A CONCISE HISTORY OF ROMANIA
Spanning a period of 2,000 years from the Roman conquest of Dacia to the present day, A Concise History of Romania traces the development of a unique nation situated on the border between East and West. In this illuminating new history, Keith Hitchins explores Romania’s struggle to find its place amidst two diverse societies: one governed by Eastern Orthodox tradition and spirituality and peasant agriculture and the other by Western rationalism, experimentation, and capitalism. The book charts Romania’s advancement through four significant phases of its history: medieval, early modern, modern, and finally the nation’s “return to Europe,” evaluating all the while Romania’s part in European politics, economic and social change, intellectual and cultural renewals, and international entanglements. This is a fascinating history of an East European nation, one which sheds new light on the complex evolution of the Romanians and the identity they have successfully crafted from a unique synthesis of traditions.
KEITH HITCHINS is Professor of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Cover Illustration: Calea Victoriei pe Ploaie (Calea Victoriei Under Rain), Nicolae Dărăscu (1883-1959). Oil on cardboard, Inv. 2982.© National Museum of Art of Romania.
“No one is better suited than Professor Keith Hitchins to encompass within a single volume the history of the Romanians and Romania. He knows this country - its language, history, and culture - like no one else. He is also well acquainted with Southeastern and Central Europe, and thus he is able to place Romanian history in a broad European context. The present work offers the reader a full, accurate, and perfectly balanced account of a country situated at the meeting place of East and West which over time had to change direction between opposite poles: this is the idea around which the narrative is structured. For those who wish to know the essentials about this European player the book by Keith Hitchins is by far the best introduction.”
“There are two kinds of historians—those who seek to judge and those who seek to understand. Keith Hitchins has paved a path for many younger generations of historians of how to understand empathetically without giving up critical approaches to the past. The historiography on Romania is fortunate to have such an elegant, intellectually astute, and erudite master. The book before you represents the distillation of a lifetime of study, passion, and thoughtful deliberation about the complexities of a land and people at the crossroads between East and West. This book will be of great value to both specialists and a wider audience of readers with an interest in understanding the idea of Europe through this fascinating case study, often marginal to but essentially part of what Europe has evolved to become over the last two millennia.”
“Keith Hitchins is for most of us the most reliable authority on the history of the Romanians. His erudition is amazingly broad and deep, his discourse is clear and articulate, his narrative is simple and highly objective in a field mined with suspicions and ideological or ethnic biases. We should rejoice to have now a synthesis of his numerous separate studies. It is a fitting monument to a life-long scholarly and creative endeavor.”
List of illustrations
2 Between East and West, fourteenth century to 1774
3 From East to West, 1774-1866
4 The national state, 1866-1919
5 Peace and war, 1919-1947
6 Romanian Communism, 1948-1989
7 After 1989
The 2,000 years of history of a people tempts the writer, and the reader, to seek out long-term trends to provide guidance through complex and contradictory evolutions. So it is with the history of the Romanians. From medieval times to the early twentieth century they followed stages similar to those of other nations in Eastern Europe and even of Europe as a whole: feudalism, of a sort, and a mainly agricultural economy and rural society, until the nineteenth century, and, then, down to the First World War, the transition, slow at the beginning, to an industrial economy and an urban society, where agriculture and the village nonetheless predominated. All the while, from the eighteenth century, the shape of a modern Romanian nation, intellectually at least, was taking form. Then came the interwar period, only twenty years long, when the modernization impulses accelerated, and then, for forty years, came the Communists, who pursued modernization with methods and goals of their own. The post-Communist years offer hints that the Romanians may once again be headed along the path taken two centuries earlier.
What especially may define the Romanians over the long term is their place between East and West. It grants the writer a wide perspective from which to arrange the events of their history. They confronted the dilemma of choice between these two poles from the beginning of their statehood in the fourteenth century, when the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia were founded. Or, if we are willing to stretch reason a bit, we may say that the East-West encounter began for them even earlier. It came with encounters between the Thracians and Dacians, first with the ancient Greek cities along the Black Sea coast and then with the Romans, the conquerors of Dacia in the early second century. These connections with the West were ethnic, linguistic, and historiographical. Crucial contacts with the East followed, with the Byzantine Empire and the Orthodox world and their Bulgarian and Serbian heirs. The links here were pre-eminently spiritual and cultural, but political, too.
If indeed the Romania that emerged in the twentieth century was a synthesis of East and West, the political contest between the two poles began in earnest in the later fourteenth and fifteenth century, as first the Wallachian and then the Moldavian princes, nobles, and peasants were confronted by the relentless march of the Ottoman Turks north through the Balkans. As the Wallachian and Moldavian princes sought to stem the Muslim advance they thought of themselves as a part of Christian Europe and joined Western crusading armies at Nicopolis (1396) and Varna (1444). But in the same centuries they were forced to defend their countries against aggressive designs from the West, from Roman Catholic Hungary and Poland.
The establishment of Ottoman pre-eminence over the principalities in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which lasted until the early decades of the nineteenth century, could not but draw the Romanians toward the East. Yet, the suzerainty of the sultans, however great the economic burdens and the limitations on sovereignty it imposed, differed significantly from the Ottomans’ conquests south of the Danube, which brought the incorporation of the Bulgarian and Serbian medieval states into the very structures of their empire. The Romanians preserved their institutions and social structure and over time exercised greater or lesser degrees of administrative autonomy. Although vassal status prohibited formal relations with foreign powers, neither principality was isolated from the West. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century they carried on trade and maintained diplomatic contacts, even if indirectly, with Central Europe. They were open to varied cultural and intellectual currents from the West, even though the great movements of ideas such as the Renaissance and the Reformation and the Catholic Reformation would, understandably in Orthodox countries, have modest influence. The Enlightenment was another matter. From the later decades of the eighteenth century until well into the first half of the nineteenth century the Romanian educated classes, especially the younger nobles and the rising middle class, made the idea of progress and the means of achieving it—reason and knowledge and good institutions—their own. Their adaptation of Enlightenment principles is some measure of their approach to Europe. But it is from the era of the 1830s and the Revolution of 1848 and Romanticism that the contest between East and West for the soul and mind of the Romanians was fully joined.
Between the 1860s and the decades between the World Wars, which constitute the “national period,” modern Romania took form politically, economically, socially, and culturally, in accordance with the European model. “Europe,” the center and west of the continent, established itself as a distinct category in Romanian thought. The concept had a special significance for the Romanians; it meant the modern world, urban and industrial, dynamic and of a high civilization, and turned toward the future. The Europeanization of Romania, if that is the proper term, may be traced from a variety of perspectives: political-administrative, economic, social, and cultural and intellectual. An examination of each leads to the conclusion that Romania was being drawn deeply into the web of European relationships. But such a course was by no means smooth. Nor did it go uncontested. Many Romanians feared that their unique identity would be smothered in the West’s embrace; they argued that they should achieve progress by finding models in and drawing inspiration from native sources that had weathered the tests of history.
An abiding preoccupation of Romanian politicians and intellectuals was the crafting of an administrative system that would ensure stability for their young state and enable its people to make progress in every field of human activity. They were inspired by diverse patterns: the French centralization of power, the Belgian assurances of citizens’ participation in the political system, and the order and consistency of the English constitutional system, among others. Yet, those Romanians who drew up constitutions and enacted laws did not imitate. They adapted, as they took generous account of their own history and prevailing economic and social conditions and carefully weighed their own ambitions.
The Romanian economy was steadily drawn into the international commercial and financial system beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century as Europeans gradually discovered the value of Romanian agricultural goods and raw materials for their cities and industries, the availability of Romanian markets for their own products, and the profits to be had from investing in Romanian industries and financial institutions. So strong did these Western currents become that by the outbreak of the First World War many branches of the Romanian economy were dependent on European banking and commercial interests. Even the modest farmer of grains was subject to the ups and downs of the international market. The same course of development continued during the interwar period, but Romanian governments were more determined than their predecessors to maintain control over the national economy. Yet in the long run, the chief benefit to Romanians of their integration into the international economic order may have been the incentive to modernize their own economy.
The structures of Romanian society during the nineteenth and twentieth century were also becoming more like those of Western Europe. Such an evolution was largely the consequence of economic development and urbanization and the growing complexities of urban life, but it was no less a response to changes in the mental climate. Most striking perhaps was the rise of the middle class, which in the later decades of the nineteenth century assumed leadership of both the economy and political life and took pride in being modern and European and claimed to represent the interests of the whole nation. The urban working class was also growing, but its role in the broader society remained ill-defined and modest. The peasants, the majority of the population down to the later twentieth century, remained a bulwark of tradition. They were reluctant to change, even under pressure, especially during Communist times. But change they did.
It may be in writing and thinking about themselves from the eighteenth to the twentieth century that the Romanians revealed the true measure of their Europeanness. At the beginning of modern times they were observers of the Center and West. Then they slowly merged their own creativity of the mind and spirit with movements and schools elsewhere in the continent. By the beginning of the twentieth century adaptation gave way to innovation, as Romanian writers, historians, and social thinkers helped to shape continental values and thus expanded the concept of Europe.
For the second half of the twentieth century the question naturally arises about how Romanian Communism fits into the long-term Europeanization of the Romanians. Or we could simply ask if the Communists were Europeanizers. They certainly professed disdain for the private entrepreneurship and market forces prevalent in the West, and they showed no inclination to embrace Western-style multi-party politics and the parliamentary system. They were also intent on wiping away as much of the national tradition as they could, at least at the start of their tenure. They also held up for emulation another model—the Soviet Union and its experience in constructing Communism—and for a decade after coming to power in the late 1940s they dared not deviate from the Soviet-prescribed path. But after the death of Joseph Stalin, as changes occurred in Soviet relations with the East European bloc and with the West, Romanian Communist leaders became bolder and embarked on a project that could be called “national Communism” or, as some would have it, “national Stalinism.” In any case, it entailed a re-evaluation of the country’s history and certain traditions and suggested the value of at least a partial rapprochement with Europe. Romanian Communists remained Communists, and thus they set boundaries beyond which their vision of Europe could not pass.
The collapse of Communism in 1989 opened the way to a new, genuine reconciliation with Europe. The “return to Europe,” as the events of the time are sometimes called, was not at first smooth, as the accretions of four decades of Communism took time to wear away, but the process seems well under way. Perhaps the question to be asked is whether the great experiment of the synthesis of East and West has run its course.