Ostensibly, this book could not appear in its English edition at a worst time. Today, all eyes are on the tragedy of the former Yugoslavia, where thousands have died. This book meanwhile describes a relatively minor incident that happened in the Romanian Transylvanian town of Târgu Mureş in March 1990, three months after the revolution that overthrew Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu. A riot by local Romanians against members of the large Hungarian community resulted in five people being beaten to death on the streets. Why should we be concerned now with this obscure tale from a couple of years ago?
Various reasons. Setting aside the killings in the former republics of the Soviet Union which began before the death of Communism in the East and which will continue indefinitely into the future, the episode described here was the first warning that liberation from Communism does not mean liberation from ancient evil, but on the contrary invites the return of ancient evil. The pogrom of Târgu Mureş represented perhaps the “first blood” of the post-Communist settlement in Eastern Europe. Here, liberation turned to pogrom within three months. Our fortune is that Előd Kincses, a clear-minded lawyer, was present both as a major player in the events and as a witness to chronicle how the residual powers of evil achieved such a transformation.
But this book is far more than a simple morality tale: on the contrary, it is disgusting but also genuinely gripping to read such a dispassionate and “fair” narrative of such vile events.
Further, the poisons it describes in action are still at work in this part of the European politic body. And things tend to get worse. An independent Slovakia will include 600,000 Hungarians – a little more than ten percent of the total Slovakian population. All the indications so far are that the Slovakians will not be kind to the minority rights aspirations of the Hungarians. Similarly, the 450,000 Hungarians living in the Vojvodina province of northern Serbia are threatened by the Serb power play that has so ravaged the former republics of Yugoslavia. It is no wild speculation to say that the Hungarian government might well find itself dragged into conflict with the rulers of Slovakia or Serbia to protect the Hungarian minorities there.
And in Romania itself, the situation for Hungarians has continued to worsen following the events described here. But Romania is more than twice the size of Hungary, and it is difficult to imagine what Hungary could do to protect its more-than two million kin across the border in Transylvania. While the military option hardly presents a solution, however, it is still true to say that Romania’s treatment of its Hungarian minority will remain a source of continuing tension in an already volatile corner of Europe. A great war was sparked by events in the Balkans, as we know. And although it is not likely that this region’s problems will ever provoke another great war, it would still be prudent to understand the story behind Europe’s one remaining major political fault line.
Most sentient people three years ago would probably have said that they did not anticipate living to witness the demise of the 1945 Yalta post-war settlement. And yet Yalta is now no more. How doubly unlikely it ever seemed that the 1919 Versailles Settlement would be undone. And yet two of its major creations – Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia – are determined to self-destruct. Will a third creation of Versailles – modern-day Romania – find the will to save itself from internal division and at the same time finally earn its place in the European House? Based on the evidence provided by this book, one would have to say that the jury is most definitely still out.
I first met Előd Kincses in February 1990, right in the middle of the period he describes in this book. It was then six weeks after the revolution that overthrew Ceauşescu, and in which Kincses played no small part, and six weeks before the pogrom in Kincses’s home town of Târgu Mureş that resulted in his flight into exile. It was a three-month metamorphosis from joy to vileness.
By chance, I interviewed several of the main characters who were later to figure in these pages. These included Kincses, the new administrator sitting in his county government office in Târgu Mureş. My reporter’s brief was whither Romanian Transylvania following the fall of Ceauşescu. The specific issue that swiftly emerged was why everyone was talking about the potential for violence between Romanians and Hungarians who so recently had been the united victors over Ceauşescu?
These were some of the reporter’s biographical notes on the players that I made then, shorthand and crass:
Kincses. Top Hungarian in new post-revolution county administration. Jovial, amiable chap. Up to his ears in furore with Romanians over the restoration of separate language schooling for Hungarians.
Enache. Local Romanian intellectual who stood up for Hungarian rights to separate education and who gets lots of death threats. Saintly woman, deeply sad and harried. Good-looking.
Judea. Colonel, top Romanian on the new town council. Supposed to be even-handed. Slimy, reptilian, sweats a lot. Judea denies he ever said Enache deserves to die for what she said re the Hungarians.
Ceontea. Leader of local new, ultranationalist Romanian movement, Vatra Românească[Romanian Hearth]. Hates Hungarians. Very scary, very violent. Could give Fascism a bad name.
I do not claim any great perspicacity by these remarks. Rather, these various qualities were – are – glaringly obvious to anyone with eyes, ears and a nose. The shape of these three months under review aspires to high tragedy. Specifically, a Transylvanian Hungarian revolt against the common Ceauşescu enemy that leads to the overthrow of that enemy and reconciliation with the Romanian community. The clock of eternal joy and brotherhood finally begins to tick. But then this movement swiftly finds itself confronting a new (or perhaps the original, old) enemy which destroys the hope of the revolution, splits the two communities, and turns on, kills and disperses the very people who initiated the overthrow of Ceauşescu in the first place.
As high tragedy, the time-frame is too neat, the bewilderment of the relevant mortals too total, for us to find the plot at all plausible. For plausibility, for some stab at sense and meaning, we must rely on Mr Kincses and what he relates in his book.
Kincses is an unlikely hero within this drama. He was thrust into the storm by two roles which he did not seek: his lawyer’s defence of Hungarian Pastor László Tőkés in Tőkés’s stand against Ceauşescu (the defiance that initiated the Romanian revolution), and high office in the post-revolutionary local council forced upon him because of the national prominence he gained through his defence of Tőkés. The right comes to no man to judge whether the formerly uncontroversial country solicitor was up to the task, or suited the part. Kincses played the hand that was hurriedly dealt him as best he could, never knowing at the time just how much the deck was always stacked against him and his people.
