The Dialectics Of National Self-Criticism

Some time in the autumn of 1994, Sorin Alexandrescu asked in an interview in 22 magazine why, in the canonical battle between the various radical-democrat and nationalist structures of the opposition (and of the government), more attention is not paid to the real traditions of modern Romania, those of civilized constitutionality, centrism, discipline, progress and tolerant moderation. Indeed, many of the political conflicts that nowadays separate Romanian citizens can be tracked down to their roots, to the judgments about their own past and its legitimacy. Some of them stop in the sixties, years of relative freedom, others cherish the monarchic century, and others look up on the nationalist movements that had their climax in the thirties and forties. I am not forgetting the ones (few in number maybe, but very strong on their feet) who claim to regret Ceausescu's years, either. They all have something in common. They criticize parts of the past, cherishing others; without knowing it, they are engaged in a process of national self-criticism. Are we too ambitious when we believe that this process of acceptance and rejection could go on a little more consciously, deliberately, and accurately? Here are some of my reflections about the matter.The concept of national self-criticism is recent enough. It was before 1945 rarely used, although individual prophetic voices have always been heard since the times of Jeremiah and Isaiah. After 1945 the German intellectuals had been those to begin this scanning of the consciousness, not at the immediate levels of past (I mean the examination of the socio-political issues during the period of 1933-1945 in their entire determinations), but close to their ancient cultural history: the first signs of the psychosocial, the cultural continuity, their own understanding of society. German intellectuals tried to value their own history since the Romanticism and the Reformation. Soon these models became more usual. American intellectuals and historians began assiduous studies about slavery and its place in American history, about the extermination of the Native Americans' culture from the two American continents, about the racial relations throughout the centuries. In England, Victorian culture and the Imperial tradition were severely condemned and, more than that, even Shakespeare was questioned and contested. In France, the year of 1989, which was dedicated to the Republican celebration (everything being carefully planned from the highest levels), reversed its signs, when the genocidal hysterias of the impetuous revolutionists were reminded to the public (as it was for example in the Vendee). Until now it does not seem that this kind of initiatives could lower the statute of a national community in its own eyes or in those of another. There can be seen, as a matter of fact, various resentments and anxieties, patriotism becomes less muscular, more selective and reflexive, but the inner identity is not vanishing, and the dynamics of progress seems to cheer up. More than that, it was said that the self-confidence of an entire community is picking up strength if this kind of self-analysis has a cathartic effect. Could be, but one can easily see that the above examples are from major nations and cultures. They can rarely be seen in smaller or "younger" countries from Africa and South America, as well as from Eastern Europe, which still have their well-known ethnic sensibilities, chronic insecurities and temperamental burst-outs. Should they follow this example, small countries would quickly reach bankruptcy. In any case, the argument goes on, these small countries, however proud, would never manage to threaten our planet's orderly configuration, on the contrary, their forms could bring more equality and balance to the world. Such opinions can be heard in Ireland, Hungary, Mexico and even Canada.However, I doubt that in Romania's case a dialectic of national self-criticism would genuinely endanger the national present and past (in its inevitable self-invention). (Of course, I speak in broad terms here, I do not claim to be solving anything, all I hope is to stimulate more detailed approaches in this direction.) And here is why: the Romanian case is interesting because, whether we want it or not, there already exists a polarization between ancient self-extolment and the equally over-developed tendency towards self-pity and scorn. (Should the roots of this polarization lie with the typologically opposed symmetry between Eminescu and Caragiale?) Since these sterile polarizations exist anyway, why not set off from the premise that Romanian politics and culture are resourceful enough to engage in a process of lucid and responsible self-examination? Naturally, a number of self-justifying myths will be demolished in this way, but there will also take place a plausible re-evaluation of the facts in our national past. We would engage thus not in a conflict-generating and destructive, but scrupulous activity, through a diversified analysis of causes, a description of contexts, a refreshing