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History and Myth in Romanian Consciousness

Lucian Boia

Chapter five. The Romanians and the Others

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1The “other” is an omnipresent figure in the imaginary of any community. The game of “alterity” is an archetypal structure. In this respect the Romanians are not, and could not be, exceptional. However, two characteristics of Romanian history have contributed to the placing of the other in a specific light: on the one hand, the reactions of a rural and somewhat isolated civilization, and on the other, the massive and uninterrupted impact of foreign rulers and models. The contradictory and complementary action of these two factors has led to a synthesis bearing clear marks of originality.

  • * A word suggestive of a complex of traditional virtues: humanity, kindness, generosity, etc. Trans.

2According to the national mythology, Romanians are by nature hospitable and tolerant. They are characterized to the highest degree by omenie*, a word which was heavily stressed and amplified in recent decades (a process not unconnected to the isolationist tendencies of the communist regime) until it concentrated an almost limitless range of meanings. To be human, in the full sense of the word, came to mean practically the same thing as to be Romanian.

3In fact, it is not the Romanian as such who is particularly hospitable, but the Romanian peasant, and not just the Romanian peasant but the peasant in general. Traditional civilizations are “hospitable”. Townspeople, including Romanian townspeople, are less hospitable than their compatriots in some village lost in the mountains.

4Tolerance, which was already highlighted in the last century by various Romanian authors, likewise arises naturally from the needs of a rural civilization, to which “others”, without merging into it completely, bring diverse and necessary attributes of civilization. Foreigners settled especially in the towns, and for a long time they fulfilled economic and social roles which the Romanians, whether peasants or boyars, only fulfilled to a small extent. The cosmopolitan town thus fitted into the predominantly rural structure of Romanian society and it certainly played its part in the Romanian synthesis, but as a tolerated foreign body. Up until the Second World War an anti-urban mythology was manifested in a whole range of ideologies and projects.

5Hospitality is only one side, the more pleasant one, of relations with the other. While tolerance is laudable in itself, it already puts us on the alert: to be tolerated is not necessarily to be accepted, still less integrated. In any traditional civilization the foreigner is perceived with maximum intensity. A special behavior towards the foreigner, whether good or bad, stands out by the fact that it is special. The more open and urbanized, and thus the more cosmopolitan, a society becomes, the less the foreigner attracts peculiar interest: he is no longer a special case. Westerners seem less “welcoming” than Romanians precisely because for them the notion of the foreigner has undergone a de-dramatization.

6There is no disputing traditional Romanian hospitality. However, it would be incorrect to isolate it from a whole complex of attitudes. It reflects the treatment of the foreigner as foreign. Remaining within the same system of references it has often been claimed that the Romanians do not marry foreign partners (as we have seen, Petru Maior and Mihail Kogălniceanu saw in this refusal the illustration and guarantee of Romanian purity). It has likewise been claimed that the Romanians do not leave their country and cannot bear to live in a different environment. Even when large numbers of Transylvanian Romanians began to emigrate to the United States around 1900, the illusion was maintained that this was a temporary state of affairs which would end in the return of those who had left.

  • 1 Proverbs offer a synthetic expression of traditional opinions. See Zanne, Iuliu A. Proverbele româ (...)

7When Eminescu exclaims “He to whom foreigners are dear / Let the dogs eat his heart”, these terrible words only express the other side of what is essentially a coherent type of behavior. The distinction between us and others is felt strongly, in all senses, for better or worse. In the “traditional” opinion of the Romanians, foreigners more often appear in an unfavorable light, sometimes lamentably so. Folklore provides plenty of examples. For the Romanians, the Bulgarians and Serbs are stupid (”A green horse and a Serb—or Bulgarian—with brains, you never did see”); the Greeks are also stupid, or variously greedy, bad, rude, and haughty; the Hungarians are boastful and fearful; while the Armenians are dirty.1 In fact we find a fundamental rejection, to which tolerance is no more than the complement. Indeed, it can turn to intolerance as soon as the function fulfilled by the foreigner no longer seems necessary, or is felt to be harmful. Such an evolution can be seen both in the nationalist current of the 1930s and in the nationalism of the Ceauşescu period.

8Moreover, “foreign” is a generic term, embracing all those, regardless of ethnic composition, who reflect a system of values other than that generally accepted or imposed. We have seen that for Nae Ionescu the non-Orthodox Romanian was not quite Romanian. The Romanian who came back from the West after 1989, who “hadn’t eaten soya salami”, was not accepted as a Romanian, as a true Romanian, by a far from negligible section of the Romanian population. (In Poland and Hungary, countries in a similar situation to Romania, this did not happen). The communist regime only dramatized the “us/others” distinction even more (whether it was a matter of others within or others from outside). What was foreign, including Romanians “contaminated” by foreignness, took on connotations of maximum alterity. But nor was the opposite tendency completely lacking. The reaction was always in proportion to the pressure. Renowned for their attachment to their native land, the Romanians began, in increasing numbers, to dream of going abroad. Many succeeded in emigrating even before 1989, and after that year Romania provided the largest contingent of emigrants, in relation to its population, in Europe. The stifling nationalist discourse proved its “virtues” by producing the contrary effect to that which its creators had banked on.

9At present, the dramatization of relations with others, partly inherited but to a large extent cultivated by the communist and post-communist authorities, meets with an opposite process of getting to know, integrating, and accepting. Some reactions are still those of a traditional society, perturbed by too much openness. An apparently minor, but typical, example is the endless discussion of, and resistance manifested on, the issue of homosexual rights; the removal from the Penal Code of sanctions which are in any case useless has been seen by many as a campaign to promote homosexuality and another good excuse to demonize the perverted West. But there are significant evolutions in the opposite direction, too. The Romanians who “didn’t eat soya salami” are starting to be rehabilitated; indeed, someone who has made a fortune in the West is likely to be seen as a positive figure. The authorities do not hesitate to recommend some of these to public opinion, in contrast to the discourse of a few years ago: the manipulation of the “Ilie Năstase myth” in the spring of 1996, with his success in the West emphasized more than his sporting glory, is a characteristic example.

10Gradually the Romanians are becoming Europeanized. As time goes on they will become less “hospitable”, but also less “scared” in the face of foreignness.


11The pressure of foreigners from outside and from within, real up to a point but hyperbolized in the national imaginary, generated the besieged fortress complex which is so typical of the Romanian mentality of the last two centuries. The history of the Romanians is understood in strictly conflictual terms, as a continuous struggle for ethnic and state survival. The “struggles against the Turks” were powerfully imprinted on the national consciousness; and once they were over, the privileged role of “hereditary enemy” was taken up by Hungary. As always, history chooses and forgets, amplifies and minimizes. It would be just as correct, and certainly more realistic, to observe that, beyond the Romanian-Ottoman and Romanian-Hungarian antagonism, the Romanian lands were integrated for centuries in the Ottoman system, or in the Transylvanian case in the Hungarian space and more generally in that of Central Europe. Such a de-dramatization of the Romanian past and its treatment in a structural manner, less event-centered and warlike, comes up against tenacious prejudice and the remarkable functionality of the myth of the struggle for independence. This fulfills the threefold mission of highlighting the virtue and heroism of the Romanians, justifying their historical late-coming in terms of the sacrifices imposed by ceaseless aggression, and, finally, attracting the attention of the West to its debt of gratitude towards the Romanians who defended it from the Ottoman onslaught.

12The image of a West protected thanks to Romanian sacrifice and a Romanian society strained and held back by fulfilling the function of defender of European civilization has become deeply ingrained in the political vision of the Romanians, in their behavior and their reactions. The West has a debt which it has not yet repaid. The Romanians should receive, not give. In view of this debt, any failing of the West is perceived as betrayal. Whatever goes badly in Romania does not result from any wrong orientation or bad management on the part of the Romanians; others are to blame—the others who preyed on us, and the others who did not rush to our aid when it was their duty to do so.

  • 2 Brătianu, Ion C. Acte şi cuvîntări (Documents and speeches). Vol. 4. Bucharest: Editura Cartea Rom (...)

13I quote from a speech delivered in Parliament by I. C. Brătianu on 25 February 1879: “We were the advance guard of Europe from the thirteenth century until very recently; we were the bulwark of Europe against the Asian invasions of the past. The European states were able to develop then because others sacrificed themselves in order to shelter them. It is for this reason—despite the ancient remains of Romanian civilization—that we have only recently embarked on the way of modem civilization.”2

  • 3 Panaitescu, P. P. “De ce n-au cucerit turcii ţările romane?” (Why did the Turks not conquer the Ro (...)

14Even a historian like P. P. Panaitescu, who was little tempted by nationalist mythology and demagogy, claims the following: “It is known that the Romanians delayed the Ottoman advance towards the center of the continent. This delay did not only mean, as our historians have said, a weakening of the offensive power of the Turks, which was worn down by the resistance at the Danube. It allowed Western Europe to take up the struggle at a much more favorable time, with other weapons and another military organization.”3

15With the lack of responsibility characteristic of national-communist demagogy, new images were projected and inserted into the national consciousness, according to the principle: “You can say anything as long as it is patriotic.” Thus the battle of Rovine—about which we know nothing for sure—is said to have saved the Western world. Some teachers call up before their pupils the image of a West which was able to erect its cathedrals precisely because the Romanians were fighting at the same time on the Danube. Others go even further, claiming that this resistance even made possible the discovery of America! As far as America is concerned there is not much to be said, but things are fairly clear in the case of the cathedrals, which were mostly built well before the foundation of the Romanian states.

16In fact, Romanian resistance was not continuous: a few episodes and phases can be picked out, but not enough to hold the Turkish forces on the line of the Danube for centuries. In any case, these struggles only affected the flank of the Ottoman advance. Anyone who looks at a map can immediately see (as Romanian historians seem not to have done for a long time) that the Turkish advance into Central Europe had nothing to do with the Romanian territories; they are completely peripheral to its main axis. This was proved (if there was anything left to prove) by P. P. Panaitescu himself in his 1944 article “Why did the Turks not conquer the Romanian lands?” The answer to this question lies, substantially, in the fact that the Turkish armies advanced along the line Belgrade—Buda—Vienna. The shortest road to Vienna did not pass through Tîrgovişte, still less through Suceava.

17The struggles of the Romanians against the Turks did not save the West, and nor did they irremediably impoverish Romania. The divergent evolution of the West and the East is not to be explained by wars or foreign domination. Nor is the backwardness of Romanian society to be explained in terms of its inefficiency, or, to put it more directly, the “laziness” of the Romanians, which some are tempted to set against tales of heroism and ceaseless struggle, thus responding to one mythology with another mythology. Quite simply, the Romanians belong to an entire zone of Europe which has remained behind. In antiquity, the East was more prosperous and dynamic than the West. Around the year 1000, Byzantium boasted a civilization richer and more refined than Western Europe. Then everything swung the other way: the principal axis of history shifted towards the West, and then towards the Northwest. Wars stained the West with blood no less than the East. But they did not prevent it, divided and torn as it was, from constructing a new technological civilization and becoming master of the world. There were dominated peoples in the West too, but the fact of foreign rule did not prevent social and material evolution. The Romanians were not in the “right” zone of Europe; that they entered the modern period with a handicap is not something that calls for either praise or blame.

18Where it becomes a matter of blame, however, is when this handicap starts to function as an alibi, as a permanent excuse for failures. To say that history is pulling you down is incorrect. At a certain point in the middle of the crisis of the Ceauşescu regime someone started to “calculate” the enormous sums which foreign overlords owed Romania as a consequence of the robbery they had practiced throughout history. It was, of course, a diversion. It was not because the Romans had stolen the gold of Dacia that Romanians did not have enough to eat in the 1980s, but because the communist structures were aberrant and the economic policy misguided. History does not mark out a fatal pathway. Around 1900, Sweden was a country of peasants, a poor country with massive emigration; half a century later it had become one of the richest countries in the world. South Korea is nowadays a great economic power, while the level from which it started a few decades ago was much lower than that of Romania. At a time when the crucial issue is the construction of a Romania that performs effectively, Romanians ought to sacrifice less on the altar of historical mythology. Neither the invocation of their ancestors nor reproaches addressed to others will be of any use to them.