Kincses’s book is sometimes frustrating. Not because his story is frustrating – the word is hardly adequate – but because of the way he insists on telling it. As he notes himself, he is not a politician or polemicist, but a lawyer. And the lawyer in Kincses – one obsessed with the credibility of his evidence – emerges not only in what he says but also in what he refuses to say. The initial Hungarian version of this book was written in the late summer of 1990. It was a time when Kincses (and others) were still relatively ignorant of the true logic of events in post-revolutionary Romania. Though tantalizing flashes of initial suspicion are evident throughout the book. Now of course, Kincses (and others) know how unreformed and compromised the post-revolutionary regime of President Ion Iliescu insisted on being. And Kincses would probably have written a different book if he had started it later. But he refused to revise his original testament substantially, because – he argued – this would have involved hindsight. This is not boy-scout’s honour: in today’s Romania (as in the old), credibility is a political weapon – for the lawyer as for anyone else. And Kincses did not want to be charged by his enemies with second-guessing his own or others’ actions and motives during that time.
Indeed, it was only in the preparation of this English-language edition that Kincses specifically said how one Romanian died in the events of the night of March 20, 1990, in Târgu Mureş. This man’s death was used by the Romanian nationalists as propaganda for their cause – still is – though it was clear that he was killed by the reckless driving of the colleague transporting him to the pogrom! But Kincses says that when he wrote the first, Hungarian, draft of this book, the coroner’s report on this man’s death had not yet been filed. And – despite his own knowledge of the reality – he did not wish to say anything that would have pre-empted the coroner. (Also read: As a prominent voice of the Hungarians, I did not want to say anything about this man’s death that, come the inevitable whitewash of the official report, could have been turned around and used as evidence of my lies and as a stick to beat us with.)
It is difficult for a Westerner to comprehend this climate of permanent self-restraint and abnegation under which the Hungarians of Transylvania have to live. It is similarly difficult for a Westerner to grasp the degree of State lawlessness and disregard for due process that has allowed – even encouraged – such a situation to persist. For, as Kincses wrote in 1990, the perpetrators of the crimes recorded here were never punished. Nor – if this climate endures – will they ever be.
Indeed, it is Kincses who stands accused because of the events recorded here. After he fled Romania at the end of March 1990, Kincses became aware that “legal” measures had been prepared against him. It proved difficult to discover if a formal warrant existed, and if it did, what it actually might say. But it appeared that more than two years after the violence, Kincses would have been arrested if he had returned to his home town and would have been charged with “incitement to murder” (initially, it was “incitement to genocide”).
It is also difficult for a Westerner to believe that the main (ostensible) irritant that led to the pogrom of Târgu Mureş was the Hungarian agitation for the restoration of the mother-tongue schooling they had enjoyed in earlier years. But it is futile for outsiders to try to understand or respect the essential frivolity of the suspicions that certain Romanians harbour towards the aspirations of the Transylvanian Hungarian minority.
If one scratched a Transylvanian Hungarian and asked privately whether he believes his lot would have been easier if the Versailles Settlement had not given Hungarian Transylvania to Romania, he would probably reply that things would have been better for him otherwise. This is fair enough: ask an Irishman about Ulster. If one imagines however that a coherent policy existed among the Hungarians of post-revolutionary Târgu Mureş which anticipated or actively sought the reunification of Hungary with its lost Transylvanian lands, then one would have stumbled into total unreality. Of course not! How, exactly?
But the Romanians who flocked to join the Vatra Românească (Romanian Hearth) organisation in the months after the revolution did not accept this. They did believe in The Plot. They did regard the Hungarian yearning for schools teaching in the mother tongue to be the thin end of the wedge, leading remorselessly towards demands for the separation of Transylvania from the Romanian state. Kincses would not be so impolitic as to say it, but the neurotic cultural, intellectual and ethnic insecurity evidenced by this Romanian reaction to Hungarian aspirations is frightening to observe.
The activities of the Vatra Românească organisation run as a thread through this entire book. Vatra then called itself a cultural organisation simply committed to defending Romanian interests in troubled times. With less kindness, one could regard Vatra as a poisonous conspiracy feeding from the deepest recesses of Romanian insecurity. The unanswered question then would be: who pulls the strings and what is the full agenda? Yet Vatra thrives. And the conspirators who organised a pogrom remain unchained. And the authorities who gave carte blanche to their activities have never been called to account.
But now Kincses would not wish to overemphasise the role of Vatra Românească in all of these events. For he now considers it more than ever to have been a front for other forces. Indeed, Kincses now agrees with those who say that the pogrom of Târgu Mureş was organised by a special unit of the Interior Ministry (Securitate) run by a certain Securitate colonel. He also now agrees that this special unit was responsible for organising the invasion of Bucharest by a miners’ mob in June 1990 that resulted in grave injury to a number of anti-government demonstrators. The Romanian opposition Press has said special unit number 02105 of the Romanian Interior Ministry, led by one Colonel Cristescu, was responsible for the miners’ rampage.
Meanwhil in his exile, Kincses has a favourite pastime, which is to take down a copy of Ceauşescu’s old penal code and to write on the back of an envelope a list of just how many crimes he can think of that the organisers of the pogrom of Târgu Mureş should properly be charged with. Clauses and subclauses. Ever the lawyer. But it must pain him to do it, for given his prospects, and Romania’s prospects, it is a futile pastime indeed.
Editor of the English-language edition,