Csaba Zahorán on the myth of Hungarians “kidnapping” Transylvania

Emese Víg from Új Magyar Szó online (maszol.ro) interviewed Csaba Zahorán on 10 May 2020:

The myth that Hungarians are planning to seize Transylvania has a long history. From time to time, semi-official Romanian historiography reinforces this myth. Some Romanian historians argue that the arrival of Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin disturbed the history of Daco-Romanian continuity and they “stole” Transylvania. This view has been around for centuries but had a specific impact on politics in each period.

Following Klaus Iohannis’s statement, (that accused the Social Democratic Party of assisting Hungarians in their alleged efforts to separate Transylvania from Romania – translator’s note) the Hungarian community stood united in its response. The unity behind rejecting such a false and irresponsible comment was, in fact, close to being unprecedented. Yet, the majority society does not share the opinion that the president went too far. For an ordinary Romanian, the myth that Hungarians would like to kidnap, steal, or separate Transylvania is reality. It is particularly worrisome that this anti-Hungarian attack took place in the middle of the pandemic, during state of emergency. How did we get here? When Iohannis was elected president, it seemed that respect for European values was his dominant discourse.

It is not exceptional that politicians assign the role of scapegoat to a community in times of crisis or during the electoral campaign. The coronavirus epidemic and its consequences and the upcoming parliamentary elections in Romania are just such occasions. The Hungarian community in Romania is one against which - due to the images that indoctrination implanted in the minds - hostile feelings may easily be reactivated. This might sound too much like commonplace, however, this is, unfortunately, the case even today. Iohannis’s advisors believe that the best way to divert attention from the symptoms of state dysfunction is to recall the Hungarian ghost and stressing the incumbent’s willingness to defend Romanian national interests comes in handy, too.

They see it that way although it is easy to see that Romania’s national interests may be better advanced through tackling problems of health care and environmental protection and by reducing emigration than by recycling nationalist phrases and distorted narratives based on half-truths. The first set of agenda would take time and require determination for good governance and expertise as well as less political games. Probably, incumbents try to replace these with voicing catch-phrases such as “autonomy of Szeklerland” and “losing Transylvania” that instigate fear in those that are anxious about the national character of the Romanian state and territorial integrity.  

Romanian politicians have played this "Hungarian card” so many times that it would take too long to count it. The script was the same each time: one must prevent that Hungarians “steal” Transylvania. Practically each Romanian political party has applied this narrative, haven’t they?

If we wanted to see some examples from post-1989 Romania, we may list the representation of the clashes at Târgu Mureș/Marosvásárhely in March 1990, the so-called Har-Kov case (about the alleged mistreatment of Romanians in Kovászna (Covasna) and Hargita counties - the two counties where Hungarians constitute the majority – translator’s note), the hostile reception of the Status Law (legislation in which Hungary gave preferential treatment and established institutions for assisting ethnic Hungarians who are citizens of neighbouring countries- translator's note) and repeated campaigns against the use of the flag representing Szeklerland. Unfortunately, such a response might come from any Romanian political party. It is not surprising that parties promoting a chauvinist platform, such as former PUNR (Romanian National Unity Party) and PRM (Greater Romania Party) were and that PUR (Romanian Humanist Party, later it was renamed Conservative Party -  PC) still is, launch such a campaign. The sad thing is that sometimes „mainstream” parties also apply this strategy. This is true of the predecessor of PSD, the National Salvation Front, of the Peasant Party and of PNL (National Liberal Party) and PDL (Democratic Liberal Party). We might even go further back until the Romanian occupation of Transylvania in 1918-1919 and to the preceding Hungarian-Romanian nationalist contest for domination over Transylvania. In fact, we speak about a recurring phenomenon that has had many shapes and faces across the periods but has a common core ranging over border changes and times from the late 18th century until today. From this perspective, the relevant part of Iohannis’s statement is not its party-political intention, rather what is says about the way politics in Romania works. It is unlikely that the president said what he said because he has a dislike for Hungarians. He acts with the majority in view. This is what I think is not alright: ethnic rivalry may be referred to any time and many interpret the relationship between Romania and Hungary as well as interethnic relations in this context.

It is important to consider that this is the 100th anniversary of the peace treaty, we are 30 years after the clash at Targu Mures and we are in an election year while economic crisis is knocking on the door.  This is the background to why the centuries-old scapegoat, Hungarians as a common enemy of all Romanians was referred to. It is hard to believe but „circus instead of bread” is still a scheme that works well.

