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Apology for the Vandals: Is the state sponsoring ethnic conflict in Transylvania?

Recent historiographical evidence is starting to progressively exonerate the ancient migratory tribes for their so-called “acts of vandalism”. After extensive research into their actions, scholars now agree that the Vandals, who coined the term “vandalism” for their sacking of Rome, were not as barbaric as early historians would have us believe. In fact they were vilified not because they were “bad”, but because they were a menace to the Romans who saw them as challenging the status quo and thus bringing “disorder” to Europe. Even though widely considered a misnomer today, the Vandal legacy lived on to such a degree that it now describes any destructive acts performed on public property.

April 15, 2014 - Lucian Tion - Articles and Commentary

256px-Baba Novac

Statue of Baba Novac in Cluj Photo: Memo (cc) commons.wikimedia.org

The legacy lives on in Transylvania as well. A monument erected in the city of Cluj in 1975 to Baba Novac, a 16th-century Serbian hajduk seen by the Romanians as one of their independence fighters and widely revered as a hero, was recently vandalised by unknown perpetrators. What is inherently ironic about this fact is that hajduks were self-made Robin Hood-like figures who challenged imperial or aristocratic governments all over Eastern Europe by acts of pillaging and violence that today we would call by no other name than… acts of vandalism.

Nobody has any beef with the statue itself. The bone of contention was an inscription added to the monument in the early1990s when the city of Cluj, the unofficial capital of Transylvania, was under the administration of Gheorghe Funar, a far-right nationalist who went so far as to paint all the benches of the city in the colours of the Romanian flag. The inscription reads: “Baba Novac: Captain of Mihai Viteazul, killed in terrifying agony by the Hungarians on February 5th 1601”. The local Hungarian population, which still makes up 25 per cent of the city dwellers, cried foul and appealed to the local government for the removal of the inscription on grounds of discrimination. Apparently due to the government’s non-compliance, the inscription was vandalised at the end of last year through the conspicuous removal of the word “Hungarians” from the frontispiece. What is worthy of note is that what was vandalised was not the memory of the killed hajduk, but the incrimination of his purported killers.

Baba Novac was a hired mercenary in Mihai’s army and, undoubtedly, a general worthy of his title. In 1600 Mihai conquered Transylvania from the Turks and received temporary protection from the then-Hapsburg emperor, Rudolph II, who, after noticing Mihai’s increasingly authoritarian rule, decided to renege on his pledge and assassinate him in 1601. Even though Mihai’s incursion into Transylvania was unrelated to the nationalist goals later attributed to him, Romanian historians raised his figure to the rank of national hero for having “united” the before separate principalities which were later considered ancient Romanian territory. However, the idea of “nation” did not exist at the time, which is proven among others by the fact that Mihai’s army was made up largely of foreign (including Hungarian) mercenaries, and not exclusively of Vlach or Romanian soldiers. While Mihai’s tragic story is from a romantic point of view undisputedly a sad one, the episode of Baba Novac, who fell prisoner to imperial forces after he lost a key battle, plunged into darker mystery, as all that has been preserved is a gruesome execution, none too infrequent in a Middle Ages replete with endemic cruelty all over Europe. If we are to further consider that Transylvania at the time was de facto Ottoman, and that the general who probably ordered Novac’s execution was an Italian at the service of the Habsburgs, we get a mind-boggling ethnic hodgepodge that will surely not advance the ethnic argument that the simple-minded mayor of Cluj wanted to make.

The act of vandalism to the statue was recorded by the local media at the end of 2013 and presented in a generally objective tone. What is more colourful and interesting is the long thread of commentaries posted by anonymous users in response to the unexpectedly short article. In a city where Romanian-Hungarian tensions still run high almost 100 years after Transylvania was transferred from Austria-Hungary to the new Romanian Kingdom at the close of the First World War, it is unsurprising that the pleas for ethnic equality on the one hand almost caught up with the expressions of heated nationalism calling for the arrest of the vandals on the other. Liviu for instance agrees with the vandals saying: “It’s a good thing that it was removed. It’s about time we had a new inscription, one that is worthy of a city which vies for the title of European capital of culture.” To which Vlad retorts (in misspelled and occasionally capitalised Romanian): “We are sick of the Hungarian minority disrespecting ROMANIAN symbols and AVRAM IANCU,” another independence fighter around whose figure nationalists built a personality cult. This makes Clujean asks: “Was that imbecile inscription a Romanian symbol?”

Even though grammar is not his strong point, Vlad does have an argument when stating (again in capitals) that hate-mongers should start paying for their actions. The question is: are the vandals or is the local government responsible for instigating hatred?

The issue with this inscription is not that it keeps the memory of the national past alive. By blaming a nation for an individual act that happened half a millennium ago, however, it purposefully criminalises the entire Hungarian ethnicity. In light of the centuries-old heated dispute over the ownership of Transylvania, it is practically impossible to cite historical fact as evidence for one side or the other. Both camps can provide plenty. In a century where co-habitation rather than dissention became a priority however, it is a mistake to use history as public incitement to ethnic hatred.

And besides, is it not time we ask ourselves if we should continue to keep the memory of the nationalist mayor of Cluj alive by holding on to such an inscription in the first place?

In a region where until recently the independence of one ethnic group meant the incrimination of another due to the close co-habitation and ethnic intermingling that characterised all of Eastern Europe, this event should serve as further proof for the need to rethink public policy on the creation and maintenance of national monuments. Even though Eastern Europeans are not very fond of forgiving and forgetting, it is extremely dangerous policy in today’s multi-ethnic Europe to purposefully vilify an entire nation in a public space, and expect – just as Liviu said – to be rewarded for it by acquiring a title such as the European capital of culture. The fact that the local government is unwilling to give up practices that foment inter-ethnic hatred should be taken into consideration by the European Commission when making their decision in the next few years. Under no circumstances should we have a repeat of what happened in Sochi when, under the guise of the justification for a great Russian past (justification arguably received from the international community who awarded Russia the winter Olympics) a government should take military actions based on ethnic principles. Awarding prizes later used for justifying ethnic hatred would be a move which would greatly damage the already tarnished image of a Nobel Prize for which the European Union should feel increasingly awkward.

The right question to ask is whether, just like historians who are beginning to reconsider the role played by the Vandals in history, it would not be right to call the act of vandalism in Cluj the correction of a wrongful deed? If the original Vandals are just beginning to acquire a new, non-negative connotation inspired by less biased, extra-Roman objective research, which does not view their roles simply as destroyers of civilisation but its de facto continuators, should not the vandals of Cluj be similarly viewed as fighters for equality, non-discrimination, and peaceful co-habitation?

And finally, how justified are we to judge the practices of local governments that do not represent their administrations’ entire populations? Despite multiple changes in the governance of the local city hall the practices of nationalism persist in this institution, going insofar as to make public acts of discrimination. As minorities become increasingly sensitive to the protection of their rights, it is hard to believe that such attitudes are going to pass without notice from here on. From the Crimean Tatars to the Scots, voices asking for representation and autonomy are beginning to be heard across Europe. It looks like Europe cannot turn the other way much longer if it thinks of itself as home to all ethnicities that make up its rich heritage. And even less so local governments.

Lucian Tion is an independent journalist, film director and international teacher. He has worked in the US, Cameroon, Tajikistan, Bangladesh and Egypt. He writes for the weekly Revista 22 in Bucharest.

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