|HONORING ROMANIAN UNITY (JAN 24TH 1859) |
HONORING ROMANIAN UNITY (JAN 24TH 1859)
A short talk at St John the Baptist Church, Glendale, Arizona, Sunday, January 26th, in memory of Romanian Deputy Ion Ratiu (June 6th 1917 – January 17th 2000).
I44 years ago this Superbowl week-end, by remarkable diplomacy and even more remarkable selflessness, the leaders of the Romanian-speaking Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia agreed to elect one of their own number, Alexandru Cuza, as Prince, thereby uniting both principalities under one ruler.
In 1861, only three years after that declaration of Union, those two ancient and frequently rival Principalities were to go on to declare themselves the nation of “Romania”, after the majority of the people who lived there, who from time immemorial had called themselves Romanians or “Romani”.
Only once before had there been any kind of Union between the Romanian-speaking principalities. That was under Prince Michael the Brave of Wallachia, who managed to create a brief Union of all three principalities (including Transylvania) in 1596 as a military expedient against the Turks. But Michael’s Union lasted barely five years until 1601 when he was assassinated.
This time, 144 years ago this week-end, the idea of Union enjoyed popular as well as princely support: On January 5th 1859 Moldavia’s small elective assembly of wealthy landowning boyars chose one of their own number, Alexandru Cuza as their Prince, in Iasi. Three weeks later, on January 24th in Bucharest, but before a popular crowd as large as 30,000, the equally exclusive Wallachian Assembly in Bucharest chose the same man – even though he was Moldavian.
This was not what the Great Powers of the time (France, England, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Turkey) were expecting in Eastern Europe. In fact it was a bombshell. I’d like to tell you briefly how it came about.
At the Paris Convention of 1858, after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War (1853-6), the Great Powers carved up Eastern Europe. The two Romanian Principalities (which after 400 years were still under Turkish suzerainty) were granted the right to hold their own Assemblies and once again to choose their own princes.
This had nothing to do with the good of Romanians. It was because the Great Powers of the time saw our two small Principalities as independent but weak “buffer” states that would keep Austria-Hungary, Russia and Turkey separate from one another and control the mouth of the Danube, keeping it free for international shipping. The two Romanian principalities were expected to perform like referees in a three-way wrestling match between the former Crimean War combatants. Their role was to run a coast-guard operation that would keep the Danube open and the former combatants apart, under international supervision. The Powers believed that the two Principalties were more likely to be able to play such a role if they were granted a greater degree of independence from Turkey.
Both principalities had submitted a request to the Paris Convention for Union under a single foreign Prince, but the Great Powers did not like that idea. They simply did not trust each other enough to have any of their own princes controlling the mouth of the Danube.
So, blocked in their attempt to unite under a single foreign prince, Mihail Kogalniceanu, Ion Bratianu and their colleagues from both Principalities looked for another way to unite. And low and behold, they discovered there was no express objection in the 1858 Paris Convention to the two Principalities electing the same person from amongst their own number. So these two remarkable men, one from Moldavia, the other from Wallachia, together with their colleagues chose to set their personal differences aside (and they had many) and appointed the Moldavian landowner Alexandru Cuza as their prince. The rest is history….
The Moldavians leaders voted first, on January 5th. The Wallachian leaders followed, swallowing their pride, voting in the same man in Bucharest, on January 24th. For the Wallachians, this was something like the founding fathers of the United States voting in as their own President, a recently elected President of Canada or of Mexico – in the interest of American Unity. It was a big deal!
But if anyone thought that Alexandru Cuza was going to be a yes-man, they were soon proved wrong. In addition to the burden of continued Turkish suzerainty and the opposition of the Great Powers who had wanted two princes not one, Cuza was saddled with two capitals, two administrations, two customs services, two national assemblies… About the only things he appeared to have going for him was that almost everyone spoke the same language….Romanian, and worshipped God in the same, Orthodox way. But Cuza had great tenacity, able advisors, and above all: faith in God and in his historic mission as Romania’s elected Prince.
Between 1859 and 1861, in only three years, under Alexandru Cuza’s rule, the administrations of the two principalities were united, Bucharest became the new nation’s capital, a strong French-trained army was created, ambitious programs of political and social reform were launched, leading eventually to a new Constitution.
Not surprisingly, all this was too much for many of the very people – his fellow boyars - who had elected him, and in 1866 Cuza was deposed. He was replaced by the foreign Prince Romania’s leaders had sought in the first place – their choice fell on a German Prince of Hohenzollern-Zigmaringen who became Romania’s Carol 1st.
But it was Prince Alexandru Cuza’s courageous leadership, inaugurated this very weekend, 144 years ago, that launched Romania’s new role as an independent nation. That is why this date of January 24th is so important. Paradoxically, his increasingly authoritarian rule, although it antagonized his fellow-boyars, also served to seal the new Romanian nation’s effective independence – after 400 years - from its old suzerain, Turkey. Cuza took the risk of behaving independently, and was in due course rewarded with independence, when the Sultan received him in Istanbul with all the honors normally reserved for a Head of State – something no Romanian Prince had ever enjoyed before.
For our Romanian ancestors, who up until that time had suffered under centuries of corrupt and humiliating Turkish suzerainty, this was a radical break with the past. It laid the groundwork for a modern, independent state, and for a homegrown tradition of freedom, dignity, and independence under God, which was made possible by Unity. It was a remarkable legacy that would greatly benefit Prince (later King) Carol and his successors and above all the Romanian people.
But if Romanian national unity, first proclaimed during the revolutions of 1848, was finally realized this weekend on January 24th 1859, that unity was still only partial.
It was not until December 1st, 1918, with the blessing of our own US President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Principles, and the Union of Transylvania, Bessarabia and Bukovina with Prince Alexandru Cuza’s Romania of January 24th 1859, (now called the Old Kingdom ), that full geographical and political Union of Romania finally came into being.
