Sztálin a székelyeknél: A Magyar Autonóm Tartomány története (1952–1960)

TitleSztálin a székelyeknél: A Magyar Autonóm Tartomány története (1952–1960)
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsScheibner, Tamás
Author(s) of reviewed materialBottoni, Stefano

Book. Title translated:
Stalin and the Szeklers: A History of the Hungarian Autonomous Region (1952–60)

PublisherPro-Print, Csíkszereda / Miercurea Ciuc
Pages 448
ISSNISBN: 9789738468801
Review year


Full Text

The conditions of approaching the past of the Hungarian community in Transylvania display a certain ambiguity today. On the one hand, research in certain archives, especially those of the communist political polices, is strictly and unnecessarily restricted by the postcommunist state, and discussions of the recent past often turn out to be little more than a continuation of current political debates by other means. On the other hand, there is a community of devoted and well-versed historians who have created a splendid online database called Transylvanian Hungarian Database (Erdélyi Magyar Adatbank) including bibliographies, statistics, chronologies, primary historical documents, reports, analytical essays and studies, even whole books, in Hungarian and Romanian, thereby creating an unusually lively academic community and making their research results easily accessible for wide audiences. The talented young Italian researcher, Stefano Bottoni, whose focus is on the history of minorities in East and Central Europe, is also tied to this virtual scholarly community.

Bottoni, moreover, was one of the contributors to the report of the presidential committee led by historian Vladimir Tismăneanu that was made public in 2006, which can be considered a milestone in the process of dealing with Romania's communist past. However, in Hungary, he made his fame above all by revealing that certain well-known Transylvanian Hungarian writers and intellectuals were agents of the Securitate. In this book, Bottoni, based both on extensive archival research and on prevailing scholarship by the above mentioned academic circle, aims to provide a kind of „total history” of the Hungarian Autonomous Region (HAR) that existed between 1952 and 1960.

As might be guessed, Stalin himself never set foot on the land of the Szeklers. But he has always been regarded as the “father” of the HAR. His statue stood on the main square of the city of Neumarkt (Marosvásárhely, or Târgu Mureş), and it was removed from there only at the time of the dissolution of the HAR, and the cult of the late dictator survived relatively long after he had died. However, it is still not clear whether Stalin and the Soviets inspired the creation of a Hungarian autonomous region or it was a Romanian initiative: Bottoni presents arguments for both options.

The variety of sources Bottoni makes use of is impressive. He claims that his version of “total history” is based on political history, cultural anthropology, and the sociology of minorities, and one might add social history too. Nevertheless, his account does not really draw on pursuits in intellectual history. Far from being uninformed about intellectual matters in the period, Bottoni's restraint might in part be due to his possible intention to avoid direct confrontation with a segment of the local “old-school” intelligentia who have long conceived the postwar historical role of Hungarians in Transylvania as a “bridge” between cultures, or as a minority driven by an “ethical call”. Bottoni considers such ideas illusionary that have little to do with the everyday practice of most members of the Transylvanian society in the 1950s (p. 17.), but he does not deconstruct these ideologies. Nor does he offer microhistorical case studies to open a window to the everyday life of a Transylvanian citizen that might support his point. Instead, Bottoni’s study either speaks about certain segments of the society as a whole, showing general patterns of social behaviour, or focuses on the political, religious, and intellectual elite. In the latter case, the real question is, of course, not whether a smallholder, a worker, or a clerk imagined his role in accordance with these mentioned sublime ideas, but whether these conceptions affected the strategies of members of the local elite, and if yes, to what extent? That is why one might miss the intellectual historical perspective, even though Bottoni's social historical analysis is exceptional.

The author implicitly questions a series of common beliefs regarding the status of Hungarians in Romania in this period. He suggests, first of all, that the narratives based exclusively on ethnic terms are misleading. In Bottoni's account, it appears that the party officials were at least as concerned with the status of the various churches in the communist state as they were with ethnic issues. Although, the book does not aim to offer a definite answer to the question why the HAR was created, one of the possible reasons could be the desire to marginalize the Roman Catholic Church. As is well documented by Bottoni, in the autonomous region the cultural card was often played out against religion: Hungarian theatre plays, cultural events were consciously made to serve as alternatives to religious gatherings. Naturally, given that most Roman Catholics were Hungarians, the ethnic dimension could not be neglected here neither, but still the establishment and maintenance of Hungarian cultural institutions seemed less harmful in the eyes of the Romanian political elite than the direct ideological influence of the Churches. Evidently, a Hungarian cultural scene directed by loyal Hungarian officials was thought easier to control politically than the more autonomous Church.

