With a PhD in History, Zoltán Novák has been a Maros (Mureş) County senator for the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (known by its Hungarian acronym, RMDSZ) since 2016. His research interests include the political, social and cultural history of the 20th century, especially the period of the communist regime (1945–1989). More specifically, his research focuses on minorities, ethnic conflicts and the elite; the changes to the communist system; and also everyday life, social identities and social policies. Recently Novák published a new history book in Romanian, entitled The Golden age? Ceauşescu and the Hungarians. The politics of the Romanian Communist Party regarding the Hungarian minority in the period of the Ceauşescu regime.
TN asked the historian-politician about the research his book is based on, the changes in the Ceauşescu regime’s attitude toward the Hungarian minority, and the reasons for these changes. We also inquired about the plans Ceauşescu had regarding the “systematization” of Romanian settlements. If these had been successful, at least one-third of Transylvanian villages would have been extinct by now.
TN: – How did you come up with the idea for the publication of this new volume? What kind of research did do you include?
Z.N. – This volume is sort of a Romanian-language summary of the research work I did in the past 15 years. As my doctoral thesis and several of my studies regarding the Ceauşescu regime have been published over the years in several different history volumes in Hungarian, I thought it was high time to summarize the results of this research process in Romanian too. Thus, the volume Ceauşescu and the Hungarians compiles the studies I have written on the Ceauşescu regime’s policies toward the ethnic Hungarian minority, basically everything that has been said about the period between 1965 and 1989.
TN: –What were the major milestones in the development of the system’s Hungarian policy? Can it be characterized as an increasingly worsening process?
Z.N.– I have analyzed the regime’s Hungarian policies as parts of a process: On the one hand, I was focused on determining the factors that influenced the policies of the Romanian Communist Party toward other ethnic groups, more precisely, toward the Hungarian community. Furthermore, based on the evolution of Romanian ideological and political life, I have outlined the most significant time periods between 1965 and 1989 and have grouped the specificities of each of these periods.
My opinion is that the evolution of the regime’s policies toward the Hungarians was a process influenced by a number of factors, such as: changes in Romanian political and ideological life, the characteristics of the internal relationship system within the Socialist Block, Romania’s bilateral relations with Hungary, and the ideas regarding the integration of the Transylvanian Hungarian community into Romanian social and economic life. The regime’s attitude and policies toward Hungarians wavered, but all in all, it was more on a downward curve.
The period of the Ceauşescu regime can be divided into two greater sub-periods: On the one hand, the decade from 1965 to 1975 was a period of relative liberalization, when the leadership of the Romanian Communist Party experimented with a new approach toward the integration of the Hungarian community; on the other hand, between 1975 and 1989, minority institutions were gradually dismantled and hollowed out, so they could not really fulfill their intended purposes.
The minority policies of the states within the Soviet Block, and their ways of integrating minority communities, were largely influenced by the social, economic status of the country and also by matters of foreign policy. During more relaxed periods — so to say — to some extent, the issue of minority integration was approached differently than at times of crisis.
Just to give you some examples: In 1952, following a stressful Soviet suggestion, the Hungarian Autonomous Province was established in Romania, having its center in Marosvásárhely (Târgu-Mureş), and the Hungarian community was given specific rights as a collective entity. From the second half of the 1960s, this Soviet-type of integration model did not function anymore, but thanks to the international context and the status of domestic politics in Romania, the Communist Party leadership offered another possibility, namely the institutional integration of Hungarians as well as German and remaining Jewish communities; minorities were given the possibility to establish their own institutions.
TN: – You mentioned in an earlier interview that in the years just before the change of regime, there was a sharpening diplomatic conflict between Romania and Hungary. What caused this and how much did people know about it?
Z.N. – Indeed, by the 1980s, there was a so-called “diplomatic cold war” going on between Romania and Hungary; one could say that — given the history of bilateral relations — that was not really an odd thing. Nevertheless, considering that this was in fact a conflict between two allies of the Socialist Camp, it might be seen as a bit out of the ordinary. As reasons for the conflict, I would note that the two countries have a particular historical heritage, and their relationship was significantly determined by the type of communist party leadership heading each state.
More specifically, at the end of the 1940s and the 1950s, Hungary had a distant relationship with Romania, given that at a certain level this was in the Soviet’s political interest and that the Hungarian Autonomous Province existed, ensuring some collective rights for the Hungarian community.
After 1956, the Hungarian Communist Party led by János Kádár pursued a defensive foreign policy — toward Romania as well — and did not attribute much importance to settling cross-border issues. Nevertheless, from the late 1960s, Hungary had been gradually changing this defensive policy due to various influences; the change was more noticeable from the 1970s, and it was mostly related to the fact that the situation of the Hungarian community in Romania was deteriorating more and more.
From this point onward, processes mutually influenced and generated each other: beginning with the mid-1980s, Hungary’s policy towards Hungarians living outside its borders changed radically. The Romanian party leadership, which was otherwise embroiled in a deep social, economic and political crisis, was increasingly more hostile toward this change in Hungary. All in all, the Romanian regime’s perception was that Hungary took too much of an interest in the fate of the Hungarian community and was thus interfering with the country’s sovereign decision making. All these tensions between the two states led to the Cold War-like atmosphere I spoke of earlier. I do believe people were aware of all this, as the ideological-political battle did not take place at the level of bilateral negotiations but via other manifestations of various kinds. In this regard, we could mention the activities of the secret services, the actions of the Securitate (editor’s note: the secret police agency of the Socialist Republic of Romania), as well as various kinds of diplomatic statements and actions.
TN: – Would you highlight some key aspects and results of your research that you consider to be particularly important in terms of contributing to historiography as well as informing the wider community?
Z.N.– Self-praise is a disgrace, but if I were to highlight some of the most important aspects of my research, I would start by saying it is a so-called generational manifestation, a generational work. Several of my fellow historians are analyzing the era of the Ceauşescu regime from different perspectives; in my opinion, this volume — along with the Hungarian version — fits into this specific historiographical discourse. I would also like to highlight that this line of research was initiated by historian Nándor Bárdi, so my work also grew out of Bárdi’s school. I think it is important that our generation of historians has formed a new perspective, another type of approach to the history of the Ceauşescu period, and I also think this volume has succeeded in applying this perspective.
I find it important that we have divided the past 40 or 50 years into periods, supported by the appropriate historical sources. I found it especially interesting and exciting to study the elites, elite generations; there are two subchapters in the volume about the dominant Hungarian generational groups of the period: on the one hand, the so-called generation of ‘68, marked by personalities like András Sütő and Géza Domokos, and on the other hand, the generation of the ‘80s, marked by Géza Szőcs or Béla Markó.
Another important result of this research was the outlining of the general political framework in Romania; the members of our generation have researched in Romanian archives, thus we have supplemented our statements with Romanian historical sources as well. On the other hand, the volume is a good opportunity to further deepen the process of so-called professional integration, to introduce Hungarian issues into Romanian historiography, and to find the language, the optics, through which we can appear in Romanian historiography. From this point of view, every volume of this kind counts as a success.
TN: – What did Ceauşescu ultimately want to achieve regarding the Hungarians living in Romania?
Z.N.– We could say that Ceauşescu expected different things from the Hungarian community, depending on the period the regime was going through. In any case, such a large minority with a specific historical background and traditions was a tough nut, a specific problem for the communist regime.
I think that in the ’60s, there was a kind of anticipation in Romanian party politics; it may have been clear that such a large minority community could not be expected to have the type and degree of integration or assimilation expected of, say, the Slavic minority or the German minority, let alone the Turkish-Tatar minority. This kind of attitude changed; when the country embarked on the path of homogenization, of building a socialist nation, this perception changed, becoming more and more radical.