This is what I have just referred to: if there will be a drastic economic slump in the wake of the pandemic accompanied by unemployment etc. then the eternal “Hungarian threat” will be useful if the incumbents make national unity the key argument in their campaign for staying in power. Moreover, probably since Romania joined the EU, but certainly since 2010, Hungary has appeared in the public discourse as a source of the threat, yet again. This is not so only in extremist publications or in tabloids but also in political discourse. Renowned analysts, historians, intellectuals keep repeating that Hungary threatens the territorial integrity of Romania. In one way or the other, it wants the Szeklerland and incites "Romanian citizens of Hungarian nationality” and "radical autonomists” and that it, in collaboration with Russia, works on federalizing and partitioning Romania.

What does "stealing” mean? Why autonomy is seen as stealing and appropriation?

This is an intentional misrepresentation of the terms: self-government is equated with independence, while federalization appears as if it was the synonym of separatism disregarding the fact that these terms are not synonyms at all.

Obviously, stickers with "Greater Hungary” on it and the proliferation of such maps do not help. Just as mainstream public opinion in Austria-Hungary disapproved of maps representing "Daco-Romania” that were outputs of Romanian irredentism.

Today, there is a burgeoning literature on Hungarian irredentism in Romania. Apart from large numbers of articles, there are also thick volumes about the plans of Hungarian secret services that target Transylvania. Sometimes the authors of these works are former high-ranking officers of the Securitate or of the Romanian army and patriotic former party cadres.  Their narrative operates through misinterpreting elements of truths such as friendly relations between Hungary and Russia, Hungary as Putin’s vehicle in the EU, just to mention two examples. These authors also use motives that are familiar for the Romanian reader, such as the “Horthyst Terror” in Northern Transylvania between 1940 and 1944, oppression of Romanians for many centuries in the Kingdom of Hungary, and centuries-long Romanian efforts to reach national unity, the Romanian character of Transylvania etc.  Thus, they compose a complex yet rational looking history that looks complete. When added to the suspicion that has always been kept alive this may become a dangerous mix. In one of the chapters of their book about the Black March of Târgu Mureș/Marosvásárhely, Márton László and Csaba Zoltán Novák describe precisely how hate-speech can act as a spark in a tense situation.                                                                                                                 

Here, I would refer to Trianon again…Hungarians lost their hegemonic position in Transylvania a century ago

The anniversary of the Trianon Treaty might create some anxiety in Romania but from Budapest, it looks like an exaggeration, especially in times of epidemic. But for Bucharest - and Romania is not alone in this – talking of “Trianon” is suspicious in any context. For example, the Romanian media and some intellectuals sounded the alarm at the time when a Research Group specialized on the Trianon question was formed at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. They presented the group as if it was an irredentist one that functioned as a vehicle of a Hungarian campaign in the information war. However, they were not interested in what the historians taking part in the team said or wrote.

At the same time, the fact that Hungary is the illiberal daredevil within the European Union and that it partners with Russia in the international scene and that it hardly has any credible allies left make the country an ideal object for suspicion. Building on these circumstances and referring to perpetual Hungarian irredentism, nation-building efforts of the Hungarian government may be put in a negative light. For a Romanian patriot, it is probably irritating to see that the Hungarian state financially supports Hungarian farmers and schools and takes part in infrastructural development in Hungarian majority areas: it finances the construction of hospitals, stadiums, and sports halls, renovates monuments. These might seem like the construction of a parallel Hungarian universe in Romania. However, one might respond to such criticism by arguing that it is the Romanian state that should have carried out such development projects using the tax that local citizens and companies pay. At the same time, one might obviously question whether the financial support that comes from Budapest is well-targeted and if it is invested in a way that helps to build things that are needed.

In any case, I think it is more damaging that the Romanian elite does not trust Hungarian taxpayers in Romania and that it ignores their needs and, at the same time, cheats the majority population than the way it engages with Budapest. The automatic rejection of the idea of autonomy halts decentralization and maintains the centralized state structures that do not function well. This situation reminds me of the argument that Hungarian elites used against enfranchisement during the time of the dualist monarchy. They said that such a move would threaten Hungarian supremacy in areas where other ethnic groups constitute the majority.

Vitéz Mihályt megjelenítő jelenet az 1929-es gyulafehérvári egyesítési ünnepségen. Forrás: http://memoriaurbis.apulum.ro/en

How old is the strategy to use the image of “Hungarians stealing Transylvania” as a threat to national security and territorial integrity? I guess it has been like this at least for a hundred years, since the times of Ion I. C. Brătianu, but shall we go back even further?

We shall not forget that, unlike today, in the cities, Hungarians were the majority in 1920, thus the Romanian army and administration could not truly feel they were liberators in urban areas even if propaganda had it that way. Moreover, in the interwar period, Budapest has always made it obvious that it did not accept the Trianon treaty as the final word and only signed the document under pressure. This was clear even if the Hungarian government could not voice its opinion until the late 1920s. These factors created a sense of insecurity. Gábor Egry (another historian from Hungary – translator’s note) has presented convincingly that Romanian authorities used the notion of irredentism and how it became a rubber notion that may be applied to anyone who was part of the Hungarian middle class. However, this logic has more universal relevance to the history of Romanian and Hungarian nationalism. Ethnic minorities are considered a security threat in a nation-state since they are the negation of the nation-state itself, especially if they live in large numbers of in one group in a region. Hungarian elites of the 19th century viewed ethnic minorities in Hungary in a similar way thinking that they mean an obstacle for turning the multi-ethnic Hungarian Kingdom into a nation-state. They believed that it is a Pan-Slavic politics of Sankt Petersburg or an irredentist one in Bucharest that financed and orchestrated the movements of ethnic minorities that demanded collective rights and autonomy. It is not that these political centres had no influence on the movements. However, the way Hungarians elites imagined the extent of this was exaggerated.

In 1920, Romania became a multi-ethnic country. Apart from Transylvania, Dobruja also became part of the country and it was also a markedly multi-ethnic region. However, the new project that political elites pursued turned its back on reality and wanted to create a unified state. How were reality and political desires reconciled?

It is hard to reconcile the idea of the nation-state with the existence, rights, and development of ethnic minorities. This is not only the case in present-day Romania or the former Greater Romania and the 19th century Hungarian Kingdom but also for classic examples such as France and the interwar Republic of Czechoslovakia. Yet, this is not always so obvious. Today, in Romania minorities have certain serious rights. What is important here is that the idea of exclusiveness may potentially be misused at any time. If Romania is the state of the Romanian nation, then what non-Romanians do there?

As I have argued many times, national differences are fundamentally discursive phenomena even if there are protests, withdrawal of certain rights, and, occasionally, even violence. Regarding the construction of the Romanian nation-state, Dobruja is a good example since, as Constantin Iordachi shows in one of his studies, strategies of nation-state building through which Bucharest sought the integrate the region became visible at the same time when the Hungarian government criticized similar moves in Transylvania. Among these we may mention the settlements along the border, forcing the so-called “re-Romanization” in Szeklerland, the promotion of the Orthodox church, the so-called Cultural Zone (the recruitment of ethnic Romanian teachers to teach in counties where minorities constituted the majority, unified – translator’s note), limiting the public use of minority languages, limitations imposed upon municipalities and symbolic politics.

Opposed to these measures, there were the governments in Budapest, the Hungarian elite in Transylvania and the activities of the Országos Magyar Párt (All-Romania Hungarian Party) and other groups. They tried to hamper or at least slow the impact measures down. At that time, it was with the idea of territorial revision in mind, as Nándor Bárdi has shown. From the mid-1930s onwards, the response to Hungarian revisionism was anti-revisionist Romanian mobilization.

For Romanians, the fear of losing Transylvania became reality in 1940. Can we say that the 40-month-long (sic!) „Little Hungarian Realm” (the way Hungarians often refer to the period between September 1940 and the arrival of the front in autumn 1944 – translator’s note) caused collective trauma for Romanians in Transylvania?

Nationalist historiography had prepared for the birth of Greater Romania intellectually. They presented Greater Romania as the logical consequence of Romanian history. Thus, the territories that the country gained in 1918-1919 quickly became known territories in the consciousness of intellectuals. Therefore, losing these lands was similarly traumatic as Trianon was for Hungarians. At the same time, it reaffirmed fears because it turned out that Hungary really had been working on recapturing Transylvania and the Hungarian population welcomes the Hungarian army. Moreover, the bloodshed and massacres at various locations of Salaj County, such as Ipp (in Romanian: Ip – 157 Romanian civilians killed on 13-14 September 1940 – translator’s note) and Ördögkút (In Romanian: Treznea - 93 Romanians killed on 9 September 1940 – translator’s note), as well as the images of demolished church buildings and various forms of discrimination, added to the list of grievances. These events also supplied contemporary and later propaganda with raw material. In any case, these incidents reaffirmed the prejudice that Romanians would have nothing much to expect from Hungarian rule. As Ablonczy Balázs (a renowned Hungarian historian and project leader of the Trianon 100 Research Group – translator’s note) also points out, between 1940 and 1944, the promotion of Hungarian nationalism is Northern Transylvania was also about the exclusion of Romanians and of people labeled Jewish. In the case of Romanians, the most extreme form of this was the expulsion of some Romanians and in the case of the latter group, deprivation of basic rights and deportation. Romanian nationalization was a parallel process in Southern Transylvania.

The image of a stolen Transylvania lived on during the communist dictatorship as well. It is the idea of „unprincipled Hungarian unity” that comes to my mind. Communist comrades argued against the self-organization of Hungarians in Transylvania based on class struggle. The same argument was present in the 1980s when history „textbooks” such as Lăncrănjan’s infamous Manifesto was allowed to be published even if there was no official incitement against Hungarians.

The fact that the Romanian supremacy over Transylvania became uncertain in the 1940s and that the Romanian delegation had to argue for its claim over the whole area that succeeded only thanks to the help of the Soviet Union, were embedded into how Romanians related to Transylvania and how they imagined Hungarians after 1945. Although Romania regained Transylvania, the anxiety that all that had happened might repeat stayed and it also surfaced in 1956, for example. Even though Hungarian revisionism was no longer realistic and increasingly became an imagined threat, Romanian state security handled the issue as a high priority. This was reinforced in the later period of Ceausescu’s regime. 

And the same anxiety came to light in late 1989 and in early 1990 when the state became especially weak in Szeklerland after the fall of the dictatorship. This is what could be used to incite Romanians in Satu Mare/Szatmárnémeti,  Târgu Mureș/Marosvásárhely, and in the valley of the Gurghiu (Görgény). It is puzzling that the anxiety still appears in a period when the demographic patterns have changed in Transylvania. Lucian Boia has also pointed out this paradox a number of times.   

Regarding Lăncrănjan’s manifesto, this is a pathetic historical essay about the “Romanianness” of Transylvania, the history of the suffering of Romanians in Transylvania, and about the anti-Romanian sentiment of Hungarians. The author reactivated a number of anti-Hungarian stereotypes that had been more or less side-lined in Romania in the name of internationalism earlier. The essay generated much response in Hungary too even though those were times when Budapest was quite passive regarding problems of the Hungarian minorities abroad. Lăncrănjan’s text is not of outstanding quality, but it fits into the pattern of nationalist mobilization that first appeared in the 1960s and unfolded in the second half of the 1970s. The same goes for reactions against the History of Transylvania volumes that the Hungarian Academy of Sciences published. According to György Földes, at that time the venue for Romanian-Hungarian rivalry was historiography. It was irritating for the Romanian leadership that Hungary would not accept the Romanian version of the history of Transylvania and questioned basic arguments for the Romanian nature of Transylvania, such as the thesis of Daco-Roman continuity. By that time, Romanian historiography was expected to serve political goals in a straightforward manner. Gábor Vincze has thoroughly explored the scandals in Romanian-Hungarian relations. These helped maintain the image of Hungarians as the enemy that the national communist Ceaușescu-regime badly needed.


Whose fault is the lack of historical reconciliation and who is responsible for sustaining traumas and historical myths in both Hungary and Romania?

It is tempting to put all the blame on politicians. However, historians and other intellectuals have a large share of responsibility. Historiography has often served political interests in both countries. This a universal phenomenon but the weight of such behaviour differs from country to country and varies across time. Institutional national historiography is fundamentally there to serve a national ideology, and this interferes with the „truth-seeking” that academic work is. Even professional discourse is in trouble sometimes because there is a large noise with many people speaking about history. Historians’ voice often gets lost in the cacophony. Cooperation would be much needed since it is only through these that traumas could be overcome or, at least, myths that make coexistence difficult could be demolished.