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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 4:99–105.


Great-Romania and Transylvania 1918–1920


The major transformation between 1918 and 1920, creating the new country-borders sanctioned by the Versailles peace treaties changed Romania, a small south-east European state back in 1913, into Great-Romania. With its area increased from 140 000 sq. km to 297 000 sq. km and its population from 7 million to 16 million, Romania rose to the rank of a middle power. Though there are recurrent debates even over some factual elements of this process, the most frequently recurring issues are those related to the historical evaluation. All this, of course, goes beyond the traditional Hungarian-Romanian disputes on the question of whether or not the Trianon Peace Treaty was unjust.

From the perspective of 75 years, we can more clearly see the aggregate of factors, both internal and external, which prompted the Great Powers to draw up the new frontiers of 1919–1920. We can also see more clearly the kinds of tactical-diplomatic feats of dexterities the Romanian politics had to perform on top of its continuous efforts, and, on the other hand, those partial humiliations it had to endure, as well as the masses of new problems involved in the enlargement of Romania.

Within a brief survey, only a few aspects of this great historical turn can be examined here, assuming that the main stages of changes in Transylvania at the time and the operational mechanism of the Peace Conference are well-known to all.


The Great-Romanian Unity

A close collaborator and key-diplomat of Alexandru Vaida-Voevod, Romanian Prime-Minister in 1919–1920, Viorel Tilea wrote in the introduction to his memoirs: “The unity of the Romanian nation could only be attained in 1918 owing to the national feeling and to the sacrifices which all strata of the Romanian people had made over the previous decades. But the sacrifices would have been futile if the international »conjuncture« had not been advantageous to this union. Both in the remote and recent past as well as at present and in the future, it is foreign policy and the international situation which play a decisive role in the progress and existence of our country.” In the birth of the Great-Romanian unity “the historical moment” was of a particular importance.

According to the simplified view of this matter, the Entente accepted the claim of Romania to Transylvania as a justifiable one, first in 1916, then in 1919. The underlying reason for this was that Romania had turned against the Central Powers.

True, under a secret treaty signed in Bucharest on August 17 1916, the Entente had promised the eastern part of Hungary as far as the Tisza River (except the city of Debrecen and its environs) to Romania, yet the formation of Great-Romania actually commenced in the East, when the armed forces of Romania, which had already been defeated by the Central Powers, marched into Bessarabia on invitation by the local National Council in the spring of 1918. This occupation was then sanctioned – as a kind of ‘’permitted consolation” – by the Germans and also by the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy under the Bucharest Peace Treaty of May 7 1918. Thus, then Prime Minister Marghiloman could rightly declare: “thanks to my government, the Dynasty is stable [the Germans, to wit, wanted to expel ‘the treacherous Romanian Hohenzollerns’], the country has an army, ammunition, and possesses Bessarabia as its own.”

The separate peace Romania had concluded with the Central Powers came in handy to the Entente to regard its promise – as laid down in the Bucharest Pact of 1916 – as being invalidated. It was under this utterly uncertain situation that the Central Powers collapsed. Paradoxically, it was precisely Berlin that first promised to support Romania in its Transylvania-oriented endeavours, on November 9 1918, when the German party invited the Romanian government to ensure General Mackensen’s occupation army an undisturbed retreat. To be sure, at the Peace Conference no one asked the Germans any question in this matter.

In her book entitled Padovától Trianonig (From Padua to Trianon), Mária Ormos points out the kind of role Romania was designed to play in the Russia-related plans of the Entente forces which had advanced to the Danube River from the south. It was connected mainly with this that in December 1918 Paris recognized the allied status of Bucharest, though it was also established that the Pact of August 17 1916 was invalidated by the Bucharest Peace Treaty, and that a new stand had to be taken which – in considering the Romanian claims – would take the Bucharest Pact as a starting-point, taking into account the subsequent annexation of Bessarabia, as well as the general and particular interests of the Allies, of which the Allied Powers would express their views at their forthcoming conferences. This “clearly vague” formulation was to mean – at least as the Romanians tended to interpret it – that in early 1919 the issue of Transylvania could still be regarded as an essentially open question. It was so in spite of the following facts: the Romanian troops had marched in Transylvania in November, advancing to the line of the Maros River as marked out by the French-Hungarian armistice agreement concluded in Belgrade on November 13; the Great Romanian Assembly of Gyulafehérvár (now Alba Iulia in Romania) had proclaimed the union of Transylvania and Old Romania on December 1; King Ferdinand’s troops had already been stationed to the west of Kolozsvár (now Cluj in Romania) by the end of the year.


Bargaining for the country-borders

In January 1919, Prime Minister Ioan I. C. Brătianu went to Paris where he had to realize at once that his country was only regarded as a third-rate one. While Romania could officially send only two representatives, Serbia or Belgium could send three. Therefore, the Romanian Prime Minister – over and above his efforts to get into the best possible position at negotiations on the country-borders – did his best to obtain the same rights for his country, as those of the victorious powers. His diplomatic correspondence shows that he was not given too much assistance by the Czechs and Poles. At the same time, the Greek Prime Minister Venizelos once bitterly declared that he did not deem himself the representative of an independent country.

