The Haphazard Invention of Romania

February 22, 2016 Topic: Politics Region: Europe Tags: HistoryRomaniaCommunismEastern EuropeRobert Kaplan

The Haphazard Invention of Romania

Robert Kaplan describes a country uniquely defined by its troubles.


Robert D. Kaplan, In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond (New York: Random House, 2016), 336 pp., $28.00.

PRINCE METTERNICH once remarked, “the Balkans start at the Rennweg.” The Hapsburg monarchy was a major player in the region for several centuries, not least as the sovereign power in Transylvania, a major part of modern-day Romania but Austro-Hungarian turf until the death of the dual monarchy after World War I. Romania itself is the quintessential Balkan country, a badly tossed salad of racial, religious and cultural bits and pieces. Like most of its neighbors, Romania is still struggling to reconstitute itself as a cohesive modern nation-state along Western European lines. Unlike neighbors such as Bulgaria, Moldova and the Ukraine, however, Romania has a vestigial link to the West that goes back nearly two thousand years.


After a series of incursions from 101 to 106 A.D., the Roman soldier-emperor Trajan annexed much of what is today Romania, giving it full status as an imperial province, Dacia Felix (“Happy Dacia,” referring to the Dacian tribes—happy or not—then inhabiting the area). The Roman imperium only lasted 165 years, but that was long enough for the natives to develop both a taste for good wine and a unique offshoot of the Latin language that sets Romanians apart from their neighbors, most of whom speak Slavic variants. To this day, anyone with a few years of prep school Latin can make fragmentary sense of Romanian newspaper stories, menus and shop placards; it really is a Romance language. It also gives the Romanian consciousness—at least among the educated class—a Western-oriented link that predates the heavy, and generally repressive, Byzantine and Ottoman Turkish influences that would dominate Romania long after the last Roman centurion was a distant memory.

At times this both inspired and clouded the vision of Romanian intellectuals, as Robert Kaplan illustrates in his superb new book In Europe’s Shadow. In analyzing an early historical work by the distinguished twentieth century Romanian philosopher, Mircea Eliade, Kaplan notes that he “became thoroughly smitten with the fascist and violently anti-Semitic Iron Guard leader Corneliu Zelea Codreanu.” To the youthful Eliade, Codreanu’s followers were, in his own words, “mainly a spiritual movement meant to bring about the new man and pursuing our national redemption . . . ” Beware the zeal of an excessive user of italics.

Just as Kemal Ataturk encouraged house academics to weave a bogus Turkish creation myth—one that erased traces of earlier Anatolian cultures like the Greeks and Armenians and fabricated the narrative of a Turkic presence long before that group had left the Asian steppes—so late nineteenth and early twentieth century intellectual Romanian nationalists concocted their own creation myth composed, in about equal measure, of historical fact and romantic imagination. To understand this mindset, Kaplan quotes another passage from Eliade that sums it all up:

“There are nations whose role in history is so obvious that nobody has ever thought to question it. But there are also less happy nations, who perform quite disagreeable missions without anybody knowing it. A discreet obscure role like the one played by the Daco-Romans’ descendants, the Romanians . . . Ignored, or misunderstood at the best, the life of these nations is more intense. In addition to its tragism (sic), their history is transfigured, one may say, by a permanent divine presence . . . Incessantly attacked, they can only think while defending themselves. Their history . . . is a permanent war, for centuries on end, for their own survival. In each battle they risk everything: their right to life, to religion, to their language and culture.”

Partially true, but also self-pitying and self-deluded, Kaplan compresses this Romanian mind-set into a single sentence of his own: “In other words, not only have Romanians suffered more than other European peoples, but their suffering has created a mystical martyrdom in their souls.” More than one eastern European nation is still gripped by this kind of self-composed myth, resulting in what might almost be called the Evil Twin of American exceptionalism. No notion of a melting pot here. Instead, most Eastern European national exceptionalism is based on the real or perceived grievances of a religious, ethnic or racial group that calls itself a nation while behaving more like a tribe. The fact that most of the urban modernization and economic growth taking place in the region during the twentieth century was in the hands of “alien” groups like Greeks, Jews and Armenians virtually guaranteed an eventual collision that would be ugly and bloody. The rise of fascism and Axis wartime influence created the perfect storm in Romania where some of the worst scenes in the Holocaust, wrenchingly but meticulously described by Kaplan, were played out.

