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East European Perspectives: January 11, 2005

11 January 2005, Volume 7, Number 1

"RFE/RL East European Perspectives" will henceforth be published monthly.


By Victor Neumann*

Romanian Symbolic Figures And Conceptual Confusion

Beyond the content of history texts, a main issue has been and continues to be communication or, to be more precise, the link between the "sender" and the "recipient" of the message. If the middle class is relatively small, the elites have no genuine partner for dialogue. As a result, they believe that conveying sentiments (rather than information or heuristic ideas) is in itself sufficient. Not everyone, indeed not even the intelligentsia as a whole, is capable of exercising rigor when handling facts or using language. Hence the seemingly random employment of notions and of conceptualization pertaining to the definition of social and communitarian aspirations. Instead of building on empirical findings concerning social behavior, one is faced with a dangerous appetite for abstract description. In Romanian culture, for instance, the use of "neam," "etnie," and "popor" reveals a strong preference for symbols as opposed to an examination of the factors that truly shape human relations. This explains why the concept of nation is perceived and employed as if it were void of social content: the individual either disappears from the concept altogether or is distorted. Totalitarian experiments are just one step away.

In 19th-century Romania, writing became a constant intellectual preoccupation -- first among noble families and later among the bourgeoisie. As a privileged category due to their social origins, intellectuals of the modern era served the close circle from which they came. They did not envisage engaging in any "social pedagogy" similar to that promoted by French historian Jules Michelet and his peers. They were instead lured by a vision of history with a messianic function, one that was supposed to support, alongside the church, the first emancipation of the masses. It was in this spirit, and only this spirit, that they strove to fulfill an educational mission. This could not possibly imbue society with that sense of self-awareness and equilibrium in which the modern perceptions of nation are entrenched. This development, of course, is not singular to Romania, but the Romanian example is one of the most revealing in this sense.

After the 1918 forging of Greater Romania, social and interethnic realities became evident. Consequently, there was great interest in an emancipation program targeting Romanians from Transylvania, Banat, Bukovina, and Bessarabia who had recently joined their compatriots from the Old Kingdom. Intellectuals from the Old Kingdom were promoted in administrative positions in Transylvania, where they would undergo an interesting experience. These administrators soon discovered that local ethnic Romanians suffered from an inferiority complex vis-a-vis the Germans (Saxons) and the Hungarians. Although Romanian schools were numerous, the economic and cultural inequalities had created an inferiority complex with respect to the educational institutions of the German and Hungarian communities. Historians recorded that the imbalance continued to exist beyond the early stages of Romanian administration of the region. A team of school inspectors reported the following after visiting Tarnava-Mica County in 1926: "These are two altogether different worlds: on one side light, on the other darkness; on one side prosperity, on the other poverty; on one side disorganization, on the other discipline and order. How could the Saxons and Romanians live side by side so many hundreds of years without the former influencing the latter for the better?" (cited in Livezeanu, 1995, p. 149).

The Romanian inspector undoubtedly conveyed to superiors painful yet accurate facts. Not only did he sense that things went better in the Saxon community, but he also sensed why they were better than in the Romanian community. Unfortunately, neither at that time nor later would Romanian intellectuals prove capable of answering the inspector's pertinent question. By and large they ignored solutions needed to overcome the problems generated by the education gap. The absence of Saxon-Romanian contacts among the rural population was equally real. It must be kept in mind that the two worlds were based on different sets of values, as the inspector noticed. As a matter of fact, one encountered -- particularly in Transylvania -- the survival in a modernizing environment of closed, medieval communities. The two communities -- one Saxon, the other Romanian -- had lived side by side but never defended common values. To this cultural factor one must add the fact that urbanization among Romanians lagged behind urbanization within the German population, and hence social mobility was weaker and cultural emancipation slower. To this historic heritage and as its outcome, one should add another factor: the Romanian community faced poverty and an absence of representative structures. Finally, the blame for the malfunctioning of intercommunity relations should also be laid at the doorstep of those who managed Transylvanian affairs according to the partisan interests of one or another cultural and linguistic group.

After 1918, when this historical evolution showed its effects, one might have expected an effort geared at identifying means to ending the isolation of Romanians, Saxons, and Hungarians alike. Instead of adopting a genuine liberal orientation, Romanian elites in Bucharest and in other regional centers once more embraced a conservative ideology and proceeded to redraw intercommunitarian boundaries; this time around, however, they were doing so while acting as masters of state-administrative resources. Cultural historian Sorin Alexandrescu rightly noted: "a less centralizing and more cooperative policy towards local forces...would undoubtedly had softened asperities. The education system had to be made uniform countrywide and in provinces suffering from a lack of Romanian schools due to the former Russian or Hungarian administrations, it was necessary to focus on the compensatory support of education in the Romanian language. Yet immediate postwar governments, driven by...political blindness, never asked themselves whether unilaterally favoring teaching in Romanian would not in the long term backfire" (Alexandrescu, 1998, pp. 68-69).

While politicians became partisans of compulsory centralization, intellectuals once again failed to address the major issues of Romanian society. They failed to sense that the evolution of Romanian society in the direction of the collectivist paradigm was wholly insufficient to prepare the country for a confrontation with the world at large. They backed a collectivist philosophy and the dominance of a minority at the expense of the individual's role in society. Long accustomed to producing self-serving or ideological orientations, the intellectuals of Greater Romania never envisaged a nondiscriminatory, open-ended relationship between themselves and the masses. They believed it was important to emphasize historic myth in order to augment the idea of national identity as formulated in the 19th century. The new political entity forged after World War I did not bring about an attenuation of ideological excesses and did not contribute to overcoming inherited social imbalances. The pursuit of centralization policies by the new administration either diminished or wholly squandered the chance of raising economic standards to the levels of some the newly incorporated regions, taking advantage of these regions' resources. On the other hand, the same policies stimulated either superiority or inferiority complexes, not least as a result of attitudes displayed by intellectuals involved in politics.

Constantin Noica and his peers turned collectivism into a philosophical norm. "At present," he wrote, "an order exists that is difficult, close to impossible to ignore: the order of the collective." Issues related to forging individual consciousness were always postponed in Romanian cultural debate. Instead, important philosophers and historians -- followed by many opinion leaders -- insisted on the necessity of forging a centralized collective culture. Borrowing from Ernst Gellner, one might observe that this endeavor was directed "against the peasants and [was not to emerge] on the basis of their culture." Nationalist symbolism is related to imaginary ancient and vigorous peasant life styles, to the "folk" or the "neam." The peasantry, which was undergoing urbanization, has never been consulted in the process of defining the new culture (Gellner, 1997, p. 90). The concepts of Nationality-Ethnicity reflected primordial, unconscionable village life styles, which is precisely why they caught the eye and the heart of the nationalists.

Against the background of a meager understanding of concepts and the role they play in providing theoretical explanations to facts, many historians still seem fascinated by the ethno-national understanding of state identities. Some -- such as Keith Hitchins -- claim that the idea of "ethnic nation" belongs to modernity. To find that claim in Romanian historiography would be common, but to witness its emanation from a U.S. historian is strange -- to put it mildly. The ethnic political idiom practiced by Romanians never envisaged a modern entity such as that promoted by revolutionary France or Michelet's political thought. In other words, the political discourse practiced in Paris was by no means the equivalent to that practiced in Islaz, Bucharest, and Blaj. It might nonetheless be true that there were instances when Romanians tried to ascribe genuinely revolutionary meanings to notions such as "populus" or "peuple," in the sense of feeding into those notions the modern content of civic nation and civic state. However, the liberal orientation encountered in the decade that followed the 1848 revolution in Wallachia was abandoned in the 1860s and replaced by an ethnic orientation, one in which "nation" and "state" were interpreted from a conservative, rather than from the modern perspective bestowed on those times by the U.S. scholar (Hitchins, 1996, p. 21). Any analysis of the concept of "ethnic nation" cannot escape noting the correlation between ethnicity and language. It is precisely on these grounds that I am persuaded that cultural-political idioms warrant particular attention when one discusses nation and state. The study of concepts that define the collectivity is important not only for theorists but also for political practitioners. For not only were successive generations of historians, linguists, and ethnographers discussing identity-related issues unable to cut the umbilical cord that fed into the debate uses and abuses of the old Romanticism assumptions, but politicians were just as incapable of cutting that cord.

