World War I is a topic of currency these days, owing to its one hundredth anniversary and also prevailing global current affairs. The two go a long way to explaining the less than enthusiastic reception in Germany given to Niall Ferguson’s book, in which the author suggests that Britain made a mistake by entering the war, and that all sides stood to gain from a quick German victory. By contrast, Christopher Clark, in his best-selling monograph Sleepwalkers, argues that leading European politicians were dragged into the war against their will and despite their sense of foreboding, and that they deceived themselves by predicting that the war would be a short one. The finger- pointing at who was to blame began immediately after the cataclysm. Although as early as the 1920s the Soviet historian Yevgeny Tarle maintained that the concept of “moral sin” was unscientific and regarded both sides at war as equally liable, Fritz Fischer’s thesis about Germany’s exclusive culpability, advanced in the 1970s and 1980s, became almost as popular as Clark’s recent analysis, foreshadowing the eventual demise of the blame-game in historiography. Yet in our corner of the world – that is to say, on the fringes – the debate continues to unfold today in terms of national gains and advantages.
Lucian Boia has now come out with another offbeat work. His book illustrates the potential of asking new questions to shed light on facts anyone remotely familiar with the period has known all along but always left unsaid, preferring instead to spin a yarn that fits comfortably with the mainstream heroic narrative. Reactions of outrage and enthusiasm are equally understandable. Like his previous work, the publication of this book has had the effect of a dirty window flung open to let some fresh air into a damp and musty room: some will take a deep breath in relief, while those acclimatised to the stuffy atmosphere will want to shut that window quickly. Boia refuses to embrace the usual counterfactual approach of the historiographer who muses about the direction the world would have taken if a certain fateful event had not transpired. (This has become quite a trendy course of inquiry, sometimes pursued to admittedly very high standards, for instance by Ferguson.) Instead, Boia underlines the importance of interactivity as an alternative to the two conventional speculative modes he describes. One is the technique of thinking in terms of causality. “The traditional historian”, Boia writes, “would hunt for anecdotes – small causes with the capacity to trigger momentous consequences.” Although he mentions no examples, he probably has in mind classical thinkers along the lines of Pascal, who once remarked of Cleopatra’s nose that “had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed”. (Not that this assumption is entirely without merit, particularly if one recalls what Dostoevsky writes about the power of beauty to save the world.) “By contrast, the modern historian prefers complex structures, in other words, macro-causality. He searches for determining correlations on a large scale.” But explosives do not go off by themselves; they need a detonator. This was precisely the function of the Sarajevo assassination, although peace would still have had a chance in its wake. One thing is nevertheless certain: without the assassination, the war would not have broken out in summer 1914, when the world least expected it. If a different “detonator” had been set off in another location, the consequences would have been different as well, for example if Britain had clashed with Germany in the theatre of the colonies or at sea, or if Austria–Hungary or Russia had encountered serious internal problems. “The world was open to war and – why not – also to maintaining peace, despite all the tension and contradictions.” The balance of power forced the five European powers to keep a close eye on one another and prevented each one of them from attaining hegemony. Boia points out that, paradoxically, it was the ensuing war that best proved the equilibrium of the two opposing blocs, the Entente and the Triple Alliance. As for the casus belli, the Sarajevo assassination turned out to weigh the least in the balance, directly backed as it was not by a state but by a group of terrorists. At the same time, the murder of the heir to the throne and his wife represented “an unthinkable offence, which Austria–Hungary could not afford to ignore without risking its credibility as a superpower”. In fact, the assassination offered a good excuse to get even with Serbia, where southern Slav agitation had gone so far as to place the very security of the Monarchy in peril. “The reaction of Austria–Hungary was akin to that of the United States after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, with a very similar symbolic overtone and unavoidable counterstrike.” Having said that, Boia goes on to explain the fundamental differences of the situation in Europe. While it is true that small countries were just as nationalistic as the big ones, and just as ambitious to expand (the Balkans come to mind), a dynamic spirit of internationalism which also existed at the time also played a role in counteracting that nationalism. This spirit inspired the Olympic Games, various international scientific conferences, and the foundation of the Nobel Prize; it sustained the International, and fuelled dreams of a global alliance. Acknowledging that the conflicting mindsets are impossible to compare with a large degree of accuracy, “it is far from certain that mankind in general was more inclined to war than to peace”. Boia detects a desire for peace in several quarters, including the belief maintained by one of the German oil industrialists, as late as a few months before the outbreak of the war, that Germany would be able to attain economic hegemony in peace if given another three or four years. As it turned out, it took Germany two lost wars to finally realise it can win the peace. In 1914, peace of any kind would have seemed the most frightening prospect in the eyes of German big business.
