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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter V. Regionalism, autonomism and the minority identity-building narratives


Károly Kós
Traduction de Dávid Oláh

Texte intégral

1Title: Erdély. Kultúrtörténeti vázlat (Transylvania. A sketch of cultural history)

2Originally published: Kolozsvár – Cluj, Erdélyi Szépműves Céh, 1929

3Language: Hungarian

4The excerpts used are from the original: Introduction, Conclusion, pp. 5, 7, 87–88.

About the author

5Károly Kós [original name Kosch] [1883, Temesvár (Rom. Timişoara, presentday Romania) – 1977, Cluj-Napoca (Ger. Klausenburg, Hun. Kolozsvár, present-day Romania)]: architect, designer, ethnographer, editor and writer. He was a crucial figure of the Hungarian intelligentsia in Transylvania and a prominent member of East European Art Nouveau. Kós came from an ethnic German family and his father worked as a clerk. He studied architecture in Budapest (1902–1907). He worked simultaneously as an architect and a poet. In 1911–12, he designed the building of the Szekler National Museum in Sepsiszentgyörgy (Rom. Sfântu-Gheorghe, present-day Romania). In 1912, he participated in the building of the Art Nouveau-inspired Budapest zoo. After 1918, he chose to stay in Transylvania, and settled in the village Sztána (Rom. Stana) near Kolozsvár. He emerged as the leader of the left-wing Transylvanian People’s Party (which subsequently merged into the Hungarian Party), and became one of the key figures of Hungarian cultural and political life in Romania, fusing his ‘arts and crafts’ ideology with a ‘Transylvanist’ cultural-political discourse. He was the founder of the Erdélyi Szépmíves Céh (Transylvanian Art Guild), which sought to unite the Hungarian intellectual elite in Romania, and was the editor- in-chief of the periodical Erdélyi Helikon (Transylvanian Helicon), the key organ of ‘Transylvanism.’ In the 1920s, he served as a member of the Romanian Parliament. Throughout the thirties, his historical novels, as well as the unique style of his engravings, played an important role in making Transylvanian cultural life popular among larger social strata of Hungarians across the borders. After 1945, as a public figure of leftist orientation, he was co-opted by the Romanian communist regime. Between 1946 and 1948, he was a prominent figure of the ‘Hungarian People’s Alliance,’ the official representative body of the Hungarian minority in Romania. Afterwards, he became politically marginalized, but—as an iconic figure of Transylvanian Hungarian culture—he continued to retain a certain cultural influence until the very end of his long life.

6Main works: Atila királról ének [The song of king Attila] (1909); Régi Kalotaszeg [Old Kalotaszeg] (1912); Sztambul [Istanbul] (1918); Kiáltó szó [Crying word] (with Árpád Paál and István Zágoni) (1920); Erdély. Kultúrtörténeti vázlat [Transylvania. A sketch of cultural history] (1939); Kalotaszeg (1932); Az országépítő [The state-builder] (1934); Budai Nagy Antal (1937); Hármaskönyv [Tripartite book] (1969).


7In the fin-de-siècle cultural-political context, Transylvania’s position was highly ambivalent. On the one hand, it was a space of vivid contention between the Romanian and Hungarian nation-building projects; on the other hand, it became economically and culturally rather marginalized and was considered provincial. One of the cultural orientations which tried to turn this symbolic value-system upside down was the ‘arts and crafts’ movement, which emerged in the wake of similar Western movements and which sought to re-valorize the Transylvanian cultural tradition, drawing inspiration from its pre-modern, folkloristic cultural heritage. Kós was a prominent member of this movement and emerged in the 1910s as an influential ideologue of this new camp, drawing his architectural and poetic inspiration from the culture of Kalotaszeg (Rom. Călata), an ethnographical region to the north-west of Kolozsvár. After 1918, however, this entire framework of symbolic geography changed completely, as Transylvania became part of Greater Romania and the hitherto dominant Hungarian community became a minority, in a country marked by a strong trend towards unitary nation-building. The Hungarian elite was profoundly shaken by this development and many of its key representatives opted to settle in Hungary (the most famous case was the emigration of the Calvinist Bishop Sándor Makkai whose choice led to a prolonged debate on minority existence) while other leaders of the Hungarian community chose passive resistance or active irredentism (hoping for the revision of the Peace Treaty of Trianon).