of nuances and a research of all-enveloping historical and geographical parallels.In point of fact, I would say, the greatest danger of such self-critical endeavors is not the undermining or the "disappearance" of past-related values, but on the contrary, their solidification and intensification. Heavy criticism often has undesirable consequences, counter-productive reactions, and absurd restatements of the most negative facets the past has to offer. This is why a diligent and tenacious search for truth and equality is needed, otherwise a perfectly normal thing in any historical undertaking.What is the starting-point of solid national self-criticism? It seems to me we could choose the following category of Romanian history as a satisfactory beginning: a certain historical slowness (not to call it idleness), a community's apparent lack of appetite to vigorously get in line with the significant progress of the outside world, of the general historical dynamics of humanity. As long as we know them, Romanians have always seemed lazy at joining the world's informational evolution, unwilling to join the central mobility of the West; as if their options would rather go for the self-imposed isolation of oriental societies. Up to a point, the situation can be explained via objective geopolitical circumstances – the ambiguity of a country's placement between the East and the West –, but there is no lack here of slightly more deliberate intentions (or their absence!) either.But where do the latter come from? What are the roots of their stagnation and quick temper? I am looking for an answer in the space of an "existential ideology," I am referring to this "refusal of the world," the belittling of century-old existence, of history, even of the natural world – again an analogy (which I find harder to understand or to explain this time) with the universe of many non-Western societies. In other words, what we have here is a distrust (sometimes bordering on scorn) of earthly existence and a stubborn tendency towards the utopian and the Edenic. Of course that judged on Edenic standards, the historical world will come willy-nilly to a disadvantage, a handicap, will always be incomplete, worthy of scorn, unworthy of effort.On a practical level, this Edenic yearning could only have as consequence (how else) a long series of disappointments, refusals of clear realities and escapism into historical alibis. Bad feelings and anger (usually self-destructive anger) quickly became recurrent features of Romanian history. Such moments of blind fury can be identified as early as in the Middle Ages. They help us to understand the bizarre episode of Vlad Ţepeş's [the Impaler] (self-) righteous fervor as a sort of premature puritanical crisis, the utopian chasing of an ethical and political "Absolute."Not less frequent is the self-pity, the mourning tone (let us not call it complaining) – which has become characteristic (basso continuo) of Romanian political thought, the conviction of being completely helpless in front of history, the feeling of abandonment (by the West, naturally), the syndrome of the orphan, all miserable and forlorn. Such feelings, already identifiable in the pre-modern phase, became integrated (inevitably and yet regrettably) in the process of shaping a national consciousness at the beginning of the 19th century. They were later to develop in a spectacular way. In my view, many of the most specific episodes and directions of Romanian history would not come to life without this general background, even though, let us admit it, the background outlined here cannot explain them thoroughly. For instance: the frightening tendency towards elite extermination in Romanian history, starting with, let us say, the execution of Miron Costin, moving onto the mild, but quite general opposition to Dimitrie Cantemir, further the expulsion of (Romanian or ethnic) intellectuals, the assassination of Iorga and Madgearu, everything culminating, of course, with the mass extermination during communism. The legionary movement remains a top example of this self-destructive tendency, related essentially to the Communist operation. Things have already been explained; there is no need to insist on this. Both had an anti-modernist background, they were looking for archaic and national cleansing, the elimination of capitalist stigmata and Western influence.This is where the anti-Semitic phenomenon should be placed. I would support the opinion that (surely in Romania, possibly in many other neighboring countries as well) Jews were considered carriers of the "modernizing virus." Whereas modernization was an abstract, general and vague reality, Jews could be singled out, pointed at (threatened, taken aim at) because they often had their own religion, or a language, customs or names that were "different." So that especially in the Principalities, Jews were becoming a specific and concrete case (scapegoats) of enormous psychosocial anxieties: the rage against the historical movement towards modernity. Think of minister Sion's "Archondology." There, in the middle of the 19th century, the