Relations between Hungarians and Romanians on the Eve of the 1848 Revolution

The issue of Hungarian–Romanian relations also gained in importance during this politically tense period. The debates over the rights of Romanians in the Szászföld produced the most notable instances of cooperation. László Gál, the chairman of the Gubernium's auditing office, wrote two lengthy historical essays in {3-202.} support of the Romanians' demands. At the diet, Hungarian noblemen enthusiastically rattled their swords when Bishop Leményi called for the emancipation of Romanians in the Szászföld.

To be sure, such manifestations of sympathy owed something to tactical considerations. A far more significant development was the growing participation of Romanians in the county politics. Alexandru Sterca Şuluţiu, the vicar of Szilágysomlyó and future archbishop of Balázsfalva, had violently denounced the first draft of the Hungarian language bill; yet, in January 1846, he wrote an enthusiastic article for a Romanian paper inviting 'the Romanian public to take notice' that Romanian priests had been given voting rights in the Kraszna County assembly and that 'the Hungarian nation considers its Romanian fellow-countrymen and clergy to be in no way inferior to the Hungarians.'[191]191. Gazeta de Transilvania, 13/25 January 1846, no. 48. In 1846, during the election of delegates in the district of Kővár, Count Sándor Teleki led an alliance that included both Hungarian liberals and a group of propertied nobles and lawyers (including one of Teleki's secretaries, Ioan Buteanu, who would later play an important role), Hungarian and Romanian, who tried to mobilize the Romanian lesser nobility. Teleki was elected to the diet, and when the conservatives managed to engineer his recall, his seat was taken by the liberal sympathizer Alexandru Buda.

In their attempts to prevent Romanian and Hungarian liberals from cooperating, the conservatives resorted more to the instruments of power than to open debate. Their approach to the nationality issue consisted mainly of attempts to alarm both the Hungarian public, by evoking an ethnic threat that had been supposedly 'precipitated' by the liberals, as well as the other ethnic groups, by evoking the assimilative designs of the liberals. Samu Jósika's avoidance of the Romanian question reflected the clever tactics pursued by conservatives. It is said that on one occasion, when he had invited a dozen Romanian students to sound out their views, one of them complained that the Hungarians threatened his {3-203.} nation when, in fact, the Roman conquest endowed the Romanians with historical rights, and many Hungarian nobles, including the chancellor, were of Romanian ancestry. Instead of engaging in debate, Jósika contented himself with citing a passage from Petru Maior's book, which since its publication in 1812, at Buda, had come to be regarded by Romanians as a catechism, to the effect that Romanians had never suffered any injustice at the hands of the Hungarian nation. Jósika regarded Romanian intellectuals as a dangerous element; he abhorred the activism of the Romanian press and recommended that the textbook Az alattvalók kötelességei (The Duties of Subjects) be disseminated as widely as possible.

Kossuth, who wished to see 'the aristocracy of privilege replaced by an aristocracy of merit, intellect, and work,' argued plausibly that conservatives opposed political openness and a free press 'because these would stimulate the emergence of an intelligentsia, of a Kossuth or a Széchenyi, among non-Hungarians as well' — a prospect, he said, that 'fills us with great hope.' Kossuth reflected the naive illusions prevalent among Hungarian reformers when he anticipated that the non-Hungarians' new intelligentsia would 'arouse popular desire for greater political participation and for political nationhood, and thus the desire for constitutional rights that, in Hungary, can only be granted by the Hungarian nation.' Kossuth invited non-Hungarians to 'love and safeguard the country that solemnly adopts you as its own children, along with the nation that presents you with the gift of political maturity.'[192]192. [L. Kossuth], 'A magyar conservativ párt és a nemzetiség,' in Magyar Szózatok (Hamburg, 1847), pp. 242, 255-56, 262. Even if these attempts at rapprochement failed to respond fully to the expectations of the Romanians and other non-Hungarians, they did not fall on deaf ears.

Although Brassó's Romanian press continued to profess neutrality, it also explored the possibility of cooperation with Hungarian liberals. When, in 1846, Elek Jakab, a junior clerk at the treasury, published in Erdélyi Híradó a survey of all the Hungarian proposals aimed at improving the situation of Romanians, Bariţ {3-204.} observed (in an article that, significantly, was reprinted in Wallachia's press) that 'no Romanian pen has ever depicted more vividly the misery and oppression of the Romanians.'[193]193. Gazeta de Transilvania, 5/17 September 1846, no. 72. Bariţ went on to recommend that if Romanians were not prepared to demand recognition as a political nation, they should at least back their bishops' petitions concerning the Szászföld; they should also insist, on the basis of natural law, that their mother tongue prevail in primary schools and churches and that decrees be published in Romanian as well.

