The Provincial Assembly at Work

The government sought the enactment of eleven bills, including some that would not normally fall within the mandate of a provisional assembly. The first three bills dealt with the extension of full rights to the Romanian nationality and its churches, official status for all three languages, and the electoral and house rules. All three bills were regarded by Romanian politicians as crucial for their nationality's survival, promising the satisfaction of long-felt needs. This was the first Transylvanian assembly (and as we know, also the last) in which they formed a majority.

The bills regarding the emancipation of the Romanian nation and the official languages were drafted in Vienna mostly through the efforts of Romanian councillors and of Vasile Popp, the vice-president of the Kolozsvár Gubernium. When a 14-member committee of the Nagyszeben assembly found itself with no less than {3-439.} nine different motions to consider, Count György Béldi and the Saxon members left the task of producing a final draft to the Romanian members. The latter, and especially Bariţ, laboured to reconcile the government motion with Transylvania's ancient feudal constitution; their version not only gave equal legal status to the Romanian nation and its churches but also affirmed that 'they are legally recognized along with the other three nations and four religions in terms of the Transylvanian constitution as well.'[56]56. Okmánytár, p. 355. The amendment, observed one of the bill's movers, Cipariu, showed that the Romanian nation was attached to Transylvania's traditions: they were not content with being declared equal to other nations of the world, they wanted it made explicit that, in this particular region, they had the same rights as the Hungarians, Székelys, and Saxons. Later, this attachment to history, along with the attempt to link feudal nationhood and liberal nationhood, would give rise to numerous contradictions. Romanian politicians would, at different times, deny the validity of the feudal laws, cite them as legal precedents, or (when their sense of grievance overflowed) demand the amendment of laws that had lapsed, as if that could remedy the injustice of history. One Romanian deputy even argued that if the emancipation of the Romanian nation was enacted, the same should be done for the Hungarian nation, since the feudal laws only referred to nobles, Székelys, and Saxons. Although it was made clear at the outset that equality of civil rights was not limited to the four nations mentioned in the bill, the deputy from Szamosújvár nevertheless drafted a motion to grant equal rights to the Armenians, of whom there were some ten thousand in his district.

The majority of Saxon deputies endorsed a proposal that was originally adopted by the Universitas in the spring of 1862. This envisaged the creation of four separate national regions: A Romanian one, with a population of 765,000, 85 percent Romanian; a so-called Székely region, with 416,000 people, 75 percent Hungarian; a Saxon region with 422,000 inhabitants, 54 percent of {3-440.} them Saxons; and a so-called Hungarian administrative region, with 313,000 inhabitants, 26 percent of them Hungarians. The motion was not adopted. Hungarian and Saxon liberals, and Romanians as well, considered the proposal to be regressive; the Romanians also feared that it would prevent the Romanian majority in several counties from asserting itself. Most Saxon deputies were partisans of imperial centralization, which they regarded as the best guarantee of survival for the Germanic people and — despite the experience of the absolutist era — of Saxon autonomy as well. The plan to divide Transylvania into four national regions was inspired by the same outlook. A minority among the Saxon deputies were liberal unionists, mostly from Brassó. One of them, Franz Brennenberg, had earlier declared himself in favour of union, and then gave up his mandate. Another partisan of union, Franz Trauschenfels, stayed at the task, and it befell on him to present the committee's proposal regarding the emancipation of Romanians. The bill, which ran for forty-one lines of text, was debated over ten sittings, then enacted. In October, it received the sovereign's sanction.

In the past, the 'three nations, four religions' had been branded at times as Transylvania's seven sins. When the assembly granted equal status to the Romanians and their Churches, some members of the Hungarian opposition — who would have supported this concession if they had not stayed away — commented ironically that Transylvania now had 'ten sins.'

