National Minorities under Communist Rule

Romania Table of Contents

Although shifts in Romania's ethnic structure can be attributed to several factors, the most far-reaching changes occurred at the behest of the PCR, which subscribed to the Marxist belief in the primacy of class over nation. Marxist theory claims not only that national identity is subordinate to class identity, but also that as class consciousness rises, nationalism and nations will disappear. The practical problem of how to deal with nationalities in a multinational state until the class consciousness of socialism eradicates them was addressed not by Karl Marx but by Vladimir Lenin. A pragmatic response to the reality of national minorities in the Soviet Union, Lenin's nationalities policy is often summarized in the phrase "national in form, socialist in content." The policy essentially permitted national minorities to be separate in terms of language, education, and culture as long as they adhered to the principles of socialism and did not pose a political threat. Romania's national minorities at the outset of communist rule were seemingly well served by the Leninist approach. The Constitution provided them equal rights in "all fields of economic, political, juridical, social, and cultural life" and specifically guaranteed free use of their native language and the right to education at all levels in their mother tongue.

The large Hungarian minority received special attention with the establishment of the Hungarian Autonomous Region in 1952. Like many other generous provisions for nationalities, however, this concession turned out to be by and large an empty gesture and masked the true nature of relations between the state and minorities. The region was never home to more than one-quarter of Romania's Hungarian population, and it had no more autonomy than did other administrative provinces. Moreover, in the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, even this autonomy was curtailed. In 1960 directives from Bucharest reorganized and renamed the province so that its Hungarian nature was even further reduced. The territorial reorganization, by adding purely Romanian inhabited areas and excluding Hungarian enclaves, increased the Romanian element in the province from 20 to 35 percent and reduced the Hungarian presence from 77 to 62 percent. The name was changed to Mures Autonomous Hungarian Region and thereafter was most often referred to simply as the Mures Region.

In 1965, concomitant with Ceausescu's rise to first secretary of the Partidul Muncitoresc Romān (PMR--Romanian Workers' Party), a new Constitution proclaimed Romania a socialist unitary state. Thereafter, the country's multinational character was largely ignored, and the problem of cohabiting nationalities officially was considered resolved. In 1968 the regime eliminated the Autonomous Hungarian Region outright. The regime maintained the appearance of minority representation at all levels of government, and official statistics showed that the proportion of people from ethnic minority communities employed in government duly reflected their numbers. In reality, minorities had little real power or influence. At the local level, minority representatives, who were generally quite Romanianized, were mistrusted by their constituents. Ironically, although these spokespersons were routinely hand-picked by the PCR, their loyalty to the regime was often suspected. The ethnic composition of the party itself was a more accurate reflection of minority participation and representation.

From the start of communist rule, large numbers of ethnic Romanians joined the party, and their share of total membership rose steadily over the years, increasing from 79 percent in 1955 to almost 90 percent in the early 1980s. Although the regime claimed that minority membership and representation in the people's councils and the Grand National Assembly were commensurate with their size, minorities were largely excluded from policy-making bodies on both the local and national levels. Even in areas where Hungarians represented a sizable portion of the population--Timis, Arad, and Maramure judete--few were found in local PCR bureaus. At the national level, the most powerful positions in the critical foreign affairs, defense, and interior ministries were reserved for ethnic Romanians, and minorities were consigned to rubber-stamp institutions.

Ostensibly representing minority interests, workers' councils were established for Hungarian, German, Serbian, and Ukrainian citizens. These bodies operated within the framework of the Front of Socialist Unity and Democracy and were under the constant supervision of the PCR Central Committee Secretariat, which funded their budgets. The councils had neither headquarters nor office hours, and their sole function appeared to be praising the regime's treatment of national minorities. Significantly, when the councils did meet, business was conducted in Romanian.

