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History and Myth in Romanian Consciousness

Lucian Boia

Three Years on: an Introduction to the Second Romanian Edition

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1Only this new introduction distinguishes the second edition from the first. Much could have been added, modifications and refinements could have been made, but I considered that the text ought to be left unchanged, just as I saw fit to write it three years ago. All the more so as the book has become almost a classic: I have the feeling that it is no longer really my property any more. So I shall rely on this introduction to say all that I have to say about the book, its history, and the historical and cultural controversies to which it has given rise.

2In writing it, I was convinced that I was laying myself open to attack on many fronts. I had had a foretaste only a short time earlier, when, together with my students, I published the collection Romanian Historical Myths in a limited print-run at the Bucharest University Press. The armed forces television program Pro Patria (now discontinued) did me the honor of making a veritable “soap opera” out of the issue, which was broadcast at peak viewing time on the national television channel. Military and civilian commentators outdid one another in talking about me (in my absence) in less than pleasant terms. I had struck, it would appear, at the foundations of national ideology and Romanian identity—by relativizing what my accusers “knew” full well to be the one and only history of the nation. Just one more step—and a short one at that—and it would have been a matter of high treason. The military had become a tribunal of historiography: what could be more telling both for the confused state of Romanian democracy and for the contempt in which professionalism was held? Some newspapers gave me a similar treatment. The students, too, had their share of troubles at the hands of certain professors—scarcely to the credit of the latter. I realized then what it means to find oneself isolated in such a situation, even in what I must recognize was a self-cultivated isolation. Adversaries are usually quicker off the mark than supporters. The fact is that at the time no one leapt to my aid. And I must confess that I had not expected such an uproar. My aims had been purely professional; I had never sought to gain cheap publicity or to scandalize public opinion. I was caught red-handed in my own naivete: I should have known—it was, after all, the very thesis I had always propounded!—that history cannot be isolated from society, from ideologies and politics. So much the better: I now had the opportunity to test the degree of social sensitivity to history by my own experience.

3Life is full of surprises. One of the least expected—for me—was the exceptional reception which the present book enjoyed on its first publication in May 1997. It became the favorite topic of discussion in intellectual circles. Its praises were sung by personalities of the highest standing in Romanian culture. It was clear that it responded to a deeply felt need. Something was not quite right with the history which had been taught for generations. But what, exactly? It was, of course, the task of a historian to identify the ideological pitfalls in our reconstruction of the past. When people speak about history they are really speaking about the present, about themselves. However, the book had reached even further than I intended. It was not just history that was under discussion but Romanian culture as a whole, and the Romanians’ sense of who they were. Among the many reviews the book received, which repeatedly highlighted the novelty and the necessity of the project, I was particularly impressed by Mircea Iorgulescu’s article in Dilema (15-21 August 1997), under the tide “At last!”. The critic insistently repeats these same words: “At last.” “At last”, he stresses, “we have the first radical and systematic critique of the Romanian culture of today.” Less enthusiasm was shown by historians (with a few exceptions, mainly among the younger generation), and it is easy enough to see why. A relativistic perspective on history, according to which history is inevitably seen from the present and is impossible to separate from the social and cultural environment in which it is produced, is not the sort of thing likely to delight professional historians. They would rather believe in a scientific and objective history—something with which to justify their own professional status. All I ask them to do is to explain how it is that this scientific and objective history is always different. I am not the one who makes history relative! History is relative: all I am doing is noting the fact.

4The most curious thing, however, was the almost complete absence of the sort of attacks which had been so frequent a short time before. I am not sure if it was entirely to its advantage, but the book was met with much praise and very little controversy. When hostile voices could be heard at all they were timid and isolated, perhaps because of a general strategic withdrawal after the elections of November 1996, which had deprived the forces of aggressive nationalism of the levers of power that they had previously held. Will there be a belated reaction after the elections of 2000, I wonder? Such politicization is, in any case, the last thing I want; I wrote an honest book about history, not a partisan intervention.

5The critical success I have mentioned was matched by the book’s success with the general public. Four successive print-runs of 9,000 copies, which sold out in two years (a considerable figure for the Romanian book trade), are proof that History and Myth has itself entered into “Romanian consciousness”. I am glad the book has been successful; it remains for me to get used—though I doubt I ever shall—to being a “public figure”, a strange role which I do not, and never did, desire for myself. Out of the same reticence I appear on television as seldom as possible. Would it not be wonderful if we could separate the book from the author!


6It is not for me to assess the extent to which History and Myth had an unleashing role. I like to think that I did not write in vain, and that at least a few of the new historical-cultural approaches of the last two or three years can be traced back directly or indirectly to the book. Perhaps I have put an end to a state of innocence and raised questions which can no longer be avoided.

7I have followed with interest, and often with amazement, the career of the word myth, a word rarely encountered before 1997, which has slipped rapidly from the cover of my book into fashionable circulation, at the risk of a veritable inflation and a pronounced unscrupulousness in the way it is used. Demythologizers are now in full swing. Against them, no less active and vehement, are arrayed the upholders of national mythology, in whose vision the myths express our Romanian essence and are to be left untouched. This new line of defense is an interesting one. Of course, there are still intransigent upholders of an unblemished Romanian historiography, in which everything is true and nothing is mythical. More subtle minds, however, do not dispute the existence of a dose of mythology: they just say that it is not a good idea to demolish it! Such an attitude is no longer scientific: it is almost mystical.

  • 1 Simion, Eugen. “Mit, mitizarc şi demitizare” (Myth, mythologizing, and demythologizing). Curentul (...)

8“The hunting down of myths”, writes no less a cultural authority than Eugen Simion, president of the Romanian Academy, “is a risky activity, because myths are part of the cultural identity of the nation.”1 Are we to understand that we do not need intelligent historians—that patriotism is sufficient? To mix things up even more, there is an easy slippage from “myth making” to “mystification”, and vice versa. Thus Eugen Simion sums up my argument in a spirit which I do not recognize as my own: “In short, the history of the Romanians would appear to have been abusively mythologized, and, by mythologizing, mystified. What is needed is to demystify it and judge it lucidly…”

9We ought, however, to make a distinction between the two words and concepts. Mystification is a crude process (though it can sometimes be an efficient one), which has nothing to do with the subtle substance of myth. Mystification is a matter of lying, deception, and deliberate misinformation, while myth is something quite different, defining or illustrating a great belief which animates a people. It is, of course, possible to mystify on the basis of certain myths—to take advantage of what people like to believe, of their prejudices, hopes and illusions— but it is not permissible to confuse the two concepts. I for one do not waste my time hunting down lies: I try to unravel the great mythical tendencies which are inherent in the human soul and in the consciousness of communities.

10None of those who have written in the last few years about myths, demythologizing and demystification have sought my opinion, and indeed there is no reason why they should. I am not, and I do not aspire to be, the leader of a school. I am responsible only for what I write and for my own ideas. For this reason I feel the need to make two things clear.

  • 2 Boia, Lucian. Jocul cu trecutul Istoria între adevăr şi ficţiune. Bucharest Humanitas, 1998.

11Firstly, the adaptation, deformation, and mythologizing of history is inscribed within a universal typology. There were those who believed that I had identified it as something peculiar to the Romanians! Hence some were furious—how could the Romanians be treated with such a lack of respect!—while others rejoiced—at last someone was showing the Romanians the mistakes they had made and the right way forward. Both sides should have been more moderate in their sorrow or joy. It is not just the Romanians who treat history this way: everybody does it. So, to avoid any confusion, and to carry the idea through to the maximum degree of generalization, a year after History and Myth I published Playing with the Past: History between Truth and Fiction.2 It would be a good idea if the two books were read together, perhaps in inverse order of their publication.

12Secondly, I do not recall using the concept of demythologizing. I would like it to be clearly understood that I have not declared war on myths. For a long time I have been dealing with the imaginary—not only, or even primarily, with the Romanian historical imaginary—and I am well aware that we cannot live outside the imaginary and mythology. It is this that makes us human, rather than animals or robots. Never for a moment did I propose the abolition of myths: all I wanted was for them to be interpreted historically. I know we cannot live without myths, but nor can I, as a historian, justify my existence if I do not try to understand. Some may say that a myth once interpreted will crack and crumble. So be it, but what are we to do then—stop interpreting? Once again, do we want an intelligent history or (to speak euphemistically) an unintelligent one? And are we really incapable of looking from two points of view at the same time, both “poetically” and rationally? Must we sacrifice our intelligence to save our poetry? Can we not keep both?

