You may recall that Traian Băsescu, president of Romania, and Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary, are allegedly great friends. I will never forget an interview with Zsolt Németh at the time of the Romanian elections when it initially appeared that Băsescu would lose the elections. Németh looked devastated, as if Hungary’s whole future depended on Băsescu being president of Romania.
Fidesz leaders, who every summer make a pilgrimage to Transylvania for a week of lectures and speeches held for members of the Hungarian minority, were actually campaigning on behalf of Băsescu two summers ago. After Băsescu won and so did Orbán, Romanian-Hungarian friendship seemed to be thriving. I doubted that this honeymoon between the two countries would last long because the Orbán government’s intense nationalism sooner or later was bound to adversely affect the newly found cooperation.
I already talked about the sorry end of the Romanian Embassy’s effort to rent space for the celebration of the Romanian national holiday on December 1 in the National Theater. Jobbik raised hell and eventually Róbert Alföldi, the director, had to retreat. As I said, that was certainly not a friendly gesture toward such a supposedly great friend of the country.
A few months later the head of the Romanian social democratic party talked about “the danger” Băsescu’s and Orbán’s friendship posed for Romania. He called them “men of narrow vision who strive for absolute power.” Since then, thanks to Wikileaks, we know that the friendship between Băsescu and Orbán is only skin deep. Băsescu called Orbán “the last disgusting little nationalist of Europe” in the presence of the American ambassador to Bucharest.
Then there were all the speeches of Hungarian politicians on and around March 15, the Hungarian national holiday. László Kövér gave a speech in Târgu Mureş (Marosvásárhely) in which he championed for territorial autonomy of the area where the so-called Szeklers are in the majority. The Romanians fiercely oppose any suggestion of territorial autonomy on constitutional grounds. Kövér portrayed such demands as legitimate and modern and as “coinciding with the will of God.” Crin Antonescu, the leader of the National Liberal Party (PNL), retorted that Viktor Orbán “should occupy himself with governing Hungary and nothing else, and it would be a good idea to decide the will of God only on the territory of Hungary.”
Kövér’s speech was not unique in being unacceptable to Romania. The wife of the Hungarian ambassador to Bucharest added a few words of her own to the message Viktor Orbán sent to the Transylvanian Hungarians. The wife, quoting Albert Wass, finished her speech with “Be Transylvania again what it used to be!” Romanian politicians asked Orbán to distance himself from the speeches, but Orbán is not the kind of guy who distances himself from anyone or anything Fidesz.
A couple of months later, toward the end of May, the Hungarian ambassador was called in to the Romanian Foreign Ministry. The Romanians wanted to know what the offices of the Szekler Land (Székelyföld) where the Hungarians demand territorial autonomy are doing in the Magyar Régiók Háza (House of Hungarian Regions) in Brussels. The Romanians expressed their expectation that no official representative of the Hungarian government would be present at the opening of the offices. The Romanians called attention to “the strategic partnership” that supposedly exists between the two countries.
Well, if the Romanian Foreign Ministry calls in the Hungarian ambassador, the Hungarian Foreign Ministry must reciprocate. Ireny Comaroschi, the Romanian ambassador, was asked to have a chat with Zsolt Németh, the undersecretary. This time the cause of the friction was the newly restored statue of King Matthias in Cluj (Kolozsvár), birthplace of the famous fifteenth-century Hungarian king.
Every time I hear about another nationalistic upheaval over a statue I must think of the days when I was studying irredentist propaganda between the two world wars. I tried to put myself in the shoes of some British or American diplomat receiving yet another complaint from the Hungarian government that such and such famous Hungarian poet’s statue was removed in Czechoslovakia or Romania. By now one would think that the era of statues is over. But no, not long ago there was the controversy over the memorial for the thirteen generals executed in Arad in 1849 which was eventually re-erected. And now here is the statue of King Matthias.
As it turned out, an old plaque in Romanian was placed on the recently restored statue that carries a sentence by Nicolae Iorga (1871-1940), a famous Romanian historian. The sentence reads: “He was victorious in battle; he was defeated only by his own nation at Baia (Moldvabánya) when he attacked the invincible Moldavia.” The plaque was placed on the statue in 1932 and was removed by the Hungarians in 1940 when Hungary occupied Northern Transvylania. Gheorghe Funar, the anti-Hungarian mayor of Cluj, put it back in 1992. The debate continues between the Romanians and the Hungarians as to whether replacing the plaque either in 1992 or now, after the restoration, was legal or not.
At the heart of the controversy is King Matthias’s ethnic origin. He was the son of János Hunyadi and Erzsébet Szilágyi. On his mother’s side he certainly had Hungarian roots. His father, on the other hand, most likely had a Romanian background. The János Hunyadi family, the little we know of it, were modest Romanian nobility from Hátszeg/Haţeg in Hunyad County in Transylvania. His father’s name first appeared in documents as the recipient of Hunyad Castle (Vajdahunyad or today Hunedoara). However, both János Hunyadi and his son considered themselves Hungarians. After all, the multi-ethnic nobility of the Kingdom of Hungary in a generation or two became totally assimilated.
Matthias certainly didn’t know any Romanian because we have documentary evidence that when Romanian delegates arrived from Moldavia and he heard them speak, on the basis of his knowledge of Latin he discovered that Romanian belonged to the Latin branch of the Indo-European language family. On the other hand we know that he spoke Hungarian, German, Czech, and Latin.
So, in this latest controversy Romanians and Hungarians are fighting over King Matthias’s ethnicity. As for the Iorga quotation there is no question that Matthias was beaten at Baia (1467) by the troops of Moldavia’s Ştefan cel Mare (Steven the Great). In fact, the Hungarian king even got wounded in this battle. The disputed part is the allusion to his Romanian nationality.
The Hungarians were so upset over the Iorga quotation that Oszkár Füzes, the Hungarian ambassador to Bucharest, himself went to Cluj to join a group that called for covering the “objectionable” quotation with flowers. Policemen told the ambassador that he can place his flowers only next to the plaque, but Füzes refused to follow their advice and instead went to the statue of Áron Márton, Catholic bishop of Transylvania who died in 1981, and placed his flowers there.
But that’s not the end of the story. An older man today glued a ribbon depicting the colors of the Romanian national flag on the base of the statue. He did that in spite of police presence; the statue is guarded day and night. Two hours later the ribbon was removed.
While all this is going on in Cluj, the Hungarian Foreign Ministry is officially demanding the removal of the plaque.
It never ceases to amaze me how agitated nationalists can get over a question that is in actuality a non-issue. In fifteenth-century Europe nationality played no part in the social fabric of society. In the twenty-first century fighting over Matthias’s nationality shows the total ignorance of both sides about the historical realities of earlier times. Unfortunately these ridiculous fights over historical facts can ruin relations between the two countries.