{3-755.} The 'Aster Revolution'

The revolutions that shook Russia in February and October 1917 had a profound political impact on central and eastern Europe. One of the historic missions of the Habsburg empire had been to contain czarist expansion, but Russia was now in bolshevik hands, and Austria–Hungary, like Germany, was exhausted by war. The Dual Monarchy, with its population of fifty million, was no longer a key factor in the international politics of Europe, and its future became an open question.

In its proclamation of November 2, the Russian Council of People's Commissars called upon the people of the monarchy to unite with proletarians of all nations in a fraternal alliance, evoking the prospect of a great revolutionary movement. Inspired by the Wilsonian promise of national self-determination, the nationalistic middle classes tried to forestall such a proletarian alliance and preferred to split up the monarchy.

The Entente had difficulty deciding what to do about Austria–Hungary. French politicians favoured total dismemberment, while the English and the Americans considered it more expedient to preserve the monarchy. They did agree that a 'political vacuum' would be dangerous, and that they needed to create a state or set of states that could in the future help preserve an equilibrium against both Germany and bolshevik Russia. This perspective coloured the peacemakers' intentions regarding Transylvania as well.

By spring 1918, it seemed that the Entente regarded the secret pact signed in 1916 to have lost its validity, if only because of the separate peace concluded in Bucharest. In 1916 France and Russia had agreed that the postwar order would be constructed on the basis of great power interests, without regard for earlier treaties, and that the question of Transylvania would be left open until the final settlement. (Allied diplomacy during the Second World War followed {3-756.} a similar line.) However, that autumn, the British and French prime ministers made promises to the 'Romanian unity council' in Paris with regard to the unification of all Romanians. The Americans took rather longer to define their stand. On October 18, in response to Vienna's peace feelers, President Wilson affirmed the importance of satisfying the demands of Czechs and southern Slavs, but he was not prepared to mention the Romanians in a separate declaration.

By early autumn, the pace of political activity accelerated throughout the monarchy. Even before Vienna made its bid for peace, Constantin Isopescu-Grecal had risen in the Reichsrat to demand political autonomy still within the empire for the Romanians of Bukovina. Transylvania's Romanian politicians adopted a similar stance. Following a meeting of the national committee at Nagyvárad, they informed the press that they would 'demand that the king receive political representatives of the nationalities in Hungary [and] make known that the Romanians in Hungary had no wish to secede ... but only wanted the right to self-determination as specified in Wilson's Fourteen Points.'[1]1. Aradi Hírlap, 12 October 1918; Gazeta Poporului, 27 October 1918. Vaida-Voevod followed this up with his last major speech in parliament. Amidst frequent interruptions, he demanded 'complete national freedom' for Hungary's Romanians as well as recognition of the committee as the only organ that could legitimately determine the political status of the Romanian nationality. Official circles in Vienna had been propagating the idea of a federalized monarchy, and thus Vaida-Voevod's initiative was not wholly unexpected.

Those among Transylvania's Hungarian politicians who perceived that profound change was in the air now showed some disposition to compromise. Professor István Apáthy, the local head of the Independence Party and the Transylvanian Alliance in Kolozsvár, wrote to Mihály Károlyi, leader of the opposition, recommending concessions that he deemed reasonable: 'Civil servants who communicate with the public must address people in their {3-757.} mother tongue. Each nationality should delegate a commission to check that this is done. The Ministry of the Interior should create a department for each nationality, and ethnic groups which account for more than 10 percent should have a responsible minister (this would be the maximum concession, subject to negotiation). ... It is out of the question that we hand over control of any county, or that Hungary be restructured into a set of autonomous regions.'[2]2. OSzK Kézirattára, Apáthy-iratok. Quart. Hung. 2955. Apáthy's proposal may have been a major step forward, but its timeliness was questionable.

Károlyi and Jászi held their first meeting with delegates of the Romanian committee on October 18. Károlyi, who was generally regarded as a potential head of government, favoured a referendum on the future of Transylvania, but the delegates demurred. Their main objective was to secure assurances that an eventual government headed by Károlyi would endorse the convening of a Romanian national assembly.