{3-441.} The proposal on language rights not only ratified recent changes — the use of the Romanian in state administration had spread after 1860 — but opened up new possibilities. The Hungarian liberals wanted to give counties and municipalities free choice of official language (a preference manifest in the diet's bill in 1861) and to maintain Hungarian as the exclusive language of the state and of parliament — although Count Domokos Teleki, a man of considerable political stature, did not rule out that one day Romanian would become the official language of Transylvania.

The government's proposal offered more than had the Hungarian liberal camp, but the difference was one of form rather than of substance. Hungarian, Romanian and German all became official languages. However, correspondence with the military was to be conducted in German, and the government — in keeping with the spirit of the provisorium — intended to regulate by decree the language of laws, of central administration, and of correspondence with state agencies; Parliament thus had no authority over the actual choice. During the debates, a sharp polemic erupted between Saxons and Romanians concerning the practical implementation of the proposal, and also over the privileged status of German in the Szászföld. The Saxons favoured a progressive application of language equality. Ioan Negruţiu riposted that things had changed: 'Our Hungarian brothers have responded to our wishes regarding language. In the counties, our language has been granted status equal to Hungarian ... The Hungarians have not raised any objections, and I think that if they were present, they would all declare themselves in favour of prompt enactment of the bill.'[57]57. M. Mester, Az autonóm Erdély és a román nemzetiségi követelések az 1863-64. évi nagyszebeni országgyűlésen (Budapest, 1936), p. 259. Some Romanians would have preferred that the choice of language in the counties be decided by the voters and not by the local authorities, thus ensuring that the will of the Romanian majority would be done; but on this question, as on that of German language privileges, the pro-government majority prevailed. Although the law was sanctioned by the sovereign only at the beginning of 1865, in late 1863 the government instructed the Gubernium in Kolozsvár to put it into effect, and partial implementation followed.

The prospect for extension of the Romanian nation's political rights seemed closer than ever at the time of the Nagyszeben assembly, yet the appearances were more deceptive than ever. The Hungarian elite was the province's oldest repository of power; its economic position was the strongest, its conservative and liberal wings had allies in Hungary, and its political potential was the greatest. No changes could be effected without the active cooperation {3-442.} of this elite. On the other hand, the elite of priests, civil servants, and intellectuals produced by contemporary Romanian society was not capable of playing a powerful and effective political role; it was condemned by force of circumstance to serve as the reserve battalion of the state bureaucracy. Romanian leaders noted this anomalous situation and tried to find remedies. Bariţ and others spoke in the provincial assembly in favour of modern constitutionalism, thus adopting the Hungarian liberals' policy. Ioan Ratiu had already urged his fellow politicians in the summer of 1861 not to commit themselves unreservedly to the Schmerling government but to make contact with Hungarian politicians; he had been warned by Josef Grimm, an influential Austrian official who was leaving Transylvania, that Vienna could change tactics at any time and sacrifice the Romanians. From the start, the Nagyszeben meeting was marked by ill-feeling. However, the Romanian laymen could not skip over their shadows and become people's tribunes overnight; and Romanian prelates were inhibited by the fate of the Catholic bishop Haynald, whose oppositionist attitude had earned the sovereign's rebuke and dismissal from his post at Gyulafehérvár. Romanian leaders did not realize that absolutism was on its last legs, and that Schmerling's attempts at centralization were merely a rearguard action against the opposition forces. They were unaware that the government's policy towards Germany met only with setbacks, and refused to believe that Schmerling's days were counted; indeed, by 1863, the prime minister's former supporters, Austria's liberal bourgeoisie, were turning against him. The Transylvanian assembly convened at a time when the policy that led to its creation was on the brink of collapse.

