When the Nobel Prize Committee awarded its prize for literature to the Romanian-born German author Herta Muller in October 2009, it was not only the New York Times who asked: 'Herta who?' The shy woman was little known outside literary circles.
Muller's life story has produced a remarkable creative output from the ruptures between east and west Europe in the final decades of the last century. Born in 1953 in a German minority community in a village on the Hungarian-Romanian border, Muller's father was a member of the Waffen SS, while after the war her mother had been held in a Soviet work camp for five years. After protesting against the lack of freedom of speech under Nicolae Ceaucescu's regime at university, she lost her job as a translator in an engineering plant in the 1970s because she refused to cooperate with the secret police, the Securitate.
She joined a radical writers' collective of young German language authors and her first book, Niederungen (Nadir), censored in Romania, was published in its full form in Germany in 1984. Niederungen, an autobiographical collection of short stories, describes a Schwaben (Swabian) child's impressions in a village in the border landscape of the Banat, a region once part of the Habsburg territories that today lies within Romania, Serbia and Hungary. Muller eventually emigrated to Berlin in 1987 with her ex-husband, the writer Richard Wagner, to escape persecution by the Securitate. Further powerful novels on the subject of living in a dictatorship won fame and critical approval.
It is the history of the German minorities in Romania that characterises the Nobel Prize-winner's works. The Banat Schwaben settled near the river Tisza in several waves of migration from the beginning of the 18th century when the Habsburg Emperor Charles VI asked peasants from the Rhine region in the north to come to the Banat, an area severely devastated from several wars with the Ottoman Empire. In the swampy landscape and under permanent threat of disease, it took some effort to transform the countryside near the city of Temesvar (Temeschburg) into the empire's breadbasket. Mostly preserving their Catholic religion and German language, the agrarian and coal-mining community became part of the Hungarian half of the Habsburg Empire in 1778. After the First World War the empire was divided between the new states of Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania; the capital of the region--Timisoara--now belonged to Romania.
It was during this epoch that the Banater Schwaben came into more regular contact with another German minority: the Transylvanian Sachsen, or Saxons, who lived closer to the Carpathians in the east. The Sachsen had already settled in this area in the 12th century, invited by the Hungarian King Gesa II to develop the unproductive land and to help protect the border. …