19The break with the East, for which the nineteenth-century elite opted, took the form of a massive devaluing and inculpation of peoples and cultures which had hitherto offered the Romanians more models than motives of lamentation.

  • 4 Murăraşu, Dumitru. Naţionalismul lui Eminescu. 1934. Bucharest: Editura Pacifica, 1994, 118

20The first victims were the Greeks. After 1821, and especially on the eve of the revolution of 1848, a virulent and almost obsessive anti-Greek attitude crystallized, which was to be manifest for a number of decades and which can only partially be explained by the real circumstances of the Phanariot period and the revolutionary episode of 1821. The Greeks symbolized the East and several centuries of Oriental culture, which had to be given up now in favor of the benign influence of the West, or, for others, the “Romanian specific”. Bălcescu set the tone in his article “The Romanians and the Phanariots”, in which he underlined the “sorry state” to which the latter had brought the country. Eminescu had a phobia of Greeks: “And if the order and establishment of these lands has been upset, if we have lost provinces, if we have discarded good old customs with ease, if corruption and cowardice have entered the classes of old Romanian society, in every case the source of these evils will turn out to have been a Greek, or a handful of Greeks.”4

  • 5 Drâghicescu, Dumitru. Din psihologia poporului român. 1907. 2nd edition. Bucharest: Editura Albatr (...)

21Nor does Drăghicescu, in his attempt at a psychology of the Romanian people, appear much more conciliatory. He admits that the Romanian aristocracy became cultivated and acquired a dose of refinement through its contact with the Greeks. Overall, however, their influence was disastrous. “The most strongly felt inheritances which the Greeks left us, the effects of which we still find it hard to bear today, are the poverty and desolation of the country, the stripping bare and alienation of Romanian fields, and the utter impoverishment of the Romanian population in both lands.” The Greeks also left “something of their duplicity, something of their divisive perfidy, with their envious and corrupt equivocation, their lack of worth and their flattery coupled with the well-known sick pride of Byzantium. If the public spirit here suffers from these same moral diseases, then they have their origin in the moral rottenness of corrupt Byzantium, for with them we have been intoxicated by the Greeks who came here, driven by the Turks from fallen Tsarigrad.”5

22So here we have the real culprits: the Greeks and only the Greeks! Around 1900, however, this anti-Greek fury began to the down. In 1898 Iorga delivered and published a lecture under the tide Romanian Culture under the Phanariots, in which he attempted to rehabilitate the period, and Romanian-Greek relations in general. It was the sign of a progressive normalization. Subsequently, the Greeks were practically to disappear from the gallery of negative communities. They were simply no longer needed.

23Anti-Turkish attitudes were less vehemently manifested in this period. The separation from Turkey was self-explanatory. As the Turks were “other” in the strongest sense of the word they seemed less harmful than the Greeks, who were Orthodox like the Romanians and had even infiltrated the Romanian environment. Above all, the Turks provided the elements of a series of images d’Épinal, which fed the chronicle of Romanian victories from the Middle Ages to 1877. Turkish domination and influence could only be judged negatively, but, once again, the Greek intermediary seemed even more guilty than the Turkish overlord.

  • 6 Ibid., 262.

24Let us return to Drăghicescu’s text, to identify “the soul poison of the atmosphere of the Orient” which was transmitted to the Romanians from the Ottoman source. “Every Turkish custom borrowed, every Turkish fashion imitated introduced into our ethnic soul the seeds of corruption and idleness, which cause peoples to degrade and degenerate.” If the Romanians are “lazy”, the fault is that of the Turks. As a believer in the principle of “the clothes making the man”, Drăghicescu especially denounces the wide Oriental garments that were adopted by Romanian boyars: “The shalwar, which, as is well known, is a pair of very wide trousers, the jacket with long floating sleeves over which was worn another jacket with split sleeves, or the coat with wide short sleeves, all bear the stamp of a life of laziness and indolence. This clothing is deliberately made so as to prevent any sort of activity and to accustom one to an empty life of unending rest and torpor, to a life of sleep and light entertainment. In it, one scarcely feels one is alive [...]. Even if our ancestors had wanted to break with their lifestyle of unconcern, of drowsy torpor and indolence, even if they had wanted to wake up and work, to start something, this clothing would have prevented and discouraged them. With long, wide split sleeves, which get in the way of, and paralyze, the hands, it is quite impossible to be active and energetic.”6

25After the Greeks and the Turks it is the turn of the Russians to fall victim to the same attempt to escape from Eastern civilization. Until almost the middle of the nineteenth century they were generally well regarded by the Romanians. As protectors of Southeastern European Christianity, they appeared for a century and a half in the guise of potential liberators. Around 1815, the Chronograph of Dionisie the Ecclesiarch expresses the anti-Western and pro-Russian attitude of the “middle class”: the good and Christian emperor Alexander was perceived as a protective barrier against the anarchy generated by the French Revolution and the imperial ambitions of Napoleon. Indeed, the first significant stage in the orientation of Romanian society towards the West took place under Russian protection and guidance, during the time of the Règlement Organique and the administration of General Kiseleff (1829-1834), when Romanians came into contact with a Slav aristocracy which expressed itself in French. The Russians seemed well on the way to winning the Romanians’ hearts. What happened subsequently was quite the opposite, however. The 1848 generation set itself more against Russia than against Turkey, and denounced both the Règlement Organique, which was seen as a barrier to progress, and the expansionist tendencies of an empire which threatened to swallow up the Romanian space. In order to converse in French, the Romanians no longer needed, as in 1830, the presence of Russian officers; they preferred to go direct to Paris. Even collaboration with the Russians, which was imposed at times by circumstances, as in 1877-78 and 1916-17, proved frustrating and liable to unforeseen consequences (the loss of the counties of southern Bessarabia in 1878, the lack of any support in 1916, and the disorganization of the front in 1917). It is clear that the cultural orientation of Romania towards the West and in the direction of detachment from the Slav context could only lead to an essential depreciation of the Russian model and of relations with Russia (in spite of the fact that, structurally speaking, Romanian society, being predominantly rural and highly polarized between a rich aristocracy and a subject peasantry, was closer to the Russian than to the Western model).


  • 7 On the Western model, and especially French and German influence, see my study “Sur la diffusion d (...)

26The ground thus cleared was rapidly taken over by the French myth. This had, of course, its antecedents, going back to Phanariot times. But contacts with French culture prior to 1830 were sporadic and largely indirect, through Greek and, as we have seen, even Russian connections, and they cannot be equated, or even compared, with the scale of the phenomenon which broke out in the period between 1830 and 1848. Once launched on the road of Westernization, the Romanian elite threw itself into the arms of France, the great Latin sister in the West. When we speak of the Western model, what is to be understood is first and foremost the French model, which comes far ahead of the other Western reference points.7 Annexed to it is the model of Belgium, a small country, partially Francophone, monarchical, neutral, democratic, and prosperous, which offered Romania a French-style model that was in some respects better adapted to its own condition. The constitution of 1866 was an imitation of the Belgian constitution of 1831, and the expression “the Belgium of the East”, frequently used in the second half of the nineteenth century, illustrates an interesting political myth: the illusion of a Romania destined to become, in every respect, a replica of Belgium at the other end of the continent.

27To see what the French myth meant in Romanian society, we have an impressive number of testimonies from which to choose. Here are two of these, which carry things to a point beyond which it would be hard to go (a point hard to imagine nowadays, despite the relative survival of Romanian Francophilia).

  • 8 Drăghicescu, Dumitru. op. cit., 81.

28In 1907 Dumitru Drăghicescu arrived, by way of a subtle argumentation, at the conclusion that there was no nation on earth more perfect than the French nation and no intelligence more complex than that of the French. The French had reached the highest point that other peoples will reach in an indefinite future: “As the nations of Europe acquire their definitive borders and their social life becomes elaborated and crystallized within the precise limits of these borders, so their spiritual accomplishments will approach those of the French, and the immaterial substance of their souls will take on the luminous clarity, the smoothness and brilliance of the French mentality.”8

  • 9 Brătianu, I. C. op cit. Vol 1,31-32.

29Half a century before this impressive characterization, in 1853 to be precise, I. C. Brătianu addressed a memorandum to Napoleon III. The Romanian politician pleaded for the union of the principalities and sought to convince the emperor that this would be a “French conquest”: “The army of the Romanian state would be the army of France, its ports on the Black Sea and the Danube would be entrepôts for French trade.” Brătianu then goes even further, and even if we treat the memorandum as a text written to further a precise political aim in the circumstances of the time, the words still remain as they are: “France”, he writes, “will have all the advantages of a colony, without the expenses which this implies.” France was “our second homeland”, and Romania destined to become its colony.9

  • 10 Argetoianu, Constantin. Pentru cei de mîine. Amintiri din vremea celor de ieri (For those of tomor (...)

30Even in 1914, by which time there had been considerable evolution in the direction of Romanian cultural and political autonomy, a number of politicians still showed a visceral attachment to France, deeming that Romania should enter the war not to serve its own interests but to defend the threatened civilization of France. I quote from the memoirs of Constantin Argetoianu: “Lahovari and Cantacuzino—especially Cantacuzino—also wanted immediate entry into the war [...] and they wanted it only for the love of France, which could not be left to perish, as if its fate lay within our power! In their sincerity they hardly mentioned Transylvania, the making whole of the folk, or Michael the Brave, abandoning all the arguments of a national character which drove almost all of us to be against the Central Powers, and calling for entry into the war ’pour voler au secours de la France’!”10 It was not in vain that Brătianu had promised that “the Romanian army would be the army of France”.

  • 11 Eliade, Pompiliu. “Introduction”. De l’influence française sur l’esprit public en Roumanie (On Fre (...)

31At the end of the nineteenth century, in De l’influence française sur l’esprit public en Roumanie (1898), Pompiliu Eliade argued that Romania owed its whole modern civilization to France. Before French influence the Romanian lands “did not exist for civilization”, nor did they “exist for history”. Thanks to France we can see “not the rebirth of a people, but its birth”.11 This opinion, flagrantly exaggerated as it is, bears witness to the contemporary obsession with France. But it is no less true that the French myth did play an important modeling role. Within a generation, starting immediately after 1830, French imposed itself as the language of culture, permanently eliminating Greek, while Oriental costume gave way to Parisian fashion. Young Romanians set out for Paris; for more than a century France would provide or influence the training of the greater part of the intellectual elite of the country. You could not be an intellectual without a reasonable knowledge of French (which was a compulsory language in all eight years of high school until the communist education reform of 1948). French political, juridical, and cultural structures and institutions were borrowed to a considerable degree.

  • 12 Maneca, Constant. Lexicologie statistică romanică (Romance statistical lexicology). Bucharest, 197 (...)

32Even the Romanian language underwent a considerable evolution under French influence, a process of modernization leading to the elimination or marginalization of part of its Slav and Oriental component and to what might be called a “second Latinization”, largely through the massive adoption of neologisms of French origin. It has been calculated that 39 percent of current Romanian vocabulary consists of borrowings from French or has French as the first language of reference (the second being Latin), and that the frequency of such words in use is 20 percent.12 Thus in everyday speech one Romanian word in five is of French origin.

33The capital of Romania became, in its turn, a “Little Paris”. As with any myth, here too there is a mixture of truth, exaggeration, and illusion. Despite a number of Parisian-style buildings from the last decades of the nineteenth century, Bucharest as a whole does not resemble Paris. Something of the Parisian lifestyle characterized the behavior of an elite, and certain comers of the Bucharest cityscape acquired a Parisian atmosphere. However, the greater part of the population lived far from the French model. On the other hand, the “Belgium of the East” and “Little Paris” were powerful symbols, which shifted Romania, in as much as it could be shifted, in the direction of Western civilization, just as “Dacia” and “Michael the Brave” contributed, also through their symbolic charge, to the achievement of national unity.


34Of course, the West did not just mean France. It is worth noting that, at least until the interwar period, the other great Latin sister, Italy, was the object of much less interest, while relations with Spain remained sporadic. There is also the interesting case of Britain. Some Romanians were fascinated by the British model (Ion Ghica, for example, who served as minister plenipotentiary in London from 1881 to 1890), but they can be counted on one’s fingers. For the Romanians in general, Britain remained a far-off exotic island, and the spread of the English language as a medium of culture and communication came late (paradoxically, under the Ceauşescu regime).