The case of the Romanian notions of "neam" (kinfolk), "etnie" (ethnicity), "popor" (people), "nationalitate" (nationality) illustrates how culture might play a major role in developing restrictive perspectives of identity self-perceptions. This self-perceiving modality -- multiplied through dissemination via cultural and political mass media -- contributed to the creation of a "minority problem" in 19th-century Romania and perseveres in so doing to this day. I have in mind the marginalization of linguistic and confessional groups that were not speaking Romanian and belonged to confessions different from that of the majority's Romanian Orthodox Church. One deals here with a subjective grasp of the concept of nation, with an interpretation of the notion as being anchored in language and in confession. To this day, language and confession play the fundamental part in this widespread interpretation of nation in Romania -- an interpretation that initially served the purpose of boundary-drawing vis-a-vis any cultural-confessional difference, and evolved eventually into successive forms of discrimination. Be that as it may: Even if one were to accept that at origins this ethno-national subjective delimitation played a positive role in the process of nation-building, the reasons invoked for justifying its ascent at the time do not vindicate transmission from generation to generation without a critical re-examination of its implications.

The terms "neam," "etnie," "popor," and "nationalitate" are related and became part of political ideology where development of national conscience has been retarded -- in the German, Polish, Czech, Serbian, and Romanian cases -- and where the absence of an own-state stimulated their emergence from below (Neumann, 2004, pp. 47-71). As Romanian philosopher and pundit Andrei Cornea rightly pointed out, "nationalism takes the capital notion of Popor (Neam, das Volk) in a non-literal sense that becomes in time anti-literal: for a nationalist, Popor is restricted to Ethnicity, which immediately leads to the extirpation of national minorities from the body of the nation" (Cornea, 2003, p.149). A more detailed accounting is nonetheless needed, as the Romanian notions, and especially their connotations, benefited neither from comparative studies relating them to like-notions used in other languages, nor from analysis aimed at exposing their ambiguous content.

We know today, due to "Begriffsgeschichte" (history of concepts) and to the history of concepts-research, that terminological understandings differ from one language to another and from one culture to the another. Consequently, the key terms that I have in mind depend on particularistic cultural meanings. When we use "popor" in its French meaning of "peuple" or in its British-American meaning of people, we refer all the inhabitants of a state. This is because the terms "peuple" and people have acquired explicit legal significance mediated and conveyed by the related concepts of "citoyenete," or citizenship. In those cultures, then, the notion of people has been turned into an institutional and institutionalized symbol for the rule of law and for the social and civic status of each of those polities' inhabitants. Putting it somewhat differently: the sum of individuals inhabiting the territory of one state makes up the "peuple," or people. In the Romanian language, on the other hand, the meanings of "popor" are different. There are shades of different meanings, and which meaning is used depends on who uses the notion, as well as on the political moment to which reference is made. For example, 1848 Romanian revolutionary thought has been somewhat influenced by the French "peuple," particularly when employed in reference to economically significant social segments of the population.

