TRANSYLVANIA entered a new phase of its long and turbulent history on August 30, 1940, when Germany and Italy divided it between Hungary and Rumania. Never reconciled to the loss of Transylvania and the adjacent territories of Crişana, Maramureş and the Banat in 1918, Hungary pressed her claim for their return with even greater vigor when the Soviet seizure of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina in June 1940 began the dismemberment of the Rumanian state.[i] In July negotiations were opened at Craiova for the return of southern Dobruja to Bulgaria, and on August 8 the first official admission was made, by Premier Ion Gigurtu, that Hitler's "ordering of the Südostraum" would involve the surrender of Rumanian territory to Hungary. At the behest of the Axis, direct negotiations were begun at Turnu Severin on August 16 between delegations from Bucharest and Budapest; but a week of memoranda and counter-memoranda left the two governments poles apart in their ideas as to what would constitute a satisfactory compromise. Anxious to settle this problem without a war, and perhaps fearful of opening the way for further Soviet aggrandizement, the Axis governments summoned Hungarian and Rumanian delegates to Vienna and presented them with a readymade and drastic solution of the Transylvanian dispute. The new arrangement may prove to have been but a stop-gap, if Britain or Russia wins the war. But if the Axis is victorious, the Vienna award may, with minor changes, stand for some time to come, in spite of the fact that Magyar nationalists are still calling for the return of the Banat and the rest of Crişana and Transylvania. In any case, the fundamental facts -- historical, geographical, ethnic and economic -- will remain, and it is to an examination of these that this article is addressed.

II

To both Magyar and Rumanian nationalists Transylvania has long represented the keystone of the national integrity, the strategic security and the economic well-being of their peoples. For Hungarians, Transylvania is as sacred a center of Magyar national history and culture as is Hungary itself. From 1526 to 1689, when Hungary proper was divided between Turks and Hapsburgs, the "land beyond the forest," under its Magyar princes, played an independent and glorious rôle in European life. During the years that followed, national ambition impelled the Magyars ceaselessly to strive for its restoration to the Crown of St. Stephen. In 1848-9, the union was at last proclaimed by the revolutionary Hungarian government, but not without encountering the armed opposition of the Rumanians and Saxons. From 1850 to 1867 Hapsburg absolutism and Hungarian nationalism wrestled for control of Transylvania. Schmerling's attempt to reorganize Franz Josef's empire along federal lines was bitterly opposed by the Magyars, who boycotted the Transylvanian Diet of Sibiu (Nagyszeben, Hermannstadt)[ii] of 1863, at which the Saxons and Rumanians joined hands to set up regional autonomy on a basis of equal rights for the Rumanian majority. The intransigence and political astuteness of the Magyars had their reward five years later when Transylvania again became an integral part of the Hungarian state. From 1868 to 1918 Hungary strove by every means, and with some success, to offset the Rumanian majority by strengthening the Magyar element in the region's official, educational, professional and business life. But in 1910 the Rumanians still accounted for 55 percent of the population.

Though the Rumanians cannot point to a long record of political domination over Transylvania, it is no less dear to them as the original home of modern Rumanian enlightenment and of some of the most authentically Rumanian peasant communities, such as the peasant nobles of Făgăraş (Fogaras), the mountaineers of the Western Mountains and Maramureş (Máramaros), and the frontiersmen of Năsăud (Naszod). During the long period of Hungarian rule, the Rumanians came to resent with increasing bitterness the numerous barriers placed in the way of their progress by a Magyarizing officialdom and middle class. When the 1910 census showed a Rumanian literacy of only 27.9 percent, compared with 59.9 for the Magyars, the Rumanians saw in these figures an argument for demanding their national and social emancipation rather than a proof of inherent Magyar superiority.[iii] With the collapse of the Central Powers in 1918, the leaders of the Transylvanian Rumanians naturally voted to join Greater Rumania, for by then they cared as little for Transylvanian autonomy as had the Magyars in 1848, 1863 or 1868. No matter how peaceful the relations between Magyar peasants and Rumanian peasants or how profound their community of custom, ornament, music and superstition, the vocal classes of each nationality sought, and still seek, their own salvation within a Greater Rumania or a Greater Hungary.

A smaller but not unimportant element in Transylvanian life is represented by the quarter-million Saxons -- German peasants and burghers whose ancestors were settled there by the Hungarian kings in the twelfth century. This people has no compact settlement; the greater part centers about Sibiu, a smaller group around Braşov (Brassó, Kronstadt), and a still smaller one around Bistriţa (Besztercze, Bistritz) in northeastern Transylvania.[iv] They have developed a strong degree of cohesion through their church and school organization, and more recently through a Hitler-inspired nationalist movement. Living as they do, several hundred miles removed from the nearest compact German area, the Saxons are a genuine minority, not a frontier irredenta. In January 1919, their leaders accepted with as good grace as possible the change of sovereignty by voting for union with Rumania. Within the enlarged Rumanian state the Saxons became the leaders of all the scattered German groups in the Banat, Bukovina, Bessarabia and Dobruja; under their guidance the German People's Party regularly made preëlection arrangements with the government coalition and thus secured some share of representation and protection. In the last Rumanian election, held in December 1937, the Germans split their vote for the first time, the conservative minority around Sibiu voting for the government bloc, while the pro-Nazi majority voted a separate German ticket and showed a tendency to coöperate with Codreanu's extremist Iron Guards. In general, the Saxons, with their peasant-burgher background, have a healthier social structure than either the Rumanians, whose middle class is weak, or the Magyars, for whom the city has a great attraction. In a special protocol attached to the settlement of August 30, 1940, both Rumania and Hungary promised full respect for the rights of the German minority.

At Paris there was no discussion about the disposition of Transylvania; the Rumanians and Saxons, representing two-thirds of its population, had already cast in their fate with the Rumanian Kingdom. But there was much dispute regarding the frontier provinces to the west and north of Transylvania. In the Banat the main difficulty was that the Magyars were less numerous than either the Germans, Serbs or Rumanians. Accordingly it was divided between Serbs and Rumanians. In Crişana -- the border strip which extends from Arad to Satul Mare (Szatmár Németi) -- the Trianon Treaty boundary was a compromise between the American and British lines, which would have moved the frontier about forty miles to the east, and the lines proposed by the French and Italians, which would have put it about the same distance west of the frontier finally adopted. The line as drawn was based on a combination of ethnic, strategic and economic factors.[v] Finally, the district of Maramureş, to the north of Transylvania, was divided between Czechoslovakia and Rumania, with the third of it lying south of the Tisa (Tisza) River going to Rumania.

The Rumanian census of 1930 showed a slight but significant relative increase of the Rumanian population in the annexed area, with 57.6 percent in Transylvania, 54.3 percent in the Banat and 60.7 percent in Crişana-Maramureş, whereas those who were of Magyar racial stock were only 29.1, 10.4 and 23.1 percent respectively in the same areas. Classified by mother tongue, Rumanians and Magyars showed slightly higher percentages than the above figures indicate, since most of the Gypsies are Rumanian-speaking and most of the Jews Magyar-speaking. The increase of the Rumanian population from 55 percent in 1910 to 57.6 percent in 1930 was quite natural, considering that in the latter year the Rumanians were 61.7 percent of the rural population, while the Magyars were only 27 percent.[vi] In recent years the Rumanians have made a substantial start towards Rumanizing the cities and creating a Rumanian middle class -- not however without arousing resentment and fear among the minorities.[vii] A great effort has also been made to raise the cultural and technical level of the Rumanian villages.

While Transylvania's separation from the old Austro-Hungarian customs union was naturally followed by painful readjustments, it came through the postwar transition period in fairly good shape. Its textile, metal-working, wood-working and chemical industries, freed from Hungarian competition, found internal markets in Greater Rumania. Production of electrical and military equipment increased. While some cities stagnated, others grew considerably.[viii] The chief economic complaints, apart from the effects of the worldwide depression, were threefold: Transylvania had to bear a disproportionate share of the country's total tax burden and received in return relatively meager benefits; the centralization of state control over foreign trade and currency operated to the disadvantage of cities remote from the capital; the state showed favoritism to Rumanian interests in levying taxes, assigning government contracts, and granting credits.

Since 1918 the Hungarian claim to Transylvania has perforce rested on historical, geographic, strategic and economic -- but not on ethnic -- arguments, for Rumania's ethnic claim to the region is certainly even stronger now than it was in 1918. Much has been made of the natural geographic unity of the Carpathian basin, of the way in which the uplands and mountains of Transylvania and Ruthenia complement the Hungarian plain. The regulation of common rivers, the protection of the plains against flood, and the promotion of reforestation are said to demand the reunion of the two regions. Furthermore, the Magyars assert that they can defend the middle Danube basin against a possible Russian invasion only if they hold the entire sweep of the Carpathians. The restoration of Transylvania in its entirety would give Hungary a greater variety of climate, thus protecting her economy against the effects of extreme annual variations in temperature and rainfall. It would provide her with timber, which she otherwise has to import and with a variety of minerals which, except for coal and bauxite, she now lacks. The ultimate argument for the return of Transylvania has been that it was a part of Hungary for "a thousand years," that its political structure and culture have always been predominantly Magyar, and that Magyars are somehow a naturally superior people. As the Hungarian memorandum to the Peace Conference declared: . . . "Si, dans un pays de l'Amérique du Nord, le pouvoir venait à être exercé par les nègres ayant dans quelques États des États-Unis une majorité de 1 à 2 pour cent, la civilisation y tomberait aussi bas et aussi rapidement qu'en Transylvanie. . . ."[ix] Needless to add, the Magyars' contemptuous attitude has its counterpart in the bitter hostility of the Rumanians towards Hungarian rule.

III

The jubilation with which the Hungarians have now accepted the partition of Transylvania and the recovery of half its area makes it clear that they do not take too seriously their own arguments regarding the "natural unity" of the region, but are delighted to have secured a large territorial increase which ethnic claims alone could not justify. An analysis of the census figures for 1910 (the 1910 Hungarian figures are admittedly favorable to the Magyar claims since they were based on mother tongue, not on racial stock or national consciousness) shows that the Magyars in the newly recovered districts number only 967,000 as against 1,154,000 Rumanians. Even though the area restored to Hungary includes the Magyar population of northwestern Crişana and the Szekely, or Szekler, region of eastern Transylvania, the Magyars there are in a decided minority as compared with the Rumanians. Since Rumania had 1,426,187 Magyar inhabitants in 1930 it is safe to say that Hungary has now acquired an ethnic problem almost as difficult as that of post-1918 Rumania.

The new provinces bring substantial economic advantages to Hungary. Her timber requirements can now be satisfied from the forests of the Carpathians. The salt-mines of Maramureş, added to those of Ruthenia, will make her self-sufficient in this respect. She gains a number of small mineral deposits, including the low-grade iron of Bihor (Bihar) and Odorhei (Udvarhely), the lead of Satul Mare and Maramureş, the gold, silver, zinc and manganese of Satul Mare, the antimony of Someş (Szolnok-Doboka), and the copper and bismuth of Bihor. These deposits, however, have little or no commercial importance. On the other hand, the chief mineral resources of Rumania are not affected, especially the oil of the Ploeşti region, the natural gas of Mediaş (Megyes, Mediasch), the coal and iron of the Banat and Hunedoara (Hunyad). Particularly, the great Reşiţa (Resicza) combine, now partly under German control, will continue to be by far the largest center of mining, metallurgy and machine-building in Rumania. Industrially speaking, Hungary, in recovering the relatively stagnant cities of Cluj (Kolozsvár, Klausenburg), Satul Mare and Sighet, has received the poorer portion while Rumania comes off better with Braşov, Mediaş, Arad, and Timişoara.

The internal communications of Transylvania have of course been completely disrupted by the partition. The strongly agricultural area of the Szekely is now cut off from its customary market in nearby Braşov; it will have to ship and receive goods over a roundabout and expensive route. From an international point of view, however, the new arrangement is not too destructive. Rumania will still have one main line from Braşov to Arad, while Hungary will have the other principal line, from Oradea (Nagyvárad, Grosswardein) to Cluj. Strategically, both lines are now completely vulnerable: the Rumanian one lies within gun-range of the new frontier, while the Oradea-Cluj line runs within a few miles of Rumania's new northern frontier.

The most important consequence of the partition lies in the sphere of continental, rather than local, strategy. Hungary, already brought face-to-face with the Soviets through her post-Munich reacquisition of Ruthenia and the recent Russian occupation of northern Bukovina, must once again fulfil her vaunted ambition of "standing guard for western civilization" along the Carpathians. From its new position at the eastern passes of those mountains the Hungarian Army, reënforced by German military aid, would represent a serious threat in case the Soviet armies should advance from Bukovina and Bessarabia into Moldavia. In 1854 the menace of the Austrian Army, poised at these passes, forced the troops of Nicholas I to evacuate Moldavia and Wallachia. On the other hand, any effective barrier to a new Soviet advance would necessarily rest on close coöperation between Rumania and Hungary. Whether the enforced partition of Transylvania will prove an effective step towards building up such coöperation is very much open to question.

It has sometimes been assumed that the redrawing of the frontier between Hungary and Rumania would be followed by an exchange of the minority populations. Ever since 1918 the Hungarians have frequently urged that a new frontier be drawn, leaving minorities of equal size on the two sides of the frontier, and that these minorities then be exchanged. Such an exchange is hardly practicable now, for under the terms of the Vienna settlement Hungary has gained 1,154,000 Rumanians (using the 1910 Hungarian figures for the districts ceded, except for Maramureş, for which the 1930 Rumanian statistics are used), while Rumania retains only 374,000 Magyars (again using 1910 figures, except for the Banat, for which 1930 Rumanian figures are used). Without substantial equality there can be no justice in an exchange. In addition Rumania will certainly not encourage the immigration of her lost nationals, for their departure would weaken her strong ethnic claim to most of the area ceded; she would also find it economically impossible to settle the immigrants in southern Transylvania or in the Old Kingdom. While many Rumanian officials and intellectuals will undoubtedly take advantage of the terms of option embodied in the settlement of August 30 in order to escape from Magyar rule, the Rumanian peasants will certainly cling to their ancestral lands in the ceded territory unless driven out by force.

IV

The Axis-imposed solution of the Transylvanian problem, of course, represents but one among many proposals which have been advanced since 1918. These proposals (aside from the continuance of Rumanian control or a complete return to Hungary) fall into two main categories: territorial cessions and plans for autonomy. The demand for territorial rearrangement which was most frequently heard after 1920 was that Rumania's western strip, or Crişana, be restored to Hungary either up to the strict line of the ethnic majorities, or else as far as the watershed of the Bihor and Satul Mare mountains. Undoubtedly a line could have been drawn which would have returned to Hungary a considerable number of Magyars; but such a strip would have included only a part of Crişana, which is strongly Rumanian in the east and south.[x]

The Rumanian Banat presents a special problem. Here the Magyars are outnumbered by both Rumanians and Germans; Hungary's claims therefore cannot possibly rest on ethnic grounds.[xi] The Rumanians form a relative majority in the plains and an absolute majority in the upland and mountain districts -- the latter, containing the cities of Lugoj (Lugos) and Reşiţa, form Rumania's most important mining and metallurgical area.

Maramureş is another unique area.[xii] Its only rail connection with the rest of Rumania has been through Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, territory which was formerly Czechoslovak and is now Hungarian. In this case, economics suggested rejoining Maramureş to Ruthenia, thus reopening the valley of the Tisa to the impoverished peasants who used to seek winter employment in the mountains and summer jobs in the plains.

The cession of a strip of Crişana -- either narrow or wide, with or without Maramureş -- would still not have solved the real Hungarian problem in Transylvania, which is that of the Szekely, or Szeklers, who live in its eastern part far removed from other Magyar areas.[xiii] Hungarian leaders had repeatedly expressed the hope of recovering the entire Szekely land, together with a Mureş-Cluj "corridor," to connect it with the main body of the Magyars. Northern Transylvania, still left to Rumania under this scheme, would then have had no connection with the rest of the country, except by an as yet uncompleted railway through the Bistriţa Carpathians to southern Bukovina. Its markets, grain supply and railways would have been cut off, and its plight would have been far more serious than that of Maramureş after 1918. At the same time this "corridor" would not have provided Hungary with any important timber or mineral resources. As events have turned out, the settlement of August 30 gives Hungary much more than she had been demanding since 1918 -- Crişana (except the district of Arad with its Rumanian majority), Maramureş, the three Szekely districts, the connecting "corridor," and in addition the remainder of northern Transylvania with its strongly Rumanian majority. In brief, Rumania was compelled by the Axis Powers to turn over 1,154,000 Rumanians to Hungarian rule in order that Hungary might recover the 367,864 Magyars of the three Szekely districts (1910 census) and connect them with the Magyar plain far to the west.

Another type of proposal, rejecting the partition of Transylvania along ethnic lines as being economically harmful, looked instead to autonomy as the solution. In its counter-proposals to the Peace Conference of 1920, the Hungarian Delegation presented an elaborate scheme for the autonomy of the three Transylvanian nations, under which four types of districts -- Magyar, Rumanian, German and mixed -- were to be set up, and a wide autonomy assured to each type of district as well as to Transylvania as a whole.[xiv] After 1918 the Magyars repeatedly demanded autonomy for Transylvania, or even independence, although previously they had always insisted on the "unity of the Crown of St. Stephen." [xv] It is highly improbable that at any time after 1918 autonomy could have been imposed on the hostile Rumanian majority. Even if that had been done, an autonomous Transylvania would still have been ruled by its Rumanian majority unless each of its districts had received a wide measure of self-government and could thus have been governed by whatever national group had a majority in it. As a matter of fact, many Magyars and Germans in Transylvania were sceptical of the practical value of autonomy for them, for they found it easier to get along with Rumanians of the Old Kingdom than with the more energetic and "hard-bitten" Rumanians of Transylvania. When a change in the status of Transylvania became the order of the day, the Magyars were as strongly opposed to autonomy as they had been in 1848 or 1863. In September 1940, Iuliu Maniu, the venerated leader of the Rumanians of Transylvania, pleaded in vain with the Hungarian leaders to establish autonomy and preserve the unity of the region. The Magyars preferred half of Transylvania firmly annexed to Hungary rather than an autonomous Transylvania with the Magyars in a conspicuous and hopeless minority.

[i] For a survey of the Bessarabian dispute see Philip E. Mosely, "Is Bessarabia Next?," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, April, 1940, p. 557-562.

[ii] Place names will be given in Rumanian, with Magyar and German forms cited in parentheses.

[iii] "The Hungarian Peace Negotiations; An Account of the Work of the Hungarian Peace Delegation at Neuilly s/S, from January to March, 1920," Budapest, 1921, v. III, p. 100.

[iv] The Saxons form an absolute majority in no single district, and a relative majority (39.7 percent) in only one district, Târnava Mare (Nagy-Küküllö, Gross-Kokel).

[v] Harold Temperley, "How the Hungarian Frontiers Were Drawn," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, April, 1928, p. 432-447.

[vi] For a valuable study of differential fertility see D. C. Georgescu, "La Fertilité Différentielle en Roumanie," Bucharest, 1940.

[vii] Timişoara (Temesvár) had 7,566 Rumanians in 1910, 33,369 in 1939; Sighet (Máramarossziget) had 2,001 in 1910, 7,565 in 1930.

[viii] Several months of intensive travel in Transylvania on the part of the author in 1935-1938 did not substantiate Macartney's impression of universal decay; C. A. Macartney, "Hungary and Her Successors," London, 1937, p. 349.

[ix] "Les Négociations de la Paix Hongroise," Budapest, 1921, v. II, p. 69.

[x] The population of the Crişana in 1930 showed 880,000 Rumanians, 415,000 Magyars, 75,000 Germans, and 65,000 Jews, out of a total of 1,550,000. In April and May, 1920, the Hungarian Peace Delegation made a special effort to enlist the support of the Quai d'Orsay for the return of Crişana: Francis Deák and Dezsö Ujváry, editors, "Papers and Documents Relating to the Foreign Relations of Hungary, 1919-20," Budapest, 1939, v. I, p. 235-238, 250-254.

[xi] Out of a total population of 942,000 for the Banat in 1930, 54.3 percent were Rumanians, 23.8 percent Germans, 10.4 percent Magyars, and 4.3 percent Serbs.

[xii] In 1930 the district contained 93,200 Rumanians, 33,798 Jews, 19,305 Ruthenes, 11,181 Magyars, 3,239 Germans, and 780 others.

[xiii] The three Szekely districts are Ciuc (Csík) with 82.7 percent Magyars (1930 census), Trei Scaune (Háromszék) with 80 percent, and Odorhei (Udvarhely) with 91.6 percent. To the west is Mureş (Maros-Torda) with 42.6 percent Magyars and 3.9 percent Germans, and to the south, Braşov district, with 26 percent Magyars and 20 percent Germans.

[xiv] "The Hungarian Peace Negotiations . . . ," v. I, p. 149-150; Deák and Ujváry, op. cit., v. I, p. 235-238, 250-254.

[xv]E.g., Count Stephen Bethlen, "The Treaty of Trianon and European Peace," London, 1934, p. 134-142. The Hungarian state continues to reject the idea of granting even local or communal autonomy to its minorities. On June 8, 1940, Koloman Hubay, Nazi leader, proposed that all the minorities in Hungary be given full local autonomy, including the right to choose their own ministers, local officials and judges. On July 22 he was expelled from the Hungarian parliament as a "traitor."

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now