HISTORY AND A GLOSSARY OF TERMS
Many of the tensions gripping former Soviet Bloc nations today have their roots more in ancient rivalries than in modern politics. In this region, anniversaries can kill, and he who controls history controls the contemporary debate. The following notes might help the reader not fully familiar with the historical and demographic background to the events described in this book.
Versailles, before and after
Until the post-First World War Settlement of Versailles (specifically the Treaty of Trianon), Transylvania was one of the provinces of Greater Hungary that itself existed within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The “Dual Monarchy” system which elevated the status of Hungary within the Austrian Habsburg Empire was adopted in 1867 following persistent Hungarian resentment (and uprisings) at the curbs on its full expression of nationhood.
The loss of the First World War destroyed not only the Habsburg Empire, but also the Hungarian nation existing within it. Hungarians were not treated as one of the dozen peoples enduring Austrian imperial rule. Rather, because of its status as a co-respondent, Hungary was “punished” – way out of proportion – for waging the war, as were Austria and Germany.
The multinational Hungarian Kingdom lost two-thirds of its land and one-third of its ethnic Hungarian population. It lost Transylvania and two million of its own people to an enlarged Romania. It saw one million of its people enter under Slovak control within the new Czechoslovak Federation. And it saw half a million of its people placed within the Vojvodina province of the Serb Republic within the new Yugoslav Federation. Land and people were also lost to Austria and Croatia, giving rise to the old Hungarian quip: How many countries border on Hungary? One, Greater Hungary.
While the figures above refer to ethnic Hungarians, not all of the people lost after the First World War were Hungarian, of course. Indeed, come Versailles/Trianon, Transylvanian Hungarians were a minority within their own province. This is because since the early 18th Century there had been a great influx of Romanians encouraged by Hungarian landowners looking for cheaper labour than Hungarians provided. In the next century these Romanian arrivals were also taking the places of rural Hungarians emigrating to the United States. Today, the estimated population of Transylvania is 1,300,000 Hungarians and 4,500,000 Romanians.
Hungarians arrived in the Carpathian Basin from the East in the mid-9th Century and Transylvania became a principality under the Hungarian crown. In the 11th Century Hungarian kings brought large German communities to settle in the region and granted them special rights, which allowed them to maintain German towns and villages for more than 800 years. After the Turks conquered most of Hungary in the early 16th Century, Transylvania remained an independent princedom until Hungary was liberated by Habsburg troops at the end of the 17th Century. Then Transylvania came under the direct authority of Vienna, but as part of the Hungarian Kingdom. The Hungarian and Transylvanian constitutions remained in force (Diploma Leopoldinum). It returned to direct Hungarian jurisdiction with the compromise of 1867 which set up the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy. After the peace treaties of Versailles, St. Germain, Neuilly and Trianon, it fell to Romania. Northern Transylvania was briefly reunited with Hungary under the Vienna settlement of 1940 (see below).
The debate between Hungarians and Romanians over national(ity) rights is often turned into a debate about who has lived longer in Transylvania, who did what to the other party over the years, who’s at home there and who is a newcomer/intruder.
The official Romanian “continuity theory” posits that Romanians have a historic right to Transylvania because they are the autochthonous people deriving from the Dacians who were conquered and Romanised by the Romans in the 1st Century. This theory holds that even after the Empire collapsed and Roman troops retreated south of the Danube at the end of the 3rd Century, a Roman language speaking people lived on up in the Transylvanian mountains, letting history go on in the plains below until the arrival of the Hungarians 600 years later. These are the ancestors of today’s Romanians and that’s why Transylvania belongs to them.
Another theory (more favoured by the Hungarians and more and more by the Western historians) has it that today’s Romanians are descendants of a Romanised people from today’s Macedonia (where one can still find a small population of Macedo-Romanians) who – in the course of the first millennium – migrated north settling eventually in the lowlands east and south of the Carpathian mountains, where they formed their first states in the 12th Century. These lands formed the old, pre-Trianon, Romania, and they didn’t include Transylvania.
