Like many countries in Europe, Romania underwent a national awakening in the 19th century, as the then-divided country was continually threatened by the Ottomans and Romanian people were given few rights by the Austro-Hungarian Empire that ruled them. Hemmed in by enemies from both sides, and resentful of the Saxons, who were viewed as foreign despite their residence having lasted around 700 years, a sense of a Romanian national identity emerged, defined against Hungary, Slavic nations, and of course the hated Ottoman Empire. After a series of bloody uprisings, Romania was officially made a country in 1859.
Discovering a sense of national identity naturally required that great figures of history were celebrated, the most prominent of which was Vlad Tepes. His slippery political alliances during his lifetime meant allowed him to be reinterpreted as a hero who fought bravely against Romania’s enduring enemies: the Saxons, the Ottoman Empire, and the Hungarians. His ruthless administration of justice was also seen sympathetically as a necessity for rule. He was celebrated in art, poetry, and legend, with even the lurid tales of his brutality spread in contemporary pamphlets seen as evidence for his patriotism and effectiveness as a ruler.
For instance, the 15th-century allegation made in German pamphlets that he burned the slothful, poor, and physically disabled out of sheer cruelty was reinterpreted in a positive light by Mihai Eminescu:
You must come, O dread Impaler, confound them to your care.
Split them in two partitions, here the fools, the rascals there;
Shove them into two enclosures from the broad daylight enisle ’em,
Then set fire to the prison and the lunatic asylum. (The Third Letter)
Fighting off Romania’s perennial enemies to preserve its independence whilst maintaining order at home, Vlad Tepes was made into a Romanian Braveheart.
Now that we have divorced the 15th-century voivode Vlad Tepes, alias Dracula, from Bram Stoker’s fictional, camp vampire, what can we make of the man? It is clear that he was a shrewd politician who changing alliances when it suited him but, somehow, too, a man of honour, holding grudges and avenging the deaths of his friends or his own subjugation when first possible. He was also extremely resourceful and realistic, using the topography of Wallachia to his advantage against his enemies, altering his military tactics when outnumbered, and using psychological warfare against those who had wronged him.
And, yet, there are countless contemporary accusations of his motiveless cruelty. These originate in the pamphlets printed at the time of his imprisonment by Matthias Corvinus, and though later the source of positive legends about him in 19th-century Romania, they are successful in portraying Vlad Tepes as a cruel and bloodthirsty man. Tales such as him dipping his bread into the blood of the impaled and eating dinner surrounded by dying prisoners on stakes turn him into a monster, and are lent plausibility by his known and widely-attested penchant for impaling his enemies. But should we believe the accusations?
Let us consider the title of the pamphlet from which the famous woodcut of Tepes’s meal surrounded by impaled corpses above is derived.
Here begins a very cruel frightening story about a wild bloodthirsty man Prince Dracula. How he impaled people and roasted them and boiled their heads in a kettle and skinned people and hacked them to pieces like cabbage. He also roasted the children of mothers and they had to eat the children themselves. And many other horrible things are written in this tract.
This pamphlet was published at the instigation of his great enemies, the Transylvanian Saxons.
The crimes listed above are lurid but to the modern eye seem wildly exaggerated. The accounts of cannibalism are only present in Saxon sources, and we need not belabour the fact that they had an axe to grind with a man who disrupted their trade and killed them for opposing his throne in Wallachia. Though he punished the Transylvanian Saxons without mercy, we should also remember that they opposed his rule, and he first tried to settle the dispute through trade restrictions and then diplomacy, but was ignored. The policy of impalement was very much the last resort for Tepes.
In summary, the real Dracula was an effective leader who did what was necessary to protect his throne and territory. His political machinations and actions in war were motivated not by irrational hatred but the need for survival and the brutal culture of his time: as voivode of Wallachia, Vlad Tepes ruled the vulnerable gateway to Europe from the East which was hotly-contested even from within Europe. Far from being the only member of the aristocracy guilty of using cruelty to maintain power in the bloody 15th century, Vlad Tepes was just one of the most successful.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: