Romanian Resistance in the Érc Mountains and the Demand for a 'Romanian Austria'

In February, Brassó's Romanian newspaper reflected in disillusionment that 'in this war, the Romanians have done nothing on their own, they did not act independently like the Serbs, Croats, or even the Saxons. If told to gather, they gathered, if told to set out, they set out, if told to disperse, they went home; and on the rare occasion when they were allowed to act of their own volition, they were blamed for acting like tigers who brought fire and bloodshed to the whole country.'[87]87. G. Bariţ, '195,000 lanceri români si Siebenbürger Bote,' Gazeta de Transilvania, 21 February/5 March 1849, no. 14. Such apologetic appraisals were overshadowed that summer by the dramatic events in the Érc Mountains. To be sure, Austrian officers were active in the region, and the fact that the Austrian-held fortress at Gyulafehérvár held out against a sustained, {3-313.} if rather ineffectual siege by the Hungarians had psychological as well as military impact. Nevertheless, it is Avram Iancu and other Romanian intellectuals imbued with the ideal of liberty who deserve most of the credit for organizing and guiding the resistance movement that emerged in the Érc Mountains. Iancu, who took to wearing folk costume, inspired many a legend; the common folk called him 'king of the Alps,' and he came to personify the bitter struggle. The movement had its moments of despair as well as of militancy. At times, both the idealistic Buteanu and the implacable Balint feared that the common folk would tire of the conflict and deliver their leaders to the enemy.

Romanian resistance in the Érc Mountains prolonged the state of hostilities and drew attention to the continuing need for a settlement of the national question. Noting the Hungarians' military successes, Romanian deputies in Debrecen sought to mediate between the Hungarian government and the rebels in the Érc Mountains so as to forestall the otherwise inevitable defeat and reprisals; success would strengthen their hand in negotiating for concessions on behalf of their people. Ioan Dragoş, a deputy from Bihar County, took on the role of mediator and peacemaker. He had already won plaudits for having secured a satisfactory settlement of the status of the Romanian Orthodox episcopacy and clergy at Arad; and it was he who had suggested, on 14 April, that the parliament convene in Debrecen's Great Church, in front of an audience of Kossuth supporters, to rule on the question of Hungary's independence. After his first visit to the Érc Mountains, he delivered a report that led Kossuth to evoke in parliament the possibility of reconciliation. On April 26, the governor wrote to Dragoş setting out the tentative terms of an accord. The letter seemed to signal a new phase in the government's policy towards the nationalities. Kossuth stressed that while the language of 'diplomacy' and 'national government' would have to be Hungarian, 'we want not only to allow the nationalities free use of their language and unhampered development, but {3-314.} to foster civilisation by actively promoting this development.'[88]88. Kossuth Lajos összes munkái XV, p. 137. Although he did not elaborate on the Hungarian language question, he guaranteed the free use of Romanian in local government, schools, and churches; he also promised to grant a general amnesty — albeit one that excluded Bishop Şaguna, whom Kossuth would not forgive for having invited Russian intervention in January. Kossuth's terms failed to satisfy the Romanians, but his proposal for an 'honourable peace' left the door open for further negotiation. To be sure, he would have preferred if emissaries from the Érc Mountains came not to negotiate, but to deliver a pledge of loyalty from their people, and if Romanian fighters volunteered for service in the Hungarian army. It did not bode well for the future that the parties failed to agree on a framework for negotiation. It seems that in his effort at mediation, Dragoş had embellished the two sides' positions and overstated their readiness to compromise.

A mood of militancy and mistrust reigned among ordinary Hungarians. The latter blamed Romanian leaders for the heavy casualties inflicted by the civil war and favoured a forceful response to the rebellion in the Érc Mountains; their belligerence evoked the French revolutionaries' reaction to the Vendée. Csányi may have championed amnesty and a 'peaceful settlement,' but when he heard rumours that the Romanian leaders had been told to prepare for a new Austro–Russian offensive, he wanted to have them deported to Hungary. Initially, Iancu had engaged in talks with Dragoş only to play for time, but, tormented by doubt, gradually came to favour genuine negotiation. More and more of his fellow-leaders were disposed to give in to popular opinion and abandon the struggle. One positive sign was their willingness to let Dragoş address public rallies; sources indicate that his attempts at reassurance met with uneven success.

Peacemaking was hampered not so much by mutual mistrust and dilatory tactics as by the absence of coordination between military and civil authorities. In early March, a plan was drawn up for {3-315.} a massive assault on the Érc Mountains, but the defence ministry rejected it on the grounds that the 'pacification' of Romanians was a responsibility of the Transylvanian authorities. Meanwhile Bem, unaware of the letter sent by Kossuth the previous day, took it upon himself to order the immediate reassignment of officers who had failed to suppress the Romanians' resistance and charged his close comrade-at-arms, János Bánffy, with executing the instruction. However, Bánffy, who was on his way to Kolozsvár, did not succeed in persuading Imre Hatvani, the new commandant of the forces near Abrudbánya, to exercise restraint. Hatvani, a young radical wholly devoted to the revolutionary cause, had published in spring 1848 a pamphlet championing the Romanians in the Banat, and he would have much preferred to fight against the rebel Serbs. The peace talks at Abrudbánya were making good progress, but false rumours led Hatvani to believe that Hungarian townsfolk had been molested; brushing aside desperate pleas from Dragoş, he and a thousand poorly-equipped soldiers marched into Abrudbánya on March 5. Hatvani wanted the peace talks to continue, but his motley and ill-disciplined force was not up to the task of maintaining order; the abuses and atrocities committed by his soldiers sparked a renewal of civil war.

Iancu, who had managed to escape, marshalled his forces to surround the badly-led Hungarians. Verespatak and Abrudbánya were set ablaze. The same Romanian 'tribune' who, at the instigation of an Austrian military advisor, had incited people against the peace process, now branded Dragoş a traitor and threw him as prey to the lancers. Meanwhile, Kossuth responded to the flood of reports and false rumours by ordering that the military operations against Abrudbánya, suspended without his consent, be resumed. The outcome was another ignominious defeat for the Hungarians, and the Romanians got hold of Kossuth's order. Dobra and Buteanu had remained in Abrudbánya, hoping that they could pursue the peace talks in Debrecen, but Hatvani exacted revenge for his {3-316.} defeat: the former was shot while allegedly trying to escape, and the latter was executed. The conflict also claimed the lives of many Hungarians who had hitherto lived in peace with their Romanian neighbours. The tragic events only reinforced each side's belief that the other was setting a deadly trap.

On July 6, the Hungarian cabinet drafted a program of 'national reconciliation,' and Alexandru Buda, a deputy from Belső-Szolnok County, as well as Sigismund Pop, a deputy from the Kővár district, offered their services as mediators. However, mistrust ran so deep that the military ignored this initiative and launched another attack. Bem dispatched to the Érc Mountains one of his best officers, Farkas Kemény; but the latter was out of his depth in a guerrilla war, and he could count himself lucky that his forces suffered few casualties over the two-week long 'mountain campaign.' One tragic casualty of the civil war was Pál Vasvári. A onetime leader of the 'March youth' in Pest, Vasvári impulsively left his office at the ministry to lead a force of irregulars — supposedly better suited to guerrilla warfare — into the Érc Mountains. On July 6, he was killed in a skirmish at Marisel.

These events only stiffened Romanian resistance. At the end of June, Iancu responded to a Hungarian peace overture by proudly affirming that he was fighting for his entire nation: 'In these two sister-countries, Hungarians cannot talk of existence or a future that takes no account of the Romanians, and neither can the Romanians without the Hungarians,' for 'our relations can never be settled by force of arms.'[89]89. Avram Iancu's letter to Lieutenant-Colonel József Simonffy, Topánfalva, 15/17 June 1849, quoted in Al. Roman, 'Documente la istoria revoluţiunei ungur. din an. 1848/9,' Transilvania (1877), pp. 54-56. This was more than mere theorizing, not least because, in the meantime, the Habsburgs had been driven by the Hungarians' military successes to seek military assistance from the Russian czar. A new, joint offensive had been launched in mid-June, and within a month the Hungarian government and military leaders had to concede the loss of northern Hungary as well as Transdanubia. By then, thanks in part to the resistance movement in the Érc Mountains, there had emerged two, diametrically opposite {3-317.} orientations in Romanian politics. One favoured collaboration with the counter-revolutionary forces, the other with the Hungarian revolution.

Despite the Romanians' heroic resistance in the Érc Mountains, the political influence of the Orthodox hierarchy had been growing steadily at the expense of that of the intelligentsia. This was a direct consequence of the consolidation of forces favouring a centralized empire under absolutistic rule. In late 1848, Şaguna, the Orthodox bishop of Nagyszeben, rejoined the leadership of the Romanian national movement and even undertook to convey their national demands to the emperor. His credibility at court was enhanced both by his rank and by his demonstrated readiness to do Puchner's bidding. That winter, when he travelled over the Carpathians to plead for Russian 'assistance,' Romanian intellectuals insisted that he avoid doing this on behalf of their nation; they feared that Russian intervention in Transylvania would bring an expansion of the czar's influence and impose new burdens on the Romanian principalities. From Wallachia, Şaguna travelled to Vienna and Olmütz, where he proceeded to collaborate with the intellectuals Laurian, Maiorescu, and Bărnuţiu (who had arrived in mid-summer) as well as with some prominent landowners from the Bukovina and the Banat, and enjoyed the backing of Popp and Sina, two Romanian bankers based in Vienna. Taking up the traditional practice of national movements, they delivered a stream of petitions to emperor and government.

Driven by the need and possibility of national integration, this cooperative effort opened a new phase in the history of Romanian national movements. The various regional movements came together, and the demand for Transylvanian autonomy, reiterated as recently as December, was now dropped from the agenda. In February 1849, they requested that Romanians in the 'Austrian provinces' be recognized as a single, self-governing, 'autonomous nation.' This formula served to consolidate a wide variety of {3-318.} demands. Bishop Şaguna momentarily believed that, for the sake of inter-ethnic peace, it was best to set aside demands aiming at the creation of national districts. He may have been inspired by the Orthodox, theocratic model of society and state, and perhaps also by his experiences in Transylvania, when he recommended that, in order to ensure equality of status, the several nationalities adopt the organizational framework of the Church. The intelligentsia, for its part, tended to prefer the option of territorial autonomy. In a draft manifesto, Maiorescu proposed that the February petition focus on the creation of a 'Romanian Austria,' but by July 1849, the group in Vienna was ready to demand the creation of a Romanian crown province. A belief that they were on the winning side gave rise to arguments that revealed the tragic contradictions afflicting national movements in eastern Europe. On the one hand, they evoked their inferior status and fear of other nations' hegemony; on the other hand, they argued that their goal, a united Romanian nation within Austria, could help to thwart the Hungarians' own national ambitions.