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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balazs Trencsenyi
Michal Kopecek

Chapter I. Historicizing the Nation: Images of the Past, Continuity into the Present

Speech for the opening of the course on national history

Mihail Kogălniceanu
Traduction de Mária Kovács

Texte intégral

1Title: Cuvânt pentru deschiderea cursului de istorie naţională în Academia

2Mihăileană (Speech for the opening of the course on national history, delivered at the Mihăileană Academy)

3Originally published: Originally published as a brochure in Iaşi (1843), then in the journal Propăşirea (Iaşi), 24 September and 1 October, 1844

4Language: Romanian

5The excerpts used are from Mihail Kogălniceanu, Opere, vol. II., ed. by Alex andru Zub (Bucharest: Ed. Academiei, 1976), pp. 386–389, 393.

About the author

6Mihail Kogălniceanu [1817, Iaşi – 1891, Paris]: historian, politician, and publicist. He was the scion of an old răzeş (free-peasantry) family, and his father held several important administrative positions at the Court of Moldavia. In 1828, under the patronage of Prince Mihail Sturdza (r. 1834–1849), and together with Vasile Alecsandri (1818–1890), one of the most popular Romanian poets of the nineteenth century, he was sent to study at Lunéville and Berlin, where he met Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) and became acquainted with the works of Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886). In 1838 he returned to Moldavia. In 1840 he started editing Dacia Literară (Literary Dacia) and from 1841 Arhiva românească (Romanian Archive). In 1844 he inaugurated the first course on national history at the ‘Mihăileană Academy’ in Iaşi (founded in 1835) and edited the journal Propăşirea (Advancement). During the revolutionary activities in Moldavia in March 1848, he was forced to leave the country. In exile, he wrote ‘The Wishes of the National Party in Moldavia,’ one of the most important documents of the Revolution of 1848 in the Danubian Principalities. He also published a ‘Project for a Moldovian Constitution.’ Between 1850 and 1859 he was an active ‘Unionist.’ In 1859 the Assemblies of Moldavia and Wallachia elected Prince Alexandru Ioan Cuza (r. 1859–1866) as the common ruler of both countries, thus creating the United Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. Kogălniceanu played an important role in the period that followed the unification. In 1862 he delivered an important speech on the land reform in the Romanian parliament, which was followed in 1864 by its enactment as law. After the abdication of Cuza in 1866, Kogălniceanu remained active in politics. In 1868 he became a member of the Romanian Academy. In 1877 he was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs. On 9 May 1877 Kogălniceanu proclaimed the independence of Romania in the Romanian parliament, which was acknowledged after the Russian-Turkish War (1877–1878), by the treaties of San Stefano and Berlin (1878). As a politician, orator, and a cultural leader, Kogălniceanu played an important role in the development of modern Romania. He was not only a leading politician, but also an active historian, collecting and editing a vast amount of historical sources. His historical studies served as foundations for the establishment of a national historiography in Romania, and were incorporated both by nationalist (B. P. Haşdeu, Nicolae Iorga) and critical (D. Onciul, C. Giurescu) schools of Romanian historiography. In political terms, Kogălniceanu was mostly appropriated by the liberal tradition, but he became a reference in many nationalist programs as well.

7Main works: Histoire de la Valachie, de la Moldavie et des Valaques Transdanubiens (1837); Esquisse sur l’histoire, les moeurs et la langue des cigains, connus en France sous le nom de Bohémiens (1837), Despre civilizaţie [On civilization] (1845); Cuvînt pentru deschiderea cursului de istorie naţională rostit la Academia Mihăileană [Speech for the opening of the course on national history, delivered at the Mihăileană Academy] (1843); Letopiseţele Ţării Moldovei [The Chronicles of Moldavia], 3 vols. (1845–1852).


