Romanian and Hungarian Attempts at Reconciliation in the Final Days of the War of Independence

By an ironic twist of history, this was also the moment when Wallachian émigrés and the leaders of Hungary's revolution managed to revive the hope of better relations between Transylvania's nationalities. Some of Wallachia's leading revolutionaries either deplored, or observed with growing anxiety the political initiatives taken by Romanians in Transylvania. They had little opportunity to intervene, for the Austrian military leadership did its best keep them at bay; a few did manage to reach the Érc Mountains and, in May, participately actively in the efforts to find a peaceful solution. The positive response in Europe to Hungary's struggle for independence led Wallachian émigrés to reconsider their policies once {3-319.} again. In the heat of revolutionary fervour, they carried self-criticism to an extreme. One of the émigrés in Paris, C. A. Rosetti, wrote: 'What shame, what terrible shame! It has to be said: cursed be those, myself included, who have squandered the Romanians' honour, bringing down upon our people endless suffering and shameful bondage! Ah! If only we had been a truly Romanian government, the glory of liberating the world from slavery would have been ours, and not that of the Hungarians; by joining forces with the Hungarians, we could have captured Vienna and proclaimed universal freedom. Instead, we tremble and grope for morsels from the Hungarian feast!'[90]90. C.A. Rosetti's letter to Ion Ghica, Passy, 20 April 1849; quoted in I. Ghica, Amintiri din pribegia după 1848 I, ed. by O. Boitoş (Craiova, n.d.), pp. 70-1. Even one of the intellectual instigators of the Romanians' autumn uprising, the Wallachian C. A. Golescu, considered that after the Romanian leaders in Transylvania had, by their ambivalence, missed the opportunity to save Austria and thereby enjoy the fruits of victory, there remained a feasible and acceptable objective: the formation of a Transylvanian–Romanian legion to fight the Russian invaders.

The first tangible outcome of the émigrés' activism was the foundation in Brassó of a newspaper, Espatriatul, by the ardent revolutionary poet Cezar Bolliac. With a vehemence that sometimes stunned even his closest comrades, Bolliac denounced the policies pursued by Transylvanian Romanians and declared that 'the key struggle in Europe today is the one between liberty and tyranny, between the people and the throne.'[91]91. Espatriatul, 25 March 1849, no. 1.

The wish to harmonize the Romanian and Hungarian quests for liberty would not have amounted to much without the tireless efforts of Nicolae Bălcescu. His basic premise was that the oppressed nations 'must join forces to secure their freedom of action before seeking their individual liberty.' Hungarian assistance was necessary to make the Romanian principalities independent. Only then could the issue of Romanian national unity be addressedwould follow. Bălcescu considered that Romanian unity was in the best interests of the Hungarian nation as well, for, as seen in the case of {3-320.} Ireland, national oppression only generated new problems, whereas the achievement of Romanian unity would allow Hungarians and Romanians to become allies. Until that came about, Transylvania's Romanians would have to remain in a 'somewhat subordinate' position. Bălcescu even showed some understanding for Bem's preparations to launch an offensive in the Érc Mountains; he argued that 'all those who love liberty should support the Hungarians, for they are the only nation in arms, and they are fighting against Russia's despotic allies.'[92]92. Bălcescu's letter to Ghica, Pest, 6 June 1849, in N. Bălcescu, Opere IV. Corespondenţa, ed. by Gh. Zane (Bucharest, 1964), pp. 185-6. When Kossuth reproached Bălcescu for pursuing a 'Daco–Roman' policy, the latter gave a response whose evasiveness owed more to short- and long-term considerations than to political tactics: 'We did not wish to detach Transylvania from Hungary, but rather to unite the two, and in fact we wished to do even more than this for Hungary.'[93]93. Bălcescu to Ghica, Debrecen, 17/29 May 1849, in ibid, p. 177. Weighed down by mutual mistrust, the Romanian–Hungarian negotiations made slow progress. Their happy conclusion owed much to the fact that as the Russian forces advanced, both Hungarians and Romanians became increasingly sensitive to the expectations of progressives in the rest of Europe.

