Hungary, Romania Embroiled in Centuries-Old Feud Over Transylvania

Times Staff Writer

In their book-lined studies less than 500 miles apart, two white-haired history professors are modern-day versions of medieval champions sent forth to defend the honor of their realms.

But for Stefan Pascu, a Romanian, and Laszlo Makkai, a Hungarian, the weapons are scholarly works and artifacts left by a people who lived more than 2,000 years ago.

The two are in the forefront of a dispute that has its roots deep in the past, a tug-of-war over the people of the region known as Transylvania. These days Transylvania is a part of Romania, but it has been ruled at one time or another by Romans, Mongols, Turks, Germans, Austrians and Hungarians.

The dispute has gone on for centuries, but it is not solely historical. Today it pits one Soviet Bloc ally against another and involves a degree of hostility between them unmatched since the end of World War II.


According to Pascu, a professor at the University of Cluj, in Romania, Transylvania is the property of the people who live there, and “the majority of the population has been, is and will be Romanian.”

Makkai, once a graduate student with Pascu at Cluj and now a professor at the University of Budapest, in Hungary, argues that Hungary’s claim is the stronger one. He adds that the tone of the dispute has changed radically. In the past, he said, “there was a kind of rivalry or competition between the peoples,” but today “there is hatred.”

Not long ago, Romania’s President Nicolae Ceausescu denounced his neighbors and ostensible East Bloc allies for “fascist, chauvinist and even racist theses” that serve “the most reactionary imperialist circles.”

According to a Western diplomat in Bucharest, the Romanian capital, “Ceausescu has a lot of problems, but the Hungarians have given him the one issue that the Romanian people will stand together behind him on.”

For Hungarians, Transylvania also has become a popular issue. From waitresses to government officials, they say it is the one question on which 10 million Hungarians agree.

Not long ago at a concert in Budapest, the Hungarian capital, actress Iren Psota was given a tearful ovation when she recalled that her mother had been born in Transylvania and she dedicated a song to “the sufferings of our brothers and sisters who are living there.”

“At present, relations between Hungary and Romania are the worst they have been in 40 years,” Josef Balasz, director of the Foreign Relations Institute in Budapest, said recently.

“We have no territorial claims on Romania. We accept the judgment of history, but we really want the Hungarians living there to preserve their language and culture. They should be good Romanian citizens, but they should have free access and contacts with Hungarians in the motherland.”


So far, the Soviet Union has not stepped into the fight between its two Warsaw Pact allies. Yegor K. Ligachev, the No. 2 man in the Soviet Politburo, said during a recent visit to Budapest that the Kremlin expects Hungary and Romania to settle their differences before they get out of hand.

“Each lives in the same social system,” Ligachev said. “This gives us the right to hope that the contradictions and misunderstandings will be ironed out.”

Public opinion has forced the Hungarian government to bring the dispute out into the open, despite the embarrassment of being at odds with an ally.

“For decades, we did not do anything because we considered that socialism would resolve the problem,” an official of the Hungarian government said. “This was a romantic idea, and it was not true.”


The dispute even intruded on the international arena early this year when Hungary endorsed a Canadian proposal put forth at a conference in Vienna on security and cooperation in Europe. The proposal dealt with the treatment of minority groups around the world, but Hungary clearly had Romania in mind. It was the first time, according to Hungarian officials, that any East Bloc country had endorsed a Western proposal on human rights.

Hungary’s obsession with Transylvania, and Romania’s resentment of it, can be traced to the trauma of two world wars. As a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, from 1867 until the end of World War I in 1918, Hungary was virtually autonomous. The empire’s Hapsburg rulers kept a capital in Budapest as well as one in Vienna. But Austro-Hungary was on the German side in the war, and the empire was broken up afterward.

Hungary emerged as an independent state but without two-thirds of its territory. The largest of the lost territories was Transylvania, which became a part of Romania, for Romania had fought on the side of the Allies.

In 1940, after the start of World War II, the question was reopened. The authoritarian Hungarian regime of Adm. Miklos Horthy, tempted by the prospect of recovering Transylvania, sided with Nazi Germany, and was rewarded with the northern part of the region. But when the war ended, Hungary and Romania both fell into the Soviet sphere, and in 1946 Hungary abandoned its claim to Transylvania.


A Million Magyars

Yet Hungarians apparently have no intention of forgetting their kin in Romania. The majority of the people in Transylvania may be Romanian, but there are also more than a million Magyars, as Hungarians call themselves, along with a handful of ethnic Germans.

“Every fourth or fifth Hungarian in the world lives in Romania,” the Hungarian government official said. “Everybody has relatives there. We accept the border, but we don’t accept what’s happening there.”

Hungarians have been alarmed by reports from Romania that Hungarian-language schools there were being closed, that there were fewer Hungarian-language classes in regular Romanian schools, and that other steps--smaller but in their eyes no less significant--were being taken to change from Hungarian to Romanian the names of museums, streets and other institutions.