Concurrently, Romanian social democrats took independent initiatives that allowed for the eventuality of territorial secession. On 13 October 1918, at the Social Democratic Party's congress in Budapest, Ion Flueraş declared that 'we endorse the struggle for democracy in Hungary out of self-interest, for if we ever get the rights to which we are entitled in this country, we shall not lose them even if we are annexed to another country.'[3]3. Adevĕrul, 20 October 1918. At the same time, the Romanian social democrats voiced reservations about the Romanian National Party: 'We have no faith in the future policies of the Romanian nationalists, nor in those of the parties of Brătianu or Take Ionescu; we have no idea what they are up to, but we are certain that it is no different from the goals pursued by the black barons.'[4]4. Ibid.

Having formed a Hungarian National Council, the Independence, Radical, and Social Democratic parties issued a manifesto on 26 October. With regard to the nationality question, they urged that there be no delay in giving nationalities the right to self-determination {3-758.} as formulated by Wilson ('in the hope that these elements will consolidate Hungary's territorial integrity').[5]5. MMTVD V (Budapest, 1956), p. 267. The Transylvanian Committee of the Hungarian National Council was formed the same day. The choice of chairman fell on István Apáthy, the internationally-respected rector of Kolozsvár University, who was deeply disliked by the Romanian intelligentsia because of his nationalistic views. The radical Jenő Janovics, a theater and film director, and the social democrat Sándor Vincze were elected deputy chairmen.

When, with revolution in the air, the Wekerle government resigned, Romanian social democrats followed their Hungarian colleagues' example and made contact with the Romanian National Party. On 31 October 1918, at the Vadászkürt Hotel in Budapest, a Romanian National Council was formed. Initially, it had six members from each of the National and Social Democratic parties, but later, due to the insistence of the National party leadership, the balance shifted against the social democrats. The National Party insisted that only social democrats who 'would not obstruct decision-making' or resist the nationalist tendency could serve on the council.

The victory in Budapest of the liberal–democratic revolution — which became known as the 'Aster Revolution,' after the flowers sported by dissident soldiers — led to similar movements in Transylvania. Sizeable public demonstrations occurred in Kolozsvár as early as 30–31 October. Disregarding the warnings of Rector Apáthy and of Transylvania's military commander, General Siegler, university students held a meeting and moved on to demonstrate in front of the military headquarters. The second day brought the release of political prisoners and suspension of censorship.

On 2 November, the revolutionary government in Budapest tried to appease political passions by issuing a series of decrees. Those who had remained in internment were now released, and sequestered assets were returned; proscribed newspapers were once {3-759.} again allowed to publish; all minority schools were reopened; the minorities were canvassed regarding the appointment of new lords lieutenant; the general political amnesty was supplemented by a military amnesty; and an aid programme was instituted for the benefit of all Transylvanian counties. Concurrently, Hungarian and Saxon politicians were joined by Mihali in appealing to the nationalities of Transylvania for mutual understanding and calm.

Apart from Budapest, Temesvár was also an important nest of revolutionary activity. The proclamation, issued jointly by the Radical Party and the Soldiers' Council, of a 'Banat Republic' had an impact on the region's working class (especially in Resica and Arad) and in Transylvania as well. The revolutionary wave continued to spread. On November 2, soldiers in Szeben mutinied. To still the unrest among miners in the Zsil Valley, Vincze sent a telegram to the workers' council: 'The guarantee that your demands will be satisfied lies in the presence of your comrades in government.'[6]6. Telegram of November 3, Párttörténeti Intézet Archívuma, 1918 A XVI. However, the miners seized control of their districts and refused to acknowledge any higher authority. An armoured train was met on its arrival, on November 17, by a mass of armed workers and had to withdraw to Déva. The mine's management was put under the supervision of the workers' council, which controlled the distribution of coal and imposed limits on prices and working hours. A 'public supply commissar' was charged with supplying food for the miners. In early November, bloody clashes occurred in the mining villages of Bihar and Szatmár counties as well.

