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: