I remember surprising a friend at university by telling him that he couldn’t understand the history of Northern Ireland unless he understand the history of Eastern Europe. This is true and unfortunately the English never understood either. I must one day write a short history of ethnic minorities in Romania and Romanian attitudes to religion and race as well as the fascinating role in Romanian history of Hungarians, Germans, Jews and Roma. Just to talk of film stars, Bela Lugosi, Johnny Weissmuller and Edward G. Robinson came from the first three of these Romanian minorities: Dracula and Tarzan were born in Romania.
Romania is a national state but not a mono-ethnic state. She has numerous small ethnic minorities living in certain localities in their own communities, and a very large minority, the Hungarians and Secklers (they are almost always considered one community and called Hungarians). They are the overwhelming majority in two counties in the center of Romania, Harghita and Covasna, as well as existing in other places, most notably the Banat and the Crisana.
The Hungarians were until 1918 one of the dominant peoples of Eastern Europe, meaning those from whom the landowners were drawn. The other ruling race in what became Romania were the Germans. The German minority, which numbered 200,000 in 1990, has mostly, though not entirely, gone, to my sorrow and Romania’s loss. The Germans built the wonderful towns of the Banat and Transylvania which remind me of the Anglo-Irish towns of Ireland under the eighteenth century Protestant Ascendancy. Beyond the towns, John Paget, a British traveler to Transylvania in the 1830s, compared the Romanians and Roma in the villages to the Red Indians and Negroes of North America. By the way, I highly recommend Paget’s Hungary and Transylvania, a wonderful book.
The Hungarians remain, but are much depleted by emigration to Budapest. The Jews tended to live in towns throughout the country and came mostly in the late nineteenth century. Many were slaughtered by Germans in those parts of Romania that Hungary annexed in 1940 and in Basarabia when it was reconquered by the Romanians from the USSR, but in the rest of Romania more survived. After the war, most Jews left, many of them ‘sold’ to Israel under the Ceausescu regime. Their children sometimes come back as foreigners, Israelis.
Muslims, in the Ottoman period, were forbidden by law to settle in Moldavia and Wallachia for the reason that had they done so they would have been able to appeal over the heads of Christian magistrates to the Sublime Porte. Only in the sparsely populated Dobrudgea did Muslims live and this historical absence of Muslims is what makes Romania very different from the other Balkan countries. It spared Romania the bloody fighting between Muslims and Christians that took place elsewhere in the Balkans and the former Ottoman Empire, leading to many European Muslims leaving Europe and most Christians leaving the Middle East. There are about 20,000 ‘Turks’, meaning Muslims here near the coast, very nice people in my experience, and a number of mosques in the Dobrudgea, which seemed to me exotically Near Eastern.
There were some but not many Jews in what is now Romania before the nineteenth century when they came in large numbers and met great popular hostility, especially on the part of liberals. The Great Powers forced Romania to give civil rights to Jews twice, at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. On both occasions, the Romanian government reluctantly agreed, but applied only the letter and not the spirit of their treaty obligations.
This baroque pattern, baroque in the sense of the triumph of form over substance, repeated itself when Romania came to adapt to the requirements of the European Union. Up to a certain point, it could be said to be how Romania adapted to Communism, at least in the years of Ceausescu’s National Communism, although this point is more clever than true. Ceasusescu’s belief in Marxism Leninism, which he shared with millions of his countrymen, was never in doubt.
Antisemitism as much as rural poverty led to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1907, the last peasants’ revolt Europe will see. The religious-fascist Iron Guard in the 1930s adopted a very anti-Semitic policy, as had liberals like the revered historian and statesman Nicolae Iorga before the First World War. Iorga, who later recanted his views on the Jews, appears on Romanian banknotes. So does the national poet, Eminescu, who wrote many diatribes against the Jews. In early twentieth century Europe antisemitism was considered by some as progressive and in the 1930s great Romanian intellectuals like Mircea Eliade were also anti-Jewish. Under Antonescu, the wartime military dictator, it is now known, though was until recently denied, that between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews were murdered, although most of the Jews on what is now and was then Romanian territory survived. Those in Romanian lands taken by Russia in 1940, which now are in Moldova and Ukraine suffered the worst, along with those in that part of Romania annexed by Hungary, where perhaps 120,000 Jews were killed. In most of Romania – those parts which were then and are now in Romania – Jews survived.
Some degree of hostility towards Jews still lingers on with some people, even though there are few Jews left. The minority you hear Romanians talk about most are the Roma and rarely in terms other than of fear, dislike or loathing. Eastern Europe does not have an underclass, but in many ways the Roma are the nearest equivalent.
Romania has it seems the largest Roma population in the EU – this is based on anecdotal evidence and the fact that every gypsy beggar I have spoken to outside Romania answered me in Romanian with only one exception. Moldavia and Wallachia are also noteworthy as the only places where gypsies were enslaved and some people have suggested to me that during their enslavement the iron entered their collective soul. But collective souls are a very unfashionable concept.
The Romanians are solving what they see as the Roma problem, because of free movement of people within the EU. Roma are traditionally nomadic and I think most will not stay here to be mistreated but go to Western Europe, where they can be mistreated in greater comfort. This has started but will take a decade or two.
Almost everything that people say about Roma in political discussions, whether pro- or anti-Roma seems to me to be misinformed or ill thought out. And that is in Romania. It is very funny to read journalists in the English press struggle to make sense of them. I shall have to take my time to decide and formulate what I think about them. All I can say is that, when I feel a wave of love for a Romanian scene, on nine occasions out of ten there are gypsies in view.
By Paul Wood, Guest Writer
Paul Wood is the owner of Apple Search, the executive search company, and is writing a book about Bucharest where he has lived since 1998. His personal blog is here. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Romania Insider.com.