The fact is that there are many unknowns in the history of Transylvania between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Hungarians. (This was generally a period of great migrations of nations.) Historians and archaeologists have yet to provide satisfactory answers.
Open fighting over the nationality issue first broke out in the 1848 revolution. Although the Hungarian revolution against the Habsburgs started as a social one, asking for the liberation of serfs, a free Press, etc., it soon turned into an independence war against Habsburg rule. It pursued full national independence for Hungary (also reunification with Transylvania) along the lines of the 19th Century all-European (French) idea of a nation state, posing as its aim national and linguistic unity. One reason for the failure of the 1848/49 revolution was Hungarian intolerance towards Croats and Romanians, who therefore played a major part in the repression of the revolution on the side of the Austrians. That they were not rewarded by any more rights from Vienna is another story.
The 1867 compromise gave Hungarians equal status with the ruling Austrians. It also brought Transylvania back under direct Hungarian rule. The 1868 nationality law of the Hungarian Parliament was most liberal for its time. Its implementation wasn’t. The Hungarian administration attempted to enforce Hungarian-language education on all nationalities at the state school level, thereby diminishing the opportunity of education in the respective mother tongue.
In 1918, in a great popular meeting in the Transylvanian town of Alba Iulia, Romanians voted for unification with the Romanian kingdom. The proclamation published on this occasion also contained passages assuring full minority rights to the Hungarians of Transylvania. The reality turned out differently: following a land reform carried out along different principles in the old Romanian Kingdom and in Transylvania, Hungarian landowners and Hungarian churches lost most of their wealth. By this they also lost the material base for private schooling. The number of Hungarian-language state schools was drastically reduced, the Hungarian university of Cluj (or Kolozsvár, as it had been) closed.
Until 1918 Transylvanian towns of any size had a big Hungarian or German majority, the Romanians mostly living in rural areas. Hungarians had been the master nation for a thousand years and they suddenly came under the rule of people they did not have much esteem for. There was arrogance and haughtiness on the Hungarian side, plenty of inferiority complexes and revenge feeling on the Romanian side. Since these days, each community has placed great pressure on its independently minded, historically sensitive and realistic members to proceed publicly according to what is perceived to be one’s “national” interest.
In the Second World War, both Hungary and Romania were erstwhile allies of the Reich. This led in the Vienna Treaty of 1940 to the return to Hungary of northern Transylvania, where there is a majority Hungarian population, and the return of a chunk of the Moldovan territories to Romania that had been seized by Stalin at the start of the war. This arrangement was undone with the defeat of Germany.
The four wartime years were marked by insecurity. No major changes were implemented by Hungarian rulers except for the reinstituting of the Hungarian University of Cluj and the reopening of the Hungarian schools. The Romanian language continued to be an obligatory subject in Hungarian schools. A major tragedy was the deportation of several hundred thousand Jews of Northern Transylvania to German extermination camps in the spring of 1944, after Germany occupied Hungary following the attempt of Regent Miklós Horthy to change sides in the war.
Under the Communists
Predictably, Communist pledges and constitutional guarantees on minority rights sounded impressive. But in practice, the 40 years of Romanian Communist rule systematically reduced the educational basis of the Hungarians, depriving them of the means to maintain and develop their own culture. The number of Hungarian schools and universities kept falling, industrialisation led to the planned settlement of Romanians in formerly strictly Hungarian regions, and the deteriorating economic and ethnic situation drove tens of thousands of Hungarians into exile, mainly those with higher education. The Germans of Transylvania suffered similarly, and in the beginning the 1960s they emigrated in large numbers to West Germany. Of the 500,000 Germans of pre-war Transylvania, 100,000 are left today. And most of them want to leave as soon as possible.
Romania’s December Revolution
The situation for all Romanian citizens on the eve of the Romanian revolution of December 1989 was dire. Ceauşescu’s manic desire to repay Romania’s relatively modest foreign debt at breakneck speed ruined the country in the years leading up to the revolution. All foods that could be sold for hard currency were exported. Investment in services and utilities was slashed, leaving Romanians to endure their winters hungry, cold and in the dark.
