transylvania

22 October 1915 – Transylvania

In September, Romanian parliamentarians Nicolae Filipescu and Take Ionescu formed the Federația Unionistă to promote their country’s entry into the Great War, and the capture of Transylvania has been their foremost material objective. The provinces of Wallachia and Moldavia, known together as the Vechiul Regat, form a grasping fingers-and-thumb along two sides of the ancient province, which has been a Hungarian territory for a thousand years but hosts a population that is almost 58 percent ethnic Romanians. Of the 5 million people living in Transylvania, only one in four is Székely or Magyar Hungarian, with about ten or eleven percent ‘Saxons’ (Germans). Outlining his war party’s Balkan policy today, Filipescu cites the 19th Century emergence of Romanian nationalism within Transylvania as a primary justification for a ‘war of redemption‘ against the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy.

With the present borders, we are a country without a future. In order to accomplish our European role, we need the bastion that dominates this position. This is why we look at the natural fortress of Transylvania: to the Acropolis of Romanianism. There in an enchanted palace, built as in fairy tales, in some of the Carpathian caves, national consciousness is sheltered. From these mountains spring our rivers, carrying in their waves to the Danubian plain the grievances of our brothers. From there [Transylvanian historians Gheorghe] Șincai and Petru Maior have sent the proofs of our Latin origin. From there, the teachers of the nation have come to awaken the national consciousness in times of self-denial. Drain the rivers, destroy the brothers, thereby contributing to Hungarian victory, and no more shall it be said, ‘the Romanian does not perish!’ This is why we need Transylvania and nothing else. This is why I can summarize everything I presented by saying and repeating one single word: Transylvania! Transylvania! Transylvania!

Of course, the carefully-crafted Romanian national mythology to which Filipescu appeals is utterly false. Holding themselves to be latter-day descendants of the Dacians, who were among the last Roman conquests of the ancient world, Romanians are in fact more closely related to the pastoral Vlahs, a people found all across the Balkans after a millennium of wandering from field to field with their livestock. Yet the dream of a ‘greater Romania’ and the contrivance of Latin origins have only grown more intoxicating and powerful in the Romanian mind during the decades that the Ottoman Empire has waned, and now calls for impressing Transylvania into the Țară (‘mother country’) have reached a zenith with the Great War and Austro-Hungarian defeats.

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Romanian dramatist and liberal Gheorghe Diamandy sits at center between Ambassador Ioan Lahovary (left) and French historian Georges Lacour-Gáyet (right) during his January 1915 mission to Paris on behalf of Romania’s ‘war party’

Despite opposing land reform and favoring the feudal status quo within Romania, Filipescu and Ionescu have a broad colaition of support, including eccentric liberal Gheorghe Diamandy. A key adviser of Primier Ion Brătianu since the war began, Diamandy has conducted diplomatic missions to Italy, where he concluded a secret agreement in September 1914, and France, where he convinced President Réné Poincaré that Bulgarian Prime Minister Vasil Radoslavov would never join the Central Powers. Neither strategic calculation has proven correct, but they have helped woo the Entente allies into offering loans and other support to Bucharest without actually concluding a formal alliance.

“If Romania had had an honest intent to strike a deal with us,” observed French radical Georges Sorel,  “it would have surely picked herself some other negotiator.” However, Diamandy has offered one important insight to Poincaré by saying that “Romania looks forward to France’s victory and to Russia’s defeat.” This seeming-contradiction reflects the deep distrust of Romanian Conservatives, who worry that Russia has designs on occupying the Danube river valley to expand its sphere of influence in the Balkans. Romania’s procrastination is born of many factors, including the germanophilia of King Ferdinand I, the relative weakness of Romania’s army, and Brătianu’s insistence on receiving ironclad territorial concessions from the Entente allies, such as the promise of Transylvania, before committing his country to the conflict. But this abiding distrust of Russia is by far the most important strategic reason for continued delays, for Romania demands both Russian assistance and freedom from Russian domination — a contradiction that understandably proves difficult to negotiate, and which falls apart immediately in execution.

In December, Diamandy will argue against Conservative fears about Russia in the Subranie (Parliament). But Diamandy also cites his own reservations about Romania’s material ability to wage war as he resigns from the Unionist Federation, reflecting a legitimate insecurity about waging a conflict on two fronts against Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary. Taking his place in the Unionist firmament is liberal journalist and politician Nicolae Xenopol, a former political enemy of Filipescu who publishes a French-language book titled La Richesse de la Roumanie (“Romania’s Wealth”) in the new year. Reflecting Romania’s very limited economic relationship to Russia, Xenopol decries the nation’s unequal trade dependence on Germany and Austria-Hungary, claiming that their export policies have stifled Romanian industries.

And in one key sense, Xenopol is correct that continued neutrality is working against the interests of Bucharest: during 1915, Romania will provide the Germans with 20 million barrels of badly-needed oil and increased exports of eggs, grain, milk, and meat to help make up the food imports lost to the Entente blockade. The longer Romania waits to pick sides, the more powerful they make their potential adversaries. In his determination to wage war only at the least risk and with the greatest impact, Brătianu is instead ensuring that Romania’s worst nightmares will come true.

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A map of present-day Romania includes former Hungarian provinces, including Transylvania and Bukovina