The Saliency of The Past: Some Thoughts On The Case Of Romania

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A Farewell lecture, delivered at Georgetown University, Washington DC, on 5 May 2020

by Professor Dennis Deletant, Emeritus Professor, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London

History is a subject that defines us all. It teaches us, but we do not always learn from it. To be ignorant of your past is to remain a child for the whole of your life. One of the most pernicious consequences of Communist regimes is the perverted image of the past that they left. Since 1990, new histories of former Communist states have appeared. The approach taken by some of them is novel and of value. This is inevitable, but it does not mean that all histories written before the fall of Communism are less valuable than those written after. It simply means that in the research and writing of history there are no final results.

The purpose of history is not so much the chronological recording of events, but rather the description and understanding of problems: description, definition and understanding more than the detailed presentation of events, for although a perfect knowledge of the past is impossible, we can, nevertheless, reach a more advanced level of understanding. History means a process of continual reflection, of revision and revisiting of the past. History, in the broad sense of the word, is revisionist. In the words attributed to Albert Camus “if absolute truth belongs to anyone in this world, it certainly does not belong to the man or party that claims to possess it”.

Romanians fret about their history. Often, they have given more importance to opinions than to facts. The thoughts of Blaise Pascal come to mind: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” Historical research has often been conducted with the aim of consolidating, of supporting the idea of a nation-state, since only the nation-state, it was argued, could offer the cultural unity in which its members could prosper intellectually and economically. Therefore, all those born to a culture must live under the same political roof.

It is evident that the national history, the particularities of a nation, are values without which a culture cannot be understood. Nationalism thinks in terms of historical destinies. Yet the distortion of the past for political ends vitiates the future to which many of the younger aspire. We cannot have the benefits of the present age if our sensibilities and intellectual means do not draw upon them. We cannot truly affirm a national identity if it is conceived in opposition to tolerance and embraces racism which dreams of eternal contaminations, transmitted from the origins of time. It was only after 1990 that this ‘national historiography’ was challenged in Romania by a handful of historians, in particular by Lucian Boia.

In doing so Boia offered a paradigm for scholars in other parts of Europe to interrogate their own history and presentation of it. His book was the first serious attempt by a Romanian to discuss how the past had been distorted for political ends, especially during the period of Communist rule when the regime attempted to forge its own version of history, through manipulating accounts of the distant and not-so-distant past. Boia’s refreshing interpretation of history and myth, and the role they play in Romanian life, has had a potent impact in Romania, especially upon the younger generation. His study was discussed widely in the Romanian press and in the broadcast media.

What of the saliency of the past in Romania? It is illustrated by the celebration in December 2018 of one hundred years since the proclamation of the union of Transylvania with Romania. Nothing is guaranteed to charge Romanian and Hungarian emotions more violently than the subject of Transylvania since the province is regarded by both Romanians and Hungarians as an integral part of their ancestral homeland. For many Romanians, 1 December 1918 marked the day when to use the words of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, “hope and history rhyme”, as on December 1, 1918, the Grand National Assembly gathered in Alba Iulia and decided that Transylvania would join the ‘motherland’. That the union of Transylvania with Romania should have evoked such emotion is hardly surprising; the identity of the Romanians in the province had been frequently denied, and attempts had been made to give them a new one in order to disguise their origin. After more than a century of such manipulation it was only natural that the instinctive identity of the Romanians in Transylvania with their brothers and sisters across the Carpathians should have asserted itself in 1918.

A son of Transylvania to whom I have dedicated much of my research activity at Georgetown is Iuliu Maniu, whose relations with the British are the subject of a 600-page collection of documents drawn largely from the British Archives. During the Second World War the military situation was never conducive to a defection strategy for Romania. Fear of the Soviet Union had driven Romania into alliance with Nazi Germany and the threat posed by the former continued to cast a shadow over the British Government’s efforts to persuade Romania’s leaders to steer the country to abandon the Axis.

For the British, Iuliu Maniu, the leader of the National Peasant Party, was the pivotal point for any action against the Antonescu regime. A great-nephew of Simion Bărnuțiu, one of the leaders of the 1848 revolutionary movement of Transylvanian Romanians and representative of the Greek-Catholic wing, Maniu, born in 1873, attended a Greek Catholic elementary school in Blaj in Central Transylvania and secondary school in Zalău, and went on to study in Vienna and Budapest where he took a degree in law. On his return, he joined the Romanian National Party of Transylvania whose programme focused on the establishment of Transylvanian autonomy and the assertion of Romanian rights commensurate with the Romanians demographic majority in the province.

