Az Erdélyiség Színeváltozása: Kísérlet az Erdélyi Párt ideológiájának és identitáspolitikájának elemzésére 1940-1944. [The Metamorphosis of Transylvanianness: The Ideology and Identity Politics of the Transylvanian Party, 1940-1944].

TitleAz Erdélyiség Színeváltozása: Kísérlet az Erdélyi Párt ideológiájának és identitáspolitikájának elemzésére 1940-1944. [The Metamorphosis of Transylvanianness: The Ideology and Identity Politics of the Transylvanian Party, 1940-1944].
Publication TypeBook review
AuthorsSzele, Áron
Book reviewed (all data)Egry, Gábor. Az Erdélyiség Színeváltozása: Kísérlet az Erdélyi Párt ideológiájának és identitáspolitikájának elemzésére 1940-1944. [The Metamorphosis of Transylvanianness: The Ideology and Identity Politics of the Transylvanian Party, 1940-1944]. Budapest
ISSN NumberISBN: 9789639697218
Full Text

Gábor Egry’s latest book entitled The Metamorphosis of Transylvanianess has been so far overlooked by Hungarian historiography which is unfortunate given its value to the field of East Central European nationalism studies. The book tackles a topic that has not received much attention by historians, namely, the ideology and self-definition of the Transylvanian Hungarian political elite between 1940 and 1944. This was a period which, according to Egry, was an intermezzo of history without much apparent consequence on further (political) developments in the region because of the 1945 peace treaty and communist takeover which reconfigured the area from a political and ideological point of view. However, this closed chapter of history may reveal more about the self-definition of minorities vis-à-vis majority populations and “parent countries” (if we take Brubaker’s triad as a reference point), than it is perceptible at first glance (Brubaker 1996).

The book is broken up into five chapters, including a shorter introduction and conclusion, and three lengthy research-oriented chapters. The introduction is comprised of a literature review and a brief summary of his methodological precepts. Egry defines Transylvanism and the ideology of Transylvanian Hungarian elites as it was revealed through their discourse and political and social activity, as identity-politics. This classification is borrowed from Chantal Mouffe’s functionalist definition of “politics” as an effort to create and sustain a community. According to Egry, the activity of the Hungarian political and social elite of Transylvania may be explained as an effort in community-creation, since for this effort to have succeeded, a mechanism of creating the “in-group” (“us”), in opposition to the “out-group(s)” must exist. The author concisely sketches the political and ideological history of the Transylvanian Hungarian elites before 1940, presenting the main features of their ideology and discourse, according to the above theoretical and methodological scheme.

            The second chapter of the book is dedicated to a more-or-less classical historical summary and analysis of the main features of Transylvanian politics between 1940 and 1945. Egry begins by presenting the political history of the Transylvanian Party from its birth to its demise. The main political formations and community leaders that were chosen by prime-minister Teleki to constitute the party are also reviewed. Egry theorizes that the particular nature of the party and its reason of existence was the result of a compromise between domestic Hungarian and Transylvanian politics. In exchange for positions of power for the local Hungarian elite of Transylvania, they (the elite) supported the central Hungarian state in the newly acquired territory. This détente between traditional elites in Hungary and Transylvania meant a recognition of Transylvania’s particularism, but it also gave birth to an existential dilemma within the party. The process of unification with the Hungarian party initiated a debate among the Transylvanian elite which continued to occupy it in 1944. The main question was whether to dissolve into the now-unified national political party, thereby declaring the interwar discourse of Transylvanism a sham, or to maintain an ambiguous status as either opponents or alternatives to centralized politics and remain an unincorporated, regionally-focused political organization, and continue the interwar tradition? The sub-chapters clearly present the concrete reasons for the Transylvanian elites’ preference to remain in power rather than cede leadership to Hungarian national elites, including Transylvania’s different social structure, the Transylvanian Party’s dominance over its own social base, its control of media organs, party organizations, the backing of the Reformed Church, etc. A short presentation of the history of each of these elements is done in a highly organized manner, which is one of the strong points of the work. A critical point the author unfortunately did not address was the social function of power as a motivation for political separatism, since it may be argued that local elites did not want to integrate into a “foreign” power-structure largely because this entailed them relinquishing their leadership positions. Regardless of this omission, Egry makes a succinct and engaging synthesis of the Transylvanian Party’s development during this critical period.