'The role France assumed in 1789, that of Europe's emancipator, has become ours, and I reckon we have no other choice but to take up this cause, for otherwise we are lost.' Thus wrote László Teleki, a onetime member of the Transylvanian opposition, from Paris, where he was representing the Hungarian government and maintaining close contact with Czartoryski's Polish émigrés. His experiences led him to recommend adoption of 'a system which would compensate for the absence of a homogeneous nation by reconciling the rights of individuals and nationalities.' He was confident that the diverse nationalities in Hungary and the region 'will happily accept Hungary as the centre and queen of a future Danubian confederation.'[94]94. László Teleki's letter to Lajos Kossuth, Paris, 14 May 1849, quoted in Gy. Spira, A nemzetiségi kérdés, pp. 216-7. Kossuth must have been fueled by similar optimism when, on July 14, in Szeged, he took a decisive step: giving in to Bălcescu's entreaties, he agreed to the drafting of a {3-321.} projet de pacification, a plan for reconciliation. This was the culmination of a process marked by several milestones: Károly Szász's draft bill and the decision of the Kolozsvár diet; the unification committee's proposal to regulate the status of the Romanians; the terms of peace advanced by Kossuth in April; and, most recently, the proposal aired in the radicals' newspaper, Márczius Tizenötödike (March Fifteenth), that Hungary, Transylvania, Croatia, and the Slovak-inhabited region form a set of 'allied republics.'

The Hungarians were thus compelled by force of circumstance to give up their earlier notions and practices with regard to the other nationalities. Although the reconciliation project did not promise territorial autonomy, it did guarantee Romanians official use of their language in counties where they formed a majority as well as in the national guard. This unprecedented extension of language rights in public administration, combined with the existing autonomy of counties, offered a partial satisfaction of the nationalities' demands for recognition and territorial autonomy. The Austrian constitution affirmed the 'equality of national rights'; the Hungarian government promised to facilitate 'unhindered progress for the nationalities.' The oft-cited, overriding principle of raison d'état was now said to require the 'diplomatic use of Hungarian' in parliament, public administration, and government 'only to the extent necessary for the preservation of Hungarian statehood.'

The agreement, which marked a turning point in the efforts to harmonize the two nations' quest for freedom, was signed by Kossuth and, on behalf of the Romanian émigrés, Bălcescu and Cezar Bolliac. The Hungarian government undertook to finance the establishment of a Romanian legion: 'This legion will pledge allegiance to Romania and Hungary. It will fight for freedom and independence, but never against the national rights of a people.'[95]95. Kossuth Lajos összes munkái XV, pp. 723-7. The government was inspired by the success of the negotiations to take further initiatives and flesh out its now remarkably progressive policy toward nationalities. On June 28, Prime Minister Bertalan {3-322.} Szemere led the parliament to endorse the reconciliation project by regulating the position of national minorities in Hungary and providing for extensive language rights. Szemere observed, with some justice, that 'no government in history' had ever taken such a step.[96]96. Szemere's circular letter of July 29 to government commissioners, in Z. I. Tóth, 'A Szemere-kormány nemzetiségi politikája,' MR, p. 367.

Bălcescu kept in close touch with the Romanian members of parliament, and he was highly sensitive to the social needs of Transylvania's Romanians. At the urging of the Romanian legislators, it was noted in the reconciliation document that compulsory labour on allodial lands had already been abolished in law. Since the project's provisions for nationality rights were in harmony with the moderate demands voiced by the Romanians of Transylvania in spring 1848, it would appear that Romanian and Hungarian progressives had laid the foundations for a combined effort by the peoples of the Danubian region (including Transylvania) against the forces of tyranny. Indeed, many partisans of liberty were filled with an optimism that stood in sharp contrast to the mood that had prevailed in the autumn of 1848; they faced formidable odds, but were ready to confront the enemy, not least because they were counting on help from the rest of Europe. Alas, while the immediate peril had inspired agreement on the principle of cooperation, it was too late to put this into practice.