35The French myth was so powerful that there was only room, in the polarizing realm of the imaginary, for a single countermyth, antithetical and complementary: the German myth.

36The position of Germany in Romania was continually consolidated during the half century leading up to the First World War. By the end of this period Germany had become a formidable competitor to France. The factors in its favor were far from negligible. The Romanians of Transylvania and Bukovina were closer to German culture and mentality than to French civilization; Transylvanian intellectuals often read French authors in German translation. In the Romanian kingdom, on the other hand, although clearly overtaken by French, German was the second language of education and culture (with eight years of French and four of German in school). The economic and political weight of the German Empire in Southeastern Europe was more significant than the relatively modest presence of France. In 1883 Romania adhered to the Triple Alliance structured around Germany and Austria-Hungary. The German origin of King Carol I and his indisputable prestige constituted an additional factor in this process of rapprochement.

37Of course, mythical evolutions are never univocal: every myth is closely stalked by its countermyth. So while the German cultural model was dominant for the Romanians of Transylvania, they also looked sympathetically towards France, to the extent of admiring the idealized French model more than the concrete German model. Latin consciousness and solidarity, the national movement which inevitably came up against German interests, and the influence exercised by Romania, all contributed to a degree of equilibrium, at least in the imaginary, in the relationship between these two great Western points of reference. In Romania, too, we can detect a certain slippage in the direction of the “other” model, this time from France towards Germany.

  • 13 Drăghicescu, Dumitru. op. cit., 86, 88.

38After 1866, part of the Romanian elite proved to be sensitive to the virtues of the German model. Its admirers considered that, now that the political effervescence of the mid-century was over, it was time for a new equilibrium and a better thought out and more organized effort. Renowned for its rigor and effectiveness, German culture could offer solutions more appropriate to the aspirations of the Romanian nation than the French mentality, which was accused of superficiality and even frivolity. For some, the disciplined reason and clarity of the French mind were opposed to German cramming: “[...] the German does not have the ordered, harmonious, balanced, and lucid intelligence of the Frenchman. [...] German intelligence has remained confused, chaotic, disordered, and tangled.”13 For others, on the contrary, the Germans were solidly based, while the French were not completely serious. We are, of course, in the zone of highly mythologized representations, with the characteristic polarization between enthusiastic reception and absolute rejection.

  • 14 Caragiale, I. L. Scrisori şi acte (Letters and papers). Ed. Şerban Cioculescu. Bucharest: Editura (...)

39The German myth was the option of a minority, but an influential minority, represented in the first place by the Junimea society, which had a decisive say in the cultural and political evolution of the country towards the end of the nineteenth century. (Even if the majority of the Junimists—like any majority in Romania at the time—had been molded by French culture, it was the “Germanophiles” who set the tone of the movement.) A great cultural personality like Titu Maiorescu, a politician of the stature of P. P. Carp, and the greatest Romanian poet, Mihai Eminescu, all belong within this current. On French civilization, and especially on the effects of Romanian contact with France, Eminescu expressed himself with his usual sincerity: “In Paris, in brothels of cynicism and idleness / With its lost women and in its obscene orgies...” (”Episde III”). Like Maiorescu, Eminescu had a German cultural education. The most remarkable case, however, is that of Caragiale, who, despite having no knowledge of German, decided in 1904 to settle in Berlin, where he remained until the end of his life. His wish was to live in a civilized country, and that could only be Germany. His confrontation with the incurable Francophile Barbu Delavrancea, who was disgusted at everything around him and all that happened during his visit to Berlin, is a delicious anthology piece, a typical illustration of the Romanians’ view of the Western world.14

  • 15 Kogălniceanu, Mihail. Opere. Vol. 2, 609.

40In 1891 Kogălniceanu did not hesitate to state, in an address to the Academy, that “All my life, as a youth and a mature man, I have repeatedly borne witness to the fact that it is largely to German culture, the University of Berlin, German society, and the men and great patriots who accomplished the raising up of Germany again and its unity, that I owe all that I have become in my country, and that it was from the fire of German patriotism that the torch of my Romanian patriotism took its flame.”15 With his political flair, Kogălniceanu, who really owed just as much to French as to German culture, sensed that the hour of Germany had come!

  • 16 Boia, Lucian. op. cit., 55—56.

41Up until 1914, the position of Germany as a molder of Romanian elites continued to advance. It was already threatening French supremacy in certain areas. In 1892, forty-two professors of the University of Bucharest had studied in France, and only eight in Germany; by 1914 the equivalent figures were sixty-two and twenty-nine.16 The ratio had gone from five to one, to two to one. Disciplines like philosophy, history, and geography already owed more to the German universities than to the French. The past cannot be remade, but we may still ask ourselves how far this German influence would have gone if the First World War had not intervened to put a decisive stop to it, after providing both Germanophiles and Francophiles with an occasion to manifest to the full their enthusiasm for one or other of the two competing models.

42The gulf created by the war—in which Romania, seeking national unity, found itself in the opposite camp to Germany and suffered an oppressive German occupation—made it difficult for relations to continue as before. The intransigence displayed by Nicolae Iorga deserves comment. Before the war, the historian had been very close to the German historical school; his “anti-French” action of 1906 (aimed in fact at the protection of Romanian culture) had enhanced his not entirely deserved reputation as a “Germanophile”. But as soon as war broke out Iorga’s choice was unequivocal, determined of course by strictly Romanian motives in the first instance, but to a certain extent also by a pro-French and pro-Latin sensibility which now came to light. “Why do we love France?” is the tide of an article which he published on 17 August 1914, when France seemed almost beaten. Iorga writes:

  • 17 Iorga, Nicolae. Războiul nostru în note zilnice (Our war in daily notes). Vol. 1. Craiova: Editura (...)

That we love France is beyond doubt, although it is now, they say, defeated by Germany. Just as it is beyond doubt that we respect and admire Germany, although it has, they say, defeated France. [...] But why do we love France? Because our whole upper class has adopted its fashions and luxuries? Perhaps, where that class is concerned. Because we are Latins and we read in French? To a large extent, yes. But above all, for all of us, the non-diplomats, it is for a third reason. What does Germany want? Dominance in Europe, for its national economy, for its political power. What does Russia want? The same dominance in Europe, and if possible even more. What does Britain want? To keep its control of the seas and the gains this brings. What does Austria-Hungary want? To strengthen and advance Hungarian ambitions in the Carpathians and the Balkans. But what does France want? It wants to live. It wants the French state and the French nation to live. To keep its lands and its rights. To avenge its honor.17

  • 18 Ibid. Vol. 2, 170.

43A splendid page of political mythology! Two years later (on 26 September 1916), Iorga did not miss the chance to stir up the “Latins who are not interested”, in other words, the Spanish: “The war which France began without a program of conquest, without any greed for foreign lands or any selfish ambition to grasp from others their hegemony over the world, has been joined by Italy, then Portugal, and finally Romania. Today the Latins are pouring out their blood together.”18 Spain stood accused for not taking part in this brotherly outpouring of blood—although it basically was not in any of its interests to do so. We may note that after the war, Iorga, the “false Germanophile” before 1914, was to refuse systematically any contact with Germany and with the German academic community.

44In the Romanian political imaginary, therefore, the interwar period meant progress for France and a withdrawal of the German model. There can be no doubt that these evolutions were relative, given that, on the one hand, the autochthonist wave and the maturing of Romanian society in general limited and filtered elements from outside, especially from French culture; and on the other, even though diminished and unable to offer a coherent model, Germany retained a significant weight. German was still the second foreign language after French; young Romanians continued to study in Germany; and on the eve of the Second World War the Romanian extreme Right, although sprung from autochthonous soil, discovered certain affinities with Nazi ideology. The position of Britain (the great Western ally alongside France) was rising, though cases of “Anglophilia” remained limited to a few individuals. More significant was the rise of Italy, which took its place beside France as a place for the education of elites, especially in the human sciences, not to mention the existence of certain sympathies with Mussolini’s sociopolitical solutions.

45Thus we can see that there were a variety of Western models on offer, as well as the no less present autochthonous model, which was affirming itself more and more strongly, in spite of its nebulous character (Orthodoxism, traditionalism, peasantism, etc.).


  • 19 The installation of the Soviet myth is discussed at greater length by Adrian Cioroianu: “Lumina vi (...)

46What took hold, in the end, through the unexpected turn of history, was the Russian model once again, reworked in the communist mold. Around the middle of the century the myth of the Soviet Union blotted out every other cultural reference point. Light comes from the East, the title of a propaganda brochure published in 1945 by Mihail Sadoveanu, who had gone over to the side of the new orientation bag and baggage, illustrates the profound sense of the change.19 Romania was turning its eyes from the West to the East. What is striking, this time too, is the radicalism of the Romanian solutions of imitation. The French model, the autochthonous model, and the Soviet model were all, in their time and for their adherents, veritable religions. In 1866 the Romanians could think of nothing better than to copy the Belgian constitution; in 1948 they copied the Soviet one. This spirit of imitation highlights the fragility and instability of Romanian society, always looking for reference points that could be easily mythologized. It could, of course, be argued in reply that communism was imposed all over Central Europe by the simple advance of the Soviet steamroller. But this does not alter the fact that the new model was more faithfully adopted in Romania than in the other satellite countries. It can be argued that Romania was a defeated country, but so was Hungary. Moreover, not only was there no attenuation of the Soviet model after the relative “breaking free” from the Soviet Union: it was on the contrary, consolidated.

  • 20 For the industrial mythology of communism, including the obsession with engineering, see Boia, Luc (...)

47As in the Soviet Union, the multiparty system disappeared completely in Romania (it was maintained partially and as a matter of form in the other communist countries). All that remained was the Communist Party. Very similar methods of repression were experienced, including the notorious Danube-Black Sea canal, a reproduction of the Soviet canal labor camps. The subordination of the church and the virulence of atheistic propaganda reached levels similar to the Soviet Union, such as were not seen in Catholic or Protestant communist countries. The collectivization of the land was almost total, as in the Soviet Union. Heavy industry was likewise constituted on pure Soviet lines. Here we are at the heart of the communist mythical approach, with its emphasis on heavy industries more characteristic of the nineteenth century than the late twentieth—iron and coal, steel, cement—capable of rapidly transforming economic structures, covering the country with factories and furnaces, raising a numerous working class out of almost nothing, and forcing the process of urbanization, regardless of any principle of efficiency and viability. The mythological sense of this sort of industrialization is even more evident in Romania than in the Soviet Union, for the simple reason that the resources of the country were not suited to such a project. Thus Romania became, after the Soviet Union, one of the largest producers of steel in the world. The annoying difference was that the great neighbor could base its steel industry on immense deposits of iron and coal, while Romania had to import them (from India, Canada, or Australia!) in order to satisfy an ideological fantasy. The preeminence of the proletariat—a requirement of the communist myth—was also translated by an orientation of intellectuals towards technology, towards production. The myth of the engineer was promoted, a myth of Soviet provenance but taken to its peak in Romania. In the later years of the communist regime two out of every three graduates were engineers, an absolute world record (compared with about 50 percent in the Soviet Union and a mere 7 percent in France and the United States).20 Thus it can be seen that the Soviet model was followed down to the smallest detail and even outdone in some respects.

48After 1964 the Romanian communist leaders embarked on an apparently independent policy. Some superficial observers were prepared to believe that if the Soviet model was not being abandoned it was at least being adapted. All the more so as the history and traditions of the country were—albeit in a partial and distorted manner—restored to their proper place, and certain traditional relations with the West were renewed. It was a deceptive appearance. The real structures remained those of Soviet communism. In 1989, at the end of Ceauşescu’s rule, Romania was closer to the original Stalinist model than to the Soviet Union itself, which had been set in motion by Gorbachev, not to mention more evolved communist societies like Hungary or Poland. What was added to this model was a considerable dose of Oriental mythology. This was the moment when China became a “traditional friend”, as did North Korea. The “cultural revolution” launched in 1971 was not identical in its objectives and its scale with the Chinese phenomenon, but they shared certain common characteristics (the calling of intellectuals to order, in the first place). At the same time, the systematic destruction of Bucharest and its rebuilding as a “utopian city” has its correspondent, and certainly its model, in the reconstruction of P’yongyang, with one difference: the North Korean capital had been flattened by American bombardments, while the Romanians set out to destroy the “Little Paris” themselves.