Boia is an engaging read, not least owing to his penchant for aphorism, both in world view and expression. His dictums consist of bitter truths woven into the text of his narrative, rather than petty and facile sophistry packaged in pompous discourse. “History is created, but not controlled, by people; they are controlled by their own creation. Uncontrollable phenomena are the result of the complex and random interaction of factors that make up history. A cursory look at history suffices to convince us that we are unable to influence its course as we think would be best.” This is why we must take into account the representations in the name of which we choose to act. For when we talk about history, it is not really history as such but the way we think about it that is at stake. Boia continues by highlighting three representations he deems to have been instrumental in the outbreak of the war. First among them is the perception that war is inevitable – that human history is nothing but the history of wars. The second is the notion that war is a necessity as a means of maintaining or restoring equilibrium. The third assumption is that war should be as short as permitted by the state of the art in military technology; all protracted wars lead to exhaustion. Boia certainly has a point here: even the most inveterate imperialists would surely have shrunk from the war had they seen what it would lead to.
When it comes to the issue of responsibility, there is not one single Truth. What we have at best is a rivalry among a number of small “truths”, each with a potential validity depending on the perspective. The viewpoint blaming Austria– Hungary trivialises the contribution of the Sarajevo assassination and takes the side of Serbia (and Yugoslavia), arguing that the Monarchy had been rendered obsolete by history. Undoubtedly, the Monarchy was never a model of equality among constituent nations, but neither was the Yugoslavia which came after it, as Boia points out. The more recent mass murder in Sarajevo clearly cannot be laid at the feet of the Monarchy. The origins of the Habsburg Monarchy predated the rise of nations, and it was ill-equipped to adapt to the new era. Like France, Hungary was determined to assimilate the ethnicities at a time when “nothing would have been more self-evident or more opportune than to test the viability of a multiethnic state”. On the other hand, Boia explains, the Monarchy did possess the right to exist, at least from its own point of view. And also from the perspective of a Europe where balance of power was all-important, and even in the spirit of national philosophy, as a potential confederation of equal nations in the future.
The Monarchy only defended itself as it saw fit, although its perception of Serbia’s intentions and capabilities may have been exaggerated. Let us not ignore Russia which, hardly the innocent bystander, had been expanding as the greediest empire in recent historical memory, and manoeuvring to gain access to the Black Sea – an ambition finally condoned by England and France in 1915. “The Russian mobilisation on behalf of Serbia seemed excessive and therefore far from being unselfish”, Boia suggests. True enough, the Tsar ordered only partial mobilisation, implying that he was not seeking a world war, merely to take action against the Monarchy. He was then given to understand that anything like this was out of the question. Be that as it may, the Tsar’s decision elicited a countermove from Germany. In order to preempt a retort from France, Bismarck had pursued power politics which nevertheless remained essentially defensive in nature. Emperor Wilhelm II took a more aggressive stance. Indeed, Germany was measured by a double standard. On the one hand, it was kept from acquiring colonies; on the other hand, it was reprimanded for hampering the French takeover of Morocco. (The detractors glossed over the fact that Germany had never objected to Italy’s subjugation of Libya, setting a precedent of impunity for occupying a sovereign state.) In this way, the policy followed by everyone else in the Continent before 1914 was “incomparably more fiercely expansionist”. Germany was stuck with Central Europe and set about developing its fleet. Britain overstated the peril of these preparations and used it as one of the justifications for entering into war, while Germany became increasingly fixated on being beset from all sides. Germany’s war plans were not fuelled by a desire to conquer so much as by the fear of its enemies attacking first, and from two sides. It preferred to fight only because its leaders decided that, if war was inevitable, they should get it over with, and the sooner the better. But this did not necessarily mean they were looking for an opportunity or an excuse. Then, the resistance of France turned out to be tougher, and the mobilisation in Russia