In my opinion, Bottoni's efforts to play down ethnic issues can sometimes be exaggerated, and occasionally they even lead to self-contradiction. At certain points, Bottoni agrees with the plausible suggestion that the creation of HAR, which incorporated approximately one third of the Hungarian population, and made Neumarkt the centre of Hungarian culture within the country, was partly motivated by the division of Hungarian elites. It aimed to deprive Klausenburg (Kolozsvár, or Cluj) of its leading role, which was also evidenced by the relocation of institutions from the latter place to Marosvásárhely, and the imprisonment of a significant part of the Klausenburg elite (see e. g. 63). Elsewhere, he insists that there is no reason to believe the Romanian Worker's Party (RWP) implemented such a policy without giving satisfying reasons to support this statement (p.175). In general, Bottoni convincingly proves by a series of examples and arguments that, on the one hand, the history of Hungarian minority is much more complex than a story of a national group victimized by another. On the other hand, he denies claims by certain Romanian historians that the 1950s was an anti-national phase in the history of Romanians.

Bottoni's primary goal, as he announces, was to “reconstruct” a sequence of events rather than to provide wholesale interpretations. This is a modest claim, and the reader can be assured that the book is much more than an histoire événementielle. It also holds true that the book requires a significant effort on the side of the reader to make sense of loads of worthy data and smart observations of local interest. It is a significant indicator of this that the metaphor of 'green-house' Bottoni proposes for imagining the HAR is articulated only in the Afterwords, and very briefly. It is presented as an alternative to Robert R. King’s and George Schöpflin’s 'shop-window' and Walker Connor’s 'ghetto." However, in my opinion, this metaphor has rather limited heuristic value. The case could have been presented even more persuasively by an analysis of different models of knowledge production that Bucharest and the Neumarkt based administration of the HAR constructed. Arguably the whole history of the latter administrative unit could be told along the lines of the story of how functions of centers and peripheries were negotiated in Romania. In fact, Bottoni uses this framework quite often, without reflecting on the model.

Certainly, the Bucharest elite (Romanian and Hungarian) always tried to enforce a classic model of centre vs. periphery, aiming to ensure that relevant knowledge is exclusively produced in the centre functioning as laboratory, while the periphery is confined to providing data to be processed and forced to carry out the resulting orders of the centre. The case of the newspaper Előre ('Forward') is a telling example. The title that evokes the image of a vanguard, and thus of innovation and symbolically of knowledge production, had to be changed after the creation of HAR to the more neutral Vörös Zászló ('Red Flag'). Shortly afterwards, the Romániai Magyar Szó ('Hungarian Word of/in Romania'), published in the capital, adopted the title Előre, and remained the most significant Hungarian newspaper throughout the years of communist rule.

Less symbolically charged, but obviously of greater importance were the centre's continuous insistence on defining the economical plans without considering the local experts' suggestions. It is noteworthy that Vasile Luca, the most prominent ethnic Hungarian in the RWP who was well aware of the traditional Transylvanian economic structures and opposed to the exaggerated measures of industrialization and transformation of agriculture, was sentenced in a show-trial at the very time the HAR was being established. The fate of the Institute for Public Health, as well as the Bolyai University, are similarly informing.

The centralizing aspiration of the leaders of the RWP was challenged by the HAR's administration in the middle of the 1950s. Bottoni points out that, encouraged by the more active Hungarian diplomacy and the political changes in Hungary, the leadership of the HAR took up more initiatives, making clashes of authority between them and the central administration more common. However, as Bottoni shows, it was also a consequence of the disability of Bucharest to function as a proper laboratory, since the distribution of daily newspapers in the countryside was delayed by several days, and because many Hungarian party-members did not speak a satisfying level of Romanian. Thus Hungary's media served as the main source of information for them. This was a particularly high-risk asymmetry because it potentially allowed Budapest to exert undue pressure on the region’s political agenda. This was realized by the RWP elite, especially when the 1956 revolution broke out in Hungary. At that time, due to a well-organized anti-“counter-revolutionary” campaign by the politicians of the HAR and a series of anticipatory measures of the political polices, no significant anti-establishment movements were noted among the Szeklers.

In response to the 1956 revolution, the RWP leaders came to the conviction that the HAR itself was a potential threat to the Romanian state. In the short run, they let Neumarkt emerge as a local center, and, in the long run, they transformed the region in a way that radically increased the number of Romanians in the public administrative units. Although the loyal Hungarian political elite obediently carried out the centralizing orders of Bucharest, the Party gradually changed the leaders of the local administration. This meant that by 1961, ethnic Romanians took the positions of high officials, many of whom acted in accordance with the nationalist and centralizing political strategy of Nicolae Ceauşescu, who, within a few years, became the General Secretary. In December 1960, the new Mureş-Hungarian Autonomous Region was formed, and in 1962, during a March night, even the stature of Stalin disappeared from the main square of Neumarkt, symbolically closing down an epoch and opening a new one.

Stalin and the Szeklers, is not just a remarkable introduction to the history of the Hungarian Autonomous Region. It also helps us understand how centralization was increasingly enforced as an official policy in communist Romania. The book is an unquestionable proof of Stefano Bottoni’s outstanding academic excellence, and a valuable contribution to minority studies of the region.