  • 3 Stefănescu, Alex. “O jucărie la moda: demitizarea”. România Literară (21—27 October 1998).

13In an article entitled “A Fashionable Toy: Demythologizing”3, the critic Alex Stefãnescu presents the case against rational research into myths, while at the same time apparently putting all attempts at demythologizing under the sign of my method: “The historian Lucian Boia has rapidly made a name for himself by submitting the myths of history to an analysis lucid to the point of cynicism.” The argument is that we cannot rob people of their illusions. I would urge him to relax a little: no one will ever succeed in robbing people of their illusions! Love, too, is an illusion, explains Alex Stefãnescu, so why not accept it as such? Of course we accept it—indeed we do!—but does the author of the article think that the physiological and psychological aspects of attraction between the sexes are not to be spoken of? Are we to tear pages from the anatomy textbook? Do we throw Freud’s works in the bin? This is how Alex Ştefãnescu would have it with the “thousand-year unity” of the Romanians: even if there was no such thing in fact, it exists for us, and that is sufficient. So what are historians to do: knowingly tell a lie, lest they awaken the Romanians from their beautiful dream? I do not share the demythologizers’ intolerance of myths, but nor can I understand the anti-demythologizers’ intolerance of an absolutely normal scientific project.


  • 4 For the demythologizing of the poet, see the highly controversial issue of the weekly paper Dilema (...)

14Spirits got heated almost to incandescence around the figure of Eminescu. It is true that no other Romanian myth carries a higher emotional charge than that of the national poet. He is perceived not only as a poet of unparalleled value—which would already be claiming a lot—but as a symbol of the Romanian nation, the supreme, concentrated expression of Romanian-ism. It is no use—or is it?— saying that he was not seen this way during his lifetime and that perhaps he will no longer be seen this way at some point in the future. The myth was the creation of the period around 1900, and, like any myth, it produced a transfiguration, which may or may not correspond to the sensibilities of today or tomorrow. A rather puerile, and certainly unfair, game is played around Eminescu. Some try to find all sorts of flaws in him, intellectual and even physical, while others cannot agree to bring him down by even a single step from the heights of the myth, and seek to convince us that we have no right to break away from Eminescu.4 I gave my point of view in an interview in the Chişinău periodical Sud-Est (1-2/1999). Perhaps it is worthwhile reproducing the relevant passage here:

Where Eminescu is concerned, there are two aspects to consider. There is Eminescu the poet, and there is Eminescu the ideologist. Many of those who are revolted by the “attacks” on Eminescu are admirers not of his poetry but of his ideology. It is an autochthonist and xenophobic ideology. In fact this is no fault of Eminescu’s. He was not, strictly speaking, an ideologist. He had the right to have any ideas, but these need to be related to the cultural and political context of his period, not glorified or condemned from our late-twentieth-century perspective. As an ideologist, Eminescu was “discovered” by the nationalist wave after 1900. And nowadays he is still promoted by nationalists. It is a manipulation: this is what the national poet said, so this is absolute truth before which we must all bow down. On the other hand, there is the poetry of Eminescu, which has no need of ideology to be admired. However, it remains to be seen what the future will bring. I, personally, am a great admirer of Eminescu—the poet Eminescu, not the ideologist. I believe I can feel his poetry, and I know many of his verses by heart. But I sometimes wonder if my generation is not the last really to savor Eminescu. Tastes evolve. The day young people no longer recite his poems by moonlight (and perhaps that day has already come), Eminescu will remain a great name in the history of Romanian literature but he will no longer be among us. It is stupid to say that this must not happen. What will be will be. Paradoxically it may be that Eminescu the ideologist will stand up better to time than Eminescu the poet: there will always be nationalists to wave him as a banner.


15The tendency to see things in black and white is not a specifically Romanian one. This sort of polarizing is a feature of the imaginary in general. But the more conflictual a society—and the Romanian society of today is highly conflictual—the greater the risk of extreme solutions, without half measures. The interwar years and the communist period—that is, recent history, in relation to which interests and ideological options are manifested directly—are fully at the mercy of such contradictory assessments and are obsessively invoked as mythological models.

  • 5 An interesting collection of articles on this theme can be found in Dilema (27 November—3 December (...)
  • 6 These strongly traditional features of a society still insufficiently in gear with modernity are i (...)

16The years between the two world wars continue to be discussed endlessly.5 Was this the golden age of Romania, of Romanian culture, of Romanian democracy? Or, on the contrary, a society which, behind the façade, concealed a serious backwardness and all sorts of deviations from democratic principles? The opposing judgements are both just and unjust at the same time. Romania then was Romania then. The world then—everywhere—is no longer the world of today. Interwar Romania, with all that was good and bad in it, can no longer be a useful model. But over-severe critiques are also out of order. They define present options and err in their lack of historical sense. Deficient democracy, nationalism, and anti-Semitism are characteristic of the period in general, not of Romania in particular, and it is not fair to judge such dysfunctionalities or attitudes exclusively in relation to current norms (which are themselves more ideal than effective). Romania at the time was a contradictory society: on the one hand there was an elite of European character (thought not completely free of autochthonous reflexes and prejudices) and a modern cultural and institutional framework, and on the other, an indisputable historical time lag in the deeper reaches of the country, in spite of a relatively sustained rhythm of modernization (a proportionately large rural population, a low literacy level, and traditional demographic patterns: a high birth rate, a high mortality rate, and the highest rate of infant mortality in Europe).6 This “primitivism” of deeper Romania was what justified and permitted the authoritarian deviations. It was also the base on which Romanian communism was constructed and the source of many of the latter’s aberrations: the almost complete disappearance of a too small elite, of cultural and political traditions, and of a whole way of life, the uprooting and manipulation of disoriented masses. Out of all these contradictions of the time, as with those of our own time, only multiple and contradictory images can result.

17It is the same with communism. Some condemn it with no appeal, but there are also attempts at rehabilitation, if not global (everyone at least pays lip service to democracy and repudiates communism as a system) then segmental, on the principle that “it wasn’t all bad”. (If we put together all the segments which have been “rehabilitated” by one group or another—from cultural life to industry or international politics—it would seem that more things were good than bad; indeed we might ask ourselves why communism fell at all.) It would be an illusion if we were to imagine that the majority of Romanians rose up in 1989 against communism as a system—from philosophical motives, as it were. They rose up against the consequences of communism, refusing to go on accepting the total degradation of their conditions of life. And nowadays these same people are no longer ready to accept poverty out of love for democracy. According to opinion polls, at least half the Romanian population consider that they had a better life before 1989. Such nostalgia is fed not only by poverty but also by lack of adaptability to an open society (as proved by the fact that we find it also in the eastern part of Germany, which is far from poor). A correct intellectual approach ought to dissociate the historical and moral judgement of communism from an assessment of people’s attitudes to communism. It is one thing to arrive at the conclusion that it was an immoral and harmful system, and quite another to consider that all Romanians would have made the same judgement. There was indeed an anti-communist resistance: some would minimize its importance or even dispute its existence, while others, in contrast, give it a greater significance than it really had. There was also, even without open resistance, a degree of intellectual and individual non-adherence to communism. The “Romanian resistance” is a chapter of our history which has its share of truth but also of mythology. In general, “resistances” are amplified in the imaginary. Westerners have done the same thing in reconstructing the story of “anti-fascist resistance”. In fact in any society those who resist are in the minority compared with those who submit, accommodate themselves, or even profit. The Romanians who joined the Securitate were certainly more numerous than those who resisted in the mountains.

18The mythological temptation can be glimpsed again when we hear of “resistance through culture”, a subject dear to the hearts of Romanian intellectuals. It would be unjust to say that all writers, for example, were no more than docile servants of the authorities. But, on the other hand, they went on publishing their texts in conditions of censorship. There was no clandestine publishing in Romania. The writer tried to push things to the ultimate permissible limit, and the reader was urged to read between the lines, to imagine the unspoken but suggested message. It was a game played between the writer and the authorities: who could outwit whom? Each agreed to make certain concessions to the other. The result: a confused message. Who outwitted whom?

