The Political Activization of the Romanian Middle Class

The revolution and grass-roots movements shattered the old order. Those who for decades had stood in the way of the Romanian National Party's quest for power were expelled or neutralized. The very fact that it had been largely excluded from political life now earned the party the almost unbounded trust of the sizeable lower middle class.

Neither the government nor the working class seemed prepared to resist tactical attempts to exploit the revolution. The Károlyi government adopted an essentially democratic approach toward the Romanian middle classes. As noted, it consulted the nationalities in the choice of lords lieutenant. Thus Ştefan C. Pop proposed the appointment of the Radical Lajos Varjassy to head Arad County, asserting that 'he is the only candidate who personifies an adequate guarantee' for the Romanians.[15]15. Ştefan C. Pop's letter of 3 November 1918, OL, Nemzetiségi Ügyek Minisztériuma, IX. t. 64. In Kolozsvár, the Romanian National Senate — initially independent, later subordinated to Arad — requested that one of its members 'be appointed plenipotentiary government commissioner, responsible for all civil administration in Transylvania, for there is still a chance that such a move can restore order.'[16]16. Letter from the Romanian National Senate in Kolozsvár, 6 November 1918, OL, Nemzetiségi Ügyek Minisztériuma, 1918, IX. t. (BM 8584 res.) As early as 4 November, this 'senate' had agreed with the Kolozsvár Hungarian National Council to recognize General Siegler as commander of all national guards; at the same time, it received a substantial sum of money from the government to finance the separate Romanian national guard. A subsequent submission to the peace conference asserted that Hungary had 'not only permitted the Romanians to organize national councils and national guards, but actively encouraged them to do so, for while these bodies were autonomous, the government nevertheless {3-765.} regarded them as agencies of the state. This view is underscored by the fact that the Hungarian government expended public funds to maintain national guards, including the Romanian ones.'[17]17. Les négociations de la paix hongroise I (Budapest, 1920), p. 384. National guards and national councils were established during the first half of November in all sizeable localities. The leaders and other prominent members of the Romanian councils came from the ranks of priests, lawyers, teachers, former officers, and wealthy peasants. Formed to counter the peasant movements, the national guards helped to restore order; and although the appropriateness of this device was debatable, there is no question that in mid-November the guards were the best available force for the maintenance of order.

Initially, relations between Hungarian authorities and the Romanian councils were remarkably cordial. In several localities, the two ignored the formal prohibition issued by the Romanian council at Arad, and formed joint national councils. In Bihar County, the leader of the Romanian council, Aurel Lazăr, collaborated so effectively with the authorities 'in the interest of preserving public order' that they handled jointly 205 of the 287 complaints submitted (mainly by landowners) up to November 11. The Hungarians acknowledged the cooperative disposition of the Romanian military commissioner in Arad County, Ştefan C. Pop.

It seems that the drift of the Romanian middle classes towards autonomy was accelerated by the progressive invigoration of the republican movement and the growing radicalization of Hungarian society. 'As far as we Romanians are concerned, [the revolution] must be considered a national catastrophe,' argued Românul; 'We must make every effort to give the revolution a national character.' The Romanian papers would variously contend that 'the Romanian National Council is not simply a child of the revolution'; that 'no one expects us to follow Budapest's lead and turn into republicans, enemies of the dynasty, or revolutionaries — we were none of these in the past, and we have no reason to assume such roles in the {3-766.} future'; and that 'we are separating ... and strike out on our own path ... careful to avoid the fate of the people of Budapest, for we do not wish to be led against our will and reach destinations chosen by others; and instead of allowing ourselves to be carried along by the flow of events, we shall attempt to steer their course in accordance with our interests.'[18]18. Românul, 7 December, 12 November 1918; Drapelul, 19 November 1918. See also V. Liveanu, 1918: Din istoria luptelor revoluţionare din Romînia (Bucharest, 1960), pp. 507, 510, 547-8.

Of course, the Romanian leaders' outlook was inspired by traditional state structures and not by some new system of councils. In an attempt to create an independent army, the Central Romanian National Council declared that all Romanian soldiers were 'soldiers of the Romanian National Council.' In Vienna, Maniu had formed a central military council consisting of some one hundred officers; it counted on the 5,000 Romanian troops of the infantry regiment from Szászváros, as well as on some soldiers stationed at Wiener Neustadt. Maniu had reportedly sought out Defence Minister Stöger-Steiner as early as October 31 to request that the command of the Romanian regiments be transferred to him. He was taking a calculated risk: 'In five minutes, it will be clear whether we can gain the leadership of the revolution or be court-martialled and perhaps led before a firing squad.'[19]19. S. Stoica, Iuliu Maniu (Cluj, 1934), p. 114. In the event, the minister granted Maniu's request, and the soldiers swore loyalty to the Romanian national flag. Stöger-Steiner thereupon requested that the regiment be deployed in Vienna to preserve public order and quell 'disturbances.' Maniu agreed and advanced new demands; the minister promised to provide food and rail transport, as well as the use of the entire Wiener Neustadt base for the sizeable Romanian military force.

Maniu's goal was to reorganize Romanian soldiers streaming back from the Italian front and send the units back to Transylvania. The plan would have endowed the Romanian National Council with an army of 50,000 men — a considerable military force that would have increased Arad's leverage with respect to Budapest and even Bucharest. The movement of troops to Transylvania began in {3-767.} early November; as a precautionary measure, they were transported mainly through Serbia, avoiding areas under Hungarian control. Eventually all the soldiers reached Transylvania; but since the future of the Banat was undecided, the prudent Serbian military command chose to disarm the well-equipped 'Prague Romanian Legion' on its way back from Czechoslovakia. This shattered the Transylvanian Romanians' hope for an army of their own.

In early November, the leaders of the Romanian National Council were still somewhat uncertain about the prospects for Transylvania. It was not clear whether the Entente would uphold the agreement, concluded secretly at Bucharest in 1916, which promised Romania sovereignty over most of Hungary's territory east of the Tisza. Moreover, the advance of France's expeditionary force in the Balkans had been halted at the Danube River.

A diplomatic consequence of the revolution was the publication on November 5 of the so-called Lansing memorandum. This indicated that the American president was 'sympathetic to the idea that Romanians everywhere belonged to a single nation. The United States would not fail to exert its influence, at the appropriate moment, in support of the Romanian nation's legitimate political and territorial demands.'[20]20. B. Jancsó, Op. cit., p. 123. By that time, the victorious powers had all promised to support Romania's territorial claims, including the annexation of Transylvania. On November 9, Berlin advised Bucharest that 'Romania's aspirations with regard to Transylvania will be regarded favourably' if the Romanians did not hinder the withdrawal of Mackensen's troops. In a curious twist of fate, Romania's strongest opponent had joined the victorious Entente in encouraging her to occupy Transylvania.

Transylvania's Romanian politicians were emboldened by these developments. They wished to speed up the process under way and, at the same time, to consolidate their own positions, so that, whatever the diplomatic outcome, they could preserve and expand their political and economic autonomy. Their most immediate, and {3-768.} difficult, task was to prepare the transfer of power by taking over key administrative posts from the Hungarians. To this end, they sought to reach an accord with the Hungarian government.