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History and Myth in Romanian Consciousness Lucian Boia.png
Référence électronique du chapitre. BOIA, Lucian. Chapter five. The Romanians and the Others In : History and Myth in Romanian Consciousness [en ligne]. Budapest : Central European University Press, 2001. Disponible sur Internet : <>. ISBN : 9789633860045.


The ground thus cleared was rapidly taken over by the French myth. This had, of course, its antecedents, going back to Phanariot times. But contacts with French culture prior to 1830 were sporadic and largely indirect, through Greek and, as we have seen, even Russian connections, and they cannot be equated, or even compared, with the scale of the phenomenon which broke out in the period between 1830 and 1848. Once launched on the road of Westernization, the Romanian elite threw itself into the arms of France, the great Latin sister in the West. When we speak of the Western model, what is to be understood is first and foremost the French model, which comes far ahead of the other Western reference points. Annexed to it is the model of Belgium, a small country, partially Francophone, monarchical, neutral, democratic, and prosperous, which offered Romania a French-style model that was in some respects better adapted to its own condition. The constitution of 1866 was an imitation of the Belgian constitution of 1831, and the expression “the Belgium of the East”, frequently used in the second half of the nineteenth century, illustrates an interesting political myth: the illusion of a Romania destined to become, in every respect, a replica of Belgium at the other end of the continent.

To see what the French myth meant in Romanian society, we have an impressive number of testimonies from which to choose. Here are two of these, which carry things to a point beyond which it would be hard to go (a point hard to imagine nowadays, despite the relative survival of Romanian Francophilia).

In 1907 Dumitru Drăghicescu arrived, by way of a subtle argumentation, at the conclusion that there was no nation on earth more perfect than the French nation and no intelligence more complex than that of the French. The French had reached the highest point that other peoples will reach in an indefinite future: “As the nations of Europe acquire their definitive borders and their social life becomes elaborated and crystallized within the precise limits of these borders, so their spiritual accomplishments will approach those of the French, and the immaterial substance of their souls will take on the luminous clarity, the smoothness and brilliance of the French mentality.”

Half a century before this impressive characterization, in 1853 to be precise, I. C. Brătianu addressed a memorandum to Napoleon III. The Romanian politician pleaded for the union of the principalities and sought to convince the emperor that this would be a “French conquest”: “The army of the Romanian state would be the army of France, its ports on the Black Sea and the Danube would be entrepôts for French trade.” Brătianu then goes even further, and even if we treat the memorandum as a text written to further a precise political aim in the circumstances of the time, the words still remain as they are: “France”, he writes, “will have all the advantages of a colony, without the expenses which this implies.” France was “our second homeland”, and Romania destined to become its colony.

Even in 1914, by which time there had been considerable evolution in the direction of Romanian cultural and political autonomy, a number of politicians still showed a visceral attachment to France, deeming that Romania should enter the war not to serve its own interests but to defend the threatened civilization of France. I quote from the memoirs of Constantin Argetoianu: “Lahovari and Cantacuzino—especially Cantacuzino—also wanted immediate entry into the war […] and they wanted it only for the love of France, which could not be left to perish, as if its fate lay within our power! In their sincerity they hardly mentioned Transylvania, the making whole of the folk, or Michael the Brave, abandoning all the arguments of a national character which drove almost all of us to be against the Central Powers, and calling for entry into the war ’pour voler au secours de la France’!” It was not in vain that Brătianu had promised that “the Romanian army would be the army of France”.

At the end of the nineteenth century, in De l’influence française sur l’esprit public en Roumanie (1898), Pompiliu Eliade argued that Romania owed its whole modern civilization to France. Before French influence the Romanian lands “did not exist for civilization”, nor did they “exist for history”. Thanks to France we can see “not the rebirth of a people, but its birth”. This opinion, flagrantly exaggerated as it is, bears witness to the contemporary obsession with France. But it is no less true that the French myth did play an important modeling role. Within a generation, starting immediately after 1830, French imposed itself as the language of culture, permanently eliminating Greek, while Oriental costume gave way to Parisian fashion. Young Romanians set out for Paris; for more than a century France would provide or influence the training of the greater part of the intellectual elite of the country. You could not be an intellectual without a reasonable knowledge of French (which was a compulsory language in all eight years of high school until the communist education reform of 1948). French political, juridical, and cultural structures and institutions were borrowed to a considerable degree.