49In as much as Bucharest today looks more like a “post-communist city” than a replica of Paris, it can be appreciated that the impact of the Soviet myth was much greater than the influence of the French (or generally Western) myth. Its transforming action went deeper, radically modifying social structures, the landscape of the country, and the lives of the people. The explanation may be found in the massive character of the crude pressure exerted, in comparison with the slower and more nuanced operation of the mental and cultural mechanisms through which the influence of the West had made itself felt. From this point of view the Soviet myth was a false myth, borne rather than shared, in contrast to the Western myth that had seduced generation after generation. But that is not quite how things stand, even if violence essentially explains the transformations which took place. Wary as I am of the trap of mythologizing, I do not intend to claim that the Romanian people in its entirety was won over by communism, nor that the Romanian people in its entirety showed no adherence to communism. Every myth has its believers, its unbelievers, and those who remain indifferent. Moscow, like Paris, had its admirers and imitators. Force alone cannot radically change a society; there must be an element of belief and an element of participation. While the elite of the nineteenth century looked towards the West, in Romanian society around the middle of twentieth century there were sufficient dissatisfactions, frustrations, and complexes to turn other segments of society towards quite different points of reference. This could be recognized after 1989, when a large part of the population were reticent about breaking with communist structures and mentalities. The return to power of ex-communists in the majority of the Central European countries only recently liberated from communism demonstrates that the phenomenon is a more general one. The welfare state, social uniformity (even if only in appearance), a guaranteed right to a job, and many other things which I shall not list here, are elements of a mythology that it is dangerous to say some people did not, and do not still, believe in, simply because we do not believe in it!

50On the other hand—and here again we see the complexity of mythical configurations—the failure of communism, especially in material terms, generated a new process of the mythologizing of the West and indeed of the whole non-communist world. In their relative isolation from the rest of the world the Romanians could invent stories at will. However, the mythical West generated by Romanian communism was different in its nature to the West of the nineteenth-century elite. What counted then was above all the cultural model. What the West offered under Ceauşescu was, more than anything, the products of consumer civilization. For Romanians deprived of the most basic goods, things received “in a package” (second-hand goods, sometimes even damaged) became a symbol of Western-style well-being. After December 1989 it was a surprise to find “stockpiles” of completely banal products (coffee, cigarettes, soap) in the possession of leading members of the communist nomenklatura. The packet of coffee and the Kent cigarette illustrated the virtues of Western civilization: it is a significant degradation of the myth, which had descended to the lowest level imaginable. And there was a further degradation: the myth of the West became the myth of “abroad” in general—all that is foreign is good (in a predominantly material sense). Many Romanians no longer make a clear distinction between Istanbul and Paris. It would be worthwhile studying the impact of the Arab micro-society which existed in Romania in the 1970s and 1980s. The thousands of Arab students who came to Romanian universities precisely because they could not afford to study in the West were able, in an impoverished and isolated country, to play the role of a “middle class”, sufficiently cosmopolitan and financially endowed to dynamize the various segments of Romanian, society with which they came into contact (by dealing in foreign goods and currency, corruption, prostitution, etc.). Foreigner became a generic term, the ultimate expression of the mythologizing process.


51Since 1989 a reorientation towards the West can be clearly felt, although it is held back by the resistance of the autochthonists, whose aim, explicit or implicit, cannot be other than to keep Romania in the East. The apparently high percentage of those who currently adhere to the European idea must be interpreted with great prudence. “Entry into Europe” does not mean the same thing to everybody. Many think of the advantages, especially from a material point of view, but prefer to ignore the structural transformations which such an orientation imposes, the need to rethink political and cultural reference points, and the inevitable limiting of national sovereignty. They continue to hope for a Romania integrated, but at the same time “untouched” in its perennial values.

52Polls taken immediately after the revolution placed France in the first place in the “Western imaginary” of the Romanians, with the United States close behind. The survival of the French myth—even if it no longer has its former strength— seems to be characteristic of Romania. Here French is, or was until recently, in the first place as a language of culture and communication: a unique situation in a Europe dominated by the English language. But English is well on the way to overtaking it, if indeed it has not already done so. The United States is starting to overtake France in terms of what it offers the Romanians by way of a social and cultural model, and in terms of its effective presence in the Romanian space. Communism “preserved” the French myth; now, in an open world, it will find it hard to resist the massive infusion of American mythology (which can be found at all levels, including everyday life, from American music and films to Coca-Cola and McDonalds restaurants). It is to be expected that Germany will return in force; having been inculpated after the war and then completely evacuated from the Romanian mythical complex, it now has all the necessary credentials to reaffirm its traditional influence in Central Europe. In geopolitical terms at least, Romania does not lie between France and the United States, but between Russia and Germany.

53Various other reference points were also invoked in the years after the revolution. On the part of the authorities there was no shortage of clever and hope-inducing references to the Swedish, Austrian, or Japanese models. Those nostalgic for communism follow with satisfaction the current Chinese model, which would appear to demonstrate that authoritarian political and social principles are compatible with a free economy. A new reference point is South Korea, all the more attractive as it combines the image of explosive development with the reality of a massive presence in the Romanian market. Less often invoked, but very visible, is the Turkish model. Turkey is coming back in force to the space formerly dominated by the Ottoman Empire: such a performance by the poorest of the European nations that did not experience communism says all there is to say about the good work done by the communist system. Istanbul is not as far away as Paris, and the general appearance of Bucharest brings it closer nowadays to the condition of a “little Istanbul” than the “Little Paris” of former days.

54Reference points, models, myths—we are far from a clear option. Indeed, this is a normal phenomenon. In the course of a century and a half the Romanian nation has been traumatized by three great ruptures: the break with the Orient, then the break with the West through the installation of communism, and finally the break with communism and a hesitant return to the Western pattern. All of these have imposed the presence of multiple and contradictory models, charged with giving sense and coherence to an endless transition. Modem Romanian civilization is essentially a civilization of transition: hence both the feverish search for what others can offer and the fear of what might be lost by contact with others; hence, therefore, the amalgam of fascination and rejection, in other words, the obsession with the foreign.


55When the “other” is to be found within the citadel, he often presents more features of difference and stimulates to a greater extent all sorts of unease than the “other” outside. In such cases the process of mythologizing can go very far. This is what has happened, and continues to happen, in the Romanian environment, with three specific ethnic groups: the Gypsies, the Hungarians and the Jews. Investigations since 1989 have demonstrated that it is especially on them that the frustrations and fears of the majority population are projected in varying proportions.

  • 21 The first representative text is Mihail Kogălniceanu’s Esquisse sur l’histoire, les mœurs, et la l (...)

56According to the polls, approximately two-thirds of Romanians do not like Gypsies. This rather high proportion is suggestive of a veritable psychosis, and offers all the ingredients of a political myth. Many things are blamed on the Gypsies, from the insecurity of everyday life (murders, robberies) to the damaging of the country’s image abroad. In particular, their appreciably growing demographie, and more recently also economie, weight arouses fear. Their number, officially a few hundred thousand, is amplified by public opinion to the order of millions. Some projections foresee the moment when, due to their high birthrate and the low birthrate of others, Gypsies will come to be in the majority in Romania. The traditional myth of the Gypsy, expressive of a feeling of superiority towards a very different, primitive, and marginal other, but also a certain romantic-humanitarian sympathy and a civilizing intention,21 is giving way to a mixture of hostility and fear. In these conditions the discourse, which is promoted even on state television, becomes racist, serving to further widen a social fissure capable of generating dangerous situations.

57The Hungarians in their turn “enjoy” the unfavorable opinion of about a third of Romanians. Here, too, the extreme opinions acquire mythical dimensions and manifest themselves with the intensity of a psychosis. Of course, history has its share of responsibility: discrimination against the Romanians and a contemptuous attitude towards them in pre-1918 Hungary could not fail to mark Romanian consciousness, as did the dramatic events which followed the cession of northern Transylvania in 1940. Apart from this, however, the resentments are well maintained politically and are systematically amplified (by both sides, but what we are interested in here is Romanian mythology, not its Hungarian counterpart). Explicitly or implicitly, the Hungarian threat provided an excuse for the Ceausescu regime, as it has done on more than one occasion for those in power after 1989. Internal failures, of strictly indigenous origin, are pushed to the background by imaginary threats, in the face of which the Romanians are urged to be united and to forget their passing difficulties. The Romanians continually hear that the Hungarian lobby is creating international obstacles for Romania, and that Magyar irredentism threatens to tear Transylvania from the body of the country.

58It would be naive to consider that there are no elements of reality at the base of these mythical constructions. The propaganda with anti-Romanian accents produced by certain Hungarian groups, and the agitation which goes on around the issue of Transylvania, are not exclusively matters of the imaginary. Where the myth begins is when Hungary becomes the dominant player to which all important Romanian evolutions are subordinated. It appears in the guise of a great power—which of course it is not—capable of outdoing Romania, a country two and a half times larger and more populous. Transylvania, which, together with the Banat, has an area larger than that of Hungary and a population in which Romanians are clearly in the majority, appears in this context as an amorphous entity, capable of being extracted from the Romanian national whole. Even the history of the Romanians ends up being conceived in such a way as not to concede anything to the Hungarian point of view or affirm anything which might be to Hungary’s advantage. (It is for strictly “Hungarian” reasons that issues like continuity, the history of Transylvania, the relations between the Romanian territories and their unification can no longer be approached with calm professional detachment). Thus, so as not to lose out before Budapest, the Romanians willingly place themselves in the tow of Hungary, becoming dependent on all that is said and done there. An escape from the mythology presupposes awareness of the fact that the destiny of Romania, for better or worse, lies in Romanian hands. Overestimating one’s adversaries provides a convenient excuse, but it does not resolve anything except, at the most, the political interests of the moment.

59From the point of view of adversity, the Jews now stand in a rather better position. Only 13 percent of Romanians, according to the responses in a poll, appear to be anti-Semitic. It is a small proportion, if we think of the “Gypsy” or “Hungarian” psychoses, but large enough if we consider that nowadays the numbers of the Jewish minority in Romania are very reduced. In this case the “archetypal” dimension of anti-Semitism is combined with reminiscences of a history which is closed but recent, and the traditional accusations brought against great international financial interests and against Jewish influence in world politics in general.

  • 22 Iancu, Carol. L’Emancipation des Juifs de Roumanie (1913—1919) (The emancipation of the Jews of Ro (...)

60The historical relations between Romanians and Jews are highly mythologized in both directions. On the one hand, some authors, usually Jewish, highlight an entire tradition of Romanian anti-Semitism. From this point of view, the killing of the Levantine creditors in 1594, the act which launched Michael the Brave’s anti-Ottoman rebellion, was simply an anti-Jewish pogrom. Romania is reproached for not granting Romanian citizenship to the Jews until after the First World War, an attitude suggestive of fundamental anti-Semitism.22 Finally, there is an insistence on the wave of anti-Semitism on the eve of the Second World War, the massacres in the time of Legionary dictatorship, and the (partial) genocide with which the Antonescu government is charged.

  • 23 Dragan, Iosif Constantin. Istoria românilor. Bucharest: Edi tura Europa Nova, 1993, 267.