By November 4, the remaining military units had been disbanded under pressure from the workers' and soldiers' movements. Reduced to its officer corps, the army could no longer function as an instrument of control. In some localities, notably Kolozsvár and Arad, the Social Democratic Party relied on organized workers to maintain order.

The revolution in Budapest and the subsequent labour unrest heightened social tensions in rural areas, where the spark of rebellion {3-760.} was fanned by thousands of repatriated, exhausted soldiers touched by the spirit of revolution. In early November, Transylvanian peasants, incited by these veterans, vented their anger against municipal clerks. The latter were the chief local representatives of state authority, and their role had expanded during the war: exemptions from military service, the requisitioning of grain and livestock, compulsory labour, and the supervision of price controls all fell within their purview. These activities, and the clerks' abuse of their authority, aroused the ire of the peasantry. Rebellious peasants raided large estates, sacked manor-houses, and took away grain stocks; state farms suffered a similar fate. The raids often involved violent clashes with the authorities.

The peasants' rebellion was most widespread in the more developed counties — Arad, Temes, Krassó, Szörény, and parts of Bihar and Kolozs. Local officials reported on 'activities that disregard private property and aim at bolshevism and the redistribution of land in virtually all districts of Kolozs County.' Similar reports came from the counties of Torda and Alsó-Fehér.[7]7. OL, Nemzetiségi Ügyek Minisztériuma, 1918, IX. t. 839.

Although some of these rural disturbances had a nationalistic flavour, the movement cannot be characterized as purely nationalist. The village risings were directed generally against municipal clerks, landowners, the authorities, usurers, and occasionally against the local priest. 'The local Romanian priest and the municipal clerk were run out of town just like their counterparts in the purely Hungarian-inhabited Great Plain'; 'in several localities, Hungarians and Romanians went on the rampage side by side'; 'looting occurred in Hungarian as well as Romanian villages.' Such observations recurred regularly in reports to the authorities.[8]8. Erdély története II, p. 425; Aradi Hírlap, 2-5 November 1918. The lord lieutenant of Krassó-Szörény County reported on November 6: 'The feckless mobs, at first consisting mainly of soldiers, gradually won over the local inhabitants and turned against all those whom they regarded as enemies of their material welfare ... Since looting also occurred in purely Romanian villages, it cannot be said that these movements had a clear nationalistic thrust. The events in {3-761.} nearby Temesvár, which initially were motivated by the wish for a separate republic ... had a deep impact on my county's inhabitants.'[9]9. OL, Nemzetiségi Ügyek Minisztériuma, 1918, IX. t. 27.

There were instances of cooperation between peasants of different nationalities. In a village near Szászrégen, two Hungarian peasants instigated the expulsion of a leaseholder; the two ringleaders were then 'invited' to organize similar action in a neighbouring Romanian village. Nor did the Romanian peasants spare the property of their 'own leaders.' Peasant rebels seized and redistributed all livestock and equipment on the 1700-hectare estate of Gheorghe Pop, the elderly president of the Romanian party. Mihali, also a major landowner, gave orders to fire on Romanian peasants — not so much in self-defence as to protect property on his estate at Nagyilonda. The estates of the Mocsonyi family and of the Greek Orthodox bishopric at Nagyvárad also came under attack.

The government proved to be impotent in the face of these popular risings. By early November, its principal agent of repression, the gendarmerie, had pulled back for shelter to the larger towns. The gendarmerie headquarters at Beszterce reported that 'due to the attacks, most of our patrols have had to suspend all activity.'[10]10. Párttörténeti Intézet Archívuma, 1918, A. XVI. 7/50-51, 7/4.

Aware of these difficulties, the government turned to the national council for assistance. As noted, the new revolutionary régime had promptly issued a joint Hungarian–Romanian–Saxon declaration inviting the people of Transylvania to 'join forces in defence of human life and property.' On 2 November, after meeting with representatives of the national minorities (Aurel Vlad, Ioan Erdélyi, and Rudolf Schuller), Education Minister Jászi ordered that the experiment with 'cultural zones' be terminated. Jászi noted that 'we began by discussing how to preserve order and calm in the Transylvanian districts. We were in complete agreement on this question.'[11]11. Aradi Hírlap, 3 November 1918.