19To give one well-known example, no literary work enjoyed more fame than Marin Preda’s novel The Best-Loved of all Mortals (1980). It was a critical portrayal— severely critical by the standards of the time—of the 1950s. But the criticism was of abuses, not of the system (and even then, not of all abuses, not of the most serious). Ceauşescu, too, had distanced himself from such abuses in order to define his own brand of “communism of humanity”, in contrast to the dark years of the Gheorghiu-Dej regime. Preda went somewhat further than Ceauşescu, but not much further, just as far as the limit beyond which one could not go. He could have gone beyond that limit and published a clandestine text, but he did not. Nor did other writers. Today it is somewhat embarrassing to read the novel. The Romanians have no Solzhenitsyn, no Havel.

  • 7 Barbu, Daniel. “Destinul colectiv, servitutea involuntară, nefericirea totalitară: trei mituri ale (...)

20Many, on the other hand, joined up. Communism brought about an overturning of society, to the disadvantage of some but to the advantage of others. Some were put out of their jobs and their houses; others took their places. Today’s Romanian elite, with the exception of a few survivors, is the creation of communism. Many of its members, even if they do not admit it or admit it only partially and indirectly, know only too well that without communism they would not be what they are now—even if they show no hesitation in invoking the interwar period by way of an alibi or legitimizing procedure, identifying themselves in the imaginary with a quite different elite. And even people lower down the scale, for example peasants who were moved into towns and installed in districts of apartment blocks, accept this change of condition as a social advancement. An article by Daniel Barbu7 provoked a lively discussion, complete with vehement protests, with the claim that the beneficiaries of communism were more numerous than its victims: “The proportion of those for whom the totalitarian regime represented a permanent threat, a burden, or an immediate or virtual danger, is between 4 and 8 percent, while those for whom communism meant a positive change in their lives, a stable and rising income, increasing access to higher education, and a closer connection to the state, can be placed somewhere between 20 and 70 percent.” It must be emphasized that Daniel Barbu is not making communist propaganda, merely proposing an explanation, although it is probable that his formula contains an element of exaggeration and idealization. It should also be made clear that what is under discussion here is less the objective condition of people than their image of their own condition, which is not quite the same thing. (Ultimately, however, it is what counts! It is no use explaining, with the aid of a virtual history, that without communism Romania would have been modernized anyway, and in even better conditions, just like Greece and Portugal, countries that were no more advanced than Romania in the interwar period.) Essentially, however, I think Daniel Barbu is right; a good many Romanians—it is hard to say just how many—have nothing much to reproach communism for, while, on the other hand, they feel that they are indebted to it for their social advancement—just as some of them have come to consider after 1989 that they are “indebted” to democracy only for a fall in their standard of living.

21Neither the interwar years nor the communist period can be represented in a single, coherent image. Each of us has our own personal relationship to recent history. We can only try to get as close as possible to the truth, but our judgement of that truth will never be a single one.


22The crisis in Kosovo and the NATO attacks on Yugoslavia proved once again how divided the Romanians are, how inclined towards extreme judgements, and how ready some, or even many, of them still are to indulge in anti-Western propaganda on any pretext. They took up their positions without reserve, some on the side of Milosevic, some on the side of the West, and so defined their own options. In fact, justice and injustice in this crisis were very much shared between the two camps. Even if we were inclined towards one solution or the other there were plenty of reservations that could have been expressed, yet these were scarcely heard. The most characteristic phenomenon was the slipping of a section of the political class, the press, and public opinion from the Western to the Serbian side. At first the percentage of those opting for NATO and the European Union was among the highest, if not indeed the highest, in this part of Europe. Almost all Romanians had followed with bated breath the country’s unsuccessful attempt (but with the promise of a re-examination in the near future) at integration in Atlantic structures: it was a veritable national obsession. Then suddenly, with Kosovo, the percentage of Romanians in favor of NATO dropped by some tens. When it came to a choice, many Romanians preferred Orthodox, nationalist and authoritarian Serbia to the democratic and cosmopolitan West.

23As always, when we speak about the “other” we characterize ourselves. It has become clear that for many Romanians attachment to the West has nothing to do with Western values but only with the wealth and power of a world to which we strain to attach ourselves out of purely material considerations. In addition, the difficulty with which Romanian legislation adapts itself to European legislation— with step-by-step resistance in some cases, as in the interminable discussion about the normalization of the legal status of homosexuals—illustrates the lack of real adherence to many Western norms. Economic inefficiency already keeps Romania far from Europe: if we also have a state of mind to take into account.


24The mixing of politics and religion is another archaic feature of Romania (found also, it is true, in Greece, another Orthodox country and a member of the European Union). For a considerable number of Romanians it seems that it is not liberalism or democracy, but a rather vague, yet insistently affirmed, religious ideology that has occupied the place left free by the ideology of communism. This means that the unanimist and authoritarian logic of the past has not yet been left behind. Fortunately we are far from fundamentalism, for the political-religious equation also includes a fair dose of traditionalism, convention, and political demagogy. But this only makes the notes sound all the more false. The students of the University of Bucharest take sides over the building of a church (Orthodox of course) in the university precincts: some support the project, others oppose it. The former brand their opponents atheists and communists, while they in turn are branded Legionaries. At a moment of major crisis—the miners’ march towards Bucharest—prime minister Radu Vasile found no other mediator than the church, and chose the Cozia monastery as a place for talks. Finally, an immense Cathedral of the Salvation of the People is to be erected in the heart of Bucharest. Meanwhile, politicians compete to be seen in churches and at religious events. Even Ion Iliescu, until recently a self-confessed “free thinker”, has started making the sign of the cross. The current seems irresistible.

  • 8 Boia, Lucian. “Sîntem o naţiune, nu o naţiune ortodoxǎ” (We are a nation, not an Orthodox nation). (...)

25“Is the Romanian nation an Orthodox nation?” I asked, in a recent article from which I shall quote some extracts here.8

“Of course”, some will reply. “Since the vast majority of Romanians are Orthodox the nation cannot be otherwise than Orthodox.” It seems elementary, but it is not quite so simple. There are, after all, plenty of citizens who belong to other traditions. Do we want to say that they are second-class Romanians, obliged in religion as in other matters to submit to the will of the majority? What about the more than a million and a half Hungarians, who, naturally enough, are not Orthodox? Do we tell them that they must belong to another nation, the Hungarian nation? What about the Uniates, who are pure-blooded Romanians and who at one time were even the initiators of Romanian national ideology? Do they belong to the Romanian people or not? What about the Baptists, whose numbers have increased among the Romanians in recent decades? And, since we have mentioned ex-president Iliescu, what about free thinkers? Are you still allowed to present yourself as an atheist (as so many Romanians did until about ten years ago, at Party meetings anyway), or at least as a skeptic in matters of faith?
This may be how things are with us here, but there is another dimension of the problem to be considered. It seems that we are liable to forget that not only Romanians are Orthodox. Confessions are generally transnational and do not follow the political-national divisions of the day. If we attribute to religion a meaning which lies outside its specific message and give it the mission of structuring national spaces and civilizations, not only from a historical point of view but also in terms of current projects, then, as a logical consequence, we ought to associate ourselves with Orthodox Europe, alongside the Russians and Bulgarians, and keep well clear of the Catholic and Protestant, and, more than anything, secular West.
In fact, modem nations are not identified with a particular confession, even when it is that of the majority, for the simple reason that the nation is something different. The French, for example, are no less Catholic than the Romanians are Orthodox, but the French nation cannot be defined, and indeed is not defined, as a Catholic community.
Germans may be Protestants or Catholics, but the German nation remains one. In modem societies there is a separation between the sacred and the profane, between the religious and the civic or political space. And this does not necessarily mean an alienation from religious values—although the last two or three hundred years have seen a process of desacralization, first of all in the West and then in the rest of the world; it is simply a matter of separating sets of values which are distinct and should remain so. The nation is, in any case, a secular creation, quite different in its nature and its objectives from the universalism of religion. If religion alone had counted in the modern age then the Romanians would have been lost in the Slav mass—and who knows which way the Uniates of Transylvania would have gone? The Romanian national state was built on the basis of national ideology and liberal and democratic political principles, not religious criteria. It is normal that we should all share the same civic values, without which the national community would fall apart. But faith (or the lack of it) remains a matter of personal choice. We would do well to protect this area from any authoritarian principle and any form of discrimination, which would not only fail to consolidate the national organism, but might even threaten its cohesion.