61At the opposite extreme there are interpretations from a nationalist-Romanianist perspective, which see the nineteenth-century settlement of the Jews, especially in Moldavia, as a veritable invasion, and the refusal of citizenship as a minimum protection measure for the Romanian organism. Certainly there is no acknowledgement of Romanian anti-Semitism. As for Antonescu, far from exterminating the Romanian Jews he saved them from the fate of their co-religionists in Germany or even Hungary. On the contrary, the Jews are reproached for having got rich unscrupulously at the expense of the Romanians—from this point of view the appetite for gain of Jewish leaseholders could be considered the primary cause of the uprising of 1907—and for their lack of patriotism, that is, their non-adherence to the Romanian national idea. The enthusiasm with which the Jews of Bessarabia received the Soviet invaders in June 1940 is also noted (as a justification for the subsequent repression), and the Jews are made largely responsible, along with Hungarians and other non-Romanian groups, for the installation of communism in Romania and for the harshest phase of Stalinist terror. The idea is expressed by Iosif Drăgan, in a few words with no nuances: “With the support of the Soviet army, Party activists were brought in, under new, Romanianized names, people like Ana Rabinovici-Pauker, Leonte Răutu (Rotmann), Mihail Roller, Silviu Brucan, Teohari Georgescu, Lászlo Lukács (Vasile Luca) and the Bulgarian Borilă, etc. [...] The leadership of the Party was monopolized by these allogenic elements.”23 Far from being persecuted, therefore, the Jews had repaid Romanian hospitality with a mischievous revenge.

  • 24 Volovici, Leon. Ideologia nationalistă şi”problema evreiască”. Eseu despre formele antisemitismulu (...)

62I recognize that it is hard to keep a sense of proportion in a field as delicate and as prone to the temptation of mythologizing as this. On the one hand, it is impossible to deny the existence of Romanian anti-Semitism, or, perhaps more correctly and broadly, of a perception of the Jews as a being invested with a high degree of otherness. The range is very large, from fundamental and violent anti-Semitism to a note of understanding and even sympathy, but sympathy for an “other” who is compartmentalized in a distinct position. Even E. Lovinescu, who promoted literature written by Jews, and G. Călinescu, who took the risky step in 1941 of giving Jewish writers considerable space in his History of Romanian Literature, saw in them an element capable of enriching the national culture, but no less a race apart, with immutable features, quite different from those of the Romanians. The goodwill they showed was goodwill to a foreigner. Before being Romanian, the Jew was still a Jew. I believe that Leon Volovici is correct in claiming that “A ’Dreyfus affair’ in the Romania, of the 1930s, cannot be imagined.”24 In other words, it was impossible to conceive of the basis of Romanian society being rethought only for the sake of integrating the Jews.

63On the other hand, all these attitudes are the result of history, not of any Romanian predisposition. The mechanism which is at work here is one which has functioned, and still functions, everywhere in the world (even in Israel, as is demonstrated by the Arab problem). History shows how difficult it is to harmonize communities of different origins, language, religion, and culture. We have seen what happened in Bosnia, where, seen from a distance, the differences appeared to be minimal. The nineteenth-century expansion of the Jewish population in the Romanian space, and especially in Moldavia and in the urban environment, was considerable. In 1912 Jews made up almost 15 percent of the urban population of the country. In Bucharest the proportion was 13 percent, in Iaşi almost half (42 percent) with similar levels in other Moldavian towns too. It is hard to say where the “tolerance threshold” lies; at the bottom line there can be anti-Semitism without Jews (as is the case in Romania today). The fact that dysfunctionalities and tensions generally result from the interpenetration of distinct communities needs to be taken into account. From a historical point of view, the Romanian-Jewish file is explicable, as is the contemporary Arab-Israeli confrontation (though explanation is not the same as justification). The only way out of the mythology is along a line of historical interpretation—which lifts the blame, historically speaking, both from Romanians and from Jews. Otherwise someone will always be to blame: the Romanians or the Jews.

64With Antonescu, likewise, things lie somewhere in the middle. As in the well-known principle of the half-full or half-empty bottle, which is the same in either case, differences are simply a matter of interpretation. Antonescu cannot decently be transformed into a savior of the Jews. He was an anti-Semite and that fact must be acknowledged. But he was an anti-Semite in a particular context, which also requires to be understood. The history of those times cannot be judged exclusively by the norms of today. And of course, Antonescu’s anti-Semitism did not go as far as Hitler’s. The greater part of the Jewish community in Romania survived. The picture is far from being impeccably clean, but it is not completely foul either.

65Nor is it possible to evade the issue of the role played by Romanian Jews in the first years of communism. Passing the blame onto someone else has unfortunately been a habit in Romania in recent decades. Regardless of the role played by Jews (not all, for there were Jews who were persecuted too), the Romanians have to accept their own history, for which they are, in the first place, responsible: this includes communism, if not so much its installation (though the massive joining up after 1944, including some leading intellectuals, cannot be ignored), then certainly the way in which it was applied. That said, it would be incorrect not to note the significant numbers of Jews (and of other non-Romanians) in the political apparatus and the agencies of propaganda and repression in the Stalinist period. At the beginning of the 1950s, out of the four members of the Secretariat of the Communist Party, only Gheorghiu-Dej was Romanian, in a clear minority compared with those from “minorities” (Ana Pauker, Vasile Luca and Teohari Georgescu). The phenomenon is so visible that an honest historian cannot simply pass over it. The “Jewish” moment of Romanian communism resulted from a combination of at least three factors: the predominantly non-Romanian character of the Communist Party before 1944, the shift to the “center” of a hitherto marginalized community, and the offensive against national values which characterized the first phase of the new regime. We need to leave mythology behind in this respect, too: there can be no general inculpation of the Jews (in comparison to an “innocent” Romanian nation), nor can we remove from the equation an important group of Jews who played an undeniable role in the history of the period. The ideal must be to judge both Antonescu and Ana Pauker by the same standards.


66The mythology of the “other” provides political propaganda with a priceless weapon. Once it is possible to choose anything from history, the historical imaginary becomes a support for disinformation and manipulation. Every nation has its stock of traditional friends and hereditary enemies, which can be revised according to circumstances.

67A significant section of the Romanian population sympathized with the Serb side in the years of conflict in former Yugoslavia. “Pro-Serbism” is largely, though not exclusively, a reflection of the nationalist, Orthodoxist, and anti-Western inclinations present in Romanian society. In support of this completely explicable attitude, however, a quite different argument was invoked: the tradition of Romanian-Serbian friendship, to the extent of claiming that Serbia (or the present Yugoslavia) was Romania’s only good neighbor (a claim actually made by the president of Romania, Ion Iliescu).

68Anyone with a little knowledge of the history of Romanian—Serbian relations knows that that is not quite how things are. I have already mentioned the less than favorable opinion of the Serbs expressed in Romanian folklore. In the period of Austro—Hungarian dualism, forms of collaboration developed between the Serbs and Romanians of Hungary (in the context of the national movement of the peoples of the Habsburg Empire). There had, however, previously been tensions between them, generated in particular by the dependence of the Orthodox Romanians on the Serbian metropolitan diocese of Kadowitz (between 1783 and 1864). In 1848 the Romanians of the Banat protested more against the Serbs than against the Hungarians. What is certain is that the two states, Romania and Serbia, had good relations in the last decades of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth. At the end of the First World War, however, they came close to conflict, the bone of contention being the Banat, which both countries sought to annex wholly or in its greater part. As a consequence, Serbian troops occupied the present Romanian Banat in 1918-1919, where they left less than friendly memories. Even though armed conflict was avoided, the compromise solution—the partitioning of the Banat in two—failed to satisfy either side completely. The interwar period saw close relations within the Little Entente, but with the whole of Yugoslavia, not just Serbia. The statues of the Romanian kings were commissioned from the Croat Ivan Meštrović. After the Second World War communist Romania stood out in its relentless denunciation of Yugoslav revisionism; the “executioner Tito”, with blood dripping from his axe, became a familiar image in the Romania of the 1950s. Then, as the Romanian leaders parted company with Moscow, there followed a normalizing of relations and an ever closer rapprochement between the two countries. No longer the executioner, Tito—who was anyway of Croat, not Serb, origin—became the good friend of Gheorghiu-Dej and later of Ceauşescu.

69These are a few summary points of reference. The balance is inclined towards friendship, but we are far from the perfect clarity invoked in propaganda. In any case, political relations are based less on history than on present interests and affinities. Good relations with Serbia can be promoted without rewriting the past to seem more idyllic than it was in reality.

70A curious double discourse can be heard where Turkey is concerned. On the one hand, the Turks are our old enemies, who invaded us and oppressed us and whom the Romanian voivodes repeatedly defeated in the Middle Ages. But, on the other hand, the Turks have come back now, with capital, goods, and political projects. The contradictory discourses could fuse (the more so as the common history of the two peoples is a matter of collaboration, not just fighting), but they are generally emitted separately: at school, pupils learn about the Romanian-Turkish conflicts, while politicians try to highlight the tradition of friendship between the two countries and peoples.


71The myth of conspiracy is one of the best-known figures of the political-historical imaginary. We meet it, of course, among the Romanians too, and even in aggravated forms, given the already-mentioned complex of the besieged citadel and more recently the impact of communist ideology and behavior, which are particularly sensitive to the theme of the plot from outside or within.

  • 25 Scurtu, Ioan and Constantin Hlihor. Complot împotriva Românici, 1939—1947. Bucharest Editura Acade (...)

72Thrown from one side to the other by the waves of history, the Romanians have more than once felt betrayed and find it easy to believe that there are all sorts of obscure calculations and arrangements set in motion by others at their expense. Plot against Romania is the title of a book which appeared in 1993, and even if the tide turns out to be more radical than the content, it remains representative of a certain state of mind. The authors deal with the events of the years 1940 to 1947, putting the dismemberment of Romania in 1940 and its subsequent entry into the communist sphere, with the confirmation of the loss of Bessarabia and Bukovina, under the sign of an international plot.25 In fact, what happened in 1940 was that the Soviet Union, Hungary, and Bulgaria recovered territories which they had never ceased to claim as their own, while Germany and Italy punished Romania, the ally up until then of France and Britain. It was a national tragedy, but why a plot? For the simple reason that the theme of the plot has taken root in Romanian political culture.

  • 26 See the mythological résumé of the issue in Dragan, Iosif Constantin, op. cit., 255—266.

73The great plot that remains beyond any doubt was set in motion at Yalta by Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill. The “Yalta myth” has penetrated far into Romanian consciousness, and not only in and-Western circles. However, its anti-Western essence is not hard to decipher. Yalta means betrayal by the West. In this light, indigenous communists, and even the Soviets, appear less guilty than the hypocritical West, which, while it promised the Romanians liberty, was secretly selling them to Moscow. In vain Western historians have labored to demonstrate that no deal was done at Yalta with a view to sharing out Europe. Who believes them? The notorious percentage proposed by Churchill to Stalin in October 1944 is invoked: in Romania, Russia 90 percent influence, the others 10 percent; in Greece, Russia 10 percent, the others 90 percent; in Yugoslavia, Russia 50 percent, the others 50 percent; in Hungary, Russia 50 percent, the others 50 percent; in Bulgaria, Russia 75 percent, the others 25 percent. This is the document of betrayal, scribbled by Churchill on a scrap of paper. It is taken to be a real secret agreement.26

74In fact, Churchill was trying to save as much as he could—as significant a Western presence as possible in a region which lay wide open before the Red Army. (By this time Romania was already completely occupied.) A Western presence of 10 percent would have done Romania no harm, compared to the zero which it got in reality. Not to mention countries like Hungary, Yugoslavia, and even Bulgaria, where the West was reserving even more for itself (while Poland and Czechoslovakia were not even under discussion). Moreover, and this is an elementary point, the influence in question concerned the economic, political, and strategic interests of the great powers, not the internal regime of the countries named—unless we want to imagine that Churchill expected Romania to be 90 percent communist and 10 percent pluralist and democratic! The Westerners were naive, without a doubt, but decency obliges us to try to understand what was in their minds. They were thinking in classical, “non-ideologized” terms of spheres of influence. What was to happen on a larger scale in Central Europe was what had happened with Finland. The “Finlandization” of the countries in question would have offered the Soviet Union the guarantee of a strong political, military, and economic position in the zone, without internal structures and normal relations with the West being dramatically affected thereby. Things evolved differently, and the West could not, or did not want to, intervene, but this does not mean that there was a plot or a sellout.

  • 27 A significantly titled book is Titu Georgescu’s România între Ialta şi Malta (Romania between Yalt (...)

