The End of Hungarian Rule in Transylvania

Transylvanian Hungarians were full of trepidation as the historic transformation began to unfold. They simply could not conceive that their thousand-year-old state could disappear within weeks, nor that what awaited them was minority status in a foreign country which was socially and economically less developed. Overcome by a sense of helplessness, the middle classes tried desperately to salvage what they could and to seek some reassurance. Following the model of the Hungarian national councils, the Székelys set up similar bodies in late November, first at Marosvásárhely, then at Kolozsvár. Uncertain about the future, they variously called for preservation of the status quo and invoked the Hungarians' right to self-determination. The Hungarian government did not fully accept the validity of the Gyulafehérvár proclamation; it wavered between a maximalist program, which aimed at a federation based on the self-determination of nationalities, and a minimalist program, which acknowledged the inevitability of secession and aimed to secure by peaceful means the national rights of the Hungarians who had become a minority. While the government strove to set up a Transylvanian infantry division and to reinforce the national guards, a new Székely council, based in Budapest, called for the creation of a separate Székely brigade. That demand led to the formation on 1 December, in Kolozsvár, of a 'Székely detachment' that became the core of a new Transylvanian division. These military forces might have been able to prevent the Romanian army from crossing the demarcation line, the Maros River, but the government feared the potential international repercussions of such a defensive move. It preferred to abide by the terms of the Belgrade armistice and seek a peaceful solution through mediation, but this approach did not prevent the stronger and more aggressive {3-780.} Romanians from continuing their progressive occupation of Transylvania. The situation was complicated by uncertainty regarding the intentions of the peacemakers at Paris; contradictory measures and statements by French generals, who behaved as viceroys in Belgrade and Bucharest, and by the officers of the Entente mission to Budapest only added to the confusion. Thus General Henri Berthelot, the commander of the French Danubian forces, gave Romanian troops permission in early December to cross the Maros and occupy eight towns between Arad and Máramarossziget, but he long delayed informing the Hungarian government of this decision.

On December 8, the government appointed Professor Apáthy as 'government commissioner for eastern Hungary.' Assisted by a fourteen-department, multi-party governing agency, Apáthy moved immediately to take charge of civil administration in the shrinking territory and to establish contact with the Entente military command. Meanwhile, the Romanian Governing Council at Nagyszeben, chaired by Maniu, began to function in the guise of Transylvania's provisional government.

The Hungarian national councils in Transylvania naturally considered that Hungarians, too, were entitled to self-determination, and called for a meeting on 22 December at Kolozsvár to affirm this principle. General Moşoiu, the commander of Romanian occupation forces, protested at the initiative and threatened to break up the meeting with artillery fire. Undeterred, some 40,000 people gathered in Kolozsvár, including delegates of the Romanian socialists and Banat Swabians; like the Saxons, the latter still preferred the option of remaining within a Hungarian state. The meeting began in the great hall of the Industrial Association headquarters, then shifted to the city's central square, where a huge crowd bearing national flags and red banners had assembled. Since all political groups, nationalists as well as socialists, had come together in a united front, the speeches covered a wide range of themes, from maintenance of a unified state to defence of workers' rights; one {3-781.} Romanian socialist urged that Transylvania become a confederal republic on the Swiss model. A resolution, put forward by Hungarian socialists and ultimately approved, expressed the wish to remain 'within the Hungarian people's republic' on the basis of the right to self-determination: 'We demand unqualified freedom, equal rights, and self-government for all nationalities, within a united and territorially intact Hungary.'[39]39. For the full text, see Mikó, Huszonkét év, p. 12.

The next day, units of the Romanian royal army entered Kolozsvár. Apáthy and his staff remained in place. In a symbolic act designed to affirm legal continuity, the Hungarian military command also remained for some time after their troops had left Kolozsvár. The Romanian military command imposed censorship and a curfew; it introduced punishment by flogging, banned all political activity, and suspended the right of assembly as well as freedom of movement. Left-wingers were hunted down and, in some localities, suffered considerable violence. Daily life was marked by growing confusion and uncertainty. The streets of Kolozsvár were patrolled by joint squads composed of Romanian soldiers, Hungarian and Romanian national guards, and Hungarian municipal police. People who were not permanent residents of Kolozsvár were ordered to leave forthwith. The railways continued to be operated by the MÁV, but under Romanian military supervision. By the middle of January, the Romanians had taken over the reins of administration.