{3-762.} At the instigation of the government and local authorities, national councils were established in localities where such bodies had not been formed spontaneously. Both the radical councils and the more conservative ones resorted to propaganda and national slogans to disarm the social movements. Priests, who played an important role in the Romanian national councils, led villagers from the Arad district to the county seat and had them swear loyalty to the Central Romanian National Council (which had moved from Budapest to Arad); the peasants were also made to swear that they 'would not raise a hand against their ethnic brethren.' The priests tried to convince peasants that their actions could imperil their nationality's rights: 'We must beware of any action against non-Romanians ... that could allow our enemies to attempt trading the mantle of defendant for that of prosecutor.'[12]12. I. Clopoţel, Revoluţia din 1918 şi unirea Ardealului cu România (Cluj, 1926), p. 61. The government, for its part, argued that the Entente should not be handed an excuse to occupy parts of the country for 'strategic reasons,' and it evoked the spectre of another Romanian invasion. The central Romanian-language newspaper, Românul, resumed publication, and it exploited President Wilson's prestige in issuing an appeal: 'Romanian soldiers, brothers, be patient! ... Lay aside divisive interests and be worthy of the love of the greatest man of our age, Wilson.'[13]13. Românul, 8 November 1918.

Where social problems were most acute, the councils resorted to measures similar to those taken in central Hungary. Some national councils at the county or district level began to supervise the public agencies charged with distributing supplies. In the mining region of the Érc Mountains, Romanian councils took direct responsibility for supplying the needs of the local population. In Topánfalva, they distributed the stock of the leather factory and as well as grain, wine, and alcohol stocks, and ordered the savings bank and shopkeepers to open for business. Some other councils ordered the selling off of wine stocks, ostensibly as a health measure against epidemics. The public supply committee of the national councils at Brád introduced a progressive system of compulsory {3-763.} deliveries. In Alsó-Fehér County, an exchange of grain was organized between the highlands and the lowlands. These initiatives mirrored those taken by Hungarian national councils in the towns.

Accusations, by Romanians as well as Hungarians, of violent reprisals are commonly found in earlier histories of the period. To be sure, the Hungarian middle classes deplored the weakness of central authority and insisted that 'the government should not shrink from imposing martial law where necessary. This measure is not inconsistent with social liberation if it preserves private property from criminal elements.'[14]14. Aradi Hírlap, 5 November 1918. Two incidents in particular earned wide notoriety. On November 6, at Facsád, peasants broke into some shuttered shops, and by the afternoon, despite a warning volley from the gendarmerie, the angry crowd had swelled to a thousand. They ransacked grain silos, the shop of the Romanian Gloria cooperative, and the bootmaker's workshop. At the request of the gendarmerie, an airplane was dispatched from Arad, and its bombs reportedly killed 104 people. The press noted approvingly that the constantly circling airplanes had a pacifying effect. In Arad and Krassó-Szörény counties, the civil militia was joined by a so-called Steel Guard (Acélgárda) in attempts to restore order; in some localities, the Romanian national guards acted alone.

The worst act of terror was perpetrated by an irregular unit, at Jósikafalva. In early November, Italian prisoners of war employed at the sawmill and woods of the landowner János Urmánczy wrecked the canteen and set fire to the storeroom, then dispersed; Romanian peasants followed this up by ransacking the manor-house. A few days later, a commando group recruited by the owner's brother arrived on the scene; invoking 'martial law,' they executed some twenty people and incinerated the bodies. The perpetrators were still on the scene when a joint commission of investigation, dispatched by the Kolozsvár national council, arrived on 12 November and proceeded to condemn the outrage. Whatever their origin, the reprisals failed to put an end to all peasant movements. {3-764.} After the revolution, a broader form of peasant democracy seemed to be emerging in the villages, one that challenged existing structures of central and county authority.