75As everything is connected, and the imaginary is surprisingly logical, Yalta has its antithetical counterpart (which even rhymes) in Malta. The 1989 Bush-Gorbachev meeting on the little Mediterranean island is said to have put an end, by means of a new plot, to half a century of communism and Soviet domination in Central Europe. The disintegration of a system which was no longer able to function, and the revolutionary wave of anti-communist movements, seem to count for all too little in face of the archetypal force of the conspiracy myth. The history of the last half century is reduced to two meetings and resumed in the easily remembered catchphrase “Yalta—Malta”.27

76For some, these are episodes in a general campaign of hostility which the “others” bear towards us. In 1993 Dan Zamfirescu published a volume of essays entitled no less than The War against the Romanian People. The Romanians deserved to become one of the great peoples of the world, and if they are not in such a high position today, the fault is not their own (they only have merits) but that of the coalition of forces, visible or obscure, which repeatedly comes together to prevent them. “The plot against Romania” seems to be a historical datum: it is the cross we have to bear.


77Against the aggressivity and unscrupulousness of others, Romanian historical consciousness sets the wisdom and moderation of a people whose only desire is to live in peace. The numerous wars which the Romanians have fought, generally victoriously, have been forced on them, never sought. The Romanians were only defending their ancestral soil or fighting to free Romanian territories that had been subjugated by others.

78The strictly defensive character of Romanian policy became a matter of dogma in the time of Ceauşescu, when, with the absurd minuteness of nationalist-communist paranoia, any word or expression which could suggest even a hint of expansionist thinking was cast out. Thus it was that Michael the Brave no longer conquered Transylvania and Moldavia, but “united” them. Thus Burebista, a great conqueror in his day, now only unified the Dacian tribes of Central and Southeastern Europe. The same logic was applied to Romanian involvement in the First World War, which had previously been labeled an “imperialist war” by communist historiography. If, in the 1950s, Romania could not have been any less imperialist than all the rest, in the later phase it became the protagonist of a just war, alongside other small peoples and countries (Serbia and Belgium), the conflict remaining imperialist only for the great powers. The division between the “good” and the “bad” fits perfectly with communist and nationalist Manichaeanism. It is interesting that Romania’s allies were still in the bad camp, including France, which was likewise seeking to liberate Alsace and Lorraine, and Italy, which had similar aims to those of Romania in relation to Austria—Hungary.

79A small and peaceful people, obliged to defend itself: this is a dominant theme of Romanian historical discourse and national consciousness. On the other hand, however, the modesty presupposed by such a vision generated inevitable frustrations and dreams of expansion, projected either into the distant past or into the future. Insistence on Roman origins proved to the Romanians what Octavian Goga expressed so suggestively:

That they are of an imperial race
From a land far away,
That all the circle of the earth
Was theirs upon a day.

80A glory long past, which could yet be re-actualized in days to come:

A future of gold awaits our country,
And across the centuries I see its rising. (D. Bolintineanu)

81Behind the image of a small country, subject to the vicissitudes of history, there survives in the background of Romanian consciousness the nostalgia of a great destiny, an imperial dream.

  • 28 For the list of emperors of Thraco-Dacian origin see Dragan, Iosif Constantin, op. cit., 46— 47. S (...)

82The role of the “Romanian—Bulgarian Empire”, which for some nineteenth-century historians became more a Romanian than a Bulgarian empire, was to give the appearance of reality to a great Romanian history precisely in the period when documentary sources are almost silent concerning the Romanians. It took only a simple shift from the north to the south of the Danube, and a whole Romanian imperial phase was inscribed in the history of the world. The tactic of claiming Byzantine inheritance goes in the same direction; once Byzantium had disappeared, the Romanians appear as its legitimate successors (the idea behind Iorga’s well-known work Byzance après Byname). Looking further back, it could be demonstrated that later Roman history is also dominated by the Romanian or pre-Romanian element. According to Hasdeu, Philip the Arabian was a Dacian (despite his name!), as were other Roman emperors. The logic of “Romanianizing” Roman history was taken to the extreme (in the opposite direction to Latinism, but with the same Romanian-Roman identification) by Iosif Constantin Drăgan, who discovered an “imperial millennium of Dacia”, illustrated by the fact that no less than forty out of the eighty emperors of Rome were “Thraco-Illyro-Dacians”.28 Finally, let us not forget the Burebista episode, on which communist propaganda capitalized so much around 1980; under his rule a veritable Dacian empire took shape, quite capable of rivaling that of Rome.

  • 29 Laurian, August Treboniu. Istoria românilor. 4th edition. Bucharest, 1873, 425.
  • 30 Hasdeu, B. P. Ioan Vodă cel Cumplit. Bucharest Imprimeria Ministerului de Resbel, 1865, xxi.

83With such an imperial inheritance, Dacian, Roman, Romanian—Bulgarian and Romanian—Byzantine, the Romanians should, in more favorable conditions, have been destined to remake the Latin empire of the East. Some historians heavily underline this possibility, which was repeatedly missed as a result of envy and betrayal. If Michael the Brave, writes August Treboniu Laurian, “had not had to deal with men like Basta, Sigismond Báthory, and Ieremia Movilă, the Turks would have deserted Europe, the Dacian provinces would have taken on a quite different aspect, the Romanians would have raised themselves up even then, and their state would have flourished”.29 Hasdeu expresses himself even more categorically in referring to loan Vodă the Terrible: “Just then, in a little Romanian land, there appeared a prince whom only the blackest betrayal could have prevented from giving Europe a different aspect, founding a new Latin empire in the Balkan peninsula.”30

  • 31 Scriban, Romulus. Istoria economiei politice, a comerţului şi a navigaţiunei României. Galaţi, 188 (...)

84Things become even more remarkable when some writers start to imagine that such a history actually happened! In 1885 a voluminous book appeared in Galaţi, with the tide The History of the Political Economy, Commerce, and Navigation of Romania. Its author, Romulus Scriban (doctor of law in Turin, advocate, professor of political and commercial economy), demonstrated the primacy which Romania had always enjoyed in the East: “[...] the wealthiest state in the East, and the envy of all its neighbors, from the most ancient to the newest.” What the author frequently calls the “Romanian Empire” appears as a unitary state in the Middle Ages, even larger than the modern Romanian state, at a time when “the center of world trade was the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, whose shores were occupied by Romania from the mouth of the Bug to Mangalia, giving it the tide of Queen of the Black Sea”. The domination of the Romanian lands by the Turks is transformed by Scriban into a Romanian-Ottoman “confederation”, which lasted from 1511 to 1877. In other words, the Romanians and the Turks shared their empire. The future can only be an imperial one too, in keeping with the past: “The Romanians aspire to renew the old Romanian empire of the East, to which they have a right as the legitimate successors in the East of the great Roman empire of the whole world.”31 And, as we are in 1885, the year of the colonial conference in Berlin, the theoretician of Romanian imperial power does not forget to call for Romania to have colonies too!

  • 32 Dogaru, Mircea. Dracula, împăratul Răsăritului. Bucharest: Editura Globus, 1995.

85A century later, a few historians are still flirting with the imperial idea. The latest discovery in the field promotes Vlad Ţepeş from the modest rank of Prince of Wallachia to the glittering tide of Emperor of the East!32 Even if it is not true it is “patriotic”, and that is sufficient.

86It is clear that in the modern period Romania sought national unity. This does not mean that there was no room in Romanian politics for intermittent lapses into imperial illusion and a dose of expansionism. The weight of the Romanian-Bulgarian Empire in the historical discourse is associated around 1900 with a very active Balkan policy. This is the period when Romania aspired to the role of principal regional power and arbiter of the Balkans. It is understandable in this context that the Romanian government in 1912 to 1913 could not accept the creation of a greater Bulgaria, which would have threatened Romanian priority. The determining role played by Romania in the second Balkan war, the conclusion of the Treaty of Bucharest, and the acquisition of the Quadrilateral were taken as confirmation of Romanian “hegemony” (consolidated also by the Romanian element in the Balkans, and even, it was hoped at one point, by the installation in Albania of a sovereign related to the queen of Romania).

  • *De la Nistru pîn’la Tisa”: the opening line of Eminescu’s “Doina”. Trans.

87The same tendency to look beyond strictly ethnic borders can be seen during the First World War. The treaty concluded by the Romanian government with the Entente powers provided for the westward extension of Romania to a line lying some twenty to thirty kilometers beyond the present Romanian-Hungarian border, joining the Tisza at its confluence with the Mureş before following it south to its confluence with the Danube, thus incorporating the Serbian Banat. The mythology of natural frontiers came into play here more than ethnic limits (which are, in any case, far from easy to define): “From the Dniester to the Tisza.”* Indeed, there was nothing strange in such pretensions—that was how they thought at the time. France, likewise, was seeking to shift its eastern border to the Rhine, and not only in Alsace, which would have meant the annexation of territories populated exclusively by Germans. Even if there were islands of Romanian population as far west as the Tisza, the space claimed would have brought Romania more Hungarians and Serbs than Romanians.

88The case of Romania in the Second World War is even more complex. The aim acknowledged by Antonescu was the making whole again of Greater Romania, which had been mutilated in 1940. For all that, in the eastern campaign the Romanian troops did not stop at the Dniester. The territory between the Dniester and the Bug (Transnistria) came under Romanian administration. It was, in fact, the bait that Hitler held out to the Romanians to persuade them to give up the lost part of Transylvania (although Antonescu did not see it this way). In any case the “crusade against Bolshevism” sought the destruction of Soviet power and the damming of Slav pressure. In the event of victory Romania would certainly have extended its territory and influence. The expansionist philosophy had been generalized at a European level (with Romania itself falling victim in 1940). It seemed that a new world was being bom, and in this context it was not illogical to believe that perhaps Romania’s time had come—a Romania for which Cioran, expressing long-accumulated frustration, in accordance with the dynamism of a whole generation, had wished “the destiny of France and the population of China”.

89The imperial temptation, I repeat, is not dominant in the Romanian historical-political imaginary, but when its fantasies do occasionally come to the surface they cannot be made to go away by the imposition of a historiographical taboo. Circumstances forced the Romanians to stay on the defensive rather than going after foreign territories. But all this is explained by history, not by any particular spirit of the nations. It is simplistic to divide the world into peaceful and aggressive peoples, and to put ourselves alone in the first category while we push the “others” into the second. It is likewise simplistic to judge the past through the prism of current norms of international law. If Romania at the beginning of the century had pretensions to more territory and influence than it would ultimately acquire, this happened within the framework of the normal political game— everyone was doing the same thing. Why do things have to be forced so that only the Romanians seem to have proceeded differently? As for Burebista, let us allow him to be a great conqueror—it is not this that will damage the image of Romania in the present.


90At this point a theoretical clarification becomes necessary. Two series of arguments have been invoked in the process of the national-territorial restructuring of the last two centuries: on the one hand, an ethnic criterion—“natural” right, or the “right of the peoples” as it used to be put; and on the other, a political criterion corresponding to state configurations which were considered original—historical right. To these may be added geopolitical considerations. The principles in question may be combined, or they may be completely contradictory. Neighboring nations appeal to different arguments, each, in its own way, being in the right before the others. According to historical right, the Sudetenland belongs to the Czech Republic; in terms of ethnic coloring it was German, and so on.

91Modern Romania was built primarily on the ethnic principle, but also, when it seemed opportune, by the use of the other criteria: historical and geopolitical. In the case of the areas ruled by Hungary until 1918, the predominant criterion was ethnic; they had never belonged to Romania or the Romanian principalities, but they were inhabited by a majority Romanian population. In the case of the Banat, as we have seen, the historical argument was also made use of, to support the joining of the whole province to Romania as an indissoluble historical entity, regardless of the predominantly Serbian population of its western part. Bukovina invited a twofold approach: ethnic right in the first place for the southern half, which was indisputably Romanian; but also historical right for the whole—as a part of Moldavia until 1775—allowing the fact that the Romanians were, or had become, a minority in the northern half to be passed over. This combination of ethnic and historical right also applied in the case of Bessarabia. A strictly demographic approach would have left a question mark over the northern part of the province (Hotin) and the southern counties (Cetatea Alba and Ismail), where Romanians were a minority in 1918. In the case of Dobrogea, ethnic motives were only subsidiary—regardless of the official arguments—as were historical considerations (it had been part of Wallachia in the time of Mircea the Old). The determining factors were undoubtedly geopolitical in character (the mouth of the Danube and the Black Sea coast). The annexation of the Quadrilateral was also essentially a matter of geopolitical considerations, as was the demand for a western border pushed, in part, as far as the Tisza.

92The neighbors of Romania used, and still use, similar arguments, combining the ethnic and the historical in their own way. The issue is complicated by the fact that there are many historical sequences which can be valorized in this sense, and by the many modifications which have taken place in linguistic borders and ethnic composition (usually slowly, but sometimes brutally, as was the case with the deportations and displacements of population during and after the Second World War, or more recently in Bosnia). Every nation has its “ideal map”, which does not perfectly match the “ideal maps” of others. Each seeks to consolidate its less obvious rights. As a minority in Transylvania, the Hungarians have come to dream of a remote historical period when the Romanians were not there. Equally, the Romanians, deprived for centuries of a Romanian state in Transylvania, are tempted to separate it retrospectively from the Hungarian crown and from any Hungarian historical and political project and to bring it closer to the two Romanian principalities, integrating it into a general Romanian history.

93As the arguments are of the same order, to an observer with no sentimental involvement in the national confrontations of the region the problem of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania and that of the Romanian minority in northern Bukovina appear in a similar light. In both cases the invocation of a historical right (Transylvania previously belonged to Hungary and Bukovina to Moldavia and later Romania) cannot be used to override the wishes of the present majority (Romanian in Transylvania, Ukrainian in northern Bukovina). All this must be made clear, so that the process of normalizing relations with our neighbors and of European integration will not be blocked by confrontations of a sort characteristic of the divided Europe of yesterday and incompatible with the projected united Europe of tomorrow.

94Of course in some areas where they were formerly in the majority the Romanians have lost ground to the “others”, especially during the last hundred years. This is the case of Bessarabia and Bukovina, and is no less true of the Romanian element in Serbia and Bulgaria. But it must be sincerely recognized that in other areas, and in the same interval of time, the Romanians have also gained at the expense of the “others”. In 1880 the Romanian population of Dobrogea was no more than 28 percent of the total; by the time of the census of 1930 the proportion of Romanians there had increased to 65 percent (not counting the largely non-Romanian Quadrilateral; if it is included the proportion falls to 44.2 percent). A few decades later, in 1992, Dobrogea seemed almost fully Romanianized, with Romanians representing 91 percent of the population. In Transylvania (including all the territories beyond the mountains), according to the 1910 census, Romanians represented 53.8 percent, Hungarians 31.6 percent, and Germans 10.8 percent. By 1930 the proportion of Romanians had risen to 57.8 percent and by 1956 to 65 percent. At present, if we go by the figures in the 1992 census, they represent 73.6 percent (a gain of 20 percent in three-quarters of a century), while the proportion of Hungarians has fallen to around 21 percent and that of Germans to scarcely more than 1 percent, which means that they have almost disappeared as an ethnic reality. There can be no doubt that a process of Romanianization has taken place, in provinces previously characterized by a high degree of ethnic mixing.

  • 33 I have reproduced (or calculated as percentages) demographic data from the following sources: Ione (...)

95The cosmopolitan town, formerly so characteristic of the Romanian space, is also a thing of the past. In 1895, out of 10,419 inhabitants of Constanţa, 2,519 were Romanian, 2,460 Greek, 1,060 Bulgarian, 2,202 Turkish or Tatar, 855 Jewish, and so on. Nowadays Romanians make up 93 percent of the town’s population. At the other end of the country, the demographic structure of Timişoara in 1930 comprised 30 percent Germans, 30 percent Hungarians, and 26.5 percent Romanians. Nowadays, 82 percent of the population of Timisoara is Romanian. Even in Bucharest in the interwar period (according to the same census data of 1930), 20 percent of the population were still of non-Romanian origin; at present 97.6 percent of the inhabitants of the capital are of Romanian nationality. With the exception of the Hungarian presence in a number of Transylvanian cities, and the rising number of Gypsies, the ethnic coloring has become almost pure Romanian, with other shades becoming lost in the whole.33

96The responsibility for such an evolution belongs to the national state. The national state has proved to be assimilatory everywhere (albeit to varying degrees and with varying methods: we cannot equate genocide or deportation with the gradual erosion of minorities). Within the borders of Romania this rule has worked to the advantage of the Romanians; outside, according to the same logic, it has worked against them.

97The self-pity which is so frequent in the discourse of the Romanians is not sufficiently justified in this respect. The Romanians have lost, but they have also won. Others (it is sufficient to mention the Germans) have certainly given up far more. It is probable that, if we add up the pluses and minuses, the Romanians have won more than they have lost. Romanian-ness is today in a stronger position than it was a century ago, and, although within somewhat narrower state borders, it is more homogeneous than in interwar Romania, with its high proportion of minorities.

98It remains, of course, to be seen how the Europeans themselves, in a future united Europe, will judge the process of ethnic and cultural homogenization which has been characteristic of the last two centuries.

The Fourth World Power

  • 34 Boia, Lucian. “Destinul mare al unei ţări mici” (The great destiny of a small country). Miturile c (...)

99National communism introduced a new note into the relationship, apparently hard to reconcile, between the proclaimed defensive spirit of the nation and its aspiration to the status of a great power. As far as the first part of the equation was concerned, the taboo was categorical: the Dacians, and later the Romanians, had never had pretensions to anything that did not belong to them. At the same time, however, Ceauşescu’s megalomaniac policy suggested, and actually made it seem in the eyes of some people, that the dream of greatness which had been nursed by the national subconscious was about to be realized. Neither the times nor the ideology were suited to dreams of empire. Romania could become great not by expansion but by efficiency, by achieving maximum density in a limited space. Thus a small country was transfigured into a great country; a country at the margin of the great political-economic ensembles became a nucleus of the world.34 The all-encompassing process enveloped, at least at the level of discourse, all aspects of the national life and, by its inevitable projection into the past, the totality of the historical process.

100A key role in this project was played by foreign policy, where Romania had to appear to be an indispensable part of international relations, especially as a mediator between the rival blocs (NATO and the Warsaw Pact, China and the Soviet Union, Israel and the Arab states, the developed North and the Third World, etc.). The oppressive demographic policy, in which an increased birthrate was sought at any price, pointed in the same direction: raising Romania among the states of the world by increasing the number of its inhabitants. As far as the economy was concerned, Romania was to become a great industrial power (with fantastic pretensions, such as the prediction that by 1990, some 95 percent of Romanian products would be of world standard and the rest above world standard!). In 1989, agricultural production reached a (fictive) level of 60 million tons, with a per hectare yield far superior to that of any other producer. The urbanization process again placed Romania among the world’s leading nations: the demolition of villages was to make way for settlements of urban type, while, much more conveniently, villages became towns and towns became cities by simple command.

  • 35 Ceauşescu, Ilie. Războiul întregului popor pentru apărarea patriei la români. Din cele mai vechi t (...)
  • 36 Istoria militară a poporului român. Vol. 2, 1986, 39—41. (“The application of the principle of the (...)

101As far as military power was concerned, the application of the principle of “the struggle of the entire people” allowed the Romanian army to be raised to something between 4,680,000 and 6,245,000 combatants35, which would have made it, beyond doubt, one of the leading armed forces of the world. It is interesting to observe that the fictive amplification of the Romanian army was also projected back into history. From a traditional mythology in which the Romanians, although few in number, had almost always succeeded in defeating superior forces, the logic was now reversed. The Romanian nation, though small, had always disposed of powerful armies thanks to the principle of the mobilization of the entire people. From this point of view, Burebista had proceeded exactly like Ceauşescu, which enabled him to raise an army of 200,000 fighting men, a force almost as numerous as that of the Roman Empire (if the improbable figure advanced by Strabo was accepted without the slightest critical reserve). In the Middle Ages, according to the Military History of the Romanian People, the Romanians could count on 120,000 to 140,000 armed men; the non-existence of Romania itself at that time did not seem to have caused the authors any difficulty in calculating the size of the Romanian army, even though part of the total belonged to Transylvania, in other words, to the kingdom of Hungary-According to the same calculations, Hungary could call on no more than 14,000 fighting men, the ratio being, therefore, ten to one in favor of the Romanians. This explained the victories, which were won by small Romanian lands, but large Romanian armies.36

  • 37 Zamfirescu, Dan. Războiul impotriva poporului român. Bucharest Editura “Roza Vînturilor”, 1993, 14 (...)

102In this way the Romanian space was transfigured, acquiring unsuspected densities. Ceauşescu had discovered the recipe for the metamorphosis of a small country into a great power. Some believed him. Among them was Dan Zamfirescu, who does not hesitate to claim that “from the Declaration of April 1964 to the Revolution of December 1989, Romania was indubitably the fourth political power in the world, after Israel (the state and the universally spread ethnic community), the U.S.A., and the U.S.S.R.”37


103Up until now I have talked about the others, and about the relations between the Romanians and the others, from the Romanian perspective. What the others think about the Romanians is outside the scope of this book. All I can allow myself are a few suggestions in order to underline the inevitable discrepancy between the image received outside and the Romanians’ own representation of themselves. It is a haphazard selection, not a thorough study of the issue.

104Leaving to one side Romania deformed by communism and deliberately cut off from Western civilization, let us go back to the years immediately leading up to the Second World War, in other words, to the end of a century of “Europeanization” of Romanian society. At no other time, in its entire history during the last two hundred years, was Romania more integrated in the European family and in the system of European values than it was then.

  • 38 Morand, PauL Bucarest. 1935. Paris: Plon, 1990; Manning, Olivia. The Great Fortune. London: Heinem (...)

105For this period we have the testimony of two, very different, Western writers: Paul Morand, an urbane Frenchman closely integrated in Romanian social circles; and Olivia Manning, a young Englishwoman, withdrawn and frustrated, and consequently little inclined to look favorably on things. The former published his essay-volume Bucarest in 1935, while the latter’s Balkan Trilogy (the first two volumes of which, The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City, are set in Romania in the period between 1939 and 1940) appeared somewhat later, in the 1960s. The first author treats the country sympathetically, while the other cannot conceal her antipathy.38

106What is remarkable, however, given the differences between the two writers, is their fundamental agreement on the character of Romanian civilization. To both visitors, who otherwise have little in common except for the mere fact of belonging to Western culture, Romania presents itself as a country only partially integrated in European civilization, a country of the margins, characterized by a still pronounced store of primitivism, a strange amalgam of modern urban life and rustic survivals. In Bucharest, Paul Morand noted with amusement, Ford automobiles shared the road with ox carts. So much for the “Little Paris”! Olivia Manning sees the citizens of Bucharest as a sort of peasants, some of them authentic peasants and others more evolved peasants, dressed up in city clothes. It is a fluid, insecure world, where nothing is really taken seriously. For Morand, on the other hand, the quite un-Western mentality is a positive quality, a lesson which the Romanians can offer the Westerner: adaptability, indulgence, optimism, the ability to pass through history without caring. The same things only irritate Olivia Manning.

107What we remain with in the end is the fact that the Romanians are perceived as something else (and I repeat, this is their phase of maximum European integration), a people animated by a different spirit to that of the Western nations—a certain “lightness” in living separates them from the responsible seriousness of others. Our autochthonists may rest content: for Westerners, too, the Romanians are different—even if not necessarily in a positive sense—the product and exponents of another type of society. While the West defines itself as an ordered and predictable world, Romania belongs, on the contrary, to a vague and unpredictable space.

108The tale of Dracula fits perfectly with this image. When the famous novel first appeared Transylvania belonged to Hungary, and Count Dracula himself is not a Romanian but a Magyar aristocrat. However, Romania inherited the myth when it acquired the territories over the mountains in 1918. Dracula’s home could not have been placed in the Alps (too close to the heart of Europe), or in Tibet (too far away). The Carpathians offered just the right setting: on the edge of Europe, where Western civilization opens on an already different world. We Romanians represent the first circle of otherness, sufficiently close for our curious configurations and disturbing forms of behavior to be highlighted all the more strongly by contrast.