They also were upset about being forced to wait a day to cross the border into Romania, about a ban on staying overnight with their relatives, and about being interrogated, as one put it not long ago, by “bureaucrats who would as soon hit you across the face with a rubber hose as look at you. . . . We haven’t seen officials like that here in 30 years.”

Istvan Boda, deputy editor of Hajdu-Bihari Naplo, a newspaper in the Hungarian border town of Debrecen, said that most minority groups tend to blend eventually into the host society but that the Romanian authorities are imposing “false and dramatic assimilation” on the Hungarians, who make up about 7% of the Romanian population.

Officially, he said, the Romanians “say there is no discrimination, that they are all equal Romanian citizens, but they do not recognize them as a nationality.”

Boda, whose staff keeps track of events across the frontier, said the Romanian authorities are manipulating numbers. Five years ago, he said, 25 to 27 Hungarian-speaking children in a village were enough to establish a class in that language, but 30 to 40 are needed now.


Romanian officials deny this. They say classes are available in Hungarian from kindergarten through high school, if enough students want them.

Hungarians also contend that entertainment in their language is being reduced in Transylvania, but Romanian cultural officials denied this, too. They proudly showed a visitor around a Hungarian-language theater and opera house in Cluj and said it offers a full season of productions in the Hungarian language, including some written in Hungary.

Romanians acknowledge that Hungarian-language television broadcasts have been cut back, but they add that economic problems have forced reduction of Romanian-language programming to no more than two hours a night and that no money is left for broadcasts in other languages.

Although Hungarian support for the Canadian resolution in Vienna raised eyebrows here, it was publication by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences of a three-volume history of Transylvania that really enraged the Romanians.


“What kind of science is this? Whom does this science serve, except the most reactionary imperialist circles?” Ceausescu demanded at a special meeting of Romania’s Hungarian and German working people’s councils early this year.

The history was written by Professor Makkai, among others.

According to a prospectus issued by the Academy of Sciences, the history traces developments in Transylvania through the Roman era and goes on to detail “the succession of Turkic, Germanic and Slavic peoples who swept away this Roman culture to replace it with their own.”

This is a key point because Romanian historians deny that their ancestors were ever swept away. They argue that the area’s earliest people, known to historians as the Dacians, submitted to Roman conquest only after bitter fighting, and that most of them stayed on after the Romans left in the face of new invasions from the east.


The point may seem abstruse, but it is important to the people involved. If the Dacians disappeared with the Romans in the 3rd Century and the Romanians did not appear until the 13th Century, as Makkai argues, then Romania’s claim to Transylvania would be undermined. On the other hand, if the Hungarians arrived from Central Asia in the 10th Century, as is acknowledged on both sides, and found the Romanians already there, then the opposite would be true.

Historians have been arguing the case for one side or the other for decades. In a history of Transylvania published in 1946, Makkai argues that there was no evidence of a Romanian presence in Transylvania until the 13th Century. The recent three-volume history grants that Romanian-speaking shepherds may have migrated in and out of southern Transylvania as early as the 8th Century.

In rebuttal, Pascu, the Romanian historian, and scholars at the Nicolae Iorga Institute of History have published a pamphlet entitled “A Conscious Forgery of History Under the Aegis of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.”

The Romanians accuse their Hungarian colleagues of deliberately ignoring archeological evidence of Dacian settlements before and after the Roman period.


“The (Hungarian) authors preferred forgery and denigration to a thorough and objective analysis of the history of Transylvania,” the pamphlet says. “Their main goal was not the truth . . . but the ‘demonstration’ of a preconceived thesis with a clear political end: the absence of the Romanians in Transylvania during the Hungarians’ advent . . . to challenge the Romanian people’s legitimate rights to its ancestral hearth.”

Pascu acknowledged, in an interview, that the tone of the Romanian response is “perhaps a little violent.” But he went on to say that “if you read the (Hungarian) text, what it says about the Romanians, your opinion would change. They talk about a barefoot population, a people without ancestors.”

In fact, he said, using a historical term much-favored in Romania and pronounced with derision in Hungary, Romanians are the descendants of the “autochthonous,” or native, population of Transylvania, the Dacians, and of the Roman invaders.

For his part, Makkai said that while Romanian-speaking shepherds may have grazed their sheep as early as the 8th Century below the Carpathian mountains that define Transylvania in the north and east, there is no reliable evidence to prove it. He cited what Hungarians say is an absence of Romanian-language place names before 1360 and the presence of several hundred Hungarian-language place names before 1200.


Western diplomats see little likelihood that such issues will be decided soon. As one put it:

“There is no way the Romanian government is going to change its policy, and there is no way the Hungarian government is going to be satisfied unless the Romanian government changes its policy.”

Times staff writer Mathis Chazanov was recently on assignment in Eastern Europe.