Meanwhile, in the Érc Mountains, there occurred, amidst the trials of everyday existence, a remarkable instance of Romanian–Hungarian understanding and solidarity. Katalin Varga, a Hungarian gentlewoman who paid frequent visits to Vienna on personal business, agreed to transmit the serf-miners' grievances to the monarch. According to her submission, the managers of the treasury domain disregarded the serfs' ancient privileges and imposed additional, onerous tasks at a time when 'Your Majesty and the local nobility have graciously granted many paternal favours designed to alleviate the lot of serfs in the noble neighbouring and brotherly Hungarian Motherland, thus setting a shining example for the whole world.'[194]194. Katalin Varga's petition to the monarch, 1841, in Varga Katalin pere, introd. by A. Kiss (Bucharest, 1979), p. 60. When the court failed to respond, some serf-miners began to withhold their services. The unrest continued until, in 1846, the new Orthodox bishop, Andrei Şaguna, was instructed by the Transylvanian government to personally take Katalin Varga into custody. She became a legendary figure, known by the oppressed miners as 'our lady.' Indeed, Katalin Varga was an exceptional person; moved by a profound, Christian belief in social justice, she took on the task of serving as the miners' advocate. However, times were changing, and the interests of peasant communities came to be promoted by legally-trained intellectuals who were motivated by nationalism. This was one of the reasons why the Romanian press denounced Katalin Varga; another was fear that if her advocacy resulted in a peasant rising, the ensuing reprisals {3-205.} would be exceptionally harsh and could bring Romanian intellectuals into discredit.

After the lawsuit at Balázsfalva, it was the turn of Romanian students at the Kolozsvár lyceum to form an organization of radicals. Their home-made newssheet was ostensibly dedicated to culture, but it had a strong political colouring, and the student activists, who were not tied to the Church, were only waiting for the right opportunity to enter the political arena. Legend has it that when Avram Iancu (once cited by a Hungarian visitor to the Érc Mountains as a shining example of serfs who, thanks to popular education, behaved in 'generally approved' fashion) saw that the majority in the diet remained unmoved by the arguments of the liberal Dénes Kemény, he invoked before his fellow students the revolutionary example of Horea. To Iancu, Kemény was a 'demigod.' Bariţ, for his part, defied the growing weight of censorship to report — with scarcely disguised sympathy — on the liberals' speeches in the diet. He was aware that the conservatives' reform of land tenure and socage would considerably restrict the Romanian peasants' scope for social advancement, and would consequently delay the national emancipation of Romanians. Bariţ thus became less adamant in his opposition to union between Transylvania and Hungary.

The political advocates of change had to face the fact that Transylvania was condemned to immobility and incapable of moving autonomously in the direction of progress. The various social and ethnic communities that coexisted in the country were marked by different rates and forms of historical development, and their divisions were enshrined in the surviving institutional structure. Divided along the same lines, the champions of liberalism could not reconcile their particular interests and forge a lasting alliance at the national level. Thus the era of reform in Transylvania was marked by the crisis of feudalism and a concurrent emergence of innovative forces; more significantly, it revealed that, on the one {3-206.} hand, great obstacles lay on the path of progress to liberalism and nationhood, and, on the other hand, that growing discontent with the remnants of feudalism was driving people to seek new paths to a better life. It would take some time before Transylvanians and their neighbours realized that if they were to find peaceful coexistence and prosperity, the imperial structure would have to give way to new forms of regional integration.

The failure of the liberals' attempts at reform meant that the stimulus for change would have to come from abroad. George Bariţ may have been prescient when, in early February 1848, he abandoned the neutrality long professed by his Brassó newspaper and openly endorsed the liberals. He signalled that the time had come for Romanians to assert themselves and join forces with the other champions of liberalism.

The early record of the Romanian national movement in Transylvania offers a good indication of future political goals and attitudes. The desirability of liberal reform led to an alliance with its most powerful proponents, the Hungarian liberals. Some were led to this choice by political pragmatism; others still believed that through such cooperation, the national goals pertaining to language, political participation, and social mobility might eventually be realized. But for many Romanians, the overriding goal was to obtain legal guarantees of their national existence, in the form of regional autonomy or, if necessary, by becoming the rulers of Transylvania; to achieve this goal, they were prepared to assist the imperial power against the Hungarians' national ambitions. At the same time, the proponents of these various approaches were moved by a sense of ethnic solidarity to dream of the reunification of all Romanians, to back the efforts of the Romanian principalities to win full independence, and to forge a closer relationship with liberals and nationalists in those countries. In 1848, Transylvania's peoples stood on the threshold of a liberal revolution, one that had often been prophesied but still came as a surprise.