be fair, however, Vlad’s impalement punishments weren’t entirely random. He was simply a tough Law and Order kind of ruler who brooked no infraction of the law no matter how small.

One fine Easter morning, Vlad Tepes put together a feast and invited all the nobles suspected of doing in his old dad. After a few opening jokes, Vlad Tepes got straight to the point, or rather he gave them the point from the end of a sharpened stake. Those spared this fate were taken on a lovely 50km death hike at the end of which the survivors were forced to labor on the real Castle Dracula – located in northern Wallachia, not Transylvania.

Tower in Vlad's Palace in Targovista from which he viewed impalements
Tower in Vlad’s Palace in Targovista from which he viewed impalements
Vlad Tepes was particularly bloodthirsty with the Saxons, the German settlers of Transylvania. Unlike his literary counterpart, Vlad didn’t spend much time in Transylvania during his reign. He’d only pop over occasionally to impale a few thousand people then pop back. The Saxon merchants tended to overcook the books and cheat people blind. Vlad, known for his fierce belief in honesty but not mercy, didn’t take too kindly to this practice anymore then he did to the Saxons’ habit of supporting rival claimants to the Wallachian throne. Saxon travelers back in the Fatherland relayed stories of Vlad Tepes which in turn wound up on the newly-invented printing press as part of the first example of tabloid news. These tabloid pamphlets became immensely popular and were widely circulated. Even the Holy Roman Emperor was reportedly fond of reading about the harsh justice meted out by Wallachia’s stern ruler.

Eventually, Vlad bit off more than he could suck when the Turks invaded his realm in great numbers. He was forced to retreat and follow a scorched earth policy. The Turks, suffering from a lack of food and water, later withdrew. As a parting gift Vlad carefully arranged for them the view of 20,000 impaled Turkish prisoners.

The Turkish Campaign was an astounding success for Vlad. He became the hero of the Christian World. However, shortly after this, Wallachian nobles and Saxon merchants, concerned over Vlad’s impalement policies, spread nasty rumors about him which got Vlad arrested by his quasi-boss, the Hungarian King. Vlad was captured by the Hungarians and sent to Budapest. He would spend several years in Visigrad Castle north of Budapest admiring the view of the beautiful Danube and supposedly impaling mice.

Vlad was later released and sent back to Wallachia to give the Turks trouble. The Turks showed up with more trouble and in the ensuing mess Vlad was killed, either by treachery or accident but most assuredly not by vampires. He was buried at Snagov, a small village north of Bucharest.

The Western world soon forgot about Vlad Tepes as they had other problems on their hands, such as Protestants and more Turks. The tabloid pamphlets about his notorious deeds ran for a few decades after his death before interest faded.

Flash forward 400 years or so to Jolly Ole Repressed England. Writer Bram Stoker looking to cash in on vampire merchandising writes a novel about a vampire Transylvanian nobleman named Dracula. Stoker had researched much about the geography, culture, and ethnic history of northern Transylvania. Many people believe that the character Dracula is inspired entirely on Vlad Tepes and that in fact they are supposed to be the same person/vampire. Several literary scholars, historians, and movie-makers support this notion; the most recent example is Francis Ford Coppola’s overacted “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992). Coppola had Vlad Tepes become the vampire Dracula by cursing God after the death of his wife.

Professor Elizabeth Miller, author of “A Dracula Handbook,” disagrees with this notion, arguing that is the name rather than the actual historical figure which inspired Stoker. Stoker’s historical sources were very brief on Dracula. He didn’t even know Dracula’s real name. In fact his Count Dracula is a Szekely, a people believed to be descended from the Huns. Vlad Tepes was a Wallachian. In addition it is hard to imagine, given Stoker’s acute attention to detail, that he would have left out such tantalizing details of Dracula’s impalement practices had he known about them.

The novel “Dracula” became a huge international success with the 1931 movie, “Dracula” starring the Hungarian Bela Lugosi. With this film and Bela Lugosi’s legendary performance, Count Dracula became firmly entrenched in Western cultural consciousness. Further interest was sparked in uncovering the “real” Dracula. Numerous books and documentaries have given the world more information on Vlad Tepes than Bram Stoker had. Nowadays, Vlad Tepes has become almost as famous as his vampire alter-ego.

In Romania this success has been met in various ways: from a quick way to make a buck from gullible tourists to paranoid nationalist accusations that “Dracula” is a Hungarian plot designed to debase a Romanian hero. The novel “Dracula” has been considered by some critics as a product of diseased mind. It also didn’t help matters much that Transylvanian-born Bela Lugosi hated Romanians.

It is easy to understand their position if you can imagine an Eastern European writer turning George Washington or Elizabeth I into evil brain-eating zombies. However, they didn’t go around impaling thousands of people so their being vilified would be a bit more of a stretch. In 15th Century Romania, judging Vlad Tepes as a hero, villain, or sadistic psychopath depended on which side of the stake you stood. Today some Romanian scholars have glossed over some of the more bloodier accounts of his reign in order to focus on his efforts to defend Romanian identity.

Dee, Drac, and Dave
Dee, Drac, and Dave
Unbeknownst to Bram Stoker, Romanian independence had been growing in the 19th century and many Romanian nationalists looked to Vlad Tepes as one of the first true Romanian heroes. A century later, Nicholas Ceausescu would push Vlad’s image as a national hero.

The heart of the matter to some degree is Transylvania itself. Despite being filled to the brim with vampires and werewolves, Transylvania is lovely bit of real estate highly sought after. When “Dracula” was written, Transylvania belonged to Hungary. In 1920 it became part of Romania. Hungarians claim the Romanians stole it. Romanians claim to be descended from the Romano-Dacians who lived there long before the Hungarians arrived. Bitter resentment between Hungary and Romania still lingers over the haunted land of Transylvania, and “Dracula” in an indirect way serves as a bloody reminder of this hostility.