8Emerging in this context, the ‘Transylvanist’ movement sought to reconsider ‘Transylvanianness’ and came to play a crucial role in reshaping the cultural-political strategy of the Hungarians. As the administrative unification and subsequent centralization of the country was received with discontent even among some of the Romanians of Transylvania, who considered themselves to be socially and culturally more advanced than their counterparts from the Old Kingdom, a regionalist discourse, which could transgress national frameworks and accentuate the common interests and cultural similarity of the Transylvanian nationalities offered new perspectives. Kós became one of the main protagonists of this strategy, drawing on previous discourses of Transylvanian peculiarity elaborated mostly by Saxons throughout the nineteenth century, but also going back to the cultural memory of the early-modern Transylvanian Principality. In Kós’ vision, this regionalist ideology was underpinned by a dose of social radicalism. While in Hungary leftwing ideas were completely marginalized after the collapse of the 1919 Soviet Republic, in the context of Hungarian minority politics in Transylvania (as in Czechoslovakia), the leftist and conservative groups were forced to find a modus vivendi, integrating various national, social and regionalist demands.

9Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Kós produced a number of works which were meant to strengthen this Hungarian ‘Transylvanist’ discourse. While not abandoning his interest in the cultural peculiarity of Kalotaszeg, he constructed an alternative narrative, which was meant to forge a symbolic identity encompassing all ethnic communities of Transylvania and stressing the common will of the ‘Transylvanian people.’ This ‘common will’ was based on a shared historical / cultural heritage, while implying the preservation of the ethnic particularities of each community and repudiating forceful assimilation. Thus, he contributed to the formation of a regional discourse of identity, which, while never becoming hegemonic, had a lasting impact on the Transylvanian Hungarian intelligentsia and institutions.

10The book, Erdély, was one of the most important manifestos of ‘Transylvanism.’ According to the author, the book was meant to be a ‘sketch,’ not a historical study. It was written for those who considered Transylvania to be their “only homeland.” The introduction starts with an assertion of the peculiar character of Transylvania, which Kós derives from the combination of natural factors (the closed nature of the Transylvanian plateau), historical processes and “spiritual forces.” These determining factors dissociated him from the ‘ahistoric’ national characterologies that were becoming increasingly fashionable in the late-1920s. It was, in fact, an attempt to create a ‘Transylvanist’ collective characterology which was not based on ethnic peculiarities, but on the cultural and historical convergence of different nations living together.

11Throughout the book, Kós documents this unity in view of the convergences and mutual influences in the art (especially architectural) history of the region, pointing out that under the often conflict-ridden political history of the coexisting national groups, their cultures were influenced by one another. So much so that their cultural identity cannot be assimilated by their ethno-national kin outside of Transylvania. Consequently, in the Conclusion, Kós pleads for an interethnic solidarity of the Transylvanian nationalities, and a program that would represent the interests of the region as a whole, going against the respective nation-building thrusts of Romania, Hungary and Germany.

12This construction contributed to the formation, by the mid-1930s, of a new generation of Hungarian intellectuals, who took the multi-ethnic and multicultural framework of Transylvania seriously. However, the radicalization of Hungarian and Romanian nationalism in the late-1930s, the ‘return’ of Northern Transylvania and the Szekler counties to Hungary as a result of the Second Vienna Award (30 August 1940) and the subsequent clashes aggravated the ethnic conflict in the region and undermined the hopes for a ‘Transylvanist’ solution. As matter of fact, even Kós was tempted by an ideological position, accepting ethnic cleansing. The influence of the ‘Transylvanist’ ideology nevertheless contributed to the emergence of a modus vivendi after 1945, when the emerging Romanian Stalinist regime accommodated a sort of Hungarian ‘national Communism’ in the Hungarian-inhabited parts of Transylvania. This arrangement was gradually abandoned by the Romanian communist leadership from the mid-1950s onwards, driving a significant part of the Hungarian intelligentsia into opposition. While Kós himself did not challenge the regime openly, his patriarchal figure represented an alternative cultural reference in the period of increasing national homogenization.