8The period preceding the Revolution of 1848 was marked in the Danubian Principalities (Moldavia and Wallachia) by profound transformations. When the war of Greek independence ended with the Treaty of Adrianople in 1829, Russia secured important provisions for Moldavia and Wallachia. The ‘Divans’ (councils of boyars) became part of the administration, and the princes were now elected by the boyars for a fixed term of seven years. The ‘Divans’ were also commissioned to draw up new constitutions for Wallachia and Moldavia. In 1831 and 1832 Regulamentele Organice (Organic Statutes) were introduced by the Russian occupation (1828–1834), and these sets of legislative acts served as the countries’ first modern constitutions. This tendency towards modernization was visible not only in social and economic regulations but also in the emergence of a new social group which favored progress and development. It became customary for the sons of the new political and economic élite to go abroad to study in Western Europe, especially in France. Russian officers spoke French and introduced French culture during their occupation. Romanians identified with France as another civilization with Latin roots, and were deeply impressed by the French Revolution and the campaigns of Napoleon. Nationalism was among the ideas spread by revolutionary France which greatly captivated the Romanian students. In the 1820s and 1830s they identified with insurgent peoples like the Italians and the Poles, and manufactured similar revolutionary scenarios for their own countries. In turn, public opinion in France became increasingly aware of the claims of national liberation made by Romanian nationalists. The international campaign for the ‘Romanian cause’ also benefited from the improved domestic situation. After the withdrawal of the Russian armies in 1834, the internal situation of the Danubian Principalities stabilized. In 1846 a customs union was introduced between Moldavia and Wallachia, which laid the foundations of a unified market.

9This new generation of Romanian intellectuals argued that in order to create a strong and independent Romanian state two conditions needed to be fulfilled: the internal consolidation of society, by which they meant social and economic reforms, and the creation of a Romanian high culture. If the former objective was assumed to have commenced with the Revolution of 1821 and the restoration of the autochthonous princes, the latter was still in its infancy. Under the spell of Romantic ideas, Romanian intellectuals looked at their native tradition and assumed to have found in the Romanian peasants the necessary ingredients for the construction of a national culture. Codifying and recording the historical memory of the people became as important to the progress of society as the introduction of economic and social reforms. History was portrayed as a truly universal science, the repository of the values of mankind. The creation of a national history was part of the process of creating a national state. Finally, history was seen as shaping the national spirit and culture, and no nation could claim individual existence without an understanding of the past.

10Paradigmatic for the complex interplay of ‘national traditions’ in nineteenth-century intellectual history in Eastern-Europe, Kogălniceanu’s argument about the relationship between historical development and state-formation was largely based on the ‘Preface’ to История государства Российского (History of the Russian State) by the Russian historian, Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin (1766–1826). At the same time, he applied Karamzin’s ideas on the use of history to the Romanian context. A national history, Kogălniceanu believed, was the only way to glorify the heroic past of the Romanians and show them the path towards a prosperous future.

11Two issues preoccupied the authors dealing with the past of the Romanians: historical origins and the glorious conduct of medieval rulers. Without diminishing the importance of these issues for the historical memory of the nation, Kogălniceanu, nevertheless, proposed a different methodology. The nineteenth-century debate about historical origins was not simply a debate about historical sources. It was also about the basis of social order, the source of national character, and the value of civilization. Most of all, the question of origins was one of the most important tasks assigned to the newly emerging discipline of national history. In the late 1840s the predominant answer to this question remained the ‘Latinist’ one elaborated by the ‘Transylvanian School’, which affirmed the ‘pure’ Latin origin of the Romanians. Repudiating the exaggerated views on the Latin origins of the Romanians, Kogălniceanu followed in the tradition of Naum Râmniceanu and argued that, apart from the Romans, the Dacians too played an important part in Romanian ethno-genesis.

12In addition to criticizing the excessive Latinism of some of his contemporaries, Kogălniceanu also suggested that national history should not deal exclusively with the ‘medieval glory’ of the Romanian voivodes. In this respect, Kogălniceanu offered a ‘democratic’ interpretation of the national past: he believed in constitutional government and civil liberties. His ‘democratism’ was not, however, individualistic; instead it gave precedence to the nation over the individual. A national history should include a narrative about the ‘people,’ deemed the source of national consciousness and independence. Kogălniceanu considered that general principles relating to development of history were revealed in the activity and the life of the common people. In this context, the role of the historian was paramount. More than politicians, poets and philosophers, historians—Kogălniceanu argued—were the ones who could connect the past, present and future of the nation in a narrative continuum; they were those who delineated the destiny of the nation.