faster, than expected. Politically speaking, Germany would have been well-advised to wait for war to be declared by the others, but the military considerations overruled any political concern. Germany’s leaders should have realised how staunchly Britain would insist on Belgium’s independence and how uneasy it had grown about the muscling up of the German fleet. Berlin sought a compromise with London, but went about it in a style that proved disastrous. Meanwhile France – the least culpable party on the face of it – supported Russia and let it rest easy in the belief it could do whatever it wanted. For a while, Wilhelm II proposed that Vienna should content itself with diplomatic success, and Russia did not so much as consult France before ordering the mobilisation. As for the specific military objectives, the choices were endless – seek and ye shall find. “However, there is a long road from intention to action, and these intentions were contradictory.” Alternately belligerent and pacifist, Wilhelm has been regarded by many as the chief offender. In reality, he leaned toward “peaceful rivalry”.
Having surveyed the interaction of forces, Boia quotes the new French–German history textbook, which discusses the factors contributing to mounting tension and states that, after a while, the conflict escalated beyond control. “It is to be hoped”, Boia writes, “that such a discriminating interpretation gets closer to the truth. Yet it would be a mistake to harbour illusions about the objectivity of historians, or indeed of history itself. The ideology of European solidarity is calling the cards today as dogmatically as did the ideology of confrontation among nations in the last century.” In other words, we are presentists. But how are we locked up in the prison house of the present? This is the question. While Boia stops short of vulgar presentism, he makes unambiguously clear the extent to which our view of things is suffused by the problems of the present and our desire to solve them. Speaking elsewhere, Boia has expressed his opinion that Europe lacks a universally acceptable hero. To put it more precisely, it has only negative heroes or villains, such as Hitler and Stalin, hailed by the secretary in the British TV sitcom Yes Minister as the masterminds of unified Europe. On second thoughts, how about Jean Jaurès as a nominee for the title of Europe’s positive hero? A name which – quite inexplicably – hardly ever comes up in conversation among the architects of memory.
“Germany: A Possible Victory” is the provocative title of one of the chapters in Boia’s book. Indeed, no party to the war could claim achievements comparable to Germany. This is evident in the number of Nobel Prize laureates in each country: 17 from Germany, 8 from France, 7 from England, and 2 from the United States. The problem is that speedy success not only engenders envy but can also frustrate the achiever if he feels he is not given the respect he deserves. The German political system proved to be an organic liability: even though general suffrage had been introduced, the military still had the final say during the war. “Now, nothing is more detrimental than having soldiers lead the war”, the author points out, “as they are prone to lose sight of the fact that war is a means rather than an end in and of itself.” Germany’s ostensibly anti-war social democratic movement may have been powerful, but ultimately it stood up for the war owing in part to the tireless demonisation of Russia, a campaign in which Marx had taken the lead. “It is the irony of history that Russia went on to become the home of triumphant socialism for a while.” Germany, however, continued to nourish a faith in its invincibility, and managed to gain relative ascendancy on all fronts despite the desertion of Italy and Romania, and even vanquished Russia. Then America entered the war, thwarting all hopes of a “white peace”. Society at large could no longer bear the hardships imposed any more than it was able to deal with ultimate defeat. Hence the theory of “coup de grâce”, courtesy of General Ludendorff who proposed to the government, as early as late-September 1918, that an attempt should be made to enter into peace talks. Then Germany found itself all alone. (Boia erroneously claims that Hungary declared its independence on 30 September. In reality, the Michaelmas Daisy Revolution came about on 31 October. The new government was formed the following day by the pro-peace Mihály Károlyi, but Hungarian independence was not declared until 16 November.) This lapse notwithstanding, Boia is correct in pointing out that “until the autumn of 1918, Austria–Hungary demonstrated remarkable cohesion, apparently giving the lie to assumptions about the independence efforts of the nationalities. By the last weeks of the war, however, these efforts had asserted themselves in full force.”