Nation-Building and National Minorities

Even before Ceausescu came to power, PCR leaders had taken a nationalistic, anti-Soviet stance, which was important for maintaining the legitimacy of the regime. During the first decade of Soviet-imposed communist rule, the population suffered the misery of expropriations, the disruptions of rapid industrialization and forced collectivization, and the Sovietization of society. The result was an increasing bitterness toward the Soviet Union and the PCR itself, which was directly controlled by Moscow. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, as deStalinization and a more liberal atmosphere prevailed in Moscow, PCR leaders asserted their independence by ousting pro-Soviet members and refusing to accept Soviet plans to make Romania the "breadbasket" for the more industrialized Comecon countries.

As Ceausescu assumed power, the campaign for self-determination and de-Sovietization was accompanied by increasing Romanian nationalism in domestic policy. Fervent emphasis on Romanian language, history, and culture, designed to enhance Ceausescu's popularity among the Romanian majority, continued unabated into the 1980s. In 1976 the PCR launched a nationwide campaign dedicated to the glorification of the Romanian homeland--the "Hymn to Romania." All nationalities were expected to join the fete, which placed the Hungarian and German minorities of Transylvania in a grievous predicament. The campaign aimed to remove all traces of German and Hungarian territorial identification. In cities that had already been Romanianized, monuments and artifacts representing links to the Hungarian or Saxon past were all but eliminated, bilingual inscriptions were removed, and streets--and in some cases, cities themselves--were renamed to emphasize Romanian roots. Thus Turnu Severin became Drobeta-Turnu Severin, and Cluj--Transylvania's most important Hungarian city--was renamed Cluj-Napoca.

Given the socioeconomic structure of precommunist Transylvania, when Hungarians and Germans were much more urbanized and economically advanced than the mostly peasant Romanian majority, the changes wrought by the modernization program negatively affected the position of the minorities. As the needs of industrialization brought more and more peasants from the countryside to the factories, the ethnic composition of Transylvania's urban places shifted. Romanians became the growing majority in cities that had long been Hungarian and German enclaves. These changes were not solely the result of natural migration, but were carefully engineered by the state. Secret internal regulations ordered major minority centers such as Cluj, Oradea, and Arad to be virtually sealed off to the largest ethnic minorities and encouraged their outmigration while directing an influx of ethnic Romanians.

Population shifts were engendered under the guise of multilateral development, the party's byword for building socialism. The stated goal was equalization of regional development, and statistical data were often cited to show that investments in underdeveloped minority-inhabited areas were made in an effort to bring them up to the national average. Minorities-- particularly the Hungarians--claimed, however, that economic growth did not provide training and jobs for them but served as a pretext for the massive influx of ethnic Romanian workers. Thus, whereas ethnic Hungarians had to leave their homeland to find employment in the Old Kingdom region, ethnic Romanians were offered incentives to relocate to Transylvania.

The dispute between Hungary and Romania over the history of Transylvania complicated interethnic relations in the region. The histories of both countries claim Transylvania as the safe haven that ensured the survival of each nation. The Romanians contend that they are descendants of Geto-Dacians--the indigenous inhabitants of Transylvania. Although earlier Romanian historiography emphasized the Latin origins of Romanian language and culture, later pronouncements by Ceausescu and Romanian historians stressed cultural ties to this pre-Roman civilization. The regime set out to prove the so-called Daco-Roman continuity theory to bolster Romania's claims over Transylvania. Despite furious archaeological activity to discover Dacian roots, however, just as many traces of Celts, Huns, Avars, Goths, and Romans were uncovered. Nevertheless, the country's museums and history books presented the theory as indisputable fact.

Even as early as 1948, the process of rewriting the history of Transylvania to favor the Romanian version was under way. Revised textbooks gave ample coverage of the great Romanian heroes of the past, but they provided little or no information about key minority figures, and those who were mentioned were given Romanian names. The books emphasized that the struggle for unification of the Romanian fatherland had been opposed by the Hungarians and Germans, who were labeled "latecomers" and "colonists."

Amidst the controversy, the Hungarian minority of Transylvania was considered an instrument of the Hungarian government, further ensuring their second-class citizenship status. Expressions of concern for the treatment of this minority, whether originating inside or outside Romania, were branded "chauvinistic, revanchist, and irredentist." The regime increasingly limited contacts and cultural links between Hungary and Romanian Hungarians. After 1974, regulations forbade all foreign travelers except close family members to stay overnight in private homes. Violators placed their hosts at risk of fines amounting to as much as one year's salary. Romanian Hungarians found it difficult to obtain newspapers and journals from Hungary, and the Department of State Security (Departamentul Securitatii Statului--Securitate), the secret police, monitored the reception of Hungarian radio and television broadcasts and the placement of long-distance calls to Hungary. Significantly, the pervasive Securitate employed few minority citizens.