  • 9 * Here and elsewhere in the present book, “Ortodoxism” (adj.: “Orthodoxist”) is to be understood as (...)

26The temptation to fuse nation and church has its own historical mythology. The first axiom is that “the Romanian people was born Christian” and has gone on to identify with Orthodox Christianity throughout its history. Leaving aside the fact that the “birth” of a people is a highly mythological concept, in the face of the paucity of source material we ought to be more cautious. There is no incontestable evidence of Christianity in Roman Dacia. Such evidence does exist from the fourth century onwards (both in Dacia, and, more extensively, in Dobrogea, which had remained a province of the Empire), but its frequency is not sufficient to support a coherent and certain history of Christianity north of the Danube. The claim—which has become insistent in recent years—that the apostle Andrew preached in Dobrogea, is based only on a late legendary tradition. (In any case, the tradition refers to Scythia—southern Russia—and not specifically to Little Scythia—Dobrogea. That is why Saint Andrew is the patron of Russia; he is also, at the other end of Europe, patron saint of Scotland; and now he is starting to be venerated as patron saint of Romania.) It is interesting that all this is a recent development. Around 1900, religious belief and practice were certainly much more alive in Romania than today; but Orthodoxism,*9 as an ideology, is much more ambitious and aggressive in its manifestations nowadays.


  • 10 Boia, Lucian. “’Ameninţarea’ federalista” (The federalist “threat”. Curtntul (21 December 1998).

27The Romanian nation, like any other, is less unitary in reality than in the imaginary. It was assembled from distinct parts, welded together by the ideology and centralizing force of the unitary national state (a process made easier by the fact that Romanians were in the majority in all its regions), but even today we cannot talk of complete homogenization (which would, in any case, be impossible). For a number of years there have even been signs, generally discreet but sometimes more emphatic, of a desire to mark regional identities. In Moldavia there is now a Party of the Moldavians, although it is hard to say what its political chances may be. In the lands beyond the mountains, regarded in the Romanian imaginary as more civilized, more dynamic, and closer to Central Europe (Hungary!), we are starting to hear voices raised against making sacrifices for the sake of the other regions. There is nothing dramatic yet, but all the same it is something new for a Romania in which the mythology of the thousand-year unity of the Romanian people and the unitary national state has for so long covered over the inevitable diversity. A “provocative” article by the Transylvanian columnist Sabin Gherman, entitled “I Have Had Enough of Romania”, caused a sensation and aroused the indignation of many. The fear—undoubtedly exaggerated—is beginning to take shape that Romania may disintegrate. Even federalism is looked on with suspicion. So, in fact, is any kind of decentralization. I repeat here what I wrote in an article on this theme:10

The minds of many Romanians are imprinted with the idea that federalism is a risky invention, a first step towards the dismemberment of the nation. The best solution in their view is, of course, right at the opposite extreme from federalism and from decentralizing processes in general: the unitary national state. The last thing I want to do is to turn things round and say that the federal system is best. There is no universal model, applicable everywhere and in all conditions. But we need to know what we are talking about, and above all we should not rush to proclaim our prejudices to be immutable general truths.
The model which the Romanians imitated, when they constructed modem Romania, was France. That meant a highly centralized political and administrative system: like the French departments, our counties are closely dependent, through their prefects, on central government. In the case of Romania, the centralizing process seemed all the more necessary as the country, which did not exist before 1859, was made up of “bits” which had to be welded together. Or at least that was what was thought best at the time. What would have resulted from a federal solution we cannot know, since we cannot remake history. What is certain is that uniformity was preferred to the acceptance or even cultivation of the historical and cultural differences between provinces—real differences which are still visible today in spite of a history that has adapted itself to the political discourse and that tells us of an imaginary, centuries-long (or even millennia-long) unity of the Romanian space.
The federal solution, whatever the Romanians may think (and we are not the axis around which the world revolves), is not exactly an aberration. The United States, Germany, Switzerland, and nowadays even Belgium, are federal states, and they seem to be getting on not so badly! Moreover, all sorts of intermediary solutions can be imagined (and indeed have been imagined) between federalism and out-and-out centralism. The most interesting tendency of the last few years is, in fact, an evolution towards decentralization and the re-invigoration of historical provinces, with varying intensity, of course, from one country to another. Spain has been divided into seventeen autonomous provinces. Likewise, there is regional autonomy in Italy. And in Britain, Scotland has recently voted for autonomy.
We may, if we like, consider that the best variant for us is still that which corresponds to the expression “unitary national state”, but let us not pretend that this is nowadays the dominant solution in the world, or in Europe, because it is not: not any longer! The French example deserves to be invoked again. France has doubled its system of départements with a parallel system of regions—broadly corresponding to the historical regions which the French Revolution hastened to abolish and which we now see returning after two centuries. The regions enjoy a certain degree of autonomy, limited in the case of France, but nevertheless effective: elected regional councils, their own budgets, etc. It is exactly what would happen here if, alongside the system of counties, we also divided the country into its historical provinces: Moldavia, Muntenia, Oltenia, Transylvania, Banat, etc. Even the thought of such an organization would call up the specter of national disintegration for some. But it is not even a federal solution. It is the solution adopted in France, which, nevertheless, remains the most centralized political organism in the whole of Western Europe. The Romanians were once imitators of France: now they are more French than the French!
What needs to be discussed in our case is not federalization, but how we can get beyond a strict centralization, which once played a historical role but was never uniformly beneficial and today is effectively a hindrance. Like Paris, Bucharest pulled too much towards itself. The country was divided, polarized between a capital and the rest: the provinces. In the nineteenth century, from an intellectual point of view, Iaşi, and Moldavia in general did not lag behind Bucharest and Muntenia; quite the contrary, I would say. The balance has been upset. Moldavia is now the poorest province in the country (according to all indicators: per capita production, unemployment, etc.). It is re-emerging as a province, but in what conditions?
In the more prosperous region of Transylvania, in the Banat and Crişana, some, and not only Hungarians, are starring to look over the western border. This is partly, though not only, the negative effect of an excessive centralization. The solution does not lie in more centralization (dictated, perhaps, by the unfounded fear of secessionism), but in seeking ways of revitalizing local and regional life. Not in a federal direction—which would be hard to promote here, taking into consideration our whole tradition and present context—but in a less centralizing direction than hitherto. In any case, the real risk we run is not federalization but becoming locked in an outdated form of political behavior, insensitive to recent evolutions. Let us not make the federalist threat an alibi for immobilism!


  • 11 Vulpe, Alexandru. “Geto-Dacii?”. CICSA 1-2 (1998): 2-11.

28The Dacians, too, seem to be casting aside that seamless unity which has characterized them for decades. In History and Myth I raised the question of what a “Geto-Dacian” people could mean. A specialist in the field, Alexandru Vulpe, recognizes that archaeologists have been somewhat exaggerating “where the common history of different tribal groups in the Danube-Carpathian space is concerned”. The uncritical interpretation of ancient sources has been a veritable tradition in this country! When Strabo says that the Getae and Dacians spoke the same language, Romanian historians take him at his word, without stopping to wonder if the Greek historian, or his source, Poseidonius, had any competence in the field of Thracian dialects! Of course they had none! Alexandru Vulpe’s conclusion is that the notion of “Geto-Dacians” must be taken to refer to a fragmentary space “and not a historical-social and political unit, not a common language, and not necessarily a common material and spiritual culture”.11 In a paper entitled “The Material Dimension of Ethnicity” (in course of publication in New Europe College Yearbook, 1997-98), Alexandru Niculescu attempts to theorize ethnic divisions in the spirit of modern anthropological concepts. He considers the summary identification of archaeological cultures with ethnic groups to be outdated: an ethnic group is not characterized by cultural uniformity, and its identity references are more symbolic than material. The whole issue of ethnicity in the Dacian space thus needs to be re-evaluated, with more professional refinement than before and leaving nationalist prejudices behind.

