Between States: the Transylvanian Question and the European Idea during World War II.

TitleBetween States: the Transylvanian Question and the European Idea during World War II.
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsSzele, Áron
Author(s) of reviewed materialCase, Holly


PublisherStanford University Press
ISBN Number0804759863/ISBN-13: 978-0804759861 (hbk)
Full Text

In her recently published monograph, historian Holly Case touches upon an original topic in the history of Transylvania, the pre-history of the contemporary “European idea” in East Central Europe. She analyzes it through the lens of two peripheral states, Hungary and Romania, locked in vicious conflict over territory and citizenry. The timeframe, namely World War II, represents the crescendo of these state’s rivalry over Transylvania. From the very beginning, Case convincingly demonstrates how neither state abandoned the possibility of taking up arms to solve the “Transylvanian Question.” Yet, as Case points out, when Hungary and Romania eventually did take up arms over the region, they actually fought in a war thousands of miles away from the disputed territory, all the while retaining the idea that it was for Transylvania they were fighting. It is in such details that the author sees the early development of consciousness of belonging to a community of fate, i.e. Europe.

The subject matter may not be easily accessible to the non-specialist, who might not be entirely familiar with the history of the region. The conflict over Transylvania—“Erdély” in Hungarian, “Ardeal/Transilvania” in Romanian—has a long and complex history. Therefore, a great deal of foreknowledge is required to navigate the myriad details of military, national, and social factors leading up to the years 1940-1945. Further, because of Case’s detailed overview of the multiple historiographical debates,the book might seem rather esoteric to the non-specialist. However, the originality of Case’s approach is striking, and her presentation of the various issues at play is seamless, exhibiting her remarkable skill of synthesis. This is especially important in the book's first chapter, where she presents a short summary of the developments of the interwar period. Case identifies and highlights a number of similarities in both countries’ nationalist discourse regarding the region as she narrates the conflict, which took place in multiple arenas, including science, diplomacy, aesthetics, education, and cultural politics. An interesting facet of the discourses employed by both states locked in this heated dispute, Case argues, was their proclivity to present their regional conflict as being part of something greater. Indeed, Hungarian and Romanian statesmen, politicians, scientists and aesthetes saw themselves as acting within a larger political and ideological context, and warned the Great Powers time and again that this clash would spillover onto the international stage. On many occasions, they fashioned the dispute, dubbing it the “Transylvanian Question” as being a crucial element of the overall “European Question.” The amount of evidence the author presents seems to confirm the fact that the actors had conceptualized a sort of shared European community—although whether all of this equates to a “European idea” is subject to debate.

The second part of the book continues the narrative thread of the first, with Case’s erudite interpretation of the debates regarding Transylvania after the Second Vienna Arbitration of 1940, through which Nazi Germany divided the region between its allies, Hungary and Romania. Here, Case continues to present the key characteristics of this discourse, and the many parallels between the rhetorical strategies of 1918-19 and those of 1940. One of the particular features of the rhetoric was that it consciously addressed the broader European community. Many of the actors wrangling over the “Transylvanian Question” cite “Europe” on a number of occasions. However, at this particular historical moment, the European idea being expressed by these actors was congruous with Hitler's New European Order. This again changes when the tide of the war shifts, flinging Hungary and Romania into opposing camps, which, to some extent simplified the rhetorical juggling underway before 1944. The two states continued to present the conflict over Transylvania as an integral part of the ideological battle between communism and fascism, respectively, and both Romanian and Hungary always represented themselves as the defender of “European” values.

The third chapter of the book narrates events after the 1940 Second Vienna Arbitration, and the frantic attempts by Romania to re-seize, and by Hungary to re-integrate the province. The tools of various sciences, both real and invented, were used to fight these ideological battles. Linguistics, anthropology, statistical evidence and racial science, much of it borrowed from Germany, were all employed in an attempt to confirm both states’ theories of national unity, with the Transylvanian citizenry serving as the object of study. Interestingly, all of these machinations resulted in the surprisingly careful treatment of the minority populations by each state. However, what motivated this concern was not altruism but rather the ambiguity about the ever-changing military and diplomatic situation coupled with the fear of reprisals. Over this whole situation, Nazi Germany reigned as supreme arbiter, with a keen eye for atrocities. In the fourth chapter, Case continues this analytical strand, exploring the activity of the German-Italian Commission, in which representatives from the two fascist governments collaborated with representatives from Romania and Hungary in order to protect minorities. Case makes the convincing argument that, participants notwithstanding, the activity of the Commission was legally and ideologically based on the agenda set by the League of Nations.

The fifth chapter deals with the “Jewish Question” during this period. While well researched, this part veers off a bit from the central theme of the book and might have been more effectively integrated into the main narrative. However, despite this narrative diversion, the chapter effectively shows how the Jewish “problem” came to occupy a central position in the political rhetoric of the time, notwithstanding the constantly changing role and evaluation of the status and treatment of national minorities. Jews were treated as co-nationals, enemies of the nation, or scapegoats, depending on the various turns in internal and external politics. This was largely due to outside political influences and competing views on European minority policies.

The sixth and final chapter deals with Romania and Hungary’s anxieties over regional belonging in Hitler's New Europe during and after World War II. Case shows how the nationalist machinations regarding the “Transylvanian Question” were shaped according to an international and mutually dependant political framework. For example, the regulations of the 1919 Versailles peace agreement served to institutionalize the debate around the question of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania, forcing both states to participate in an argument that required international mediation. Through this fledgling international interaction, both states began to acclimate to a European status.

his book shows how, in a particular historical context, regional issues, such as the “Transylvanian Question” can become issues of pan-European importance. The actors in these conflicts understood themselves as belonging to a broader international political, legal and ideological framework. As such, they shaped solutions to their local problems to fit this larger context. These sorts of interpretations can be traced to the beginning of modern historical writing in Hungary and Romania, which displays their long-term entanglement in issues of international, rather than merely regional significance. Whether this results in a particularly “European” frame of reference as we understand it today is debatable, and ultimately this should be for the reader to decide.

However, it is undeniable that Case’s approach is a significant contribution offering a fresh perspective on problems historians have largely considered one dimensionally, and as specific to the East Central European region. Holly Case's work is a commendable effort to connect events, actors, and ideas—during a historical period about which very little work of this type exist—into the larger European framework. She impressively highlights the entanglement of Hungarian, Romanian, and indeed, European tiers of political discourse about Transylvania. Lastly, her mastery of primary sources and the sophistication of her interpretation distinguishes this work from other recent offerings on the subject in East Central European Studies.


Áron Szele

Central European University