As the economy ground to a halt in the 1980s and living conditions deteriorated for both the majority and the minorities, thousands of citizens fled to Hungary. In 1987 alone, some 40,000 sought refuge there, and from June until August of 1988, at least 187 Romanians were shot dead by the Securitate while attempting to escape to Hungary.

Language, Education, and Cultural Heritage

Arguably the changes under communism that most grievously affected ethnic minorities, especially the Hungarians and to a lesser extent the Germans, were those that limited education in their native languages. In the first decade of communist rule, students could acquire an education at Hungarian-language schools from preschool to university and at German-language schools from preschool to high school. These schools had their own administration and a long tradition of humanistic education; many were 300 to 500 years old. But already in 1948 some of the policies of the new regime had begun to weaken national minority education. A purge and "reeducation" of faculty in all educational institutions was carried out. From that time forward, important teaching positions were filled only by teachers deemed politically reliable. At the same time, nationalization of all ecclesiastical and private schools destroyed the traditionally important role of the church in the Hungarian and German educational systems.

Schools in some communities were merged so that ethnic Romanians constituted the majority of the student body. The regime mandated the teaching of Romanian in all educational institutions to "prevent national isolation." Beginning in 1957, amalgamation of minority (particularly Hungarian) and Romanian schools became the rule rather than the exception. Most of the directors for the newly merged schools were ethnic Romanians, whereas Hungarians or Germans filled vice-principal or vice-director positions.

The merger of the Hungarian Bolyai University at Cluj with the Romanian Babez University in 1959 dealt a major blow to the Hungarian-language educational network. Such mergers meant a larger enrollment of ethnic Romanians and reduced availability of Hungarian-language instruction. The party determined what courses would be taught in Hungarian; many were of an ideological bent, and the more technical courses were taught in Romanian only. It became nearly impossible to study any of the applied sciences in Hungarian, restricting career opportunities for the Hungarian minority. The result was a predictable drop in the number of Hungarian undergraduates--from 10.75 percent of all undergraduates in 1957 to only 5.7 percent in 1974.

Meanwhile education laws introduced in 1973 continued the assimilation that had begun with the amalgamation of minority and Romanian schools. In keeping with the economic program of rapid industrialization, the laws emphasized technical studies over humanities. The ratio established was two-thirds technical to onethird humanities, making it even more difficult for minorities to acquire an education in their native language. In 1974 only 1.4 percent of the instruction in technical schools was in Hungarian. Technical textbooks were rarely translated into minority languages. Thus a technical education, the premier vehicle of upward mobility, became possible only for those who had mastered Romanian. This requirement and the fact that university entrance exams were given only in Romanian increased the pressure on parents to enroll their children in Romanian-language schools.

Instruction in Hungarian was further hampered by an acute shortage of Hungarian-language teachers and language experts; "internal regulations" assigned Hungarian university graduates to work outside their communities--usually out of Transylvania. The use of minority languages was restricted in the cultural arena as well. Local libraries persistently lacked literature in minority languages. After 1973, Hungarian-language newspaper publishing was sharply curtailed, and in 1985 television broadcasts in Hungarian and German were discontinued.

Romanian leaders claimed that the amalgamation of minority and Romanian schools and the 1973 educational reforms were necessary for administrative and economic efficiency and were not intended to ensure the assimilation of ethnic minorities. Although that claim appeared to be plausible, other actions that diminished the ability of minorities to maintain their ethnic identity were not so readily explained. The assimilation of national minorities into a "harmonious whole" continued, and over the decades the gap between theory and practice in the treatment of minorities widened. The state's discriminatory policies steadily diminished minority constitutional, political, linguistic, and educational rights.

Emigration: Problem or Solution?

Although the goal of the Ceausescu regime was national homogenization and an ethnically pure Romania, the regime opposed the emigration of ethnic minorities. Beginning in the late 1970s, a media campaign was launched that followed two basic tacks. Spokespersons for ethnic minorities in the workers' councils praised the regime's treatment of minorities and declared their devotion to socialist Romania. By contrast, those who desired to emigrate were depicted as weaklings with underdeveloped "patriotic and political consciousness," would-be traitors abandoning their fatherland and the struggle to build socialism. Stories abounded of Romanians emigrating only to find life more difficult in their new environment and happily returning to their homeland. Accounts of those who had emigrated to West Germany were particularly bleak.

Attempts to discourage emigration were not left entirely to the media. The official policy allowed emigration only on an individual basis, and only in specific cases--usually for family reunification. In later years, the PCR ironically suggested that families could be reunited by immigration into Romania. Obtaining permission to leave the country was a lengthy, expensive, and exhausting process. Prospective emigrants were likely to be fired from their jobs or demoted to positions of lower prestige and pay. They were often evicted from their homes and publicly castigated. At the same time, they were denied medical care and other social benefits, and their children were not permitted to enroll in schools.

In 1972, amid claims that emigration was purposefully encouraged by the West and was becoming a "brain drain" for the nation, the regime proposed a heavy tax requiring would-be emigrants to reimburse the state for the cost of their education. Although Romanian citizens could not legally possess foreign money, sums of up to $US20,000 in hard currency were to be paid before emigrants would be allowed to leave. Under pressure from the United States, which threatened to revoke Romania's most-favored-nation trade status, and West Germany and Israel, the tax officially was not imposed. But money was collected in the form of bribes, with government officials reportedly demanding thousands of dollars before granting permission to emigrate. A failed attempt to emigrate illegally was punishable by up to three years in jail.

Despite Ceausescu's opposition to emigration, the ethnic German population declined sharply. In 1967, when diplomatic relations with West Germany were established, roughly 60,000 ethnic Germans requested permission to emigrate. By 1978, some 80,000 had departed for West Germany. In 1978 the two countries negotiated an agreement concerning the remaining German population, which had decreased from 2 percent of the total population in 1966 to 1.6 percent in 1977. Romania agreed to allow 11,000 to 13,000 ethnic Germans to emigrate each year in return for hard currency and a payment of DM5,000 per person to reimburse the state for educational expenses. In 1982 that figure rose to DM7,000-8,000 per person. In the decade between 1978 and 1988, approximately 120,000 Germans emigrated, leaving behind a population of only about 200,000, between 80 and 90 percent of whom wanted to emigrate. As their numbers declined, the Germans feared they would be less able to resist assimilation. In 1987 an entire village of some 200 ethnic Germans applied en masse for emigration permits.

The Jewish minority also markedly declined as a result of large-scale emigration. Suffering under state-fostered antiSemitism and financially ruined by expropriations during nationalization, much of the Jewish population applied for permission to leave in 1948. Between 1948 and 1951, 117,950 Jews emigrated to Israel, and from 1958 to 1964, 90,000 more followed, leaving a total Jewish population of only 43,000 in 1966. Permission to emigrate was freely granted to Jews, and by 1988 the population numbered between 20,000 and 25,000, half of whom were more than sixty-five years of age. Furthermore, over one-third of those Jews still in the country held exit visas.

In the late 1980s, ethnic Hungarians clung to their ancient roots in Transylvania and, unlike the Germans and Jews, the majority were reluctant to consider emigration. Although neither Hungary nor Romania wanted the minority decreased by emigration, thousands of refugees crossed into Hungary during the 1980s, especially after 1986. This development prompted Budapest to launch an unprecedented all-out publicity campaign against Romania's treatment of minorities. Inside Romania, ethnic protest against the regime was quite restrained. A notable exception in the late 1980s was Karoly Kiraly, an important leader in the Hungarian community who openly denounced the regime's nationalities policy as assimilationist. The regime, which readily discounted such protests, labeled Kiraly "a dangerously unstable relic of Stalinism dressed up in Romanian national garb."

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress