Sunday 3 February 2013

Romania's ethnic minorities


I surprised a friend at university by telling him that you cannot understand the history of Northern Ireland unless you 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 Gypsies. 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 centre 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 master races of Eastern Europe, meaning the races from which the landowners were drawn. The other master 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 traveller to Transylvania in the 1830s, compared the Romanians and gypsies 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 that I read while at the university.

The Hungarians will 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 or in Bessarabia when it was reconquered by the Romanians from the USSR but in the rest of Romania most 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. This 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 for years exotically Near Eastern, until one day it occurred to me that there are now many more mosques in England and France.

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, 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.

Anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitism 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, though  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 much 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 - most 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, though, is the gypsies and rarely in terms other than of fear, dislike or loathing. Eastern Europe does not have an underclass but in many ways the gypsies are the nearest equivalent. 

Romania has it seems the largest gypsy 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 gypsy problem, because of free movement of people within the EU. Gypsies are nomadic by instinct 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 gypsies in political discussions, whether pro- or anti-gypsy 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. But their picturesque and exotic qualities are  not in question and have nothing to do with the gypsy question. The gypsies are yet another example of the folly of denying that ethnic groups have group characteristics. Also of the folly of believing in human perfectibility and believing that governments can solve most problems. 


  1. This is very interesting.and I hope you can get round to writing a very short history. And EU open borders allow the gypsies to be treated badly in more comfort.Well put. This second hand info,have not been yet able to persue,but heard that someone in Britan(an MP?} plans an Ad campaign in Romania and Bulgaria stating good reasons would be emmigrants should not ;the downsides bad climate too many people,etc. This in anticipation of a wave in the coming months. I do wonder where the Romas kept themselves during the Ceaucescu years. I have blonde haired blue eyed niece adopted in Romania I think fifteen years past. Reason given,parents could not afford her. Very sad. But happy for her now and her American parents. She's lovely.

    1. So far EU open borders has been good in periodically sending back the romanian citizens (of Roma origin, forgotten) in shakles to their country of citizenship and then burst in superior morals about the life they had in Romania. DISGUSTING BIGOTRY!

      Someone said the Gypsies are there to force Europe to look in the dark side of their heart. There is much to that - in Eastern Europe you may find indiference and selfdefense, but they can live. In western Europe you find hypocrisy. And together, Europe will have to deal with the issue. But first we have to admit, there smart solutions are none of the kind - we know of no solution.

  2. Oh I didn't mean that I don't understand why the gypsies are generally treated poorly.I think nor did you. I am not well enough informed about the migratory habits of gypsies.But some of what I've read and seen, they now often pitch tents near population centers.I only suppose because that is where the capital is. I don't know if they ever participate in any kind of rural 'economy'.

  3. Please do forgive me for being off topic but Ed West says RichardIII's burial should not be another anguished discussion,"what is Britishness,Englishness,but should be a day of togetherness." He doesn't seem to bother about 'What is Catholicness -in England .." ?

  4. congrats, nice piece of work, well written & ... very true

  5. This author “loves” Romania inasmuch as it fits
    to the archetype of the good savage. The cultivated British gentleman has
    exiled himself on that wild remote island called Romania, where myriads of
    Fridays prove how interesting humanity at a lower stage was and still can be. Within
    this dramaturgy, Gypsies play the role of the very core of this delightful exoticism,
    since even less touched by civilization than Romanians.

    The kitsch of a Victorian postcard, as a life ideal.

    Rasvan Lalu

    1. Not even as cultivated as he likes to believe..

  6. 1. The people in the picture are definitely not Romanians. They must be of Germanic origin.

    2. The Germans (which included the Austrians and Baltic Germans) and not the Hungarians were the dominant nation in Eastern Europe.

    3. I suppose the analogy was between Romanians and Negroes and Redskins and gypsies respectively, because Romanians in Transylvania were the productive class as the Negroes were in the South and the gypsies stole horses, among other things, as the redskins did it too.