Even the Romanian language underwent a considerable evolution under French influence, a process of modernization leading to the elimination or marginalization of part of its Slav and Oriental component and to what might be called a “second Latinization”, largely through the massive adoption of neologisms of French origin. It has been calculated that 39 percent of current Romanian vocabulary consists of borrowings from French or has French as the first language of reference (the second being Latin), and that the frequency of such words in use is 20 percent. Thus in everyday speech one Romanian word in five is of French origin.

The capital of Romania became, in its turn, a “Little Paris”. As with any myth, here too there is a mixture of truth, exaggeration, and illusion. Despite a number of Parisian-style buildings from the last decades of the nineteenth century, Bucharest as a whole does not resemble Paris. Something of the Parisian lifestyle characterized the behavior of an elite, and certain comers of the Bucharest cityscape acquired a Parisian atmosphere. However, the greater part of the population lived far from the French model. On the other hand, the “Belgium of the East” and “Little Paris” were powerful symbols, which shifted Romania, in as much as it could be shifted, in the direction of Western civilization, just as “Dacia” and “Michael the Brave” contributed, also through their symbolic charge, to the achievement of national unity.


Of course, the West did not just mean France. It is worth noting that, at least until the interwar period, the other great Latin sister, Italy, was the object of much less interest, while relations with Spain remained sporadic. There is also the interesting case of Britain. Some Romanians were fascinated by the British model (Ion Ghica, for example, who served as minister plenipotentiary in London from 1881 to 1890), but they can be counted on one’s fingers. For the Romanians in general, Britain remained a far-off exotic island, and the spread of the English language as a medium of culture and communication came late (paradoxically, under the Ceauşescu regime).

The French myth was so powerful that there was only room, in the polarizing realm of the imaginary, for a single countermyth, antithetical and complementary: the German myth.

The position of Germany in Romania was continually consolidated during the half century leading up to the First World War. By the end of this period Germany had become a formidable competitor to France. The factors in its favor were far from negligible. The Romanians of Transylvania and Bukovina were closer to German culture and mentality than to French civilization; Transylvanian intellectuals often read French authors in German translation. In the Romanian kingdom, on the other hand, although clearly overtaken by French, German was the second language of education and culture (with eight years of French and four of German in school). The economic and political weight of the German Empire in Southeastern Europe was more significant than the relatively modest presence of France. In 1883 Romania adhered to the Triple Alliance structured around Germany and Austria-Hungary. The German origin of King Carol I and his indisputable prestige constituted an additional factor in this process of rapprochement.

Of course, mythical evolutions are never univocal: every myth is closely stalked by its countermyth. So while the German cultural model was dominant for the Romanians of Transylvania, they also looked sympathetically towards France, to the extent of admiring the idealized French model more than the concrete German model. Latin consciousness and solidarity, the national movement which inevitably came up against German interests, and the influence exercised by Romania, all contributed to a degree of equilibrium, at least in the imaginary, in the relationship between these two great Western points of reference. In Romania, too, we can detect a certain slippage in the direction of the “other” model, this time from France towards Germany.

After 1866, part of the Romanian elite proved to be sensitive to the virtues of the German model. Its admirers considered that, now that the political effervescence of the mid-century was over, it was time for a new equilibrium and a better thought out and more organized effort. Renowned for its rigor and effectiveness, German culture could offer solutions more appropriate to the aspirations of the Romanian nation than the French mentality, which was accused of superficiality and even frivolity. For some, the disciplined reason and clarity of the French mind were opposed to German cramming: “[…] the German does not have the ordered, harmonious, balanced, and lucid intelligence of the Frenchman. […] German intelligence has remained confused, chaotic, disordered, and tangled.” For others, on the contrary, the Germans were solidly based, while the French were not completely serious. We are, of course, in the zone of highly mythologized representations, with the characteristic polarization between enthusiastic reception and absolute rejection.

The German myth was the option of a minority, but an influential minority, represented in the first place by the Junimea society, which had a decisive say in the cultural and political evolution of the country towards the end of the nineteenth century. (Even if the majority of the Junimists—like any majority in Romania at the time—had been molded by French culture, it was the “Germanophiles” who set the tone of the movement.) A great cultural personality like Titu Maiorescu, a politician of the stature of P. P. Carp, and the greatest Romanian poet, Mihai Eminescu, all belong within this current. On French civilization, and especially on the effects of Romanian contact with France, Eminescu expressed himself with his usual sincerity: “In Paris, in brothels of cynicism and idleness / With its lost women and in its obscene orgies…” (”Episde III”). Like Maiorescu, Eminescu had a German cultural education. The most remarkable case, however, is that of Caragiale, who, despite having no knowledge of German, decided in 1904 to settle in Berlin, where he remained until the end of his life. His wish was to live in a civilized country, and that could only be Germany. His confrontation with the incurable Francophile Barbu Delavrancea, who was disgusted at everything around him and all that happened during his visit to Berlin, is a delicious anthology piece, a typical illustration of the Romanians’ view of the Western world.