109Communism in general, and the transforming megalomania of Ceauşescu in particular, deepened both the real gulf and its projection in the imaginary. If even the “Little Paris” of the 1930s seemed “other” to Westerners, what impression can they have of the Bucharest of today, a city dominated by a pharaonic palace and covered in garbage? Anyway, for any self-respecting foreign tourist the principal objectives of a journey in Romania are Ceauşescu’s palace and Dracula’s castle, the great symbols of Romanian singularity. The fog surrounding the December Revolution, the brutal and uncontrolled spasms of an as yet unsettled society, “original democracy”, the incredible assaults of the miners on Bucharest, street children and orphans with AIDS, etc. Here are only a few of the themes which are likely to confirm the prejudices of the foreign visitor.

  • 39 Carrèrre, Emmanuel “En Roumanie c’est-à-dire nulle part” La Règle du Jeu 2 (1990): 152—173.

110I shall cite a few more examples, taken from the French zone, which is considered, rightly or wrongly, to be the least blind to authentic Romanian values. Visiting Bucharest right at the time of the miners’ incursion in June 1990, the writer Emmanuel Carrère remains with the impression of a remote and strange land. The glance he casts from the sophisticated “Latin Quarter” of Paris, giving a perspective in which real distances are amplified even more in the imaginary, is expressed even in the tide of his essay on a country which had astounded him: “In Romania, that is to say, nowhere”.39

  • 40 Camus, Renaud. La Guerre de Transylvanie (The war of Transylvania). Paris: P.O.L, 1996.

111In 1991 another French writer, Renaud Camus, undertook a rapid tour of all the regions of the country, armed with a summary bibliography and a large stock of prejudices. He does not like Romania, he tells us repeatedly and firmly. He does not like the people, but nor does he like the landscape, whether the hills, the mountains, or the plains. What characterizes the Romanians is “mental contusion”. They do not even know their own history. Renaud Camus, convinced that he knows it well, tries to teach them a little during his short stay in Romania.40

112According to the reader’s state of mind, the extravagant impressions of this author may arouse either indignation or hilarity. But the issue is more serious. Once again, it is a question of the perception of Romania, positive or negative it does not matter, as a space of definite otherness, lying outside normal European civilization.

  • 41 Vauréal, François and Laurence Bonfighli. Histoire (History). Under the direction of Robert Frank. (...)

113A school textbook can help us to complete the picture. French pupils in their final year of high school are presented with the political map of Europe in 1924.41 Again the period in question is that between the wars, the time when Romanian democracy was in its maturity. From the French perspective, however, Romania is characterized by “a right-wing authoritarian regime”—like Hungary, in fact, and unlike the democratic societies of the West. Romanian textbooks present Hungary as subject to a fascist-type dictatorship from the coming to power of Horthy in 1920 (which, let it be said in passing, is not strictly true), and Romania as an essentially liberal and democratic country, more resistant than most European states to the assault of totalitarian ideologies. The Hungary/Romania contrast is marked in Romanian historical culture, which makes it all the more interesting that the French textbook puts them in the same category. It is clear that Romania is not recognized as having an authentic democratic tradition; from this point of view, too, the East and the West present different types of civilization.

114Faced with such images—and I do not intend to discuss here whether they are fair, distorted, or untrue—the Romanian reaction goes in two principal directions: either immersion in contemptuous autochthonism (we are different from the others, and so much the better!), or, on the contrary, an amplification and exaltation of all notes of modernity and Europeanism. A more balanced and critical approach would certainly create more bridges between ourselves and the West. Westerners will never convince us that there was an authoritarian regime in interwar Romania, but nor can we convince them that it was democratic. There is a way out of the impasse, which probably also brings us closest to the truth: to take into account the amalgam of authoritarianism and democracy which characterizes the period in question. Mythology operates on a register of contrasts; the only way to attenuate it is by a history of nuances.


* A word suggestive of a complex of traditional virtues: humanity, kindness, generosity, etc. Trans.

*De la Nistru pîn’la Tisa”: the opening line of Eminescu’s “Doina”. Trans.

1 Proverbs offer a synthetic expression of traditional opinions. See Zanne, Iuliu A. Proverbele românilor (The proverbs of the Romanians). Vol. 6. Bucharest: Editura Socec, 1901, 11—14, 23-28, 131-137, 308-310, 429-430; also the articles “Armean” and “Arthur”, in Hasdeu’s Etymologicum Magnum Romaniae, vol. 2.

2 Brătianu, Ion C. Acte şi cuvîntări (Documents and speeches). Vol. 4. Bucharest: Editura Cartea Românească, 1932, 241.

3 Panaitescu, P. P. “De ce n-au cucerit turcii ţările romane?” (Why did the Turks not conquer the Romanian lands?). Interpretări româneşti. New edition. Bucharest: Editura Enciclopedică, 1994,112.

4 Murăraşu, Dumitru. Naţionalismul lui Eminescu. 1934. Bucharest: Editura Pacifica, 1994, 118

5 Drâghicescu, Dumitru. Din psihologia poporului român. 1907. 2nd edition. Bucharest: Editura Albatros, 1995, 252, 256.

6 Ibid., 262.

7 On the Western model, and especially French and German influence, see my study “Sur la diffusion de la culture européenne en Roumanie (xixe siècle et début du xxe siècle)” (On the diffusion of European culture in Romania: Nineteenth century and eady twentieth century). Analele Universităţii Bucureşti. Istorie (1985): 51—69.

8 Drăghicescu, Dumitru. op. cit., 81.

9 Brătianu, I. C. op cit. Vol 1,31-32.

10 Argetoianu, Constantin. Pentru cei de mîine. Amintiri din vremea celor de ieri (For those of tomorrow: Reminiscences from the time of those of yesterday). Vol. 2, part 4. Bucharest: Humanitas, 1991,105.

11 Eliade, Pompiliu. “Introduction”. De l’influence française sur l’esprit public en Roumanie (On French influence on the public spirit in Romania). Paris, 1898, i-xi.

12 Maneca, Constant. Lexicologie statistică romanică (Romance statistical lexicology). Bucharest, 1978.

13 Drăghicescu, Dumitru. op. cit., 86, 88.

14 Caragiale, I. L. Scrisori şi acte (Letters and papers). Ed. Şerban Cioculescu. Bucharest: Editura pentru Literatură, 1963, 19—29: letter of Caragiale to Alecu Urechia, 7/20 July 1905. Delavrancea’s opinion of Germany: “Administration, army, arts, sciences, letters, trams, railways, cabs, waiters, barbers, public, general stores, houses, monuments, food, beer, all, all, all, foolish, stupid, imbecile!”

15 Kogălniceanu, Mihail. Opere. Vol. 2, 609.

16 Boia, Lucian. op. cit., 55—56.

17 Iorga, Nicolae. Războiul nostru în note zilnice (Our war in daily notes). Vol. 1. Craiova: Editura “Ramuri”, n.d, 18.

18 Ibid. Vol. 2, 170.

19 The installation of the Soviet myth is discussed at greater length by Adrian Cioroianu: “Lumina vine de la Răsărit. Noua imagine a Uniunii Sovietice în România postbelică, 1944—1947” (Light comes from the East: The new image of the Soviet Union in postwar Romania, 1944—1947). Miturile comunismului românesc. Under the direction of Lucian Boia. Bucharest: Editura Universităţii Bucureşti, 1995, 68—112.

20 For the industrial mythology of communism, including the obsession with engineering, see Boia, Lucian. La mythologie scientifique du communisme (The scientific mythology of communism). Caen: Paradigme, 1993.

21 The first representative text is Mihail Kogălniceanu’s Esquisse sur l’histoire, les mœurs, et la langue des Cigains (Sketch of the history, the customs, and the language of the Gypsies), 1837 (reproduced in Opere. Vol. 2, 354—385). For an overview of the issue, with a rich bibliography, see Potra, Gheorghe. Contributiuni la istoricul tiganilor din România (Contributions to the history of the Gypsies in Romania). Bucharest: Fundaţia “Regele Carol I”, 1939.

22 Iancu, Carol. L’Emancipation des Juifs de Roumanie (1913—1919) (The emancipation of the Jews of Romania, 1913—1919). Montpellier, 1992. The author considers that Romania was “at the forefront of the countries which professed a systematic state anti-Semitism” (p. 32).

23 Dragan, Iosif Constantin. Istoria românilor. Bucharest: Edi tura Europa Nova, 1993, 267.

24 Volovici, Leon. Ideologia nationalistă şi”problema evreiască”. Eseu despre formele antisemitismului intelectual in Romania anilor ’30 (The nationalist ideology and the “Jewish problem”: An essay on the forms of intellectual anti-Semitism in 1930s Romania). Bucharest: Humanitas, 1995, 208.

25 Scurtu, Ioan and Constantin Hlihor. Complot împotriva Românici, 1939—1947. Bucharest Editura Academiei de Inalte Studii Militare, 1994.

26 See the mythological résumé of the issue in Dragan, Iosif Constantin, op. cit., 255—266.

27 A significantly titled book is Titu Georgescu’s România între Ialta şi Malta (Romania between Yalta and Malta). Bucharest: Editura “Şansa”, 1993.

28 For the list of emperors of Thraco-Dacian origin see Dragan, Iosif Constantin, op. cit., 46— 47. See also the same author’s Mileniul imperial al Daciei (The imperial millennium of Dacia). Bucharest, 1986.

29 Laurian, August Treboniu. Istoria românilor. 4th edition. Bucharest, 1873, 425.

30 Hasdeu, B. P. Ioan Vodă cel Cumplit. Bucharest Imprimeria Ministerului de Resbel, 1865, xxi.

31 Scriban, Romulus. Istoria economiei politice, a comerţului şi a navigaţiunei României. Galaţi, 1885, 73-76.

32 Dogaru, Mircea. Dracula, împăratul Răsăritului. Bucharest: Editura Globus, 1995.

33 I have reproduced (or calculated as percentages) demographic data from the following sources: Ionescu, M. D. Dobrogea în pragul veacului al XX-lea (Dobrogea on the eve of the twentieth century). Bucharest Socec, 1904, 905; Ionescu, M. D. Cercetări asupra oraşultii Constanta (Researches on the town of Constanţa). Bucharest, 1897, 88; Recensâmintul general al populatiei României din 29 decembrie 1930 (General census of the population of Romania on 29 December 1930). Published by Sabin Manuilă. Vol 2 Bucharest: Imprimeria naţională, 1938; Recensămîntul populatiei şilocuinţelor din 7 ianuarie 1992 (Census of population and dwellings on 7 January 1992). Vol. Structura etnică şi confesionalâ a populatiei (Ethnic and confessional structure of the population). Bucharest, 1995.

34 Boia, Lucian. “Destinul mare al unei ţări mici” (The great destiny of a small country). Miturile comunismului românesc. Under the direction of Lucian Boia. Vol. 2. Bucharest: Editura Universităţii Bucureşti, 1997, 19-30.

35 Ceauşescu, Ilie. Războiul întregului popor pentru apărarea patriei la români. Din cele mai vechi timpuri pînă în zilele noastre (The war of the entire people for the defense of the fatherland among the Romanians: From the earliest times until our days). Bucharest: Editura Militará, 1980, 409.

36 Istoria militară a poporului român. Vol. 2, 1986, 39—41. (“The application of the principle of the defense of the fatherland by the entire people led to the creation of an impressive Romanian military power with few equals on the European continent in terms of the number of soldiers assembled.”)

37 Zamfirescu, Dan. Războiul impotriva poporului român. Bucharest Editura “Roza Vînturilor”, 1993, 145.

38 Morand, PauL Bucarest. 1935. Paris: Plon, 1990; Manning, Olivia. The Great Fortune. London: Heinemann, 1960; and The Spoilt City. London: Heinemann, 1962.

39 Carrèrre, Emmanuel “En Roumanie c’est-à-dire nulle part” La Règle du Jeu 2 (1990): 152—173.

40 Camus, Renaud. La Guerre de Transylvanie (The war of Transylvania). Paris: P.O.L, 1996.

41 Vauréal, François and Laurence Bonfighli. Histoire (History). Under the direction of Robert Frank. Paris: Belin, 1995, 11.

© Central European University Press, 2001

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