The chapter that elicited the most heated response in Romania is entitled “Romania: How Lucky Can You Get?” Some accused the author and his publisher of treason; one academic went so far as to find Boia guilty of intentionally falsifying history. Without a doubt, Lucian Boia – as is his wont – managed to stick a hand into the hornets’ nest of national mythology, and hornets are not known for clemency. In fact, everything in this book demonstrates the highest possible level of self-confidence and sense of national identity. On this level, one has no need for myths; what is called for is the analysis of myths. This is precisely what Boia undertakes, not by disputing the power of myths to shape history, but by asking questions about their dogmatic treatment by historiography. Those enslaved by such myths will inevitably cry blasphemy upon reading simple but thought-provoking assertions such as the following: “The Romanian interpretation of the First World War fits in with a whole mythology. Nothing could be more natural, for it is the same mythology that framed the very foundation of the modern Romanian state.” Boia relegates to mythology the centuries-old dream of national unity, whose point of inception has been anachronistically shifted to an era when nobody in Europe even considered such a project. Equally mythological is the notion that nearly everyone at home was in favour of Romania’s entering the war, as are the attempts to cover up the fact that going to war in exchange for Transylvania was, in those days, definitely tantamount to giving up claims to Bessarabia. In the event, history decided otherwise. Transylvania and Bessarabia became part of Romania, prompting the conservative Moldavian-born politician Petre P. Carp to remark that “Romania is so lucky that she can do without its statesmen”. Boia agrees that it took extraordinary recklessness on the part of Romania to enter the war, with Germany clinching supremacy on every single front. This is true, except that the author neglects to mention the Brusilov Offensive, the initial success of which emboldened the government with Ionel Brătianu at the helm. It is also true that the Russian troops broke the back of the Monarchy’s army, and even occupied Chernivtsi. Romania’s engagement, encouraged by Britain and France, was met with disapproval by Russia, which did not like the idea of a stretched front, much less of sharing victory with its neighbour. But Romania was bent to have a seat at the victors’ table. This led to a paradoxical situation whereby Romania, ill-prepared for military action, found itself in a crossfire along the longest front line of the entire war. “Brătianu laid the country bare to the risk of unimaginable collapse”, writes Boia.
At this point, Boia might as well have quoted the entry of 22 May 1940 from the diary of King Carol II, in which the monarch, who had been giving a series of concessions to Germany and seeing his prime minister begin to favour an orientation toward Germany after the French army caved in, bitterly remarked that “all of our politicians [when proven wrong in their calculations] are ready to perform, or at least propose, a total about-face”. The king also recalls that, in 1917, when the Romanian army was nearly crushed by the German forces, “our politicians
[in the city of Iași]
were overtaken by despair”, and that the “infallible and proud Ionel Brătianu, now completely devastated”, asked him whether Carp and Marghiloman had a point after all when they advocated cooperation with the Central Powers. Boia admits that Brătianu was proved right, “but not because his logic in 1916 was all that keen, but because that is how history decided in 1918 […], dealing him a winning card from the pack”. This quote alone will amount to sacrilege in the eyes of the adherents of nationalist atavism, not to mention Boia’s contention that the national idea only influenced a smaller portion of Romanian politics: the peasantry, which made up 80 per cent of the population, had plenty other problems to worry about. At the same time, the alliance with Russia entailed the need to give up claims to Bessarabia in exchange for Transylvania. What may be termed national liberation went hand in hand with territorial ambitions. The Entente promised Romania not only Transylvania (in the broader sense as we understand it today) but also the entirety of the Banat, where Serbs had grown to be the majority population, as well as certain purely Hungarian regions nearly all the way west to the Tisza River. Naturally, Romania was allowed to keep the Cadrilater which it had seized from Bulgaria. “But why should Romania be expected to play the role model for moderation at a time when everyone yielded to expansionist desires?” Romania’s political elite was severely divided over the dilemma of whether to join forces with the Central Powers to recover Bessarabia from Russia (which had formed part of historical Moldavia until 1812), or to go in for Transylvania, parts of Hungary and Bukovina. In fact, the latter was expressly promised to Romania by the Monarchy as an incentive for entering the war on its side.