As to the long-protracted debates of the Peace Conference, it deserves special mention that the Conference – contrary to the commonly held view – did not concentrate solely on problems concerning the Hungarian-Romanian border, but it considered each border of Romania as a subject of a separate negotiation.

The case of South-Dobrudja seemed to be the simplest issue. This region had been occupied by Romania first in 1913, and, of course, was lost during the war. In this case the American and British parties demanded that some corrections be made to the advantage of Bulgaria, and Clemenceau seems to have decided against any change.

In marking out the Bukovinian border, it emerged that this densely populated Ukrainian area with its over 80 000 Ukrainian natives should be annexed to somewhere else, but there was no such place as a real and recognized Ukrainian state did not exist.

Bessarabia posed a recurrent problem, not only because of its connections with Transylvania, or because the Russian issue was an inextricable problem for the Conference, but because the Americans raised the idea of a plebiscite, which, in turn, was rejected by Brătianu. In fact, this debate was not a serious one. Referring to the principle of ethnic and historical rights, representatives of the Entente recognized the union of Bessarabia and Romania.

The hottest debates continued between the Serbs and the Romanians on the Banat. Back in 1916, the Entente had promised the whole region between the Tisza and Maros rivers to Romania, but the Serbs demanded that the region be divided between Romania and Serbia, and, for purposes of emphasis, they also sent troops to this area. Certain Romanian politicians were inclined to accept such a division. Brătianu argued that there was a Romanian-German (“Swabian”) ethnic majority, later he could also refer to the Declaration of Accession of the local Germans. (The Hungarians did not count.) While the Serbian Premier Pasic would have agreed even to a plebiscite, Brătianu would not have, in the same way as he definitely rejected the idea of a plebiscite in any other territorial issue subject to the official Romania stand-point. There were also lengthy discussions on whether the borders would be marked out to the south of the confluence of the Tisza and Maros rivers or along an even more southern line. While the Americans were more inclined to consider the ethnic aspects, the other great powers preferred to think in terms of strategy and politics. Finally, the Conference adopted the principle of the balance of power so that the number of Serbs annexed to Romania shall be equal to that of Romanians subordinated to Serbia; so in the last minute Fehértemplom (now Bela Orkva) and Versec (Vrsác) were allotted to Serbia.

Debates over the Hungarian borders commenced as early as February 1919. Formally, the resolution of the Great Romanian Assembly at Gyulafehérvár was not taken into consideration. According to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs this “is not to be followed by any consequence from the international viewpoint”; it would be the business of the Peace Conference to decide. In this case too, Brătianu insisted on the border as had been promised under the 1916 Pact. He sought to have Békéscsaba and its environs also annexed to Romania, in the same way as his successor, Vaida-Voevod would also insist on the proclamation of a small republic of the local Slovaks, which also would prefer to join the Romanian state.

The old historical Transylvania was not a subject of negotiation if only because of the unambiguous majority of its Romanian population. A Hungarian ethnic group, the Székely population (Seklers), was automatically attached to Romania on the score of the too eastwardly geographical situation of the Seklers’ dwellings. The debate concentrated mainly on the question of where the East-Hungarian towns – Nagyvárad (Oradea), Nagykároly (Carei), Szatmárnémeti (Satu Mare) and others – should belong to. While the Americans tended to adhere to the ethnic principle, the French supported the Romanian claims. Later, the negotiations were narrowed down to Nagykároly and Nagyszalonta (Salonta), and finally the decision was made – due to some railway policy aspects which were generally interpreted as an important angle – in favour of Romania.


“The Hungarian Complex”

We know how this problem field correlated to the eastern plans of the French high command, how the Paris military had supported the maximum claims of Romania ever since late 1918 in an effort to secure major Romanian armed forces for an expedition to Russia. In her book, Mária Ormos gave a detail analysis of the Romanian actions, and showed the way in which a world strategic importance was artificially attached to the Temesvár (Timisoara)–Nagyvárad Szatmár railway line of merely local importance. We also know how the high military leaders – Berthelot, Vix, de Lobbyt, Franchet d’Esperey and others – each guided by different partial realities, were quarrelling. But we shall never come to know it exactly how much those personal debates, along with the never realized anti-Bolshevist intervention plan, influenced the fate of at least 300 thousand Hungarians as to their belonging to one country or another. To wit, it was only this order of magnitude of people over which serious debates were continued, the rest, almost 1.5 million Hungarians, did not count.

The Hungarian border had been approved in a final form by the Committee by mid-March 1919. Later the Supreme Council did not make any change in it either.