The atmosphere in the assembly became more sombre after the enactment of the first few bills. Suspicion grew that the whole exercise was simply designed to compel the Hungarians to join the Reichsrat. For the government, the Nagyszeben legislative was an expendable device. The deputy chancellor, Reichenstein, always {3-443.} kept the monarch's decree for dissolution at hand. Gusztáv Groisz, a Hungarian conservative, received the fewest votes among the six candidates, yet ended up chairman of the diet. The government obtained unanimous approval of the October Diploma and the February Patent, overriding the Romanians' wish that a new electoral law and the issue of equal rights be addressed first. When enactment became urgent, a few Romanians joined the Saxons, and debate was foreclosed. The Romanians wanted the supreme court to be located in Transylvania, but the government was set on Vienna, and thus the majority decision was simply overturned in a subsequent vote. Pressed by a royal ordinance, the assembly promptly named twenty-six delegates to the Reichsrat; on October 20, in the imperial capital, they took the seats of the Czech representatives who had recently withdrawn. The thirteen Romanian and eleven Saxon delegates were powerless. They approved, without amendment, the budget for Transylvania, and when they asked for subsidies to church-managed schools, an Austrian liberal called them beggars, while another observed that the Austrians would have preferred the presence of those who stayed home, that is, the Hungarians. Although their initial welcome was friendly enough — 'Let Transylvania discover what it means to belong to the empire,' said Schmerling'[58]58. Ürmössy, Tizenhét év IV, p. 146. — the government generally treated the Nagyszeben delegates as silent extras. It was with a sense of bitterness that the Romanian representatives returned home in February 1864, and several of them were probably reminded of István Türr's warning in Bucharest, when he advised them in Românul not to go to the Reichsrat, for 'ephemeral victory would come at the price of the future ... Circumstances had placed a weapon into the Romanians' hands, but they should beware of hurting themselves, for it is a double-edged sword.'[59]59. István Türr's appeal was reprinted in Magyar Polgár, 6 December 1868.

In May 1864, the Nagyszeben assembly reconvened for a session that was to last until the end of October. Difficulties and missed opportunities multiplied. Only a few laws were passed; the {3-444.} provincial administration was reorganized on the basis of the temporary regulations imposed in 1863, and a new electoral law was drafted. The need to reconcile the different nationalities' interests made for slow progress in deciding whether nine or twelve administrative districts would be more appropriate. Many matters were left unsettled: The reorganization of the administration of justice, Ratiu's proposal — branded communist by the liberals — for converting to common use woodlands that before 1848 had been exploited by both landlords and peasants, equitable terms for the final elimination of villeinage in the Székelyföld, and the proportional repartition of pastures formerly used by landlords and peasants. The lack of parliamentary experience carried a price, and proceedings were prolonged by simultaneous use of three languages; eventually, they abandoned the practice and used the three languages alternately. More problems were created by rivalry between the two Romanian prelates. They and many other delegates insisted on delivering lengthy speeches even on motions that they all supported.

The session was adjourned on 29 October 1864 so that a sixteen-member delegation could attend the Reichsrat in Vienna. The assembly never reconvened, for the political situation underwent radical change in the course of 1865. Thus the Landtag expired without a formal dissolution. The six laws that it managed to enact turned out to be stillborn; the Hungarian political elites opposed them, and technically the sovereign was not bound by them, for he had not taken an oath to the Hungarian crown.

The Nagyszeben assembly reflected the contradictory character of the era's politics. After 1848, European progressives learned at their own expense that if broad suffrage was essential for popular political action and self-government, it could also be a double-edged sword. The partly capitalist, partly military system controlled the army, the gendarmerie, and the judiciary; it could also manipulate public opinion. With these tools, it was able to consolidate {3-445.} its predominance despite the innovation of a broad franchise, which turned out to be a caricature. The provincial assembly was a docile instrument used by the government to prove its own effectiveness, and also to hold the Hungarian liberals in check. When the second session got under way, the most prudent deputies, like Şaguna, and the most liberal ones, like Bariţ, quietly decamped. There is no denying that the preparations for the assembly had been an education in politics for the Romanian peasantry, minor intelligentsia, and petty bourgeoisie; and that the sessions of the diet had a consciousness-raising and mobilizing effect on the whole of Romanian society. If the assembly had any lasting merit, it lay in the stimulus given to the national consciousness of the Saxon middle class and, to an even greater extent, of the Romanians.