The higher we climb the social ladder, the higher number of Teutophiles we find among Romanians. The camp included roughly half of the conservative party as well as top intellectuals such as writers, academics and professors. Arguments favouring the choice of Bessarabia gained leverage from the advanced assimilation of the Romanian minorities there, and their far more dismal situation than that of their brethren in Hungary. “Romanians in Transylvania had all the reason to dredge up their numerous grievances before the Hungarian ruling classes”, Boia writes, “who had hardly bent over backwards to guarantee equal rights for the minorities.” At the same time, Romanians in Hungary enjoyed religious autonomy, maintained their own network of schools and banks, and were free to nurture their relations with the Romanian homeland. “Apart from the shortfalls it was rightly reproached for”, the author continues, “Hungary essentially remained a parliamentary state abiding by a constitution and the rule of law.” The Teutophiles of Romania probably felt that Transylvania could wait until after the eventual federalisation or disintegration of the Monarchy. Just as importantly, Romania had been historically entitled to Bessarabia and Bukovina, both cut off from Moldavia. Transylvania was an entirely different story. There, Romania could cite a Romanian majority, but could hardly claim that Transylvania was their stolen property. Then again, a victory in alliance with Russia would have left Romania at the mercy of Russia. The pro-Entente advocates allayed these fears by expecting Britain and France to keep Russia at bay. “Quite a naïve hope, that”, observes Boia, obviously aware that territorial annexation is never alien to virtual history. At the end of the day, the revolutions in Russia led to Bessarabia’s being merged with Romania, while the collapse of the central powers landed Transylvania in its lap to boot.
Boia’s perhaps most egregious sacrilege consists of the way in which he characterises the behaviour of Romanians living in Transylvania. The myth nourished by historiographers is simple enough: it says that Romanian minorities living in Transylvania and Hungary could hardly wait for the unification. In reality, Boia warns us, the question was far more complicated for them than for the motherland, which only stood to gain – and had nothing to lose – by engulfing Transylvania. For Transylvania’s Romanian population, however, their Central European status, their sense of cultural superiority to the Romanians beyond the Carpathians, was at stake. In the Romanian Kingdom proper, western cultural patterns remained confined to a narrow elite, whereas in Transylvania “the western spirit reached deeper and exerted a more powerful influence”, owing to the German model. The majority of Romanians in Transylvania went to university in Hungary, and quite a few in Austria. They begrudged Hungary’s sway and were attracted to Bucharest while maintaining ties to Vienna. At the same time, “despite the political antagonism, they were very much attached to Hungarian language and culture”. They hardly desired unification with Romania more than they wanted to remain part of a reformed Monarchy. “The position of Romanians in Transylvania was – or would have been, as they would have it – akin to Romania’s own situation within the Habsburg Monarchy. In all likelihood, they would have preferred a confederation of equal nations.” At the end of the war, however, the choice was no longer between Bucharest and Vienna, but between Bucharest and Budapest. “Hungary fell in the eyes of history beyond redemption”, as Boia puts it. But what if Austria–Hungary had emerged victorious? Of course, it would not have dissolved immediately, Boia hastens to answer, although it would have met mounting pressure from the nationalities forcing a total restructuring, and eventually the empire would have disappeared. Being a conglomerate of distinct provinces to begin with, Austria itself was better prepared for the great transformation than Hungary, which recognised a single sovereign nation only. “Hungarians had regarded their nation state as untouchable, and its disruption had been a very real threat even without a war.” One should remember, though, that a disruption had taken place in 1848, ultimately leading to a treaty between Romania and Hungary, and then a decree on the national minorities, which brought settlement at least on paper and formed the basis for subsequent covenants between Cuza and Kossuth. Indeed, some of the provisions enshrined in the National Minorities Act of 1868 have even been adopted by minority-friendly administrative practices today. At the time, solutions were actively sought by István Tisza of the Hungarian government and, in the civil sphere, by Oszkár Jászi and his radical followers, and not without a measure of success. The so-called hungarus tradition allowed for some room for manoeuvre to prevent a minorities-fuelled explosion. Our Romanian friends are reluctant to dwell on this fact, because they are wary of being asked by Hungary for concessions similar to those the Hungarian minorities legislation had pledged (albeit only partially fulfilled). Put