As I briefly mentioned earlier, certain types of integration models for the Hungarian minority were outlined within the framework of socialist nationality politics, but when the state system was faced with a gradually deepening crisis, the old, nationalist stereotypes emerged. In the 1960s, Romanian party politics was most likely aware of the fact that the Hungarian community was too large to expect the degree of integration or assimilation they anticipated for the Slavic or German minorities, not to mention the Turkish-Tatar communities. This attitude changed and became more and more radical after Romania embarked on the path of building the socialist state through homogenization.
In the 1950s, when the Hungarian Autonomous Province existed, Romanian ideology envisioned the socialist nation in a way that Hungarians could even be included in it as a collective entity. From the 1960s and in the homogenization period which began in the second half of the ’70s, the Romanian system no longer offered this kind of collective integration opportunity; thus, Transylvanian Hungarians were much more exposed to the risk of migration and assimilation. In my opinion, the system did not have a clear political picture of the system; I would say that Romanian politics turned to the means of silencing and “beheading” the elites of the Hungarian community and also to ways of assimilation.
Ceauşescu’s visit to the famous library, the Teleki Téka, in Marosvásárhely. The archive photo is from Zoltán Novák’s collection.
TN: – Ceauşescu’s village demolition plans affected both Romanian and Hungarian villages; roughly what percentage of the Hungarian villages in Transylvania were on the brink of liquidation/destruction?
Z.N. – We do not have exact numbers; in some counties, there was some data available regarding the plans the regime had. (Editor’s note: in the late 1980s, Ceauşescu ordered the demolition of several villages, claiming that Romanian settlements must be systematically planned. His actual objective, however, was to take away the lands and all remaining economic independence of the rural population).
Contrary to popular belief, in the first phase, the regions beyond the Carpathians, especially the villages around Bucharest, were in danger. In Transylvania, during the first phase, mostly the smaller, mountain settlements were to have a gloomy fate; the plan was to shut them off from all infrastructure, eliminating the perspective of development. It is safe to say though, that in the long run, about a third of the Hungarian villages in Transylvania were sentenced to death, in the sense that all further construction was to be banned, the borders of the villages were to be closed, and the projected withdrawal of infrastructure projects would have prompted residents to migrate to so-called larger centers. The main goal of the regime was to eradicate traditional rural life. In the territories where Hungarians lived in larger communities, this might have been prevented, but with the exception of Szeklerland and a part of the historical region of the Partium (the northwestern counties of Transylvania), Ceauşescu’s plan would have accelerated the assimilation of Hungarians even more.
The irony is that today, 30 years after the change of regime, as a result of massive demographic changes, the problem has returned: There are many small Hungarian — and not just Hungarian — settlements where the population has aged, and at the moment, the process does not seem to be stopping.
TN: – Why is it important for an ethnic Hungarian historian to publish also in Romanian?
Z.N. – I had already known at the beginning of my career that if we research and analyze the life of our own community, we should not avoid Romanian historiography either. It is a kind of duty and even a mission of a Hungarian historian, political scientist or sociologist from Transylvania to share his/her research results with the Romanian scientific community to promote a dialogue with fellow Romanian researchers. As we should be the ones who also speak the language of the state, we should be able to present our scientific results in Romanian as well. I think that this can help Romanian society better understand us Hungarians, and it is also much easier to argue at a political level in situations where the relevant Romanian social segments have correct basic information about Hungarians. In the same way, these questions must be included in Hungarian historiography too; I encourage my colleagues to step out of their comfort zone and to also publish in the Romanian language. There is feedback to the book, it is being read, and a professional debate has started too. The point is that we are present, and we are shaping the discourse of Romanian historians about the period before 1989.
Novák has previously co-authored several historical volumes: He edited the book entitled Together and Separately. The self-organization of the Hungarians in Transylvania (1989–1990) with historians Nándor Bárdi and Csaba Gidó. Novák also wrote The Burden of Freedom – Marosvásárhely, March 16–21, 1990 with Márton László. The books entitled The Silenced Bell. The History of an Observation and Pálfi Géza’s Life in the Documents of the Securitate were co-authored by Novák and Denisa Bodeanu.