Roumania and Its People


No other country in the world has a more magnificent gateway through its frontiers than that by which the Danube opens Roumania to the West. The Carpathian mountains on the north are now entirely Roumanian, and the river slips sideways along their protecting bastions for over a hundred miles before it reaches the narrow defile. Then suddenly the sheer cliffs of the Kazan Pass rise up from the water's edge on either side from 1,000 to 2,000 feet. So narrow is this cleft in the otherwise solid mountain wall that the wind as well as the water flows torrent-wise through it; even in calm weather there is always a miniature gale on the steamer's deck. There is nothing along the highlands of either Rhine or Hudson that can even distantly rival the impressive grandeur of this scene. The mountain pass, however, is not all. For just beyond it, where one might expect the lessening hills to grant free egress, the river itself becomes a barrier. Like a portcullis at the entrance to a castle, the jagged rocks of the Iron Gates protrude from the rapids of the pent-up stream. A dyked channel on the side at last flows into the quiet stretches of the lower Danube, and the road over the great plain of Wallachia lies free to Bucharest.

There was only one people of the ancient world who could force this formidable gate open to the march of armies. All along the southern wall of rock, at the height of a man's reach from the deck of a skiff, the regular succession of small square holes hewn in the precipice mark where the beams of engineers rested and were braced for the road that led from Dacia to Rome. The traces of this marvel of antique engineering reach all the way to Orsova, where the connecting roads across the hills to the north led to the heart of Transylvania. On the last of the southern cliffs, still easily decipherable from the steamer deck, one reads the inscription on a smooth-hewn entablature: imp. Caesar divi. Nervae F. Nerva Traianus Aug. Germ. Pont. Maximus. The column of Trajan at Rome, with its spiral band of sculptured reliefs still tells the story of the great exploit by which the frontiers of the Roman Empire were pushed to their farthest limit against that section of the barbarian north from which the tide of invasion was running strongest. Fortunately, this chronicle in stone is well preserved, with its gallery of over twenty thousand figures and its realistic pictures of Dacian dress and customs; for it is the first and almost the only document on the ancient history of Roumania. There, for instance, one sees the bridge across the Danube at Turnu Severin—the Tower of Severus—with seven arches showing, of which only two or three fragments of piers are left, still monumental, rising from the quieter and wider stream.

But, however striking these visible memorials of the Roman past, they are certainly by no means so remarkable as the fact that the language of Rome was kept alive through all succeeding centuries, practically to the same extent as in Italy itself. And, some eighteen centuries after Trajan's conquest of Dacia, this nation bearing the name of Romans asserts not only its independence, but its right to be regarded as a cultural frontier of western civilization. History has many examples of the hard endurance of sects or peoples under persecution, the most notable being the Jews; but no more remarkable instance of mere vitality and dogged persistence can anywhere be found than that furnished by this people, so long lost sight of by history itself. The villagers of the Transylvanian hills still wear the Dacian dress; their little houses are built like those that Trajan found there. The storms of ethnic invasion, of Goth, Hun, Magyar and Slav, which swept away almost every vestige of the Roman occupation from the Danube valley, never uprooted these poorest of peasants and shepherds. Perhaps their very poverty was their protection. But such an explanation only makes still more puzzling the fact that, illiterate and isolated, they still cherished in their impoverished inheritance, the speech of a distant western power, whose army was stationed north of the Danube less than a century.

This is not the place for a history of Roumania, but it is impossible to understand its present problems without some appreciation of its past. For Roumania has only in our own time emerged from what in Western Europe would be termed medieval conditions of life—or, in some respects, is still emerging from them. The process by which a nation acquires the elements of a new culture cannot be unduly hastened, and leaves uneven traces of the past, even when spurred by the attainment of political independence and the opportunities of a great future. In this regard, Roumania is like its neighbors to the south; for in both cases, the key to an understanding of their belated advance lies in the fact that, in the period when Western Europe passed through the so-called renaissance of art, literature and science—from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries—the Turkish Empire stretched over all the eastern Danube region as well as over the Balkan lands to the south. The processes of the liberation of thought, of the development of political institutions, and the slow schooling in the rights and duties of citizenship which transformed the West were never shared by this people on anything like equal terms. If, therefore, there are anachronisms in its social or political structure which strike the western visitor, if in its city life there are some regrettable imitations of the extravagances of so-called ultra-modern ways, these matters of criticism are to be judged in a different setting than where the experiment of liberty is older. The peasant of the Wallachian and Moldavian farms is of as sturdy stock as that in the hills,and he is at last in a position to emancipate himself from the effects of that long oppression of Mohammedan Turk, mercenary Greek, or feudal rulers. The question for the present and future is whether and to what extent the responsibilities of government can be assumed by those so long its victims, and how they can mete out to others in their midst the justice so long denied themselves.

Transylvanian Gypsies

PutnaPeasant women at work

First of all, then, who are the Roumanians? The answer is by no means clear. The persistence of a Romance language must not be taken, as was formerly done, as proof that those using it were also of Latin origin. There may have been a goodly number of "Roman" colonists during the second century of our era, but even if it were possible to imagine that the modern Roumanians are their descendants, this would not mean that they are of Latin stock in the strict sense of the word, for the depleted country-side of Italy proper furnished few such colonists in the distant provinces. There is evidence, however, which still further complicates the problem. For there are several hundred thousand "Roumanians" scattered through the Balkans, especially in Macedonia, and no one knows what their origins may have been. Their neighbors, especially the Slavic nations and the Greeks, have kept alive a name for them which indicates that they have always been a people apart, foreigners in the midst of another population. For the other name for Roumanian, the one commonly applied outside Roumania, —at least until recently,—is "Vlach," a variant of that Germanic word for the foreigner which made the Anglo-Saxons call their western neighbors "Welsh." Wallachia, the central plain which stretches from the Carpathians to the Danube, is of course, "the country of the Vlachs.'' But this rich land was certainly not in the uninterrupted possession (from Roman and Dacian days) of the Vlach, or the Roumanian, herdsmen and farmers. It was too much in the track of the storms of invaders from the eastern steppes. While the Roumanians were probably never dislodged from the Transylvania villages nestling against the northern slopes of the main Carpathian range—where they still dress as those did who served as models for the Roman sculptors of Trajan's column—the chief center of the Roumanian population during the Middle Ages was south of the Danube, especially on the Macedonian frontiers of Albania. How much the present Roumanians draw from the Balkan population would be hard to say, but all of this has but little bearing upon present problems, for, when modern history began, the Roumanian nation as we know it now was already established in Roumania. The dim chronicles of earlier days throw no real light upon the questions of today. What we find in Roumania is a singularly compact, distinctive nation, whose great achievement in the past had been its mere endurance, but which now, under the tutelage of its intellectual and political leaders, has become conscious of the cultural obligations which go with the maintenance of the Latin speech. One feels the touch of the Middle Ages still in Roumania, but this people who survived the medieval anarchy did so less by an unbroken rigidity than by an adaptability to circumstance, which augurs well in the new era when they have the free fields of independence to exploit and no longer merely the narrow margins of oppression.

But, however slight may be the original admixture of Latin blood, this does not prevent the Roumanians from being "Latin" in the same sense as the French, whose Gallic stock—of north European origin—so readily assimilated the culture of the Roman world. When one turns from Jugoslavia to Wallachia, or from Wallachia to Bulgaria, one is at once aware of a difference at least as marked as in crossing from France to Germany. The contrast with the surrounding Slavic world is not merely in the predominance of a different racial type, very much like the Italian in appearance, and in their ways of living, their facile adoption of western manners, but in the architecture of their houses, with their ornamented roofs, their rounded porticos and covered galleries, and in the boulevard life of their cities. Bucharest thinks of itself as another Paris. Yet, in both capital and countryside there are constant reminders of the common history of the Near East. Byzantine churches bear witness to a common faith; and alongside the new and somewhat exotic angularity of western streets, old-fashioned roadways wander haphazard here as they do in Jugoslavia, with similar little white houses behind the palings, presenting that indescribable quality of adaptation to circumstances which is the common mark of peoples who have lived under tyranny. This mixture of the old and new is rapidly changing and losing the impress of the past. But at present, combined as it is in an individuality all its own, it gives a peculiar charm to the people and country of Roumania.

.                .                .                .                .

The population of Roumania, however, is not all Roumanian, and in this lies its chief internal problem. Other ethnic islands have survived as well the floods of migration and the disasters of feudal and frontier warfare, and each of these by the mere fact of its continued existence has earned the right to some recognition within the framework of the modern state.

First of all, because highest in the scale of culture, there are the Germans of Transylvania. Although relatively too few in numbers ever to assume the character of a nation, these so-called "Saxons", whose history begins as far back as the eleventh and early twelfth centuries, have brought down into the distant plains on the fringe of Eastern Hungary a Germanic culture as firmly established and as strongly built as the ancient castles of their seven cities,—for the land of Siebenbürgen was a frontier post against the Eastern invader long before it withstood the shock of the Turk. Here where they treasure Goethe and Schiller in their schools, and Wagner and Strauss are symbols more than they are at home, one comes at every turn upon the evidence of that century-long contact with the Germanic fatherland, politically so far remote. Such an element in the population, sturdy, enlightened and industrious, does not fit altogether easily within the political framework of a state in which it forms a relatively small minority; but given the chance for economic development with due regard to its strong feeling for its cultural heritage, it is an element which may add greatly to the strength of the nation of which it forms a part. Long held under the sovereignty of Hungary, its adjustment to the new conditions would naturally present some difficulties, but in the Germanic element of Transylvania the new and greater Roumania should find an added capital stock in intelligence and industry much greater than the material resources of the enlarged territory. The trade that once flowed through the Carpathian passes and enriched these border cities should once more revive now that there are no political barriers along the mountain tops. In the old Lutheran church of Brasov hangs what is perhaps the greatest single collection of ancient Oriental rugs, the gifts of Brasov merchants returning with their caravans from the Orient. This historical witness to the activity of the Medieval trader may well be parallelled again by a revival of the old-time overland commerce with Eastern markets,—by train and auto; but there is no denying that in order to accomplish this, the problems of  Transylvania will have to receive a treatment at once statesmanlike and far-seeing, with an eye to the interests not merely of the old Roumania on the one hand nor of Transylvania on the other, but to the stimulation of trade and industry throughout the whole Near East. The prosperity of Transylvania depends, in the last analysis, upon the entire situation in Southeastern Europe.