simply, the image of the Hungarian oppressor is far better suited to cater to anti-Hungarian sentiments and interests, and even to the inanity of those Hungarians prone to indulge in the pose of self-deprecating repentance. Any Hungarian undertaking to scrutinise the minority issue will be immediately assumed to be devising an apology or a pamphlet. In any case, it is easy to agree with Boia’s claim that “the Monarchy would have deserved a better lot for Europe and its own nations, but its radical transformation proved to be a daunting, if not impossible, task”. The difficulty, we might add, was compounded when the former victims of oppression pretended to the role of the oppressor. At this point, Boia might as well have recalled successful local solutions such as the compromises achieved in Moravia and Bukovina, or the aforementioned treaties between Hungary and Romania, which should serve as an example for Europe to follow even today.
Although Boia ridicules Carp’s claim he alludes to in his chapter title, he himself seems to weigh Romania’s chances to expand its territories in very much the same spirit: if Romania had entered into war on the side of the Central Powers, the defeat of the great ally would still not have left it without opportunities. If, on the other hand, Romania had decided to remain neutral, at the end of the war it would have achieved the same result, and with an intact army, that it actually achieved at the cost of many lives. Boia views this as the irony of history, and is derided for it by his fellow countrymen in the nationalist-atavistic camp.
But the best is yet to come in the chapter entitled “Justice and Injustice in Versailles”. Here, the author judges the events from a European vantage point: the peace treaties executed near Paris constitute the foundation of modern Europe as we know it today. What happened cannot be reversed “but will surely be superseded sooner or later, for history moves forward, toward new European constructs, and there is no way back”. In other words, we are moving in the direction of erasing boundaries rather than redrawing them. The peace treaties shifted all the responsibility to Germany after the dissolution of the Monarchy. (Let us add that Hungary was forced to shoulder some of the blame, even though István Tisza had for some time objected to the invasion of Serbia. In the most biased move of all, the victors regarded the new governments assuming power in the wake of the bourgeois revolutions as the legal successors of the governments that had waged the war. The newly democratic states of Germany and Hungary were denied a clean slate from the outset. Wilson’s Fourteen Points remained dead letters. Vengeance and retaliation prevailed, spurring more revenge and retribution further down the line.)
Boia quotes the French historian Jean-Jacques Becker on the unusual severity and incongruence of how the victors dealt with Germany. Ostensibly, peace was supposed to be forged in the spirit of the minority principle, but this was not applied in the case of Germany. If it had been, Germany would have emerged from the settlement with Austria and the Sudetenland annexed. Just as controversially, the architects of peace deemed language as the exclusive criterion of minority status, ignoring the role of religion, culture and history in upholding solidarity and identity. A case in point is Yugoslavia, which “broke up far more painfully than Austria–Hungary”. Another is that of the Czechs and the Slovaks, whose decision to form a joint state proved rash and premature. Boia is never averse to smashing taboos, and nowhere less so than in the position he takes on minority issues. Not only does he underline the impossibility of drawing boundaries along purely ethnic lines, but he decries the utter absurdity of the majority principle which holds that a majority of 51 per cent is sufficient to constitute a nation state, and identifies the remaining 49 per cent as the minority. Czechoslovakia, where the 30 per cent German minority in Bohemia actually outnumbered Slovak residents, sprang up as a sort of diminutive Monarchy. The way Boia sees Transylvania is radically different from the official view. “Transylvania cannot simply be seen as a province of Romania. It was Romanian, Hungarian and German at the same time, with a Romanian majority barely exceeding half of the total population (53.8 and 57.8 per cent, according to the 1910 Hungarian and the 1930 Romanian census, respectively) while Hungarians in 1910 made up 31.6 per cent. [In reality, ethnic Hungarians together with everyone registered as Hungarian-speaking amounted to 24.4 per cent in 1930, while German ethnic residents claimed 10.8 and 9.8 per cent in 1910 and 1930, respectively.] In short, the minorities were hardly all that ‘minor’. They played a preeminent role in culture and history, with Hungarians making up the Transylvanian elite of leaders and the Germans contributing economic prowess. Most instructive in this regard is the ethnic distribution of the urban population according to the census taken in 1930, at the height of Romanian control: in the cities, the minorities held sway as the majority, outnumbering Romanians by a long stretch.”