But the seeds were of an ancient planting. Wallachia and Moldavia, the two Ottoman territories that would merge to form modern Romania in 1859, were long governed by a series of Phanariot voivodes, appointed by the Sultans and backed up by Turkish garrisons, but drawn from the ranks of the wealthy Greek population of Istanbul’s Phanar district (hence the name “Phanariot”). Many of these surrogate rulers were cultivated and presided over elegant courts. Like their erstwhile subjects, they were Orthodox Christians, but they gained their jobs through corruption and kept them by bleeding the local peasantry to fatten both the Sultan’s coffers and their own. Thus the ruling and administrative classes that would come to power in newly-born Romania were shaped by a culture of arbitrary authority and oriental corruption and shared little in common with the native peasantry, culturally or even genetically. The result, to this day, is a country that prides itself on its Western antecedents but is still a long way from achieving a Western polity, and that remains steeped in corruption. All of this is summed up pretty well by Sherban Cantacuzino, a Cambridge-educated scholar whose name may bespeak Phanariot ancestry, and whom Kaplan quotes:

“National traits are determined by race, climate and topography. Frequent raids and invasions have made Romanians tough, brave and resilient. Political instability, the uncertainty of what the future holds, has made them intensely resourceful and practical, but also wily and corruptible.”

This may help to explain why, for most of its existence as an independent Balkan state, Romania has had the unenviable reputation of being the most corrupt country in one of the most corrupt regions in the world. I can remember being told by more than one old Balkan hand—and only half in jest—that “Romania is kleptomania raised to a national level.” I never took it seriously, though, until a surreal Washington evening in 1975. At the frantic, last-minute request of the Atlantic Council, I had agreed to act as host and chaperone for a night on the town with Nicu Ceaușescu, the twenty-two-year-old youngest son of Romanian dictator Nicolai Ceaușescu. He was visiting the States as head of the youth wing of the Romanian Communist Party, his father and mother being great believers in keeping it all in the family. Nicu’s reputation as something of a rake had preceded him, and I suspect that one reason I was chosen to serve as his cicerone was that I was only nine years his senior and in possession of a sturdy liver (Nicu would expire of cirrhosis in Vienna in 1996).

I was to meet the Ceaușescu scion at the Mayflower Hotel and show him the sights of Georgetown. In the lobby I quickly spotted a trio of dark-haired young men who looked like they were trying to pass for Italian. The first was a thin, rather nervous, bookish-looking fellow with glasses. The second was smirky in a nondescript sort of way. And the third had the tough, confident look of a senior apparatchik. Without a moment’s hesitation, I walked straight over to the latter and introduced myself. So much for intuition. He turned out to be Nicu’s bodyguard, as his agitated interpreter hastily explained. Nicu himself was the least imposing member of the trio. During the course of a long, bibulous evening I managed to keep them away from the fleshpots of Georgetown and persuaded them to settle in at Blues Alley, a fine old jazz joint. The highlight of the evening came when the unfortunate interpreter, whom Nicu and his bodyguard delighted in bullying as the class nerd, had to visit the gents, leaving his suit jacket slung over his chair. Nicu, with the finesse of a pro, quickly extracted the poor fellow’s wallet and pocketed it. At my request, he later returned it, but not before the interpreter, having discovered his loss, sweated it out for half an hour: a minor but clear case of kleptomania at the state level.


KAPLAN HAS spent a lot of time in Romania, and he has a knack for seeking out local scholars, dissident intellectuals, relics of the corrupt old order, and all sorts of other interesting and sometimes rather rum characters making up the Balkan Salad of present-day Romania. He has also read widely and deeply on his subject, something that sets him honorably apart from the common run of journalists. Having visited Romania in the 1970s at the high-water mark of the Ceaușescu regime, in 1989 when it was toppled, and in 2013 and 2014 with post-Ceaușescu Romania still a work in progress, struggling to become a “normal” European country, he can also draw on a layered series of impressions gained firsthand and over time.