13Each nation, Kogălniceanu believed, had a historical mission. To narrate that mission, national historiography needed to be based on moral principles. European history was seen as the sum of national histories, with the history of the Romanians being a part of the broader European history. Moreover, Kogălniceanu suggested, the Romanians should be familiar with European history and should learn from the experience of other nations. Accordingly, he offered his course on the history of the Romanian nation with the purpose of familiarizing the Romanian public with contemporary Western developments. At the same time, he signaled the importance of the Romanian contribution to European history. If the task of history was to offer guidance for the present and models to emulate in the future, then the study of the past should not be based on nationalist passions but should aim simply at revealing the truth.

14The relationship between history and the idea of the nation became intricately connected in Romanian political discourse after the revolution of 1848. Kogălniceanu’s programmatic declaration about national history not only marked the beginning of modern Romanian historiography, it also served as guidance to many ideological movements in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Romania. During the communist era, Kogălniceanu’s writings were largely neglected, but there were some attempts to critically evaluate his contribution to Romanian and European historiography, as illustrated by Alexandru Zub’s Mihail Kogălniceanu istoric (Mihail Kogălniceanu, the historian) (1974).


Speech for the opening of the course on national history, delivered at the Mihăileană Academy

16After the contemplation of the world, after the wonders of nature, nothing is more interesting, more noble or more worthy of our attention than History.

17History, gentlemen,—as has been said by some of the most famous authors—is the truthful account and presentation of the accomplishments of humankind; it is the result of ages and experiences. Therefore, it can rightfully be called the voice of peoples who had once been and the icon of past times. Karamzin calls [history] the testament left by ancestors to their grandchildren, to serve them as an interpretation of the present time and as advice for the future. In such an important respect history has to be, and has always been, the most important book of peoples and of each person individually; for each rank, each profession can find in it rules of conduct, guidance in their doubts, information to dispel their ignorance, and encouragement to fame and good deeds. Through history the ruler is assisted in his ambition to do great and righteous deeds, and consequently to live in the future. […] Can we not see that the most outstanding victories, the most worshipped deeds fed each other throughout history? For instance, according to the testimonies of all old historians, the conquest of Asia by Alexander the Great was inspired by his frequent reading of the Iliad. Who does not know that this famous victor always carried on him, in a golden box, the poem of Homer; and what is the Iliad but history in verse, the oldest and most beautiful of all? Without going so far back in time, have we not seen in our own days another Alexander in the person of Charles XII, who awakened his genius to glory by reading the life of the Macedonian, written by Quintus Curtius? Which emperor, which ruler should not be in awe of history, that extraordinary tribunal which will judge them with the same impartiality as the ancient Egyptians judged their kings who had passed away?

18The lawmaker, the statesman learns from history the deeds of rulers, their strengths and weaknesses; the diverse governments under which they flourished, the laws that influenced power, culture, and the morals of the people for better or for worse. The soldier finds in history the most righteous and truthful things about strategy; the writer and the philosopher discern in it the advancement of the human spirit, its wanderings, the discoveries of genius and the reasons for ignorance, superstition and darkness. The common person, when reading history, finds in it comfort for present evils; it shows him that through a sad fatality there has never been perfection in the world, virtue has almost always been persecuted in life, and the reward has most often come only after death. Who should not forget pain and discontent, when history shows that citizens able to rule the whole world were the victims of tyranny, and quite often at the hands of their own compatriots? We must forget our own misfortune when we see that Socrates was forced to swallow poison from the hand of the Athenians themselves; that Aristides was subjected to ostracism, for the very reason that he was called ‘the righteous,’ and that Cato committed suicide so as not to see his country in slavery. It is impossible for someone, inspired by such examples, not to strengthen his character, not to wish to imitate the most outstanding men, sacrificing himself and craving for the common good. […]

19History in itself can show us, like a wide panorama, the kingdoms of past millennia; it makes us spectators of the series of battles and revolutions that have taken place since the beginning [of time]; it unearths our ancestors and shows them to us alive, with their virtues, passions, and traditions. [History] connects us to eternity, establishing communication between the past and us, and again between us and our offspring, with whom it shares our deeds. Besides all these, history has another precious feature: that it enables us to justly judge the facts of our contemporaries, whom we do not have the courage or the ability to know rightly.

