Romậnii în armata Habsburgică. Soldaţi şi ofiţeri uitaţi

TitleRomậnii în armata Habsburgică. Soldaţi şi ofiţeri uitaţi
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsSzele, Áron
Author(s) of reviewed materialMaior, Liviu

book. Title translated: Romanians in the Habsburg army. Forgotten soldiers and officers.

PublisherBucureşti: Editura Enciclopedică
ISSNISBN 973-45-0480-0
Review year


Full Text

Liviu Maior, historian and researcher known for his works dealing with the modern history of Transylvania and of the Romanian national movement in this province in particular of the 19th and early 20th centuries (prior to the outbreak of the First World War) brings forth a new theme in his recent  book: that of a particular social category of the Habsburg (later Dualist) Empire, namely of the Romanians who served in the “Kaiserliche und Königliche” army and fought for their “fatherland”, making great sacrifices and often having to pay with their lives for the defense of the ideals of the Viennese empire.

Usually, the army of a state is one of its most important institutions, and the Habsburg Empire constituted no exception from this general rule. At the same time, the organization of modern states tends to be based on the “national” principle, and can use national feelings to mobilize the citizenry, to motivate them to actively participate in its institutions. Such national feelings could not have existed in an empire such as that ruled by Vienna, which was ethnically, linguistically and religiously diverse. What was supposed to supplement them was the “loyalist” feeling towards the imperial function and person, which was especially strong in the case of Francis Joseph.

At first view, it is tempting to believe the tenet of traditional historiography that this feeling was somewhat inferior when compared to the national one, and not being similarly forceful in mobilizing the diverse peoples of the Monarchy behind their common state. In the case of the Romanians though, as the historian Liviu Maior points out, this loyalist feeling was extremely strong, and had deep roots in popular traditions, for example folk songs on subjects such as army conscription and other themes, and folkloric traditions, and last but not least, historical events, for example, the strong pro-imperial attitudes that were manifest among Transylvanian Romanians during the events of 1848-49 in this region, and the widespread support and voluntary engagement shown during numerous armed conflicts of the Empire in the nineteenth century, all the way until its collapse.

Romậnii în armata Habsburgică. Soldaţi şi ofiţeri uitaţi follows and analyzes the evolution of the Romanian loyalist feeling, from its beginnings (the institution of army regiments recruited from this area and of the special border units, and their participation in the Napoleonic wars) to the outbreak of the First World War. The central idea of the work is to evaluate and research the phenomenon of the mental archetype of dynastic loyalism, aiming to put it into historical context and to find the motivation behind it – as well as the motives for its final collapse in the years preceding 1917-18 and its ultimate disappearance.

For Liviu Maior, Romanian patriotism is a double-sided one: a facet represented by the already-mentioned loyalism towards the Habsburgs dynasty, and the other by nationalism, the ethnic sentiment and program that aimed at the realization of permanent contact with the Romanians on the other side of the border, in the Regat. Though certainly not entirely and all the time, the two were opposed to and in competition with each other. Each represented a preferred option of a social category of the Transylvanian Romanians: loyalism was characteristic especially in the “traditionalist” classes, like the peasantry and the priests (mostly those of Greek Catholic faith), while nationalism could be found mostly in the educated liberal classes, the fledgling bourgeoisie and nobility.  In the end, as laicization and secularization (processes that have developed on the whole European continent with leaps and halts, depending on the area) transformed the state, nationalism would finally succeed at becoming the dominant mindset, which by no means meant the total elimination of loyalism from the hearts and minds of Romanian peasants.

What were the strong points of this loyalism? Liviu Maior identifies them in this work with great accuracy and clarity, proving to be a balanced observer of the phenomenon. He manages to distance himself from the triumphalist discourse, typical of the historiography of the national communist epoch, pointing out the factors through which this sentiment retained its vigor in the collective mindset of the Romanian peasantry (and also of other ethnicities, the author gives the example of the Székelys and the Saxons, groups with strong sentimental ties to the Crown). The first element was the myth of the “good emperor”, that projected a positive image of the Viennese sovereign that hovers above, and at the same time retains a direct and personal relationship with each and every one of his subjects, for whose well-being he works and fights for, day and night. This myth was cultivated by the priesthood as long back as the time of Maria Theresa and Joseph the Second. Under Francis Joseph this “Kaisertreue” (or “Királyhűség” as was known to the Hungarians) reached its peak, from the point of view of the propaganda being used to promote it by the emperor, such as court etiquette and the emission of diverse materials with the imperial crest (many more details can be found on this age and the cult of Francis Joseph in Daniel L. Unowsky’s recent book The pomp and politics of patriotism : imperial celebrations in Habsburg Austria, 1848-1916).

The second motivation behind the Habsburg loyalism is to be found in the treatment that the Romanian recruits received in the time which they spent in the army: they were treated as equals, as imperial subjects, in a sort of “military democracy” in which he was not constantly reproached for his belonging to a “second class nationality.” This line was adopted by most of the imperial institutions, which did not discriminate on ethnic, linguistic or confessional grounds.

The third factor is constituted by the special nature of Transylvanian Romanian nationalism, developed, as a defense mechanism, from the idea of latinity, promoted by the scholars of the Transylvanian School (on this topic, see Sorin Mitu’s insightful book National Identity of Romanians in Transylvania), who tied the origin and fate of Romanians to that of the Roman Empire intentionally, from which the Habsburg Empire clamed its descent and tradition. Therefore, it can be argued that loyalism was, from the very beginning, a component of the Romanian nationalist sentiment, and was part of the effort to gain equal rights with other peoples of the empire. Moreover, the image of Trajan, civilizing hero, and creator of Roman Dacia, makes an entrance in the collective mentality, being tied to, and occupying a special place in the “myth of the good emperor.”

While being primarily a book that treats the subject of the idea of nationalism from a particular point of view, Romậnii în armata Habsburgică. Soldaţi şi ofiţeri uitaţican can be considered at the same time to be a work of social history, describing the history of a social category, inside the military institution, and using its narrative sources. It is divided into five chapters, in an effort to present fluidly, in stages, the evolution and transformation of the Romanian element in the Habsburg army, but also its feeling towards the military as an institution.

The first chapter, which is a continuation of the viewpoints lined out in the introduction, the author offers a broad contour of the mental and social outlines that favored the perpetuation of loyalism in Transylvanian society, and also briefly describes its characteristics. The second chapter describes the appearance of this feeling, with the constitution of the first Romanian military detachments in border guarding areas in Transylvania, and the great test which they were subjected to having to take part in the Napoleonic wars, and after that the campaigns of the pacification of Europe by the Holy Alliance. The third chapter is dedicated to the first major contestation to which the loyalist sentiment was subjected to: the “revolution” of 1848-49, that strengthened this feeling, but also saw the birth of modern Romanian nationalism. Chapters four and five describe the evolution of loyalism and of Romanians in the army in the period from 1849 to 1918. A few moments of great importance are pointed out, such as those of 1867, 1914 as well as 1916 (the crowning of Emperor Charles the Fourth) and 1918, the moment when the Habsburg army, and with it the dynastic loyalism to it, would dissolve.
This work is a new chapter in the already impressive oeuvre of Liviu Maior, full of reference materials such as 1848 - 1849: romani si unguri in revolutie (1848-49: Romanians and Hungarians in revolution), and Mişcarea Memorandistă. Filozofia politico-istorică a petiţionarismului românesc (The Memorandist Movement. The political-historical Philosophy of Petitionarism). It offers detached scholarship and a balanced point of view. It is also a concise and well-structured book in which Maior proves his talent at writing synthesis, presenting some of the most essential issues while offering a colorful and comprehensive portrait of a century of Transylvanian history.