Romanians in Historic Hungary

TitleRomanians in Historic Hungary
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsPăltineanu, Oana Sînziana
Author(s) of reviewed materialMiskolczy, Ambrus

Translated by Joseph Held

PublisherInstitute of Habsburg History (Budapest), Social Science Monographs (Boulder, Colorado), Center for Hungarian Studies and Publications, Inc. (Wayne, New Jersey). Distributed by Columbia University Press (New York)
ISSNISBN 9780880336321
Full Text

An established historian of modern Eastern Europe, Ambrus Miskolczy has published widely and in many languages on Hungarian and Romanian history, with a focus on economic, cultural, and political history. Institutionally, he is chair of the Romanian Philology Department at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. Despite his rich contribution to the field, Miskolczy may be less familiar to the English speaking readership as his first book in English, Hitler’s Library, was published only in 2003.

Miskolczy’s most recently translated book into English, Romanians in Historic Hungary, appeared in 2008. In this short book, Miskolczy tries to re-tell the interconnected story of Romanians and Hungarians in twelve condensed chapters that cover the longue durée, from the “Origins and Emergence of the Romanian People” to “The Modern Romanian Nation in Historic Hungary.” The book is meant not only as a criticism of historical myths, but also an attempt to relativize the meaning of the nation-state. As Miskolczy writes, “There is no national history that is not about the history of another nation as well” (p. xi). Although the author does not make a claim or state explicitly that he is writing an a type of entangled history, Miskolczy’s stress on the continuous coexistence of Hungarians and Romanians brings him closest to this kind of history writing: “We must remember that the history of a people, or of a region, is the story of coexistence with other peoples, and it is also coexistence with each people’s own particular history” (p. x).

All twelve chapters of the book engage with and challenged historical myths still deeply rooted in Romanian historiography, despite the heated debates sparked by Lucian Boia in the late 1990s. In Miskolczy’s words, at stake is “the return of Romanian intellectual life to the vital reality of pluralism” (p. 9). It is with this agenda that Miskolczy approaches most of the controversies in Romanian–Hungarian historiography, starting from “the cult of origins ….[that] continues to overshadow Romanian historiography” (p. 9). The chapters display a rather traditional periodization. They are titled as follows: “Origins and Emergence of the Romanian People,” “Romanian Privileges in the State of the Kings of the House of Árpád,” “The Establishment of Romanian Voivodeships Beyond the Carpathians,” “Joint Struggles on Both Sides of the Carpathians,” “Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and the Birth of Books in the Romanian language,” “The Tribulations and Achievements of the Seventeenth Century in “Fairlyland,” The Age of the Baroque and the Unification of the Churches,” “The Age of Reason and Enlightened Absolutism,” “National Awakening, Romanticism, Liberalism,” “In the Mainstream of Revolution and Counter-revolution, 1848-1849,” “From Neoabsolutism to the Nationality Law of 1868,” and “The Modern Romanian Nation in Historic Hungary.” In the subsequent chapters, Miskolczy continues to underscore Hungarians’ and Romanians’ “complex reality of coexistence,” at times allied against the Turks, during the fifteenth century, or at other times fiercely divided, depending on the political context that they shared (p. 25). Furthermore, Miskolczy’s book touches upon the (on the theoretical level already discredited) romantic myth of Mihai Viteazul, and follows the narrative of the Romanian nation in historic Hungary during the Enlightenment, through to the end of the First World War. To be sure, the author does not fail to criticize the Hungarian state in the latter half of the nineteenth century for failing to provide “a framework for the coexistence of the nations” (p. 115). After all, this is the message of the book and it comes across forcefully, as Miskolczy fruitfully pursues the humanists’ imperative of learning from the past in order to better the future. As he rightfully warns, “a cult of suffering may give birth to further suffering, and oppression instead of coexistence” (p. 140).

The goal of rewriting the history of Romanians and Hungarians around the theme of coexistence is both an ambitious and necessary endeavor. However, given the brevity of the book, this remains a goal to be attained. Miskolczy’s book can serve as a narrative model offering an essential change in perspective (already noticeable in the title). The short length of the book could account for another of its shortcomings, namely that the historiographical background and the recent debates in the Romanian public sphere are not addressed in depth or directly, but merely hinted at. In other words, Miskolczy is not alone in his effort to demythologize and rewrite an inclusive or entangled type of history in Romanian scholarship. Albeit pursued in different ways, this imperative task has also been taken up by other Romanian historians, e.g. Sorin Mitu, Victor Neumann, and Lucian Boia. However, given its straightforward argument, Miskolczy’s book has the potential of generating a much needed debate and dialogue in both Romania and Hungary, and a translation into Romanian is a must.