20The study of history, gentlemen, has always been the major preoccupation of thinkers. However, it has never had the importance it enjoys today. [In old times] only soldiers and philosophers […] tasted it. Today, however, wherever a nation is somewhat developed, history is good for all walks of life. In France, the peasant, seeking to rest in the evenings after the toil of the day, reads by the side of the fire about the great reforms of the Constitution and the magnificent conquests of Napoleon. In Prussia I have often chanced to see a worker of the land at rest, reading in the shadow of a tree, about Frederic the Great! This fortunate popularity of history is due to two things. The first is that today any citizen has the right and duty to be concerned about state affairs, anyone may desire to know what are the national rights gained by our ancestors and how to protect them; and where can a person find them better presented than in history? The second reason, and the major one, is the discovery of the printing press. Thanks a thousand times to him who discovered this art, the one that most disseminates and preserves things, without which history would never have acquired the universality that it enjoys today. I cannot adequately demonstrate to you how much the lack of this important discovery threw confusion in tales, uncertainty and darkness all over. This shortcoming, gentlemen, is the reason why, among the Romanians, even among the more outstanding ones, there are so few who know history. Here the printing press is not yet so free and widespread; we do not have any universal history published in the national language yet; and why should I speak of universal history, when the very annals of the history of our country lie in darkness, preserved in the form of manuscripts only, of which— because of the scribes—you cannot find two the same. Despite all these [obstacles], the printing press would be the safest and the most rapid means to reach the level of civilization of European society. […]

21If history, especially the history of mankind, is so interesting in terms of its results, how much more so should be the history of our country, the place where we first saw the light? Before the nation people have always loved their family, before the world they have loved their nation and the portion of land, whether large or small, where their parents lived and died, where they were born and spent their childhood years that never come back, where they felt the first joy and the first manly pain. I feel this feeling, and I do not know any nation, or people, however savage, that does not have it. I would move too much away from my subject if I set out to give you examples of this; they are numberless. […]

  • 1 Costache Aristia (c. 1800–1880), poet, actor, professor of Greek and French in Bucharest.

22You will find a Romanian in me, but never one that contributes to ‘Romanomania,’ that is, the mania of calling ourselves Romans, an obsession that is in vogue today, especially in Transylvania and with certain writers from Wallachia. Petru Maior […], in his book about the beginnings of the Romanians, published for the first time in 1812, like a new Moses, revived the national spirit, which had been dead for over a century; we owe him a great deal of the patriotic impulse which has since appeared in all three provinces of the old Dacia. Nevertheless, he had the misfortune of calling to life a rather numerous school of new Romanians, who—failing to support their words with actions—think that they attract the respect of the world when they shout out loud that they descend from the Romans, that they are Romans and therefore the first people on earth. This mania has reached so far that some people even boast as ours the deeds of the old Romans, from Romulus to Romulus Augustus. Thus, in an epic poem, Mr. Aristia,1 whom I esteem as the fine translator of a part of the Iliad, exalted by an enthusiasm little befitting a Roman, calls Longinus, the Roman soldier who pierced the side of Our Lord Jesus Christ when He was crucified, a Romanian, and cannot hide his joy that the first Christian was also a Romanian.

  • 2 Ion Heliade-Rădulescu (1802–1872), writer, philologist, politician.

23Let us watch out, gentlemen, for this mania brings upon us the laughter of foreigners. In our present position, the first duty is—as our first quality should be—modesty; otherwise, we deserve what Mr. Eliad2 says, that only bankrupt nations refer constantly to their ancestors […]. Even if we are descended from Hercules, if we are rogues the world will know us as such; on the contrary, if we get rid of demoralization and civic discord, which drive us to peril, we shall approach with more determined steps the path of brotherhood, of patriotism, of a sound, not superficial, civilization, as we have it; then Europe will respect us, even if we are descended from the hordes of Genghis Khan. Therefore, gentlemen, I will not hide from you that our laws, customs, language and beginnings stretch back to the Romans; history asserts these truths with firmness, but let me tell you once again that I am far from gratifying a ridiculous mania by talking to you about the deeds of the Romans as if they were ours. I am going to do something more useful, though; if you really want to be known as true sons of the Romans, I will urge you to do what resembles the deeds of the ruling people of the world. […]


1 Costache Aristia (c. 1800–1880), poet, actor, professor of Greek and French in Bucharest.

2 Ion Heliade-Rădulescu (1802–1872), writer, philologist, politician.


Mária Kovács (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2007

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