Steve Jobs vs. Vlad Tepes


Today in Romania, as in many countries (including Mexico), is the “Day of the Dead” or Ziua Mortilor. It tends to be a little more widely observed in Transylvania and the Banat due to the historical reign of the Hungarians as it originally comes from a Catholic holiday.

Around these parts (Unicorn City aka Cluj-Napoca) people have been selling flowers and candles for days now, which will be taken to graves of departed loved ones. If I were a better blogger I’d head up to the big cemetery in town and take some pictures so all of you could see but alas, I’m trapped doing other things today.

But coming on the back of Halloween (an Irish holiday which got turned into a massive festival in America and is now filtering through the entire globe) it got me to thinking about none other than Vlad “The Impaler” Tepes and how, in a strange way, there is a strange parallel to his life and to that of the recently departed Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computer.

Vlad Tepes is unique in many ways but what occupied my mind this past day was thinking about how interesting it is that not once but twice he (and more importantly, the image of him) was on the cutting edge of technology. Considering that Steve Jobs was in a similar position (the personal computer and then the iPhone), the parallel rose naturally in my mind.

If you’ve read my book (or every post on this blog) you know the back story on Vlad Tepes. He was a fairly minor prince in Romanian history, held power three different times and died at age 45 without accomplishing all that much. He was ethnically Romanian but spoke and wrote a lot in Hungarian, married a Hungarian and did most of his power broking (and dwelling in dungeons) with the Hungarians in the region. He also spoke both Turkish and Farsi, knew the Qur’an (holy book for Muslims) and engaged in a lot of back and forth with the other regional heavyweights, the Turks (in fact his own brother converted to Islam).

But yet I and everyone (seemingly) on the planet knows about him and this is where the comparison to Steve Jobs comes into play – it’s because they both rode the edge of a revolution in technology.

The first revolution was the (European) invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany. In my “past life” before Romania, I actually got to work with very old books, including some incunabule and the history of books and writing is very interesting. Printing (or handwriting) a book before Gutenberg’s press was a very, very laborious process and took an unbelievably long amount of time to do. Therefore almost all books were dedicated to religious or very “serious” topics.

But here comes Gutenberg and he crafts a device which can very quickly churn out written material. Certainly the first few pieces Gutenberg printed were the Bible and some other classic material, including some long-winded poems in German. But at some point people with access to these printing devices knew they needed some new material, something that could be produced in volume and sold at profit.

And thus enters the “story” of Vlad Tepes, literally the first best seller in the history of printed books. He actually never ruled Transylvania at all (that was firmly in the hands of the Hungarians at the time) but made a critical decision to impale several hundred (perhaps several thousand) ethnic Germans in the town of Brasov (which is in Transylvania) in 1459. This story made its way back to the homeland and onto the sheets of those newly-printed books and short stories.

I’ve seen copies of some of those original broadsheets about Vlad in a variety of languages, including Russian, and the story spread like wildfire throughout all of Europe, many of the versions quite exaggerated and grossly inaccurate.

If it were a modern newspaper headline the story might read “CHAOS IN KRONSTADT – MAD ROMANIAN PRINCE IMPALES PEACEFUL GERMAN MERCHANTS” or something like that. It had all the elements of a scandalous story, the “innocent victims”, gruesome deaths to describe and lots and lots of screaming. Within 50 years, just about everyone in Europe had heard of Vlad.

But Vlad and his story also rode the edge of a second revolution in technology – moving pictures aka films aka “movies”.

In 1897, an Irish writer named Abraham “Bram” Stoker wrote his best-seller Dracula, basing it on a mish-mash of Hungarian legends (including that of Elizabeth Bathory). The book was an absolute sensation. But absolutely not one page ever mentions Vlad by name or by direct reference. Instead it is about a Hungarian vampire (actually a Szekeler, to be specific) who battles with an intrepid English adventurer.

Originally the book was titled “The Dead Un-Dead” and the vampire’s name was “Count Wampyr”. However in doing research on some of the stories from the region (no doubt based partly on some of those original German broadsheets) he decided he liked the name “Dracula” better and renamed both the villain as well as the book after the legends of Vlad.

So the book is published in 1897 and a few years later, movies are invented and now all these new directors are casting about for material to be shown in the theaters. Due to Stoker failing to properly copyright his book, in 1922 a German film company decided to produce one of the most famous movies of all time – Nosferatu – yet another retelling of the evil Romanian prince.

And so the circle continues. Vampire movies (with the supernatural being nearly always named Dracula) have become a staple in Hollywood with at least 200 or more versions being filmed over the years. Through a strange twist of fate I’ve seen nearly all of them because I once lived with a woman who was obsessed with vampires and she made me watch these films, including a few “adult” films in the genre. Certainly thousands of books, cartoons, graphic novels, television shows, stage plays and other forms of media have been produced about Count Dracula, the mishmash of Hungarian legends and a real Romanian ruler.

And so as Dracula, originating in those 500 year old broadsheets about Vlad, became a staple of Hollywood horror, so did the idea of vampires and Dracula also enter the mainstream of how Halloween is now celebrated, which brings us back to the beginning, as now this is becoming a somewhat global phenomenon, including here in Romania, where it all began. And dear old Vlad, who had a short and insignificant reign as a minor European noble, rode the crest of not one but two revolutions in modern technology.

But today? Today is the Day of the Dead here in Transylvania, where those who have gone on before us are visited by those who remain behind.

May they all rest in peace.