After securing Kolozsvár, the Romanian forces slowly pressed ahead; their advance was justified by reference to national objectives, the instructions of the Entente, and the containment of bolshevism. Meanwhile, the Hungarians had mustered some 3,000 men to hold back the advance. Aiming to prevent a clash, General Berthelot met with Apáthy on December 31, at Kolozsvár; they agreed on a new line of demarcation, stretching from Nagybánya through Dés to Kolozsvár, along which a 15-kilometre-wide demilitarized zone would separate the belligerents. Colonel Kratochwil, {3-782.} who had been in charge of Transylvania's defence since late November, transferred his headquarters in mid-January to Nagyvárad. On 22 January, the Romanian forces reached the line stretching from Máramarossziget, through Zilah and Csucsa, to Zám. Virtually without a fight, King Ferdinand's army had occupied all of historical Transylvania. The sole military engagement occurred near Cigányi, when shots where fired at a Romanian armoured train and nine soldiers lost their lives. On 17 January, the Romanians retaliated by arresting Apáthy on charges of incitement and of disseminating bolshevik propaganda. The Romanian military command demanded 900,000 crowns in war reparations from the Hungarians of Kolozsvár.

When the monarchy collapsed, representatives of the Saxons and Swabians set aside their earlier grievances and, inspired by their long historic association with the Hungarians, continued to look to a Hungarian state for guarantees of their survival and autonomy. To this end, they pursued negotiations in mid-November with the Károlyi government. Both the Saxon National Council (Sächsischer Nationalrat) and the German National Council (which represented all German-speaking citizens) voiced a clear preference for sticking with Hungary, but this view was not shared by all of the Transylvanian Saxons and Banat Swabians. With the emergence of an expanded Romanian state, some of them sought ways of accommodating this new reality. Initially, this quest was manifested in expressions of sympathy for the democratic rights of the Romanian people. In the wake of the Romanians' assembly at Gyulafehérvár, the Saxons advanced their own claims to self-determination, demanding that 212 municipalities be formed into an autonomous Munizipium Sachsendland. Like Jászi, they envisaged a Transylvania based on multiple national autonomy.

At the urging of Bucharest and some French circles, the Romanian Governing Council at Nagyszeben sought to reach an understanding with the Saxon intelligentsia. On New Year's Day, {3-783.} 1919, Rudolf Brandsch held discussions with Maniu. A week later, the Saxon National Council and the central commission convened at Medgyes and decided to accommodate themselves to the new balance of forces. They declared that the Saxons endorsed, indeed, welcomed the unification of Transylvania with Romania, and looked forward to guarantees of their national rights. On 9 January, the resolution was ceremoniously delivered to the Governing Council, and Maniu, with equal solemnity, assured them that 'the national rights of the industrious Saxon people would be honoured and protected.'[40]40. Desăvîrşirea unificării, pp. 446-7. A Saxon delegation informed General Berthelot, who forwarded their resolution to Paris. Over the next few months, it proved necessary to reaffirm more than once that the decision to accept unification with Romania enjoyed the spontaneous support of the majority of Saxons.

In the Banat, where there had been a strong movement in favour of creating a local republic linked to Hungary, German and Hungarian workers opposed union with Romania. Led by Dr. Ottó Roth, a socialist, they declared on 2 December, at Temesvár, that the Banat was henceforth autonomous. Pro-Magyar Catholics within the Swabian intelligentsia favoured preservation of the status quo. The Károlyi government joined forces with the German National Council to institute territorial autonomy for the Banat, and Johann Junker was named to represent the region in Budapest. An autonomous Banat was designed to be part of an emerging Danubian federation, but the experiment was aborted by the Serbian occupation of Temesvár. Most of the Banat remained under the control of the Serbs. In mid-January, French colonial troops took over from Serb units at Lugos to avert the threat of conflict between Romanians and Serbs, and, on the 29th, they marched into Arad.

Transylvania was already under occupation when, in mid-December, a new wave of social unrest began to unfold. Leftist propaganda made new converts among the peasants; Romanian {3-784.} villagers feared that the promised redistribution of land would not take place, and some were bitterly disappointed at the performance of the Romanian intelligentsia in the national councils. Industrial workers took a tougher stand. Miners' councils in the Zsil Valley wanted to establish a separate workers' republic, in the hope that coal, the 'black diamond,' would provide an adequate economic base. To avert a clash, the royal Romanian forces were withdrawn from the valley. In early January, miners from the Nagyvárad district clashed with Romanian troops. In mid-January, miners in the Zsil Valley engaged the Romanian forces in a pitched battle, and the latter made use of their artillery; Romanian social-democrat leaders had to be called in to mediate a truce. These events overshadowed the repeated attempts to establish a republic in the Banat, as well as a similar initiative, taken on 9 January at Udvarhely, to found a Székely republic. Around 20 January, postal workers, printers, clerks, and even some factory workers joined a strike launched by the railway workers, most of whom were Hungarian.

Although a guarantee of national rights for the Hungarians figured prominently among the aims of the workers' movements, it was overshadowed by the revolutionary process that began to unfold in October 1918 and in which the communists would play an increasingly important role. The workers had little respect for what remained of the old state apparatus or for the new and essentially middle-class national councils; nor did they fear the Romanian royal army or regard it as their principal enemy. The liberal elites were disconcerted by such novel attitudes. Middle-class Hungarians looked upon the socialist workers alternately as the last defenders of territorial integrity and as cynical betrayers of the national interest. The Communist party stood out in its rejection of the traditional principle of territorial integrity, but that did not prevent Romanian military counter-intelligence from regarding the workers as the embodiment of Hungarian nationalism as well as bolshevism.

{3-785.} Meanwhile, the Romanian authorities were proceeding take over the administration of Transylvania, and they were anything but sympathetic to the unfolding revolution. In January, the Romanian royal army began to disarm the workers' and national guards. The Nagyszeben Governing Council rejected a proposal, coming from Hungarian intellectuals at Kolozsvár, that civil administration should remain in Hungarian and Romanian hands in their respective districts. The Governing Council's first decree, issued on 24 January, called for the maintenance or restoration of old laws and administrative bodies, but a second decree dissolved all governing bodies and ended the autonomous administration of counties and municipalities. The Romanian prefects who had been appointed to head the counties as well as three cities demanded that officials and civil servants swear loyalty to King Ferdinand. Arguing that Transylvania's status had yet to be clarified in terms of international law, the majority of civil servants would only agree to take a 'pledge'; the conflict dragged on several years and led to massive dismissals. Romanian became the official language. In February, the owners of estates slated to be expropriated were compelled to lease out their land. The Romanian national councils — apart from those in regions under Hungarian military rule — were dissolved. In February, shortly before the proclamation of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, the Nagyszeben government instituted military conscription for the benefit of the Romanian army; the Hungarians were excluded, unlike the Saxons, many of whom became officers in the Romanian army. In early March, Nagyszeben broke off diplomatic relations with the Hungarian government.

The Entente's persistent failure to abide by agreements and the Romanians' steady advance led the Hungarian government to consider the option of armed resistance. On March 2, at Szatmárnémeti, Károlyi told the assembled Székely Division that 'if the Paris peace conference, flouting Wilsonian principles and the right to national self-determination, and foregoing a negotiated peace, {3-786.} decided to dismember Hungary, then we, as a last resort, would have to resort to arms to liberate this country.'[41]41. M. Károlyi, Az új Magyarországért (Válogatott írások és beszédek, 1908-1919), ed. by Gy. Litván (Budapest, 1968), p. 294.

The drafting of a peace treaty with Hungary was begun at the Paris peace conference in early 1919. On 26 February, the peacemakers decided once again to move forward the Hungarian–Romanian demarcation line, and thus, in effect, to transfer additional territory from Hungary to Romania; they did so in response to Romanian pressures, and in order to back up the plans of the French military command for an intervention against Soviet Russia. The decision required that Hungarian troops east of the Szatmár–Arad line be pulled back 100 kilometres, almost as far as the Tisza River. The districts of Szatmárnémeti, Nagykároly, Nagyvárad, and Arad would come under Romanian occupation, and a demilitarized strip to the west of this region would encompass Vásárosnamény, Debrecen, Gyoma, Hódmezővásárhely, and Szeged; Hungarian administration in this zone would come under French supervision. With this measure, French planners intended to secure the rear of the Romanian royal army, slated to participate in operations against Soviet Russia, and also to secure the Temesvár–Szatmár–Csap railway line for the shipping of military supplies to Poland.

The ruling, delivered in Budapest on 20 March by the French Colonel Vix (and subsequently known as the 'Vix Memorandum'), was unacceptable to the Hungarian government. Concluding that the peacemakers had not credited Hungary's willingness to cooperate, and that there was no chance of obtaining tolerable peace terms, Károlyi and his government resigned. The coalition of pro-Entente, middle-class democrats and moderate social democrats suffered a moral and political defeat and threw in the towel. The vacuum of power was filled without a fight by the self-appointed representatives of the proletariat.