But as we all remember, that period of complete national unity was to last only 21 years, from December 1918 until June 1940, when Russia once more seized Bessarabia. The Second World War and communism were to trigger a massive exodus that continues to this day, with Romanians not only split between two nations (Romania and Moldova) but scattered and divided throughout the world, from the Aromanians of the Balkan peninsular, to our own communities here in North America.
But what is important for us to remember, is that for almost 90 years – from 1859 (the Union that we commemorate here today) until 1948 when King Michael went into exile, generations of Romanians grew up, steeped in this same tradition of Unity which had brought freedom, dignity and independence to Romania and its people.
In the words of the national anthem of Prince Cuza’s Romania, the Hora Unirii or Union Dance, written by poet Vasile Alecsandri as early as 1857, and adopted soon after January 24th 1859:
Hai sa dam mana cu mana
Cei cu inima romana
Sa-nvartim hora fratiei
Pe pamantul Romaniei!
Hand in hand together
We of Romanian heart
Dance the ring of brotherhood
On Romanian soil.
Like some of you here today, my father Ion Ratiu grew up singing that same national anthem in school and on every public occasion. He was steeped in the spirit and tradition of Romanian Unity. He chose this very celebration, January 24th 1990, as the date on which he first landed back on Romanian soil after 50 years in exile, to work for democracy and for the reconstruction of the country after communism.
And by a strange coincidence, it was on January 23rd, 2000 that he was finally laid to rest in the family graveyard in Turda. So this is an important anniversary for me personally, as well as nationally.
I believe that my father Ion Ratiu’s lasting legacy is his own sense of service to this same principle of Romanian Unity that we celebrate today.
And I believe his life has a message for our future, which I would like to share with you:
Growing up in Romania between the two World Wars he came to see how fragile Unity is – how easily destroyed it is. He saw fascism and communism, and the suspicion, separation, and moral degradation that they fostered, as the antithesis of Unity. His vision was inclusive, in the tradition of Mihail Kogalniceanu and Ion Bratianu, who agreed to sink their differences so that Romanians might live together in prosperity and peace at last, free of foreign interference.
My father’s personal definition of democracy was “my commitment to fight, to the last drop, for your right to disagree with me”. So his also was an all-inclusive vision of Unity. He was convinced that responsibility lay with him, not with somebody else. Democracy, he believed, involved him committing to do something in the service of others’ personal freedom. He encouraged others to do the same. And he was not afraid of putting people’s back up in doing so.
Touchingly, during his final years as an ordinary Romanian deputy, first for Cluj, and later for Arad, popular in the country but shunned by his own party, he saw his major achievement not as having stood for the Presidency as candidate for the Democratic Convention in opposition, but for something apparently insignificant. This was the creation of the Political Club within the Chamber of Deputies. It’s a club which I understand now bears his name.
He showed me around it in 1998 – great echoing, empty halls high up in the so-called wedding cake, the old Casa Poporului… All there was were a few chairs, a beautiful receptionist and an empty bar. But he saw what those empty halls could become. He believed firmly that in time, as we Romanians and our deputies learn to sink our differences beneath a higher purpose (just as Mihail Kogalniceanu and Ion Bratianu did before us) that his political Club would come to serve as the perfect venue for such daily reconciliations where old political adversaries would drink together, and maybe even play some backgammon (he adored backgammon and other competitive games) in between fierce political debates in parliament itself.
Such Unity between political opponents, he believed, fosters creativity, growth and the good and the true in people, in spite of our own frequently dreadful personal shortcomings. And the Political Club he believed, would encourage that.
Outside Romania, Ion Ratiu was known above all for his work in setting up the World Union of Free Romanians, which, from 1984 onwards, rallied Romanians everywhere to the cause of democracy. Here too, his vision was all-inclusive: the only criterion for membership in the Union was a commitment to the cause of democracy itself. He invited all who wished to, to join in person, not as the representative of such-and-such an organization or party, but just as a Romanian. It was a banner that united thousands.
And I believe that his spirit is alive in any number of unifying political, cultural and social organizations that reconnect Romanians around the world today. Ion would have been delighted by Romania’s recent invitation to join both NATO and the European Union. He had worked tirelessly to accomplish both those goals.
Personally, I believe that the next frontiers of this same principle of Romanian unity ushered in 144 years ago this week-en will not only be
- political, such as the possibility of Union with Moldova, or possible votes for Romanians everywhere, but also
- religious, with the recognition by Orthodox, Uniates, Protestants and Jews that we are all but members of one single faith, united under God, and also
- cultural, with increasing numbers of worldwide Romanian organizations such as Pro Patrimonio, the National Trust of Romania, (with which I and my brother Nicolae and many others are involved), organizations which seek to rally Romanians everywhere in a common endeavor that blesses us all.
I particularly like the thought that Ion Ratiu and his generation, who started life chanting the Hora Unirii in kindergarten, playing in the dusty streets of Turda, Transylvania, where he needed to be equally proficient in German and Hungarian as well as Romanian, ended his life with a cell-phone and email connection to fellow Romanians all over the world. If he could accomplish what he did with his limited means, how much more can we accomplish with what is available now…
Thankyou for joining me here today for this opportunity to celebrate not only Ion Ratiu’s life but also the lives of all those who made Union possible this week-end 144 years ago, so that we ourselves might realize the next phase in that same national dream - of Unity.
It’s now up to us to take their vision of Unity forward, to conquer these new frontiers, in spite of our own shortcomings. And of course in our own weakness, only God can make that possible.
So let us pray for the humility to put our trust in Him, to ask Him for guidance, and to have the courage to obey. Amen.
Indrei Ratiu 1/28/2003