unmasking and the insults were especially directed towards the Greeks: well, only a generation later almost the same terminology and definitely the same feelings would fall on the Jews. In fact, I would state that the anti-Semitic persecution of the 30s and the 40s was to become not only a destructive, but also a self-destructive action of the guilty ones, inasmuch as they were diminishing or hurting that complex character, the multiethnic universe that the society between the Danube and the Carpathians was rooted in. Elite extermination consists here of the hostility towards the enterprising elite in all areas: industry, commerce, free-lance and so on. However, it is not my intention to overlook the degree of exploitation and oppression which has been (and still is) an important feature of Romanian history. Especially since its virulence would at times become unbearable (the brutal case of the 1907 peasant revolt is a handy example, although by no means unique). Speculating, I would relate these manifestations (recent ones, from the 50s, the 80s, are entirely similar) to the same awful syndrome of "historical sabotage." As, should we admit that historical existence is worthless anyway, why would we trouble our minds with social and economical improvements? Features of the human community such as gratefulness, kindness, the space of private identity ("privacy" cannot even be translated into Romanian), the respect for your neighbor's dignity, practical initiative, even compassion tend to wither and crumble down, haunted by a sort of general muttering, nausea, mourning and dismantling of existence. The most probable common cause for all these historical lacks and defects (again, not wanting to go into details) could be the tenacious resistance and the participation (practically fundamental) to tribal modes of social organization, even after society had decided (apparently) to opt for an individualistic and modern mode of production and existence. Elite-extermination, not minding the universe, cynical exploitation can be regarded as various facets of a whole, modes of expression and at the same time repression of dissatisfaction in front of individual autonomy and of a centrifugal way of existence.These could be some lines of force that national self-criticism should take as a starting point. For objectivity's sake, however, it should not deny the on the whole affirmative and tolerant facets of Romanian social-political history across the centuries. The society whose defects I have just been underlining is one and the same with the society that was able for many centuries to react creatively and ingeniously to the external stimuli and the extremely real difficulties it kept coming against. Any objective and equidistant report would still have to conclude that in the last 3-4 centuries areas inhabited by Romanians have often managed to form tolerant environments compatible with the phenomena of multiplicity, a context favorable to creative restlessness, as well as original forms of assimilating historical dynamism.I will begin with an example, which is usually considered to be the most difficult. Despite endemic conflicts and recurrent persecution (where Romanians were much more frequently victims than instigators), Transylvania comes to be an area where different ethnic groups could grow and state some of their most remarkable achievements. There, one of the most important branches of modern Christianity (Unitarianism) has its roots among the Transylvanian Hungarians (Georgius Blandrata and Ferenc David); in the same place an important direction in Hasidism comes in bloom within the Jewish communities from Satu Mare and Sighet; finally, the Romanian "Uniates" (Eastern rite) and Saxon Lutherans constituted communities with a marked identity and notable cultural achievements; all of this in the foreground of the Romanians' tenacious orthodox tradition. Enlarging the view a bit, we can say we are witnessing a common maturing of renaissance humanists of German, Hungarian and Romanian origin (Honterus, Farkas Karacsony, Nicolaus Olahus – to name only a few; or to mention the early presence of ethnically Romanian and Hungarian students at universities like Leyden and Oxford). And it may not be too much to speak of a technical and scientific Transylvanian boom, highlighted by names such as Janos Bolyai, Hermann Oberth, Traian Vuia and Aurel Vlaicu.The co-existence of three entirely different cultural models in 17th and 18th century Maramureş provides us with a good specific example. In the same area we can observe paratactically a feudal Hungarian administration, a well settled and solid Jewish community, a rural Romanian society about which we know very well that it created an amazing wood culture.If the example above is definitive for a Transylvania of separate co-existences, then it is also true that one can equally illustrate the participation to co-operative ways. I am referring to the coherence of a Biedermeier culture in the 19th century that enveloped all strata of the bourgeoisie (and all nationalities) – legalistic and prosperous, with various