Transylvania. A sketch of cultural history


  • 1 Rom. Mureş.
  • 2 Rom. Someş.
  • 3 Rom. Târnava.
  • 4 Rom. Câmpia Transilvaniei.

14From a geographical point of view, Transylvania is a single unit, being a plateau sharply enclosed by mountain ranges and surrounded on the West by the Great Hungarian Plains, on the North by the Bukovina Basin stretching into the Dniester Valley, on the North-East and the East by the lowlands of Moldova and on the South-East and the South by the Wallachian flatland (the deep lowlands of the Lower Danube)—that is, surrounded on all sides by low and extensive plains. The interior part of the Transylvanian basin, containing only the lower valleys of the Maros,1 Szamos2 and Küküllő3 rivers besides the Mezőség4 is on average 300–400 meters above sea level, and most of the additional arable lands lie at an average height of 500 meters. In contrast, the average elevation of the Hungarian plains and the Wallachian lowlands is only 100 meters above sea level, and the river valleys of Moldova and Bukovina do not often exceed an altitude of 200 meters above sea level either.

15This enclosed and elevated position of Transylvania predestines the land to be a homogeneous unit economically as well.

  • 5 Rom. Piatra Craiului, a mountain pass traditionally considered the border of Transylvania.

16As for history, it proves that Transylvania is a threshold between Eastern and Western Europe through which every cultural current flowing from the West to the East or from the East to the West has willingly or unwillingly stumbled, and in their stumble they were bound to leave something of behind. From times immemorial, this land has been the melting pot of peoples and faiths, races and cultures, a land in which the terrified remnants of the defeated party from a conflict in one of Europe’s ever blood-thirsty realms would seek shelter. They would be sure to arrive in the area between the Királyhágó5 and the Eastern Carpathians, this wondrous citadel of mighty forests and hidden, remote dales. And if during subsequent times a lucky chance or a new calamity should cause any of these peoples to depart from this land, there would still remain something of them here.

17Despite all human intents, these innate and unalterable features of Transylvania predestine the cultural individuality of the peoples of this land and their dissimilarity from every surrounding culture. […]


  • 6 Kula (Rom. cula) fortified dwellings (from Tur. kule) in the Balkans.
  • 7 Rom. Depresiunea Baraolt, geographical region in Szeklerland, in Kovászna (Covasna) County.
  • 8 Rom. Ţără Bârsei; Ger. Burzenland; the area around the city of Brassó (Rom. Braşov; Ger. Kronstadt (...)

18A thousand years is a long time, even for peoples and cultures. In a thousand years Transylvania has witnessed the wonderful miracle of three peoples and three cultures living their lives alongside and amongst each other in such a way that each of them preserves—because they can preserve—their distinct individuality, while at the same time assuming a common character that makes them different from all the alien yet related peoples and cultures surrounding them. This is how in Kalotaszeg, the Orthodox church in Byzantine style can evolve into a church whose closest kin are the Gothic Hungarian Calvinist churches of Kalotaszeg. The wayside rounded manor of a Romanian nobleman from Vidra is surely more closely related to the Barcsay family mansion, built in a stone-walled enclosure with bastions, than to the fortified donjons, the ‘kulas’6 of Wallachia. It takes an expert’s eye to notice in the houses of the Szeklers of the Erdőmellék7 the subtle but characteristic traits that differentiate them from the houses of the Saxons along the Olt River or in the Barcaság.8

  • 9 Rom. Alba Iulia; Ger. Weissenburg.
  • 10 Rom. Hunedoara; Ger. Eisenmarkt.
  • 11 Rom. Vinţul de jos.
  • 12 Rom. Trei Scaune.
  • 13 Rom. Roşia Montana; Ger. Rotseifen.
  • 14 Alsórákos (Rom. Racoş, Ger. Unter-Krebsdorf), village in Brassó (Braşov) County.
  • 15 Rom. Braşov; Ger. Kronstadt.
  • 16 Rom. Sighişoara; Ger. Schaessburg.