In 1891 Kogălniceanu did not hesitate to state, in an address to the Academy, that “All my life, as a youth and a mature man, I have repeatedly borne witness to the fact that it is largely to German culture, the University of Berlin, German society, and the men and great patriots who accomplished the raising up of Germany again and its unity, that I owe all that I have become in my country, and that it was from the fire of German patriotism that the torch of my Romanian patriotism took its flame.” With his political flair, Kogălniceanu, who really owed just as much to French as to German culture, sensed that the hour of Germany had come!

Up until 1914, the position of Germany as a molder of Romanian elites continued to advance. It was already threatening French supremacy in certain areas. In 1892, forty-two professors of the University of Bucharest had studied in France, and only eight in Germany; by 1914 the equivalent figures were sixty-two and twenty-nine. The ratio had gone from five to one, to two to one. Disciplines like philosophy, history, and geography already owed more to the German universities than to the French. The past cannot be remade, but we may still ask ourselves how far this German influence would have gone if the First World War had not intervened to put a decisive stop to it, after providing both Germanophiles and Francophiles with an occasion to manifest to the full their enthusiasm for one or other of the two competing models.

The gulf created by the war—in which Romania, seeking national unity, found itself in the opposite camp to Germany and suffered an oppressive German occupation—made it difficult for relations to continue as before. The intransigence displayed by Nicolae Iorga deserves comment. Before the war, the historian had been very close to the German historical school; his “anti-French” action of 1906 (aimed in fact at the protection of Romanian culture) had enhanced his not entirely deserved reputation as a “Germanophile”. But as soon as war broke out Iorga’s choice was unequivocal, determined of course by strictly Romanian motives in the first instance, but to a certain extent also by a pro-French and pro-Latin sensibility which now came to light. “Why do we love France?” is the tide of an article which he published on 17 August 1914, when France seemed almost beaten. Iorga writes:

That we love France is beyond doubt, although it is now, they say, defeated by Germany. Just as it is beyond doubt that we respect and admire Germany, although it has, they say, defeated France. […] But why do we love France? Because our whole upper class has adopted its fashions and luxuries? Perhaps, where that class is concerned. Because we are Latins and we read in French? To a large extent, yes. But above all, for all of us, the non-diplomats, it is for a third reason. What does Germany want? Dominance in Europe, for its national economy, for its political power. What does Russia want? The same dominance in Europe, and if possible even more. What does Britain want? To keep its control of the seas and the gains this brings. What does Austria-Hungary want? To strengthen and advance Hungarian ambitions in the Carpathians and the Balkans. But what does France want? It wants to live. It wants the French state and the French nation to live. To keep its lands and its rights. To avenge its honor.

A splendid page of political mythology! Two years later (on 26 September 1916), Iorga did not miss the chance to stir up the “Latins who are not interested”, in other words, the Spanish: “The war which France began without a program of conquest, without any greed for foreign lands or any selfish ambition to grasp from others their hegemony over the world, has been joined by Italy, then Portugal, and finally Romania. Today the Latins are pouring out their blood together.” Spain stood accused for not taking part in this brotherly outpouring of blood—although it basically was not in any of its interests to do so. We may note that after the war, Iorga, the “false Germanophile” before 1914, was to refuse systematically any contact with Germany and with the German academic community.

In the Romanian political imaginary, therefore, the interwar period meant progress for France and a withdrawal of the German model. There can be no doubt that these evolutions were relative, given that, on the one hand, the autochthonist wave and the maturing of Romanian society in general limited and filtered elements from outside, especially from French culture; and on the other, even though diminished and unable to offer a coherent model, Germany retained a significant weight. German was still the second foreign language after French; young Romanians continued to study in Germany; and on the eve of the Second World War the Romanian extreme Right, although sprung from autochthonous soil, discovered certain affinities with Nazi ideology. The position of Britain (the great Western ally alongside France) was rising, though cases of “Anglophilia” remained limited to a few individuals. More significant was the rise of Italy, which took its place beside France as a place for the education of elites, especially in the human sciences, not to mention the existence of certain sympathies with Mussolini’s sociopolitical solutions.

Thus we can see that there were a variety of Western models on offer, as well as the no less present autochthonous model, which was affirming itself more and more strongly, in spite of its nebulous character (Orthodoxism, traditionalism, peasantism, etc.).

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