Mr. William Nelson Cromwell
President of the Society of Friends of Roumania in America; Founder of the Society of Friends of the United States in Roumania; President of American Braille Press
—distributing literature in France, England, Belgium, Serbia, Italy and ROUMANIA, Allies of the United States.

There are of course, alongside the German and the Roumanian, Magyar settlements in Transylvania and continuing Magyar problems. It is not possible to enter into a detailed discussion of that question here. Moreover, the question at bottom is perhaps less one of the treatment of minorities within the Roumanian state than of a frontier question with Hungary.

Apart from the Bulgarian question in a relatively restricted area south of the Danube, the other population problem of Roumania, and the oneconcerning which we hear most, is that of the Jew. This is a problem which does not belong to Roumania alone; it is by no means as serious as in Poland but of somewhat the same character. It is not for an American to comment upon a restriction on immigration; indeed, by the fact that we are not members of the League of Nations in whose hands the solution of this problem now rests,—in cooperation with the governments in question,—we have denied ourselves the only legitimate avenue of political discussion on this issue. Little good can come from an uninformed opinion, and the information in this matter is available by way of the Minorities Commission of the League.

But the Jewish question is not merely one of social and political adjustment. The Jewish population of Roumania have contributed culturally, intellectually and even politically, to the sum total of European civilization far beyond what one might expect if one reads only the descriptions of the depressed masses. Some of the keenest thinkers in Europe today are Roumanian Jews.

It would be a mistake, however, to allow the problem of minorities so to overshadow the Roumanian scene as to obscure the interests of the Roumanians themselves, for even in the greater Roumania of the post-war days they preponderate by far; and in dealing with them one should not be misled by the superficial appearances of the capital, Bucharest. Bucharest is no more typical of the Roumanian peasant than Paris is of the French peasant. In both cases, there is a sturdy stock hardened by privation in the past, intent upon the simple routine of its farming and village life, gay, and yet not dissolute, worthy successors of the ancient Dacians. Having but now broken down the last remnants of feudal privilege by dividing up the great estates, the Roumanian peasantry enters, in the opening of the twentieth century, into the same general economic situation as was won by those of France and North Germany a century or so earlier. There is much to hope and relatively little to fear from the sober commonsense of these hardworking owners of the soil.

.                .                .                .                .

So far I have been speaking only of the population, but the homeland of these people is as varied as the inhabitants. Mountain and plain, marshland and forest, the open steppes and the rugged Carpathians,—each contributes its appropriate produce to the economic resources of the country. So comprehensive are these resources that, in their variety at least, they are rivalled by no other country of Europe and perhaps by no other civilized land, outside the United States. It has been claimed that Roumania can produce practically everything except rubber and cotton. Its wheat supply was perhaps the greatest single prize gained by the Central Powers during the war. The products of the soil are singularly like those of the United States, due to a similarity in climate between the two countries, a similarity not shared by Western Europe. Corn and fruit ripen as in the Mississippi Valley and the fertility of the soil has never been exhausted by the relatively simple agricultural methods of the past.

Of its mineral wealth, the chief, as well as the most distinctive, is petroleum. The plains around Campina are as thickly spiked with the oil-well derrick as the busiest sections of our own oil country. The coal mines of Roumania are less known outside its frontiers, though the output totals about three million tons. Less striking but more picturesque are the great salt mines; while in the mountains of Transylvania, the peasants still wash down from the hillsides the gold which was a notable product of ancient Dacia. Handmade water wheels by the roadside pound the pebbly quartz, with the peasants working on the fields alongside. But most of the mineral wealth of the Carpathians still lies awaiting the modern engineer. Only recently have they begun to work the quarries which produce quicksilver, and a similar introduction of modern methods would be amply rewarded from the at present hidden sources of supply.

.                .                .                .                .

The economic resources of Roumania hold the promises of a prosperous future. But no such promises can be realized either in Roumania or anywhere else without having to deal with difficult questions of policy and of administration. In this regard, the current economic history of Roumania resembles that of its ethnic and social elements. The development of Roumanian resources will depend as much upon the development of markets as upon the machinery of production. Broad policies of accommodation with other nations are therefore implied. Shipping on both the Danube and the Black Sea will be to some extent an index of the degree by which these problems have been solved. Again, in this matter, the way to success lies through a cooperation in the constructive strategy of peace, especially with the countries of the Near East. Politically, there is every reason to expect from Roumania a policy consonant with its interests.