            The third chapter provides a more in-depth analysis of the aforementioned debate inside Transylvanian politics, presenting a detailed analysis of the birth, development, and main actors engaged in this political argument. Egry examines the main characteristics of various prominent Transylvanian leaders’ (such as jurist Imre Mikó, Bishop László Ravasz, and scholar Dezső László) formulations of the proper balance between self-definition and broader nationalist politics going on within the party. Egry argues that the common denominator of all of these formulations was the desire to maintain an existing political community amid new challenges from outside. This desire was translated into the discourse of the elites via a reconceptualization of Transylvanian identity, customs and traditions. This debate also gave birth to an alternate view of Transylvanian history that emerged from two decades of separate political existence, but was also based on earlier episodes of prolonged independence.

This debate ultimately provoked the creation of a new “out-group” in the Transylvanian mind: the Hungarians of Hungary. Hungarians of Hungary were frequently used as a reference point, sometimes to be emulated, other times to be treated as a competitor to claims of “real” Hungarian identity. Transylvanians latched on to some of the positive stereotypes of Hungary which reinforced the view among Hungarians of both Hungary and Transylvania that Transylvanians were “more Hungarian.” As a result of its own internal debate, the Transylvanian Party ultimately played an important role in the debate around national identity in (greater) Hungary. This meant the adoption of a number of topoi from the Hungarian debate. Methodologically speaking, this chapter provides an excellent example of a study of transfer, and through Egry’s insightful analysis, we can see that this transfer was neither complete nor unconditional.

Egry’s presentation of the party’s conceptualization of the two most important “out-groups”: Romanians and Jews provides two more examples of transfer. In an age of fierce integral nationalism, the treatment of these two communities in the political discourse of the Transylvanian Party is surprising. The Romanian community was largely treated with indifference, while Hungary’s interwar anti-Semitism found an easy home in the Transylvanian Party. These divergent attitudes are especially striking if we take into account the fact that the Romanians had long been “traditional” out-group for Transylvanian Hungarians, whereas Jews were somewhat new to this role. Egry explains that one reason for the Transylvanian Party’s ambiguity towards Romanians was the ideology of Transylvanism as well as the fact that it existed in Romania itself. Furthermore, a strong negative declaration against Romanians carried with it the danger of losing one of the main ideological buttresses of Transylvanian identity. A similar declaration against Jews would not have resulted in the same outcome. Therefore, Transylvanian elites simply followed the general discursive trend of the period and region. This chapter, like its predecessor, provides an interesting case-study into the mechanisms of conceptual transfers as it related to the formulation of policies toward minorities.

The final chapter is dedicated to conclusions, in which Egry successfully identifies the ideology and self-identity of Transylvanian elites as one of “pluralistic existence”, forever marked by their experiences as a minority population. The book is a comprehensive synthesis of a critical period of the development of a sub-section of the Hungarian history of political ideas, that of Second-World War Transylvania. It is well-contextualized, with chapters on political and social organization, and it gives a full view of the significant issues and their development. Given its comprehensive analysis of a critical period of Transylvanian political development, Egry’s book is a highly valuable contribution to the literature on minority politics and identity formation, as well as to the entangled history of Transylvania as an emporium of political ideas, conceptual transfers, and ideological innovation. He presents the history of an interesting and overlooked episode in a clear and structured manner, providing an insight into minorities as we seldom see them: through their own self-projections.


Aron Szele

Central European University


Selected Bibliography

Brubaker, Rogers. Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.