In addition to fantastical building projects which involved the destruction of parts of historic Bucharest, Ceauşescu also planned the bulldozing of many rural settlements in the name of economic efficiency. These were to be replaced by a few concrete agro concentrations. The Hungarians of Transylvania saw this policy as directed particularly at their own rural life and cultural identity.
The other East European Communist regimes tumbled in the months before the Romanian December revolution. Aside from Stalinist Albania, Romania’s liberation was the last and the most violent. But even before this, Ceauşescu’s Romania had become increasingly isolated internationally, including within the Soviet bloc. Significantly, even Hungary’s Communist rulers felt compelled to break ranks with Warsaw Pact solidarity to openly complain about the treatment of the Transylvanian Hungarian minority. Ceauşescu’s Romania was a signatory to the 1975 Helsinki Accords, and throughout the Helsinki follow-up conferences of the 1980s, Romania was regularly isolated and pilloried in the debates on human and minority rights.
The December revolution was triggered by the Tőkés case as described in the first chapter of this book. László Tőkés, a Calvinist priest, had been in conflict with the authorities for several years. At the start of his ministry, he had managed to gather young people around him in Biblical Circles, helping them to learn about their own Hungarian culture and history. (The Hungarians of Transylvania are either Roman Catholic or Calvinist, the Germans Lutheran or Catholic, the Romanians Orthodox or Greek Catholic, i.e. Uniate – like the western Ukrainians). Tőkés had been a critic of the Ceauşescu system – both of its minority policies and its nationalistic Communism. He was also an editor of the Hungarian-language samizdat publication Ellenpontok [Counter Points] in the early ‘80s. He had been transferred several times from his earlier parishes, and Timişoara was also a demotion from his former post. His conflict with his bishop, who was faithful to Ceauşescu, was in fact a conflict with the nationalistic-communist regime.
Today and Tomorrow
Of all the losses suffered by Hungary in this century, Transylvania represents the greatest trauma – then and now. But the preoccupation of responsible Hungarians both within Hungary and in Transylvania – has not to date been the recovery of lost lands. Rather it has been the constant inability of the Romanian state to guarantee and honour the minority rights which the Hungarians of Transylvania – indeed all the Romanian minorities – can legitimately claim.
The failure of post-revolutionary Romanian leaders to secure minority rights after almost 30 years of waiting has now led some Hungarians to radicalise their demands, however. A New-Right within Hungary itself (of as yet undetermined size) speaks more stridently of the evil of Trianon (peace treaty). Some Hungarian leaders within Transylvania – while horrified at such provocative musings – do now see autonomous areas as the only way to secure local ethnic rights.
For all Romanians, however, post-revolutionary aspirations have been frustrated. Perhaps because their Communist masters were so vile, or because their revolution was won with blood, Romanians believed they deserved more of a liberation from the past than has been achieved. So has their bitterness been all the greater. The Securitate secret police have continued to operate in new guises; Communist holdovers have continued to rule to a greater degree than in any other East European state. And such is their ability to manipulate the hopes and fears of Romanian peasant voters that they have not even had to resort to large electoral fraud to retain power.
Of particular concern to the Hungarians has been the activity of Romanian extremist nationalists occupying mayoral offices in Transylvania. They have promulgated more and more discriminatory measures against minorities. Public use of the language – indeed practically any public expression of Hungarian identity – is under frontal attack. There is a growing Romanian hysteria: the potential for violence is no less today than it was in the days after the revolution, when a pogrom was organised in Târgu Mureş, in the centre of Europe.
A word on “pogrom”: this edition retains the term in its current East European and Russian meaning, which does not require hundreds or thousands to be slaughtered. “Pogrom” here means ethnically-inspired violence or assault by one group upon another.
In most areas of Transylvania there are hardly any clean ethnic divisions. One will find many villages with a mixed Romanian-Hungarian population or areas where settlements only a few miles apart have populations speaking either Hungarian or Romanian, or German.
Many Transylvanian settlements have their own Romanian, Hungarian and German names. This book uses the official Romanian names. Below is a table of place names mentioned in the text with the Hungarian and German varieties, where they exist.
Ocna de Jos
Sângeorgiu de Mureş