What led Brătianu to urge on a further Romanian advance even after the Romanians had reached the line of the Tisza River in March 1919? He might have been led, on the one hand, by his experience that it is only possessed by his country, what is occupied by his troops. On the other hand, he might have been led by the recognition that once his country had enlarged, and so he would not undertake to participate in the anti-Bolshevist campaign, he would rather do away with the smaller power, Hungary, especially as this endeavour was occasionally encouraged by certain circles in Paris. So much the more as he had a strong penchant to regard the attempt of Béla Kun and his companions to introduce a communist dictatorship in Hungary as a Hungarian trick to evade the consequences of the would-be peace treaty. (“The Hungarian complex” of the Romanian foreign policy only intensified his anxieties anyway.) He might also have been led by the fact that he could reckon on a possible compensation for the losses Romania had suffered during the occupation in 1916–1918, only if the Romanians secured it themselves within Hungary. The success of this kind of compensation is well known, so well that even the Peace Conference had to deal with the issue of the Romanian requisitions in Hungary. George Brătianu, the historian, wrote: “In 1920 and 1921 many locomotives and railway carriages, which had been taken from Hungary, were rusting at railway stations because the administration could not find out what to do with them.”

To be underlined are here two more moments with some implications for the future. The first is the issue of the so-called treaty on the protection of national minorities, the other is the relationship to the home politics of Hungary.

It was not so much because of the rather insignificant provisions of the Great Four-elaborated draft-treaty on the protection of national minorities that Brătianu gave utterance to his objections, and then resigned in September 1919 – maintaining, however, his leadership in the background –, as because it was this document where the treatment of the minor side-allies as third-rate partners became quite manifest. It is not known quite exactly how the preamble was formulated in Paris: it referred to the Berlin Congress of 1878, where Romania had been recognized as an independent state only subject to special conditions, in the same way as certain conditions were laid down in this case, too. With these conditions even the existence of Romania as an independent state was questioned. Probably it was mainly this which came to R.W. Seton-Watson’s mind when he termed the treatment of Romania as a “comedy of errors”. Later the preamble was cancelled, though the Romanians failed to have their stand-point passed, namely that the Great Powers should acknowledge the protection of minorities as a decision also binding on themselves. Though the Vaida-Voevod-government finally yielded, but it was an ill-omen that it succumbed only to the November ultimatum of the Entente, and was willing to withdraw from Budapest under this pressure only.

Romania, of course, could hardly improve its relationship to Hungary in 1919. Nor did it make any effort to this end. (Some attempts by Ioan Erdélyi, the commissioner of the Transylvanian Romanian Governing Council, in Budapest to create a Hungarian-Romanian union were partly mere speculations inspired from Nagyszeben [Sibiu], partly they were to serve subversive purposes, and therefore they do not belong to this category.) According to Brătianu’s stand-point: „It is not in our interest to consolidate any Hungarian government so long as it will not undertake the obligation to recognize our claims and to participate in building friendly relations with us in the future.” In 1919 this was tantamount to saying that Romania was not willing to recognize any Hungarian government. With this – as is well known – they promoted the realization of the worse Hungarian alternative, namely the attempt of the Szeged-based “white” counter-revolutionary forces at a gradual political take-over in the autumn of 1919. Paradoxically, it was the Romanian Vaida who later accused Horthy and his regime – which then turned against Romania and made a strong claim to revision – of ungratefulness.


Recipes for Assimilation

It may not sound authentically if the Hungarians point out the harms Trianon brought to the Romanian state and society, even if they underline and acknowledge the historical importance of changes in 1918–1920 in the development of the Romanian nation. The undoubted attainments, however, cannot obscure the real problems.

Instead of preparing an ethnically more or less correct peace treaty, thus creating four dissatisfied countries in the Carpathian Basin, which could have been dissatisfied if only because of the utterly mixed ethnic composition of the affected settlements, the Entente preferred to satisfy – as fully as possible – the demands of its three allies. The Romanian Foreign Minister Misu thus warned in September 1919: “...what the Peace Conference creates is nothing but a house of cards which cannot be sustained in the long run, and will later call for a revision.” A recipe for attaining the stabilization in Romania could be to maintain the harmony with the great allies by all possible means.

The other recipe proved to be a bitter one to the Transylvanian society: it consisted in a striving for rapid-rate assimilation. What this meant in the first place was not only assimilation in the strict sense of the world, but also implied the elimination of the remains of a centuries-old particularism, as well as the uniformizing of the whole region, and the deliberate deformation of natural processes out of world political and security considerations. This problem goes far beyond the particular Hungarian grievances, though it is not quite independent of them.

To all this, it is perhaps needless to add that above the difficulties involved in the integration of the new territories, the Romanian interpretation of sovereignty – i.e. the idea of a total sovereignty – was not adequate under the circumstances of the 20th century. Such a total sovereignty did not exist even in the case of the Habsburg Monarchy which was a real great power after all. The world tendency to open to the outside world, here turned into isolation. The disability to cooperate grew to pathological dimensions which had to be continuously counter-balanced and concealed by busy diplomatic activities. All this threw obstacles in the way of both the normal settlement of the cases at issue and of relieving the – partly common – traumas. And this can only be solved by joint efforts, otherwise it remains unsolved.