interactions. They are not in the wrong, those that (like N. Balota) think that Transylvania was coming close to that "educational province" suggested by Goethe in Wilhelm Meister. Anyway, these are realities that only malevolence would overlook.Not less real are the feudal achievements of the Danubian Principalities. Reigning figures like Stephen the Great or Matei Basarab illustrate original ways of continuing the feudalism of Eastern Christianity. It was repeatedly the case, and rightly so, that these Principalities managed to conserve their independence (shabby, even) when robust and prominent neighboring monarchies (Hungary, Poland, Serbia, Greece) collapsed (in certain periods) to a pure colonial state. But in my view the most convincing argument regarding the economic prosperity and the political culture in the principalities is the very fact that they became a territory for immigration. Historically, first for the scholars and the middle classes south of the Danube (Bulgarians, Serbs, Albanians and ever more Greeks), but also for populations north and east of the area: Georgians and Armenians first, then, also in great numbers, Jews. The presence of all these people constituted an extraordinary economic and intellectual ferment in the 17th century, but also later, as the dialectic of intertwining was becoming more complex. (This is exactly why I regret, a few lines in advance, that this multiplicity was radically impoverished, first by the legionaries, then by the communists, through the catastrophic lessening of the German, Jewish, Armenian and of other minorities: beyond various degrees of ethnical guilt, a serious loss of human capital.)We are even more justified to talk of Romania's century of constitutional monarchy (which actually begins in 1848) as an era of achievements and progress. It is not at all difficult to make here a list of evidence. (Vlad Georgescu's History provides an excellent compact picture of these transformations.) The economy could come first: the changes between 1848 and 1938 are obvious, whether we have in mind the proportion between the rural and the urban or the economy's productivity. Last but not least, I would mention here the reform of agrarian property in 1920, the most radical and progressive in the whole of Central and East Europe, no matter how much it was criticized (from different directions) in its time.The process of serious and well planned institutional development after 1859 and especially after 1866 would come next: constitutional and parliamentary structures, universities and academies, a well organized army, the process of public and private association, the judiciary bodies and the laws governing them. In short, we witness an operation of national formation than can equal what was happening in other parts of Europe at that date. It would not be difficult for us to quote the dramatic improvements in alphabetization, hygiene and medical care or women's participation to public life.A high place on any list of achievements would undoubtedly be also occupied by the "great debate" (the way Keith Hitchins called it, its admirable analyst), that is, by the substantial and serious discussion that went on ceaselessly for a hundred years, regarding the country's social and axiological options. (I maintained elsewhere that neither did communism stop its progress, but merely forced it to take refuge in a coded language.) We know very well that all positions, from Left to Right were represented at the highest level and I would reckon that its results (irrespective of the much more disappointing practical applications) could also nowadays, when the theoretical expectations are much higher, be useful to many, even from other continents, faced with problems similar to those of the Romanian society back then.The fact that however imperfect, democracy in Romania was not merely a thin surface layer is proved by the stubborn resistance this small society put up against overwhelming Right and Left totalitarian pressures, especially in the 30s and the 40s. Not fewer than three Romanian prime-ministers lost their lives while defending the country's institutions. In free elections, extreme right parties at the their most popular never got beyond 25% (I include here the National-Christians), in other words considerably less than in Italy, Austria, Germany or Hungary.In their turn, the 1946 elections had to be rudely tampered with (in an almost surrealist manner) in order to the insure the victory of the communist front. The armed resistance in the Romanian mountains against the reigning communist power was the longest and the most dogged in the whole of Eastern Europe. Actually (and this is again different from the neighboring countries), the communists were forced to obliterate (physically or socially) virtually the entire middle social layer in order to be able to govern freely. The main reason (often overlooked by Western or Romanian historians) is that at the end of the 4th decade and especially at the beginning of the 5th, the political and intellectual elite in Romania was (with a large majority) dedicated to