    4. Yes, Jews lived in, what we call in Romania, "towns". Towns like Barlad or Dorohoi. However, they started to immigrate to the Romanian Principalities from 1830 on and by the late nineteenth century they already started to emigrate. (They changed Dorohoi with New York.)

    5. Muslims were not allowed to live in the Principalities because Tara Romaneasca and Moldova were not a "Pashaluk".

    6. "Triumph of form over substance". A Titu Maiorescu fan?

    7. There was no Romanian intellectual of value who was not an anti-Semite. This antisemitism stemmed from Romanian nationalism.

    8. It was well known in Romania that Antonescu was responsible for the murdering of Jews in WWII because it was one of the accusations levelled against him at his trial for war crimes. The controversy was about the exact numbers.

    9. It is true that among educated people still prevails a negative sentiment towards the Romanian Jews. And this is because the question of: "why so many Romanian Jews cooperated with the Russians and the communist regime in the fifties and early sixties in such a large number?" is also a moral question and not only a historical or sociological one. Like in "why you did this to me?".

    10. About the "Rroma question":
    - The Nazi and Antonescu tried to address it their way...
    - "go to Western Europe, where they can be mistreated in greater comfort". English humor?
    - "I shall have to take my time to decide and formulate what I think about them." Why don't you read some scientific books on human genetics of physical anthropology. You know, the sort of books that the late Philip Rushton used to write...

  7. Sad selfulfilling prophecy kind of article. The large indiferent - cultivated westerner kind of attitude which starts from the idea "we know how we behaved in WWII, there is no need to know much about Romanian, to know it must have been worse". As someone else said: talk about the "speaking monkey" or domesticated barbarian, if you prefer. The attitude attracts and organizes information in its own way, you cannot break it down, and mostly it is not worse the time to try it. I only wish the author would compare the attitude in his above post, with the things he at least replicated from Watt's book. Maybe there is a spark!

  8. Please explain what you mean about Watts's book etc.

    1. I thought you asked for an explanation - I tried one below. Now I am wondering if I was to harsh upon you, I hate being harsh on people, but sometimes it is the shortest way to put some things strait, and it is nothing personal, it is contextual. If nevertheless I was too direct, sorry, no bad intentions!

  9. It is on the same blog I do not have the book, want to buy it, but it certainly appears to be one with good insight in the social history and geostrategic pressures specific for Romania. You seem to be simply repeating a series of cheap clichees on Romania, without feeling even the need to argue any of your verdicts.

    Just for a chat: I am in full accord with you that Romanians need to take responsibility for Transnistria, there were even Jews from Bucharest deported there, while hardly anyone knew. But let me also ask you: how much do you know about the use of Jews made by both Austrian and Russian empires, in order to settle their rule in Bucovina and Bessarabia, giving them lend taken from the natives, etc? Jews game from Galitia for a better life, and were instruments for giving a worse life to natives. A gift of "civilization" which has much to do with the outbursts of pre world war one Eminescu and Iorga (!? how much do you know about Iorga???). And please explain, if Romanians are in this respect the barbarians which beat the West, how come their country counted by far the highest number of Jews after WWII? I am not trying to excuse or cover up anyone, it is a story that one will never come to ends with.

    But I am disgusted by the attitude of people who judge on base of suppositions, just beacuse the remote balcanics MUST have been worse than everyone else, by definition and for this you need no facts.

    Well, in 1938, at Evian the US would not accept to offer the 100000+ immigration visas for Irish to Jews willing to escape Germany, while everyone knew what is boiling. If you read Rabi Shafran's book "Resisting the storm", you may get the impression that even indiscutable antisemites in war-Romania were more tractable in finding a heart-spot, and saving lifes. No generalization, of course, just recalling that everyone had a dark spot. And that you are a little bit quick in your judging a culture with which you do not show much of a affinity.

    And one more thing: what was your point in comparing Ireland to Eastern Europe? It is anything else but clear. Worse, some lost phrases might suggest that you think Irish are as unrecognicent to British benefactors, as the Romanians were to the Austro-Hungarians. But this is just a guess, you did not explain your point.

    Sorry for publishing Anonymous, they keep yelling I do not own that name or account. You can call me Preda.