Bălcescu immediately set off for the Érc Mountains, the reconciliation plan in hand. His friend Eftimie Murgu — a more passive, but highly respected deputy from the Banat — was prevailed upon by Szemere to follow suit and convey the recently-enacted nationalities bill to the Érc Mountains. Even the 'tribune' Iosif Moga was sufficiently disillusioned by the experience of collaboration with the Austrians that he tried to mediate with the resistance movement. Posters in Kolozsvár announced that 'the king of the Alps' would soon 'lead 6,000 men to join the Hungarian Army.'[97]97. Dénes Esterházy's diary II, p. 14. Archivele Statului, Cluj-Napoca. Despite all these efforts, Iancu was not prepared to offer more than a promise of neutrality. To be sure, even that promise had a positive impact, for it helped to forestall fresh outbreaks of civil conflict.

{3-323.} The entry of Russian and Austrian forces in mid-June 1849 effectively sealed Transylvania's fate. Against the 45,000–47,000 Russians and 9,000–11,000 Austrians, Bem could only muster 24,000–25,000 men, for some 8,000–10,000 Hungarians were tied down in the Érc Mountains and the siege of Gyulafehérvár. Moreover, the invading forces were better equipped. At times, the Hungarian officers vied in timidity; at other times, they amazed adversaries with their death-defying heroism. Bem understood that the outcome of the war would not be determined in Transylvania; he therefore concentrated on blocking the enemy's way to the Hungarian Great Plain, in order to give the Hungarian government time to deploy the bulk of its forces in southern Hungary, at the confluence of the Tisza and Maros rivers. Pursuing a tactic of active defence, he would take over command of any division that was on the point of retreating. When he blocked them in the north, the Russians and Austrians forces moved to occupy the Háromszék; the death in battle of Áron Gábor, the popular cannon maker, was as costly as a defeat. The Székely troops initially fell back, then, under Bem's direct command, passed to the attack. At about the same time that Hungarian–Romanian negotiations were drawing to a close, the Polish general, with Kossuth's assent, invaded Moldavia, but he failed to set off a national uprising. Meanwhile, in the south, the Russians took a month to advance from Brassó to Nagyszeben, and, in the north, they dared not attack Kolozsvár or Marosvásárhely.

In late July and early August, Bem suffered two heavy defeats. In both cases, the expected reinforcements failed to arrive in time, although even they might not have been sufficient to tip the balance in favour of the Hungarians. The first setback came at Segesvár. One of the casualties Sándor Petőfi, the poet of the revolution and the war of independence; another was Anton Kurz, Bem's adjutant and an ardent champion of solidarity among nations. Bem thereupon launched a daring surprise attack and managed to drive the {3-324.} Russians out of Nagyszeben. However, after another defeat, at Nagycsűr, he was compelled to pull back towards the Banat.

The subsequent course of the Transylvanian campaign would be determined by developments in Hungary. Ben, summoned by Kossuth, took command in the last major battle of the Hungarian War of Independence, at Temesvár, but fortune deserted him. As the military situation turned increasingly hopeless, Kossuth gave full powers to Artúr Görgey, who, trusting in the czar's generosity, surrendered unconditionally on August 13 and advised the forces in Transylvania follow suit. Intent on continuing the struggle, Bem headed back to Transylvania, but his troops were rapidly losing the will to fight. Sándor Gál managed to deceive the enemy and lead a few thousand Székely troops, first to Kolozsvár, and then to the northern Partium, but there his forces began to fall apart. On August 25, at Zsibó, Lajos Kazinczy surrendered along with his officers and the remnants of his troops. Some scattered Hungarian units in the Érc Mountains surrendered to the Romanians, trusting in the latter's neutrality. Much to the annoyance of his Austrian military advisor, Iancu set the captured Hungarians free.

Later, after suffering further disappointments, people in the Érc Mountains came to sing about Bem and Iancu as comrades-in-arms. Over time, the lessons drawn from both bitter experience and the glimmerings of compromise would help to overcome the memory of a bloody civil war. The veterans of the struggle for national liberation still had to find a solution to the 'Transylvanian question,' one that satisfied the aspirations of all the nationalities in that troubled region.