Western, constitutional, rational and even democratic values. Thus, the two main governing parties (the liberal and the national-peasants') were overwhelmingly pro-West, just like the bureaucratic apparatus and, generally, the executive branch (even when the latter's democracy was tentative). The same can be said about most newspapers and other communication media.It is also beyond doubt that the large majority of scholars and writers were clearly anchored in Western values. The top Romanian jurists of the time (let us take a few random names: Titulescu, Istrate Micescu, Plastara, Juvara, Longinescu), the main diplomats and MPs of Romania (Visoianu, Tilea, Filotti, Ciuntu, as well as Maniu, Duca, the Bratianu brothers) were anti-fascists. Top cultural figures, whether internationally known (Brâncuşi, George Enescu, later Eugen Ionescu) or limited to their importance only within Romania (Lovinescu, Vianu, Pillat, Camil Petrescu, Mircea Florian, Al. Rosetti, Horia Hulubei, to name only a few) were opposed both to fascism and communism. Many of the participants to the "great debate" (as we were calling it above) were feverishly looking for "middle" solutions where the internal and local realities could become integrated in (and namely contribute to) global structures, general configurations and modalities. (We could quote examples from the works of D. Gusti, C. Rădulescu-Motru, V. Madgearu or Lucian Blaga.)As postscript we may say that, although the communist decades are sad, cruel, monotonous and miserable, I think Romanian history will note down a host of cultural and scientific achievements, and socially, if not much, then at least the formation of a vibrant class of technical scholarship. The transition from rural to urban (with all its shortcomings) generally took place under this regime. The considerable emigration of Romanians for the first time formed an active and multiple Diaspora, truly a new branch of Romanianness. In fact, the speed at which a series of enterprising and initiative or new media communication forms developed (after 1989) deserves our full attention. It shows that the progress towards individualization, emancipation and modernization also continued under (and against!) communism.I am under the impression that my presentation is reasonable and well balanced, without being very original. I regret that (at first sight) my enumerations of merits and defects have a somewhat mechanical aspect: they seem to lack exactly the dialectic that the title was promising. How do these very real movements of the Romanian social body go with the utopian and wretched background I was talking about in the beginning, with the tortuous and slow transition towards modernity? The professional historian will be able to answer this question much more convincingly than I could, but it is not difficult to guess that it is precisely these discrepancies and discontinuities that constitute the material itself, the praxis of the Romanian historical existence of the last three-four hundred years. Early on, a lack of balance appears between a layer of creative and enterprising individuals, and a background of continuous resentment, of destructive grudge.Despite these discrepancies, I wonder whether a certain balance could not be reached between practicism, integration and idiosyncrasy in the space between the Danube and the Carpathians? Or whether, considering things from a different perspective, striking analogies could not be found between the experience there and the one so many countries have had (and are still having!) in their struggle to modernize?Romanian history always answered its own recalcitrance in interesting theoretical and sometimes also practical ways. The best Romanian theoreticians took their strength from the inner tensions of the society they found themselves in and came up with ingenious combinations. The split of this Romanian society in an archaic traditional level and a level already integrated in modernity could lead to destructive fury and to desperate paradisiacal nostalgia, but could also propose interesting contributions to the texture of world history. More than once, that which was starting as a defect or a rift changed into creative virtue. Unlike others (maybe most), I do not feel in the least embarrassed by the discontinuous character that has ceaselessly marked the history of Romanians and neither do I feel the need to propose compensational myths, macro-narrations that would substitute the fragmented text. On the contrary, I find a certain reason for pride in the Sisyphean (always resumed) character of local history. I enjoy the deft digressions of this history. I do not ignore its imperfection, nor do I praise it, I see it rather with quiet melancholy as an image of human condition itself. Its achievements seem to be more remarkable against this background of (self-nurtured) adversity of the people and places. And in the end, nothing is more interesting to follow than this insecure balance between the constructive and the destructive in this history, past or present.
Bethesda, MD, January 1996, 22

by Virgil Nemoianu