On 9 August 1919, Maniu was elected President of the National Party – as it was known after the Union – and in October 1926, on its merger with the Peasant Party, he became President of the National Peasant Party. In November 1928, he led the party to victory in the general election and served as Prime Minister until June 1930.

Resistance, in the Romanian context, meant political opposition, and that opposition was led by Iuliu Maniu. It was manifested at two levels. First, the delivery of military intelligence to the British and second, attempts to remind Antonescu of the cost of his alliance with Nazi Germany. On 20 March, President Woodrow Wilson received a message from Maniu, enquiring what assistance the Allies could give in the event of a coup. Wilson said that Romania’s future was linked to her determination to overthrow the Antonescu regime and that powerful air attacks would be directed against targets indicated by Maniu, but the sentence ‘no land assistance can be given from this theatre’ was removed by the British Foreign Office from his draft, thereby laying the seeds of misunderstanding between Maniu and the western Allies.

Maniu’s refusal to participate in the government appointed by King Mihai after the coup on 23 August 1944 proved, in retrospect, to be a major tactical error for the National Peasant party was more easily relegated to the side-lines as Stalin imposed his will on Romania. The suppression of the democratic process required the elimination of the ‘historical’ parties. Maniu begged repeatedly to be told whether Romania had been traded into the Soviet sphere of influence, and each time British representatives were instructed to deny this.

Several years later, Archibald Clark Kerr, the British ambassador in Moscow who visited Bucharest in the spring of 1945, confessed that one of the most distasteful things he had ever been asked to do was to lie to a man like Maniu. These lies led Maniu, and other democratic leaders in Romania, to compromise themselves unwittingly in the eyes of the Soviets in actions which were to cost them their liberty and were to condemn them to spend their final years in prison.

After four years in Galaţi prison (14 November 1947-14 August 1951) Maniu was transferred to Sighet jail where he died on 5 February 1953. Upon the conclusion of the war the British and Americans were faced with a Soviet Union in military occupation of much of Central and Eastern Europe. Their thoughts turned to damage-limitation, but without an effective lever of sanction, apart from the military option which no senior politician in the wake of a long war was prepared to countenance, they were reduced to the role of spectators in the Soviet colonization of the region.

Yet in the eyes of many in Eastern Europe, the West had compromised its own principles. By failing to honour the pledge in the ‘Declaration of a Liberated Europe’, made at the end of the Yalta Conference in February 1945, to ‘foster the conditions in which the liberated peoples may exercise … the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live’ , Britain and the United States gave the appearance of legitimacy to what Churchill himself called “force and misrepresentation”. It was this failure which damaged the West most in public opinion in the eastern half of Europe in the post-war period. At the beginning of this address, I stated that ‘one of the most pernicious consequences of Communist regimes is the perverted image of the past that they left.’ The collapse of Communism has allowed a restoration to history of those figures who like Maniu have been victims of the misrepresentation of the past. It is my hope that future historians will continue that process of continual reflection, of revision and revisiting of the past.

Prof. Deletant’s keynote will include mention of his tenure of a British Council nine-month scholarship to the country in 1969 that afforded the opportunity to act as a translator for the US ABC network during the visit of President Nixon in August 1969. Notwithstanding his experience of shaking the President’s hand. It will continue with an account of the bureaucratic hurdles that reporters had to surmount between September 1972 and January 1973, both professionally and personally, most notably in his marriage to Andrea Deletant, a Romanian citizen. Marriage, contact with his wife’s family, and friendship with writers and former political prisoners gave Professor Deletant an insight into the strictures of the communist regime which led the BBC World Service to conduct frequent interviews with him from 1987 to the late 1990s on events in Romania. In late December 1989, he joined John Simpson, first in London and then in Bucharest, as a consultant to the BBC during the Romanian revolution. Between 1990 and 2004, Professor Deletant was an observer for the CSCE/OSCE during each of the Romanian presidential and parliamentary elections; all experiences he will share with us in this two-hour keynote, speaking to their impact on the past and their effects still felt today.

Dennis Deletant OBE is Emeritus Professor at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. He was formerly the Visiting Ion Rațiu Professor of Romanian Studies at Georgetown University. His previous books include Ceaușescu and the Securitate and Communist Terror in Romania, both published by HurstDennis Deletant OBE is Emeritus Professor at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. He was formerly the Visiting Ion Rațiu Professor of Romanian Studies at Georgetown University. His previous books include Ceaușescu and the Securitate and Communist Terror in Romania, both published by Hurst.