For a brief period, intellectuals linked to the ideals of the 1848 revolution in Wallachia advocated the codification of national identity in terms the common interest of all the country's inhabitants. With but a few exceptions, however, Transylvanian intellectuals proved incapable of grasping the importance of defining national identity in judicial terms. In their eyes, national identity had to be linked to ethnic origins, to blood and soil. According to cultural historian Paul Cornea, there is a contradiction between a realist and an idealized vision of the "popor"; but, he writes, Romanian intellectuals of 1848 distinguished between the realist and the idealist perceptions by using "plebs" (masses) for one and "populus" (people) for the other (Cornea, 1980, p. 230). I beg to disagree. I do not believe one can find in Central and East European cultures of the mid-19th century any intention to undertake the task of clarification by restructuring political idiom. A large terminological ambiguity emerged as a consequence. In Romania's specific case, it would not take long for "popor" to be attributed a meaning tantamount to "neam." "Neam" means "ethnos," but at the same time it would be attributed the meaning of "natiune," in the sense of a community of blood singularly entitled to cultural and linguistic rights in its geographic habitat. Consequently, one witnessed the emergence of "Kulturnation" (culturally defined nation) inspired by the Romanticist concept of "das Volk", rather than by political ideas structured on the judicial values inherent in the concepts of "peuple," or people.

With a few exceptions among the 1848 generation in Wallachia, I cannot identify, either at that time or during later periods, any consistent and cognizant employment of "popor" in the sense of "populus" (political and legal community). The Romanian political idiom -- which is, as everywhere, a reflection of collective mentality -- did not evolve in this direction. Among other things, this would lead to an inconsistent representation of civic-liberal and left-wing orientations in Romanian culture. In virtual absence of "populus," "peuple" or "people" from Romanian culture, preference would be given a rapidly more effective formula of national identity-building whose intellectual roots are to be sought in the clan. For the clan is little else than an embryonic version of kinfolk, or "neam." One cannot but conclude that despite apparent similarities, the concept of national identity as understood and practiced in French, Anglo-Saxon (and one must add Dutch) polities, is poles apart from that of "neam" (as equivalent to "popor"); in turn, this is proof that the set of values construing the idea of modern nation in Romanian culture is not identical to the set that generates the Western idea.

That the "neam" still fuels Romanian ethno-culture and ethno-nationalism is proof of political and intellectual inability to assume responsibility rather than of determination to safeguard specificity. It also demonstrates that key social segments refuse to alter attitudes toward public affairs (the "commonweal"), hiding their conservatism under the comfortable image of defenders of a collective identity kindred to pre-modern stages. Some political leaders benefit from difficult access to information by peasants and first-generation urban populations in order to resurrect the "organic" theory about the nation as embodying a chain of past, present and future generations. Their task is often facilitated by the poor economic performance of postcommunist governance. Vladimir Tismaneanu noted in "Fantasies of Salvation" that the end of communism was followed by collective anxiety and confusion, and that, in turn, these factors paved the way for the emergence of new ethno-nationalist myths. Sanctification of the past thus made its come back, for the past was considered the only commodity capable of bring back hope, pride, and dignity to the nation (Tismaneanu, 1998, p.154).
* The author is professor of history at the West University of Timisoara, Romania. He can be contacted at


Alexandrescu, S., 1998, Paradoxul roman [The Romanian Paradox], (Bucharest: Univers).

Cornea, Andrei, 2003, Turnirul khazar. Impotriva relativismului contemporan [The Khazar Tournament. Against the Contemporary Relativism], second edition, (Iasi: Polirom).

Cornea, P., 1980, Regula jocului [The Rule of the Game], (Bucharest: Eminescu).

Gellner, E., 1997, Natiuni si nationalism. Noi perspective asupra trecutului [Nations and Nationalism: New Perspectives on the Past], (Bucharest: Antet).

Hitchins, K., 1996, Romania 1866-1947, (Bucharest: Humanitas).

Livezeanu, I., 1995, Cultural Politics in Greater Romania (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).

Neumann, V., 2004, Conceptually Mystified: East-Central Europe Torn Between Ethnicism and Recognition of Multiple Identities, (Bucharest: Editura enciclopedica).

Tismaneanu, V., 1998, Fantasies of Salvation. Democracy, Nationalism and Myth in Post-Communist Europe, (Princeton University Press).