29The fictive unity of Dacia is fading and giving way to effective diversity. The Getic and Dacian tribes are not alone. Celts and Scythians, and later Bastarnians and Sarmatians, complete a varied ethnic and cultural landscape. Indeed, a mixture of populations and cultures, not Daco—Roman purity, more correctly characterizes the Romanian space, from antiquity to the modern period. The tendency to eliminate the “others” from the Romanian equation—marginalizing the Slavs and other “migratory” peoples (who, once they had settled in the territory, ceased, in fact, to be migratory), along with later ethnic and cultural infusions—and to insist on a twofold Daco-Roman purity, reflects and sustains attitudes of rejection which belong to the present, not just to the interpretation of the past.

  • 12 Pop, Ioan-Aurel. Naţiunea română medievală. Solidarităţi etnice româneşti in secolele XIII-XVI. Bu (...)

30While some historians are breaking away from the mythology of unity, or at least proposing a more nuanced view, others prefer to go the opposite way, probably in the illusion that a Romanian nation which has always been united will continue to be so for ever. The upholders of this thesis now have a new text to refer to: The Medieval Romanian Nation by the Cluj-based historian Ioan-Aurel Pop. The book is subtitled Romanian Ethnic Solidarities in the 13th to 16th Centuries. Right from the tide page we find the confusion, frequent among Romanian historians, between ethnicity and nation. In the author’s vision all sorts of local solidarities, especially among the Transylvanian Romanians, support the existence of a Romanian nation: “Large and small groups of Romanians acted in solidarity in the Middle Ages... They manifested themselves by ethnic solidarity. From the totalizing of these solidarities, and the interaction between them, in the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries we can obtain the image of the medieval Romanian nation.”12

31However, the nation manifests itself precisely as a greater solidarity, which contains and subordinates other solidarities, and not as an amalgam of lesser solidarities. The latter are as old as the world itself: indeed, without solidarity there could be no human society. This sort of argument would lead us to look for nations even in prehistory. Of course, medieval people were aware of the languages they spoke and of the ethnic groups to which they belonged, as they were of the fact that others were “different”. To insist on these points is to force an open door. But the nation is something else: it is a unique and all-encompassing solidarity, willed and created, not historically given. Ioan-Aurel Pop does indeed make a distinction between the medieval nation, “passive and relatively fragmented”, and the modem nation, “active, unitary, conscious of its role and mission”. I fully agree with these characterizations. The question is, however, whether a passive and fragmented nation, lacking a consciousness of its role and mission, can still be called a nation! Such a concept recalls the famous “non-organized state” identified by the “Romanian Communist Party Program” in the period after the Roman withdrawal from Dacia. The nation is a state of consciousness, and where there is no consciousness there can be no nation, since it has no way of existing.

  • 13 Ibid., 72—73 (my emphases).
  • 14 Ibid., 141-142.

32The isolation of a few segments or moments of unity cannot cancel out a whole mass of concrete, ideological, and mental structures which do not support in any way the idea of an effective Romanian unity in the period, even at the level of an ideal. The author himself involuntarily lets slip counter-arguments to his own thesis: “The name of Iancu of Hunedoara has not remained in the Romanian public consciousness of the Middle Ages as that of a Romanian sovereign or of a sovereign who supported the Romanians, and that of Mathias even less so; indeed nor could they, as their ideals were different and the ethnic aspect was of secondary importance at the time.”13 Is it just my impression, or was the book not trying to demonstrate precisely the opposite? Of Michael the Brave we find out (as was well enough known anyway) that he did not leave very many memories of a “national” order in the consciousness of subsequent generations. This is curious, all the same—indeed inexplicable—if he was then, in 1600, giving life to Romanian aspirations! Well, the Braşov chroniclers of Şchei seem to have had no idea of this. Our author prudently does not mention the Moldavians: they would have had nothing good to say of Mchael anyway. On the other hand, he gives a forced interpretation of a passage in the History of Walhchia. “And the Christians, and especially Wallachia, were left without him. But for this all Christians should curse the Hungarian people all the more, for they are evil and sly, by their very nature.” The author comments: “As we can see, for the time being the general Christian ideal is combined with the ethnic one, but the cliché of the ’evil and sly’ Hungarians who put the innocent Michael to death is fully active. Only one more step remained to be taken before, following the erudite works of the scholars of the Transylvanian School, the romantics would set Michael among the precursors of modern Romania...”14 It remains to be seen now who inspires more trust, the Muntenian chronicler or the historian from Cluj, for the two are definitely not saying the same thing. Where does the historian see the chronicler combining the general Christian ideal with the ethnic one? The fragment cited has nothing to do with ethnicity. It is talking about Wallachia, not about Romanians in general, and in any case not about Transylvanians or Moldavians (who continued to call themselves Moldavians and not Romanians well into the nineteenth century). We are left with the evil and sly Hungarians, but I am not sure that such labeling was sufficient for the coalescing of the Romanian nation. Disliking Hungarians is not enough to make one automatically a Romanian patriot: at least it certainly was not in 1600. (Nowadays, who knows?) And only one step from this to the prefiguration of modern Romania? It seems a rather big step. What is the point of citing sources if one is only going to put a false interpretation on them?

  • 15 Boia, Lucian. Două secole de mitologie natională. Bucharest Humanitas, 1999.

33As far as I am concerned, discussion of the issue of the nation is closed. I have expressed my point of view in an essay entitled Two Centuries of National Mythology15, in which I tried to show how the nation was invented in the years around 1800, as a supreme form of solidarity (above all other solidarities) in the modem imaginary. Of course, I have no illusions that I have solved the problem, since no problem is ever finally solved. Interpretations go on to infinity. All I can do in my books is to say openly what I think.


34I must confess that I love opinion polls. I know they are often contested. They may be approximate, even downright wrong, and they may be willfully distorted; they can be used to manipulate, too. But whatever their deficiencies it is better to have them than not at all. What would I not give to have such information for certain periods and key moments in history! (A poll, for example, to tell us how the Romanians of around 1650 saw Michael the Brave and the union of 1600.) In their absence, we use fragmentary material to try to identify all sorts of attitudes and states of mind. Can we be sure we are not wrong? Might we not be treating our sources as more representative than they really are?

  • 16 Published in the magazine Oameni in Top 1 (June 1999): 13.

35So let us take advantage, at least for very recent history, of the polls which are available. For an interpreter of Romanian historical consciousness there can be nothing more interesting than an enquiry into the rating of historical personalities. In June 1999, the National Institute for the Study of Opinion and Marketing (Insomar) released the results of a poll16 in which 1,200 individuals all over the country were asked to choose “the most important historical personalities who have influenced the destiny of the Romanians for the better”. The responses (the top ten figures and their respective percentages) were as follows: Alexandru Ioan Cuza—24.6; Michael the Brave—17.7; Stephen the Great—13.4; Nicolae Ceauşescu—10.3; King Michael I—5.2; Vlad Ţepeş—4.1; Nicolae Iorga—3.1; King Carol I—3.1; Nicolae Titulescu—2.3; Ion Antonescu—2.2.

36The classification says a lot, not about the past but about how Romanians relate to the past, in other words, about how they think nowadays.

37Out of the ten chosen personalities Cuza takes first place, well ahead of the next in line. He seems posthumously, and decisively, to have won his mythological confrontation with Carol I. Before communism the relationship was the other way round: the kings appeared at the top of the hierarchy, leaving Cuza more or less in eclipse. In the meantime, royalty has almost been wiped from the collective memory of the Romanians, and this, together with the insistence on the idea of national unity (both before and after 1989) explains the placing of Cuza in the highest position. These are the effects of historical propaganda in the communist period (and of course no fault of Cuza’s!). Moreover, in the time of Ceauşescu the gallery of great statesmen stopped at Cuza (with a minor concession in the case of Titulescu, which explains his presence, when other statesmen are absent, in the “memory” of the Romanians), before jumping over a century to the figure of the dictator himself.

38Next in the top ten of the heroes of national history appear the traditional pair who have featured in all ideologies, Michael the Brave and Stephen the Great (with the former rated higher, as a symbol of national unity), and immediately after them, surprisingly but quite explicably given the general orientation in Romanian public opinion, is Nicolae Ceauşescu. King Michael gets only half the score of the late dictator. Vlad Ţepeş is also well placed, the authoritarian and relendessly just ruler of whom, or of whose solutions, not a few Romanians dream nowadays. Among modern political figures, while Iorga, Titulescu and Antonescu are remembered, the Brătianus, King Ferdinand (who was, after all, sovereign at the time of the Great Union of 1918) and Queen Marie, for example, are not.

39It is easy to decipher all this. We are looking at a pantheon that was largely set in place in the “Ceauşescu era”—many Romanians still imagine that what they learned at school then is “what history is all about”—with, understandably, a few amendments and new accents: a limited recognition of the kings or an inclination towards authoritarian solutions like those of Antonescu or Vlad Ţepeş. It is the choice of a society predominantly oriented towards the left, which feels closer to communist mythology and its representations than to what was before communism. Opinion polls dealing with current politics confirm this shift, or rather “return”, of the electorate, the result of the tarnished image and failures of the present government. But the way the Romanians look at their history expresses something more profound than the present political conjuncture, namely, a structurally dominant leftist sensibility, which, of course, constructs its own historical mythologies. In a strictly mythological sense, Cuza, the peasants’ ruler and great reformer, is felt to be more ’left-wing" than Carol I; in addition, he symbolizes more powerfully and directly the idea of national unity; and finally, he was a native Romanian, not a ruler from outside. On the other hand, the relatively modest score obtained by Antonescu would suggest that the fears sometimes expressed in the West regarding his ascent in the political imaginary of the Romanians are not justified. Much more disturbing remains the shadow of Ceauşescu.

40There are accents which take us beyond simply noting a leftist sensibility, which would be perfectly legitimate in itself. It is, in fact, a leftist culture with an attraction towards nationalism and authoritarianism—far from what a modern left would stand for. And it is not just the selection and ordering of historical personalities that justifies such a diagnosis. We can continue to look at all sorts of choices. The credit accorded to the various institutions of the state has remained constant for a number of years. At the bottom (with 15 percent and 20 percent respectively) are the political parties and Parliament, exactly the structures that are indispensable for democracy. And it cannot be said that they are placed so low because they have not done their duty. Those that receive a higher rating have not behaved irreproachably either. No, it is simply that this is how the Romanians want to see things. At the top of the list are the Church and the army (with 88 percent and 75 percent respectively), institutions which are no doubt essential (though it is curious, and significant, that the Church is considered an institution of the state) but which, by their function, embody the principle of authority rather than that of democracy.

  • 17 Oameni in Top 4 (October 1999): 93-97.

41The polls also allow us to follow other recent evolutions and tendencies. I shall limit myself to noting here (following on from what is said in the book about the traditional competing models, French and German) the new configuration of foreign reference points in the imaginary of the Romanians. Around 1900, France would have won outright in any poll, followed, at a safe distance, by Germany; there were no other significant models. However, the disappearance of the old elite and the opening after 1989 to a world politically and culturally dominated not by France but by America, have had a strong erosive effect on the French myth and French reference points. Already young people express themselves more readily in English than in French, which is a quite new phenomenon in Romania, long the principal bastion of French culture in Central and Eastern Europe. Nowadays not only the United States, which easily dominates, but also Germany seem closer and more interesting to the average Romanian than France. A questionnaire on “the countries the Romanians appreciate most” gives the following percentages: USA—26.9; Germany—18.8; France—8.8; Italy—6.8; Switzerland—5.2; Britain—3.2.17 The predominandy French age is over for most Romanians. It is in the past along with the old Romania, the "world we have lost". But the new reference points are more indicative of the prestige enjoyed by certain countries and the opportunities they offer to Romanians than of a well-defined set of values; they are still far from being true models, like the French and German models of the past (albeit at the level of “forms without substance”). Romanian society today suffers from an acute lack, or confusion, where values and models are concerned—hence the illusory parallel solutions: isolation in a mythologized history, the attraction of Orthodoxism...

42And finally, returning to the rating of personalities, we cannot ignore an extremely significant recent poll (November 1999). In answer to a question about the leaders who have done the most harm and the most good to Romania in the last century, Ceauşescu appears in the first place in both lists, the good and the bad, with the same rating in each: 22 percent. What could be more illustrative of the division in Romanian society and its great confusion of values?


43Without wishing it, I returned abruptly to the foreground of things with the “textbook scandal” of October 1999. It would appear that in the imaginary of some people (nationalists with an inclination towards conspiracy theories), I am the “man in the shadows” who has been working, through his disciples, on the demolition of Romanian national history. I do not know to what extent my historiographical criticism contributed to the decision radically to restructure the history curriculum with textbooks to match. Preoccupied as I was with my own projects, I certainly had no idea what was being prepared; indeed, I had no idea that anything was being prepared at all! I did not expect a change in history to take place so fast. If I stimulated it in any way, then I must confess that I am glad. But I was certainly not consulted by anyone when the curriculum was under preparation. (There is no point in trying to answer the question “Why?”: perhaps they wanted less controversial personalities to be involved.) None of the textbook authors asked me a single question, and, as far as I know, not one of them has claimed to be my “disciple”. If I had written a textbook it would certainly have been different from those that were published. Indeed, I wonder what it would have been like. There are rules and limits that must be respected in conceiving such a text, however open and nonconformist it may be. As far as I am concerned, I have opted for complete liberty, so there is no way I could write textbooks.

44That said, the changeover (slow enough, after ten years) from the single textbook, a communist inheritance, to the system of parallel textbooks, in line with European education and Romanian tradition (five were approved by the Ministry of National Education for the “History of the Romanians” in the twelfth grade), was clearly a step forward. The concept behind the new curriculum, and implicitly behind the textbooks, is certainly more modern than that of the single textbooks previously in use. Some would say it could hardly fail to be! The textbooks which we are finally laying aside have contributed to the unofficial (but very real) status of history in Romanian education: the least liked subject! It had become a discipline in which young people learned what they had to, but from which they came away with nothing; an undigested mass of information, without meaning or finality, excused by a few worn-out patriotic clichés.

45The approach has now changed in at least three essential aspects. Factual ballast has been given up in favor of a synthetic treatment, problematized and open to discussion with the pupils; there is a more pronounced accent on civilization, culture, and mentalities than on events and personalities; and recent history is given an appreciably greater weighting in comparison to earlier periods. The communist period, on which the previous textbooks were almost silent, at last gets an appropriate treatment (at least in terms of the number of pages, but also in terms of interpretation in most of the textbooks). It is understandable that such a re-centering creates imbalances in its turn. No one has yet invented, or ever will invent, “incontestable history”! “Structural” history is not necessarily more true than “factual” history; it is simply another sort of history. A better balance could have been sought. The Middle Ages should have been given more space. The sacrifice of “heroes” and of many events, in the spirit of the “new history”, was certainly not the most inspired solution. I would plead for an intelligent treatment of personalities (in a different sense from that of the “heroic” history which has prevailed up till now), not for their abolition or diminution. It may be that history is not made by personalities, but people believe it is made by personalities. And what people believe is, in a sense, more important, even for history, than anything else. It is here that myths and symbols are born, which in their turn create history. Michael the Brave did indeed unite the Romanians, not in 1600, but posthumously in 1918. We ought, in general, to free ourselves from the rigidity of “formulae”, and not abandon one formula only to enter into another.

46One textbook chose to go further than the others along the road that was thus opened. This was the already celebrated textbook coordinated by Sorin Mitu and published by Sigma. It bore the brunt of all the fury provoked by the new orientation. First of all it was the Romanian Senate that began to boil. And the senator who expressed himself most vehemently was Sergiu Nicolaescu, a director of historical films in the “age of Ceauşescu”—films like Michael the Brave and Mircea the Great, vehicles not only for patriotic pride but also for the message of unity around the great leader. Now he found the saving solution: the textbook should be burned in the public square. The education committees of both chambers then held meetings. For more than a month (October to November 1999) the matter seemed to be the main preoccupation of Parliament. Finally, a motion calling for the withdrawal of the textbook came to the vote. It was rejected (not out of appreciation for the “new history” but out of government solidarity). With only a little exaggeration we might imagine Parliament abandoning current legislation to debate and vote on history textbooks, paragraph by paragraph. Or even a government falling because of history!

47Attacks multiplied from various directions. Like any society in crisis Romania today has its “prophets”, who know what is good and what is bad and who are called to set the nation on the right road. A popular show on the television channel Antena 1 staged a trial, which turned out to be more of an execution. Such summary judgements multiplied. Apart from principles (“patriotic”, of course), there was no shortage of personal attacks, including the insinuation that Hungarian interests and even money might be involved. Public opinion was overcome by emotion. We even heard of family rows (as in France, at the time of the Dreyfus affair): for or against Michael the Brave; for or against Sorin Mitu.

48I rarely make public statements except in writing. But in those days, as a totally senseless hysteria swept the country, I felt it only right to make clear my point of view (all the more so as my name had been invoked). I was given a few minutes on the national channel’s evening news program, in which I tried to get the essential message across. I also participated—as an ad hoc expert for the Ministry of National Education—in the meeting of the parliamentary committees, where I was able to express myself more fully. Here, in brief, is my argument:

49The necessity for a pluralism of textbooks is almost unanimously recognized. So, if we agree that there should be more than one, let us not ask that they be identical—perhaps with different covers and illustrations! The elimination of a textbook on the grounds that someone does not like it is called censorship, and it would be the first measure of this kind in Romania since the fall of communism. A single history is a Utopia. Even in communism, where a single ideology functioned and precise instructions were given in historical matters, history was not chanted with a single voice. The limits were narrow, but some historians, to their credit, managed to express themselves with a small measure of liberty (while others, on the contrary, went even further in their conformity than they were asked to). If that is how things stood in a totalitarian system, what can we expect nowadays, in a democratic and pluralist society? When we look at the Romania of today, which we know well, certainly better than its distant past, is there a single option, a single interpretation? Of course not. It is the same with history. If you can criticize presidents Iliescu and Constantinescu without mercy, are you not permitted to say something a little unconventional about Vlad Ţepeş or Michael the Brave?

50The shift in accent, which is so new to many Romanians, is no more than a normal adaptation to the orientations of contemporary historiography. In the nineteenth century, if we may simplify what is without doubt a more complex picture, history was treated in terms of events, with an accent on national values and political authority. Today, history has shifted from events to structures, and from nationalism and authority to another combination of values. National identity remains, of course (Europe will not come into being without or against the nations), but alongside it we have European identity and democratic principles, including the respect due not only to the community but also to the individual. The nation, Europe, and democracy make up one body. None of these points of reference is more important than the others: all three must be equal for us, if we really want to go forward. We cannot progress in the spirit of a nineteenth-century history (and still less in the spirit of a nationalism taken over from the nineteenth century and exacerbated in the Ceauşescu period).

51But the polemic, it has been said, concerns not just any books. These are school textbooks, aimed at pupils who are at risk of being disoriented by all sorts of “relativizations”. These pupils, however, are young people in their final year of high school, preparing to enter into the wider world. It is not with prejudices, with ready-made ideas, and with an outdated way of looking at the world that we should be equipping them, but with the capacity to think critically and to make choices. What are we doing? Playing a hypocritical game? Is there a history for adults, in which anyone is free to say anything, and another, not exactly true but “reassuring”, for the use of adolescents? In the past it was sexual hypocrisy that worked that way. Now young people know all about sex; do they not have the right to know just as much about how Romania was made?

52For the time being the maneuver has not succeeded, but the opponents of the “new history” have shown that they are still powerful, probably more powerful than the upholders of the modern current. All the more so as they build on a widespread inclination—easy to stimulate in a traumatized society—towards nationalism and authoritarianism. The dispute has also illustrated the division in the intellectual community, historians included. In the case of the contested manual, the Group for Social Dialogue and the History Faculty of the University of Bucharest (by a majority of its members) pronounced in favor of respecting professionalism and the right to uncensored expression. The Romanian Academy, on the other hand, issued a communique (disavowed, however, by some members of its own History Section) in which it aligned itself with the chorus of denigrators. It is not the first time that the Academy has appeared as a conservative forum. Moreover, the “conservatives” also voiced the idea that from now on textbooks should be approved by the Academy! “The wisest among us”, in other words. Falling back on authority as usual!

53To return to the incriminated text, a prime motive for the hostility is immediately evident: the uncompromising treatment of the communist period (and of communist survivals after 1989) and an unconcealed position against the Iliescu regime and in favor of the Democratic Convention. The second motive is the demolition, more radical here than in other textbooks, of national-historical mythology. That is what determined a severe judgement from those who, regardless of their political orientation, see in history the principal ingredient of national identity. “Anti-Mitu” reactions were thus not restricted to the zone of the nationalist left. The textbook passes rapidly over the heroes of history (somewhat too rapidly, it is true). About Michael the Brave there are just a few words, and a summary (if true) characterization of him as the “favorite figure of Romanian historians”. Vlad epeş (the last great love of over-heated minds) appears only as the prototype of Dracula, giving an excessively Anglo-Saxon color to a mythology which, in its Romanian aspect at least, does not highlight the vampire but rather the relendessly just prince who struggled for his country’s independence. Indignation was also aroused by the observation that the obsessive problem of the origin of the Romanians is principally a matter of mythology and ideology (and not of incontestable scientific reality); I have no more to say on this subject, as it is precisely the thesis which I developed myself in History and Myth... They do not like to see the history of the Romanians relativized. And we do not like nationalist propaganda and authoritarian attitudes.

  • 18 Regarding the present-day individuality and possible future autonomy of Transylvania see Gabriel A (...)

54There was a lot of fuss, too, about the claim that the nation was “invented”. How could the Romanian nation be invented? And yet so it was, like all others (and historians who find such an affirmation strange could do worse than glance at the recent bibliography of the subject). Another reproach was that the union of Transylvania in 1918 was not properly presented; the emphasis on the presence of the Romanian army and on high-level political decisions pushed the enthusiastic participation of the masses and the “plebiscitary” character of the action into the background. However, if we want to be correct we must accept that the union of 1 December was the direct consequence of the defeat of Austria-Hungary in the First World War. There was no referendum to allow the freely expressed vote of all the inhabitants of the province, and indeed no such referendum could have been organized in the confused conditions prevailing at the end of the war. Only Romanians participated at Alba Iulia. It is hard to believe that the Hungarians would have declared themselves in favor of separation from Hungary! We have to get used to the idea that Transylvania (like any other territory, anywhere) belongs equally to all its inhabitants, regardless of ethnicity. These considerations— motivated strictly by respect for truth—do not change the fact that the Romanians were in the majority and really did want union with Romania (nor the fact that nowadays they are even more in the majority and the union has proved viable).18 In any case, no other European nation-state (with the occasional exception) was constituted by “universal vote”.

55Unfortunately, this textbook, which has many good features and calls many things by their true names, also has plenty of vulnerable points. Such a new approach calls for an argumentation to match. The text is, however, too summary in relation to what it seeks to demonstrate. Serious and complicated matters are treated in a familiar and simplified style (giving the impression of an “adaptation” for children, although the concept is in fact more subtle than in the other textbooks). To give a single example, obviously related to my own approach, the question “What is myth?” gets a simple, far too simple, answer: “A myth is a tale.” A little further on it is stated, in addition, that every myth “conceals a solid grain of historical truth”. Neither of these two formulations seems adequate to me. And, in any case, they are contradictory: a “tale” is usually thought of as something “untrue”.

56I do not intend to make a comparative analysis here. I simply note that some of the other textbooks, those published by Humanitas, Rao and All, are more complete but also “better behaved” than that coordinated by Sorin Mitu. They are not without their own errors and contradictions either. (For example, the Humanitas version, while it is, overall, a convincing and elegant publication, gives a confused presentation of Michael the Brave, who, from one sentence to the next, is, and then is not, inspired by the Romanian ideal; nor does the author of the same chapter hesitate to bring in the text of the capitulation—those capitulations again!—concluded in 1393 between Mircea the Old and the Sultan Bayazid, a document long ago proved to be inauthentic!)

57I shall pause, however, to consider the only textbook that was conceived in a different spirit, that produced under the direction of Ioan Scurtu, a professor in the History Faculty of the University of Bucharest, and published by Petrion. Scurtu has criticized Mitu severely, accusing him of politicizing history (and, more than that, of “adopting the viewpoint of those in government”). I do not believe that the political options of the “Mitu team” can be denied. However, Ioan Scurtu politicizes history just as intensely, though in the opposite direction. In his book we meet again the old, well-known nationalist cliches. First, the Geto—Dacians: “a powerful ethnic, linguistic, economic and civilizational entity” (p. 6)—a true nation, it might be said! Then there is the Michael the Brave episode. Apparently his death was arranged by the “powers of the time” (p. 33): an unfounded accusation and a vague and generalized formulation, suggesting the involvement of the whole of Europe and channeling the attachment that the Romanians bear towards the voivode in an anti-European direction. The conclusion, contrary to real evolutions before the nineteenth century, is that “the idea of state unity has accompanied the history of the Romanians, affirming itself as one of their fundamental aspirations” (p. 95). For the period after 1989 there is an uncompromising judgement of the anti-Iliescu orientation, the Democratic Convention, and the government set up in 1996 (why such annoyance, then, when others express their own political options?). The treatment of communism offers some telling pages. Everything that is nowadays possible is done to partially rehabilitate it, by making it banal—the idea being that it was really neither better nor worse than other periods or governments. Here is a sample: “The life of the village goes on at heightened rhythms compared with the past, and people are more present in its social activity. Homes have been modernized and new houses built on completely modern lines, with or without upper storeys, impossible to distinguish from town villas” (p. 133). Is this a Swiss village? No, it is the Romanian “socialist” village. With luxurious villas, and probably without dust and mud, with running water and everything else one could wish for!

58In spite of the desire, legitimate up to a point, that the attitudes expressed in the school textbooks should be brought closer together (since it is not a good idea to give pupils histories which are radically at odds with each other), this “polarizing” seems to be inevitable for the time being. I wrote in History and Myth that in the traditional Romanian historiographical discourse “differences of interpretation and accent, such as we find, for example, in the school textbooks, do not affect the overall coherence of the model. We are far from the French model, which is characterized by a high degree of polarization between the historical reference points of the two Frances...” However, it seems that this is what we have come to: a model similar to the old French model (albeit structured on other criteria). As in France a century and more ago, these are the aftereffects of a revolutionary trauma: a fissured society, with reference points not only different, but actually opposite. As far as history is concerned, the confrontation is being played out, and will probably continue to be played out for a long time to come, around two contradictory “ideal models”: one nationalist and authoritarian, and the other European and democratic (with, of course, all sorts of nuances and combinations in between). Moreover, and on a more general level, there is a process of relativization of values and cultural diversification going on in the world today; consequently history, too, is becoming multiple and diversified.


59I want to say in conclusion, succinctly and unequivocally, what I believe about a number of important matters.

60I believe, above all, that a patriot is someone who does something for their country today. To speak fine words (all too often untrue or at least exaggerated) about the past is the simplest (and often a very cheap) way of showing one’s patriotism. I am not inclined to judge the patriotism of deputies and senators by the way they judge the history textbooks or their appreciation of Michael the Brave. To prove their patriotism they are called on to pass the laws which Romania needs so badly, and which they are somewhat slow to pass.

61At present, patriotism means not the noisy affirmation of nationalism, but, on the contrary, putting a damper on it. It means a new and positive attitude towards Europe, and towards minorities. Above all, however, it means a new attitude towards ourselves, in a world which is changing at a dizzying pace and into whose rhythms we need to enter if we do not want to remain isolated, condemned to backwardness, and, in the end, to collapse. The so-called patriotic discourse, with its insistence on our “uniqueness”, has all too often served as an excuse for an accumulation of delays. Such “patriotism” is in fact directed against the interests of Romania.

62We have still not truly come out of the nineteenth century! The two great projects of that century, nationalism and communism, survive in an amalgam of concrete and mental structures: excessive centralization, a weighty and uncompetitive economy, insufficient openness towards the world, too great an accent on the collectivity and not enough on the individual, not to mention the whole array of outdated mythological images. Let us at least settle into a twentieth-century pattern, though it would be better to take a leap into the century that is about to begin.

63We are too laden with frustrations and complexes, and hence with feelings both of inferiority and superiority that are as damaging as they are contradictory. This explains our far from normal attitudes to the “other”. We over-dramatize our relations with “foreigners” and with ourselves. We ought to “normalize” ourselves, to realize that we are neither worse nor better, neither more capable nor less capable. We are, quite simply, a European nation like all the others—on the one hand more different among ourselves than we like to recognize, and on the other, closer than we believe to people everywhere.

64Perhaps we can try, not to forget history, but to be a little less obsessed with it. We look towards the past too much (a past mythologized with ease), and too little towards the present and future. We have nothing to learn from Stephen the Great and Michael the Brave, nor even from the politicians of the interwar period. The problems of the present must be solved with the means of the present and from the perspective of the present. Almost two centuries ago, when they decided to play the card of modernization, of Westernization, and of the national state, the Romanians did not place themselves in continuity with an old tradition; they broke with it. Now we are entering a new world, and we need a new beginning. We cannot remain prisoners of the past. We must show that Romania means something, today.

65(November-December 1999)


1 Simion, Eugen. “Mit, mitizarc şi demitizare” (Myth, mythologizing, and demythologizing). Curentul (22 July 1999).

2 Boia, Lucian. Jocul cu trecutul Istoria între adevăr şi ficţiune. Bucharest Humanitas, 1998.

3 Stefănescu, Alex. “O jucărie la moda: demitizarea”. România Literară (21—27 October 1998).

4 For the demythologizing of the poet, see the highly controversial issue of the weekly paper Dilema (27 February—5 March 1998); and for the upholding of the myth, see the investigation in Catete entice 5-8 (1998), under the title “Eminescu—un model depăsit?” (Eminescu—an outdated model?).

5 An interesting collection of articles on this theme can be found in Dilema (27 November—3 December 1998): “Vîrsta de aur dintre cele două războaie” (The golden age between the two wars).

6 These strongly traditional features of a society still insufficiently in gear with modernity are illustrated by the numerous statistics assembled in the chapter on the Romanian population in Enciclopedia României (The Encyclopedia of Romania). Vol. 1. Bucharest, 1938, 134-160.

7 Barbu, Daniel. “Destinul colectiv, servitutea involuntară, nefericirea totalitară: trei mituri ale comunismului românesc” (Collective destiny, involuntary servitude, totalitarian unhappiness: Three myths of Romanian communism). Miturile comunismului románese. Under the direction of Lucian Boia. Bucharest: Nemira, 1998, 175—197.

8 Boia, Lucian. “Sîntem o naţiune, nu o naţiune ortodoxǎ” (We are a nation, not an Orthodox nation). Curtntul(24 February 1999).

9 * Here and elsewhere in the present book, “Ortodoxism” (adj.: “Orthodoxist”) is to be understood as referring to a political ideology which makes the Orthodox faith a mark of national identity, and should not be confused with “Orthodoxy” (adj.: “Orthodox”), the transnational Orthodox faith itself, which resists identification with any modem ideological “-ism”. Trans.

10 Boia, Lucian. “’Ameninţarea’ federalista” (The federalist “threat”. Curtntul (21 December 1998).

11 Vulpe, Alexandru. “Geto-Dacii?”. CICSA 1-2 (1998): 2-11.

12 Pop, Ioan-Aurel. Naţiunea română medievală. Solidarităţi etnice româneşti in secolele XIII-XVI. Bucharest: Editura Enciclopedică, 1998, 145.

13 Ibid., 72—73 (my emphases).

14 Ibid., 141-142.

15 Boia, Lucian. Două secole de mitologie natională. Bucharest Humanitas, 1999.

16 Published in the magazine Oameni in Top 1 (June 1999): 13.

17 Oameni in Top 4 (October 1999): 93-97.

18 Regarding the present-day individuality and possible future autonomy of Transylvania see Gabriel Andreescu and Gusztáv Molnár, ed. Problema transilvană (The Transylvanian problem). Iaşi: Polirom, 1999. Gusztáv Molnár maintains that Transylvania belongs to the “other Europe” (that of “Western Christianity”, Catholic and Protestant), and as such is clearly distinguished from the “Old Kingdom” of Romania. Sorin Mitu, in his article “Transylvanian Illusions and Realities”, underlines the mythic charge of such a “Transylvanian entity”: Romanians and Hungarians in Transylvania have never had a common project of autonomy, and indeed Transylvania has ended up very similar to the rest of Romania. I would like to add the following observation concerning the religious aspect of the problem: from 1700 to 1948, the Orthodox were in the minority in Transylvania (as many of the Romanians were Uniate); nowadays three-quarters of the population of Transylvania is not only Romanian but also Orthodox!

© Central European University Press, 2001

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