Review of Victor Neumann, ed., The Banat of Timişoara: A European Melting Pot (London: Scala Arts & Heritage Publishers, 2019), xvi+495pp.

The first time I visited Timişoara, in 2002, it looked drab, depressed and wrecked by Ceauşescu’s appalling communist regime. Today, a remarkable transformation has taken place; with the city on the verge of becoming European City of Culture in 2021, its crumbling city centre has been restored and Timişoara has again become what it once was: a proud Central European city. Indeed, standing on Piaţa Unirii (Union Square) with its magnificently coloured Baroque buildings, one could be in Linz or any other of the Habsburg Empire’s great cities, of which Timişoara was once one. The revivified city contains many clues that it is different from the rest of Romania; although it remains almost entirely monocultural, a German school, German and Hungarian theatres, a small but thriving Jewish community, a Serbian cathedral, the street names and names of outlying villages, and the presence of Roma – still second-class citizens, for the most part – remind us that Timişoara was once a multicultural city before that term was invented, a sort of advertisement for the many nationalities bound together in the empire mocked as kakania by Robert Musil.[1] Along with the presence of numerous multinational corporations, today the largest new minority is probably the Italians, who have bought up land around the city for farming tomatoes, and although there can be no return to a city where different communities lived side-by-side, if not always in harmony then at least sharing some of the same spaces, Timişoara’s revival is based not on nostalgia for Mitteleuropa but on a recognition that the city needs to be outward-looking if it is to thrive again. For Timişoara was and remains part of the Banat, a region that straddles Romania, Hungary and Serbia; as Răzvan Theodorescu, author of the book’s foreword notes, the Banat ‘was, at various times, a proto-Romanian “dukedom”, Angevin land, Ottoman pashalik, Habsburg province administered by Romania, Hungary and yesterday’s Yugoslavia.’ It is thus a place that remains ‘geographically and spiritually, a cultural bridge, a connecting space.’

The CARR forum might not seem the most obvious place for a review of this book. I will not deal here with the chapters on the Enlightenment, the Habsburg administration, the German language press or the education system, fascinating though they are. The point here is that the history of Timişoara reminds us that nationalism and its consequences – which are seen with particular brutality and severity in the Banat – are recent inventions. For all the attempts to separate peoples in the post-World War I and, especially, post-World War II periods, the latter of which affected Hungarians and Romanians in particular, this is a region whose history cannot be attributed to one national group or discussed solely in terms of nationalist claims based on rootedness and belonging. As Slobodan Bjelica reminds us, the Banat was partitioned after World War I, and national historiographies of the region have suffered ever since, each being written in ignorance of the others. Yet Timişoara itself remained throughout the interwar period a multicultural city, with German speakers in the majority, followed by speakers of Hungarian, Romanian, Serbian, Slovakian, Croatian, Ruthenian and other languages. The religious mix was no less complex, with Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Calvinists, Lutherans, Greek Catholics, Unitarians and others all represented. As Victor Neumann observes, the city’s mix of peoples ‘made the identification of its citizens with one particular nationality often impossible, mixed marriages being numerous’.

All of this was to change after 1945. Neumann claims that even during the periods of the establishment of communist rule and then during Ceauşescu’s period of ‘national communism’, Timişoara was characterised by ‘a peaceful cohabitation in which urban identity was placed above affiliation to a particular linguistic religious community.’ This strikes a somewhat nostalgic note, yet there are indications that it has some basis in fact. Perhaps the strongest is the history of what happened to the Jews of the Banat during World War II. Romania was an ally of Nazi Germany and under Ion Antonescu, the country’s conducător or leader, Romania was responsible for murdering as many as 350,000 Jews. These included the indigenous Jews of Transnistria, the area of Ukraine between the Dniester and Bug rivers occupied by Romania (the only part of the Soviet Union to be occupied by a country other than Germany) as well as Jews deported from the newly-acquired regions of Bessarabia and North Bukovina. The Jews of Northern Transylvania, which Hitler ‘awarded’ to Hungary in 1940, were deported to Auschwitz when Hungary was occupied by the Germans after March 1944. But the Jews of the Banat survived. There was of course antisemitism in the Banat (it could hardly be otherwise in a country in which ethnonationalism was the norm), and the Nazi regime did not fail to encourage the Nazification of the local ethnic German population. But many of Timişoara’s citizens were unmoved by this ideology; a group of intellectuals from Timişoara wrote to Antonescu in 1941, saying:

“Whatever our perception towards the Jews, we are Christians and human beings … and we tremble at the idea that the citizens of a state could be, without any fault, stripped of all their possessions and banished from the country in which they were born, and where the bones of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents have lain for centuries.”

Following intercessions from local dignitaries – most importantly the metropolitan bishop Traian Bălan and the leading politician Iuliu Maniu – with Antonescu, the regime’s plans for deporting the Jews were abandoned in 1942. Even if Antonescu’s actions owed more to fears about how Romania would be treated by the Allies at the end of the war, the existence of these interventions speaks volumes about civic life in the Banat.

It also speaks volumes about the life of cities. Timişoara’s current attempt to stress its multicultural heritage and to make that past reality also part of its future is obviously a marketing tool – the overwhelming majority of the population is Romanian and the German and Serbian villages retain little of their original character beyond their names. Nevertheless, the recognition of the value of that multicultural past and the desire to celebrate it in the present is a rejoinder not just to Romanian nationalism, which is on the rise, but to radical right thinking across Europe. The history of Timişoara was for centuries one of mixed populations; monoculturalism is a very recent phenomenon, brought about by communism almost as much as by fascism. Neumann’s book has many qualities – it is beautifully presented, very wide ranging and nicely illustrated – but above all it is a reminder of what the radical right wants to destroy, and how it wants to turn a vibrant, thriving scene into a world of sameness and conformity.

Professor Dan Stone is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Professor of Modern History at Royal Holloway, University of London. His profile can be found here:

©Dan Stone. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

[1] Musil’s The Man without Qualities is set in kakania, a play on the ‘k&k’ slogan of the Empire (kaiserlich and königlich, imperial and royal) and the word kaka, or shit.