Review: Between States – The Transylvanian Question and the European Idea during World War II, by Holly Case
In early September 1940 units of the Hungarian army entered the village of Ipp in northern Transylvania. A few days previously, the region, which had been part of Romania since the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, had been granted to Hungary under the so-called Second Vienna Award, in effect a change of border dictated by Hitler and Mussolini. There was great rejoicing in Budapest and among ethnic Hungarians in northern Transylvania. But not everyone was happy, notably the region’s ethnic Romanians. As the Hungarians were entering Ipp someone threw a hand grenade into their midst, killing four soldiers. There were reprisals, with the result that over 150 locals lost their lives.
It was one of a number of serious incidents which marred the arrival of Hungarian authority in northern Transylvania in the autumn of 1940. They in turn mirrored atrocities and acts of discrimination against ethic Hungarians which had taken place in the region during the inter-war period.
Tos and fros in wartime Transylvania
When the rejoicing died down and outrageous incidents were curtailed, the new Hungarian officials (who were often outsiders “parachuted” into positions of authority by the politicians in Budapest) set about dealing with many tasks. They aimed to completely overhaul the education system, including relocating the Hungarian university back to Kolozsvár from its exile in Szeged, to construct a new transportation infrastructure and, controversially, to implement anti-Jewish legislation alongside wartime rationing, conscription and censorship.
The Transylvania Party was the only officially allowed political party and there would be no elections. Members of parliament “representing” the region were appointed from above.
The peculiar and relatively short history of Northern Transylvania as part of Hungary came to an end with the defeat of Hungary in the Second World War. After the war the region again became part of Romania. The story of Northern Transylvania during the war is at the heart of this scholarly work by Holly Case. Yet it is not simply a chronological account. As the book’s sub-title indicates, this work sets the history of the region in a much broader context.
Balanced account of power politics
Case examines the modern history of Transylvania as an idea, a location and an ideologically loaded concept. Her account is as balanced as can be expected for any work dealing with this notoriously complex and politically sensitive issue. Attitudes to Transylvania on the part of Hungary and Romania are compared and contrasted – often to the detriment of both.
Each side, before and during the war, aimed to influence international opinion and bolster its claims to the same territory partly by denouncing the other side in quite vitriolic terms – sometimes even the same terms. Thus Romania would describe Hungarians as a backward people who had never escaped from their Asiatic roots. In turn, Hungary would depict Romanians as not worthy of being respected as cultured Europeans.
The treatment of the Jews is given a special chapter. Jews in Northern Transylvania were among the first Hungarians to be deported to the death camps in 1944. Yet Romania’s treatment of its Jewish population elsewhere was not much better. At other times each side would claim to be protecting or saving “its” Jews. It’s a complicated section of this anyway serious book but at the same time fascinating. Perhaps it’s surprising that there’s no chapter dealing with the equally complex issue of Gypsies in both Hungary and Romania.
Transylvania under communism
The book finishes with an overview of conditions in and attitudes to Transylvania since 1945. A number of paradoxes are revealed. Case highlights, for example, that the period of “high Stalinism” in the early 1950s was a time which witnessed some of the “best” years for minority rights in Transylvania. Soviet-type nationalities policies “ensured bilingual signs, education and cultural venues – including a university – for Hungarians”. The 1952 Romanian Constitution even made provision for an autonomous Hungarian region.
It all changed later, particularly with the rise of Nicolae Ceaucescu. In more recent times lifting censorship restrictions in both countries has led to a revival of some extreme nationalist sentiments, echoing ideas propagated in the inter-war period, and even the fact that both Hungary and Romania are EU members hasn’t dissipated old tensions entirely. But then for most of the Second World War, as accusations of atrocities and discrimination in Northern Transylvania or denial of them were thrown back and forth, Hungary and Romania were allies, allegedly fighting on the same side.
Buy the book
Between States – The Transylvanian Question & the European Idea during World War II
By Holly Case
Hardback, illustrated, maps, 349 pages
Stanford University Press, 2009 USD 60