19The cathedrals of Gyulafehérvár9 and Kolozsvár, the castle of Vajdahunyad,10 the Martinuzzi Castle in Alvinc11 are merely the works of the medieval Romanesque and Gothic styles or of the Italian Renaissance. All they have to do with Transylvania is that they happened to be built there, but they could have been anywhere in the world. But the charming Baroque mansions of Háromszék12 and along the Maros River which were built or rebuilt in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the manor-house of the Romanian owners of the goldmine in Verespatak,13 the majority of the Hungarian or Romanian parish churches, the Bethlen Castle in Rákos14 or even the Catherine Bastion in Brassó15 and the ancient belfry of Segesvár16 are all unmistakable and specifically the creations of the Transylvanian psyche.

20Now if we examine and compare Transylvania’s relics of art simultaneously, we cannot help being surprised and frankly convinced by the kinship constantly and consistently increasing in time between the cultural products of peoples so vastly different from each other in race, origins and culture.

  • 17 Ger. Königsboden, historical region in Southern Transylvania, once inhabited by Saxons holding col (...)

21… A thousand years is a long time, even for peoples and cultures, but over these thousand years, none of the peoples and cultures in the land of Transylvania were able to or indeed wanted to refashion the others in its own likeness. From time to time, outside forces did make such an attempt with huge sacrifices but with slight results and without ultimate success. By contrast, it has been an unconscious, constant and never completely remittent aspiration of the three co-existing cultures to assume such common features that render them typically Transylvanian despite their differences, while preserving their own racial characteristics. The Transylvanian Hungarians are not the same as those in Hungary, nor are the Királyföld17 Saxons like the Germans of Germany or the Transylvanian Romanians like those in the Old Kingdom; they differ physically, but they are certainly different mentally as well. And if the Romanians remained Romanian, the Saxons remained Saxon and the Hungarians and the Szeklers, Hungarian, despite their differences, they and all their cultural manifestations are still characterized by a community that is determined, besides the irreversible and eternal natural conditions, by their shared lot and their joint struggles with life. This manifest common feature is the specific Transylvanian psyche that has never been understood, and indeed could not have been understood, by any kinsman of the Transylvanian peoples living outside the boundaries of Transylvania.

22What path the peoples and the culture of Transylvania will take in the future depends chiefly on the Transylvanian peoples themselves. According to the testimony of history, Transylvania has belonged to those people who have identified themselves with this land, this destiny and this psyche, and it shall continue to belong to those who identify themselves with it. The fate of Transylvania has been the most felicitous, its culture has flourished in the richest and fullest manner at the times when its peoples faced and accepted the distinct Transylvanian fate with a united will and enriched it with their distinct Transylvanian intellect. […]

23But whichever people have let Transylvania fall anytime, such peoples and their culture have fallen here in the past and shall irretrievably fall in the future. […]


1 Rom. Mureş.

2 Rom. Someş.

3 Rom. Târnava.

4 Rom. Câmpia Transilvaniei.

5 Rom. Piatra Craiului, a mountain pass traditionally considered the border of Transylvania.

6 Kula (Rom. cula) fortified dwellings (from Tur. kule) in the Balkans.

7 Rom. Depresiunea Baraolt, geographical region in Szeklerland, in Kovászna (Covasna) County.

8 Rom. Ţără Bârsei; Ger. Burzenland; the area around the city of Brassó (Rom. Braşov; Ger. Kronstadt).

9 Rom. Alba Iulia; Ger. Weissenburg.

10 Rom. Hunedoara; Ger. Eisenmarkt.

11 Rom. Vinţul de jos.

12 Rom. Trei Scaune.

13 Rom. Roşia Montana; Ger. Rotseifen.

14 Alsórákos (Rom. Racoş, Ger. Unter-Krebsdorf), village in Brassó (Braşov) County.

15 Rom. Braşov; Ger. Kronstadt.

16 Rom. Sighişoara; Ger. Schaessburg.

17 Ger. Königsboden, historical region in Southern Transylvania, once inhabited by Saxons holding collective privileges from the king of Hungary (hence the name— “land of the king”).


Dávid Oláh (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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