In terms of the indignation they created in national-atavistic circles, Boia’s statements cited in the foregoing have only been surpassed by his assessment of the unification of 1 December 1918. The decision adopted by the Great National Assembly in Gyulafehérvár (today Alba Iulia in Romania) “was construed as an event of such mythic proportions that few historians dare to express their reservations about it (and most do not even think they would have anything more to say)”. This assembly was not a body of referendum. “Deciding the future of Transylvania was not – or should not have been – the sole right of Romanians but of everyone living there. Yet nearly half of the population was never asked whether they wished to find themselves within the national borders of Romania. In any case, we have reason to believe that a referendum would have ended with the same result, if by a somewhat less ‘unanimous’ vote.” On the other hand, Boia elaborates, if the question put up for a vote had been about introducing Transylvanian autonomy within the fold of the Romanian state, Transylvania’s population, without regard to ethnicity, would “quite conceivably” have voted in favour of that autonomy. “At first, the Romanian leaders of Transylvania aimed for autonomy, for they felt and knew full well that Transylvania was different from the Romania with which it was about to merge. At the end of the day, however, they bowed to the philosophy of a unified Romanian state.” This new formation failed to fully satisfy the definition of a unified nation state; it became homogeneous only in terms of its state law, but hardly in its actual ethnic composition. The minorities were given individual rights but collective rights went missing in action. “It is also true” that over the last century the ethnic proportions shifted in favour of the majority and to the detriment of the minorities. Today, three out of four Transylvanians are Romanians, and the only group remaining where autonomy can still be seen as a point of contention is that of the Székelys (Szeklers), a specific enclave of the Hungarian minority. “Yet it would be a mistake to overstate the negatives”, Boia warns. No sooner had the imperial structures caved in than it became urgent to set up lines of demarcation to separate nationalities, and any solution would have been admittedly suboptimal regardless of precisely where the boundaries had been drawn. Yet the unilateral decision of the victors created a situation inferior to the one that could have been achieved by genuine compromise. Only the Turkish defied the new scheme, and with success. The new system of peace effectively shattered the balance in Europe. The League of Nations turned out to be a dead-end institution, and the Americans who invented it were the first to refuse to join it.
More than just a war, the First World War amounted to a veritable revolution, summarises Boia. It started out as a mass war, and the masses wanted to partake of the advantages of eventual peace. Change and democracy were put on the agenda, with all the conflicts they implied. For popular sovereignty, liberty and equality are mutually incompatible. The two decades following the war became the “heyday” of totalitarian experiments. Understood as a form of “democratic absolutism”, totalitarianism is not so much the fiasco of democracy itself as the failure of societies that have not been adequately prepared to receive democracy. This opened the door to Communism, Fascism and, ultimately, to another world war. Today, our “half-unified” Europe has even lost its ability to defend itself and has grown to depend on the American shield. “If the First World War could have been avoided, the Second was certainly inevitable.” Having said that, Boia declares that “in history, there is no such thing as destiny. Nothing in history has ever been decided ‘ahead of time’ (as various philosophers from Augustine to Marx would have it)”. We simply cannot know what would have happened if Hitler had not risen to power in January 1933, or indeed whether a new world war would have ensued had it not been for Nazism. What is true beyond any shadow of doubt is that nothing has shaped the world we live in as conclusively as World War I has. At this juncture, let us set aside Boia’s book for a moment and listen to what a contemporary had to say.
Right upon the outbreak of the war, the journalist Imre Csécsy wrote a militant article marked by a wisdom belying his 21 years of age, putting to shame the acuity of overripe men of state and immature octogenarians. After the publication of his essay (Quo vadis, Eoropa! [sic] in Új Nemzedék, No. 33, 9 August 1914), Csécsy penned a gloss on the margin of the printed page, summarising the lessons learned – inevitably with the wisdom of hindsight – since the first article, building on his original argument that by entering an arms race the capitalists contributed to the preservation of peace or rather their own downfall with this bitter remark: “And, lo and behold, the war for global peace turned into a world war.” What Csécsy’s article obviously addresses is the fallout of the Balkan wars, and in particular how Serbia and Romania speculated on the dissolution of the Monarchy. “They had to be somehow disenchanted from this misconception. In hindsight, it seems pointless to discuss whether this therapeutic effect could have been achieved by means other than a bloody operation. Whether another option was available or not, one thing is certain: this war was started in the interests of peace. In this way, the national movements in the Balkans, bounced back from the firewall of the Monarchy, would have been consigned to rest in forced equilibrium for fifty or sixty years, until being rendered completely obsolete by the progress of international organisation and given a chance to fit in with the European balance. It was this slogan, the lofty call of world peace, with which the Monarchy embarked on the war against Serbia.” And here the author inserts a hand-written note on the margin: “And the man of the 20th century flings his arms open toward the runaway demon of world history crying, ‘Lead me to a new prospect, Lucifer!’” The text continues, “These calculations were frustrated by sheer madness – the madness of Izvolskys, the haunting spirit of Hartwigs, the perfidy of Sazonovs, the dread of an internal revolution poisoning the Tsar’s reign of terror from the inside, the frenzy of the French for revanche. Both the Tsar, who just fifteen years previously had attempted to consolidate the state of equilibrium by regulating the armament race by treaty, and the British government which, earlier in the year, had sought to convince Germany to do the same by complying with Churchill’s proposal of a stay of fleets, now went back on their word and, by so doing, took upon themselves a liability before the court of history only comparable to that of Napoleon.”
It is also worth bearing in mind – and Boia may be taken to issue for not mentioning this – that the war was greeted by enthusiastic crowds, among them by Hitler the painter, who had mastered the bloody tricks of the trade as a front- line courier. And far better writers than he, such as Pierre Drieu La Rochelle and Ernst Jünger, also came into their own on the front.
Boia is not fond of predictions and always declines invitations to guess work. He believes that the job of the historian is to analyse the past, and possibly to advise caution. This is just what he does when he concludes his essay by defining 1914 as “the ground zero of a new era that will carry mankind into a future nobody knows”. The year of 1914 is absurdity itself. Britain had for its two allies France and Russia, its traditional historical enemies; and the three emperors, instead of seeking solidarity among rulers, sent their peoples to the slaughterhouse before toppling their own thrones. Unified Europe became a continent bleeding from myriad wounds.
We may not learn from the past, but we can at least be the wiser for this realisation. The cardinal merit of Boia’s essay lies in its capacity to stimulate the imagination, which is something we all need badly. According to Franz Kafka, the Great War was brought about by “a monstrous failure of imagination”. And while on the subject of imagination, it seems opportune to quote Pitirim Sorokin, who suggested that, in 1913, anyone foretelling what would happen a year later would have been labelled a madman. He said this in 1937, two years before all madness broke loose again.
Boia’s book takes war as its subject, but what it really proposes is an intelligent argument for peace.
(Lucian Boia: Primul război mondial. Controverse, paradoxuri, reinterpretări. Humanitas, 2014, Bucureşti. 117.)
Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel