Civic Culture in Banat and Transylvania:

The Role of Timişoara in the 1989 Transformation of the Romanian Political Order



            The cultural model of Central Europe carries a political message with its own meaning for understanding the regime changes in the region. In order to proceed to an analysis of the civic culture in Banat and Transylvania, one must take into consideration that these regions (as well as others with similar historical traditions, such as Silezia, Moravia, Galicia, Slovakia, Croatia, Bukovina) were emancipated later and only partially in comparison with the French, North Italian and Dutch regions. Certain relationship with the West-- maintained by the religious and aristocratic elite -- functioned as a result of the echo of Renaissance humanism and the Lutherano-Calvinist Reform. This elite was tempted to develop its own set of values in a way similar to the West when Banat and Transylvania became parts of the Habsburg Empire in the 18th century. Sometimes it succeeded in spite of its economic and social handicaps. As for the masses, modernization took place no later than the end of the 19th century. Only then, did the proper moment for Banat and Transylvania arrive and a large scale transition toward the modern world.

            Between 1880 and 1918 an unprecedented demographic explosion happened in the towns of the region. New and numerous buildings were constructed not only in the big cities, but in small towns, too, giving them a European architectural configuration. New administrations were set up following the model of the great burghs; economic production was diversified; international trade regulations used across the whole continent were adopted. Culture would play an important role in preparing the wide-reaching social transformations. The setting-up and development of a middle-class had priority. Also the multiplication of the associations concerning culture, the arts, vocational training, science and, generally speaking, everything that could bring about changes in the mentality of the masses was encouraged. Enormous expenditures were made at the time in order to support setting up the infrastructure and the civic society of Banat and Transylvania. That explains why, in Transylvania, not only cities such as Cluj (Kolozsvár), Braşov (Brassó/ Kronstadt), Sibiu (Nagyszeben/, Hermanstadt), Tîrgu. Mureş (Marosvásárhely), but also such smaller towns as Turda (Torda), Deva (Déva), Miercurea-Ciuc (Csíkszereda), Sfîntu-Gheorghe (Sepsiszentgyörgy), Odorheiu Secuiesc (Székelyudvarhely), Hunedoara (Vajdahunyad), Zalău (Zilah), Şimleul Silvaniei (Erdélysomlyó), succeeded in creating their own social and economic structures. In the Banat region, not only the cities of Timişoara (Temesvár), but also Reşiţa (Resica), Lugoj (Lugos), Jimbolia (Zsombolya) and Sînnicolau Mare (Nagyszentmiklós) were developed. In Bihor County (situated in the western part of Romania), the city of Oradea (Nagyvárad) was rapidly developed and became a symbol of the cultural vanguard. Satu-Mare (Szatmárnémeti) and Carei (Nagykároly) were open to various social and economic developments that eased or determined numerous contacts with western European regions.

            During the interwar period, numerous former provinces of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire became the leading forces of industrialization and urbanization in the respective nation-states. The cases of the Bohemian and Moravian regions in Czechoslovakia are relevant in this respect. However it was not the case of Banat and Transylvania regions in newly created Romanian state after the World War I. Although it was more advanced with respect to its institutions and community life -- as compared to other provinces of Romania -- Transylvania became subordinated to a less developed decision-making center, namely to Bucharest1. As a consequence, the region which had been modernized after Central European models of civilization fell under the influence of the political and economic interests originating in the former Turkish Empire. This explains why Romania’s integration into Western civilization was delayed. Even though the French and Prussian cultural sources were somehow accepted (i.e., the elite was formed under their influence), they were not relevant for the modernization of the Old Kingdom of Romania. These aspects should not be neglected when we evaluate the political thought in Romania of that time. The discrepancies between elite and masses were not adequately taken into consideration. These differences were more visible in the southern and eastern parts of Romania, but none of its governments was sufficiently preoccupied to diminish them during the last century, although some of them made notable contributions to the modernization of the country.

            In this context, let us analyze Timişoara prior to becoming a city in the Romanian state. According to historical studies, it was the most industrialized and the most modern city in the eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1910, Timişoara -- the capital city of Banat with a population of 72,555 inhabitants -- had got two technical universities, two Episcopal chairs, 62 small and medium sized enterprises, 132 professional associations, 7 daily newspapers, 17 printing houses, a philharmonic society, and many scientific associations. The city became the most important center of the Hungarian side of the empire, following Budapest2. It was ahead all the cities of Transylvania. Moreover, its openness was due to the multilingualism practiced by the large majority of the population in a very natural way. It had been usual for them to speak German, Hungarian, Romanian and Serbian for long periods of time. The name of the city itself has four forms according to the four languages spoken: Timişoara (in Romanian), Temesvár (in Hungarian), Temesburg or Temeswar (in German) and Temisvaru (in Serbian). Without going into details, it should be noted that this city was the most important center of the first outstanding regional modernization.Timisoara has put a touch of its spiritual physiognomy on the whole Banat region as has  Cluj on Transylvania. The former has always been oriented toward a plural community life3, while the latter has been mainly tempted to define itself in connection with its ethnic and linguistic identities. The frustrations caused by the subordinate position of Cluj to Budapest and, beginning with 1918, to Bucharest delayed the adoption of the principles characteristic of an open society.

            The previously historical information is useful for a more accurate description of Timişoara’s physiognomy during the years following the anti-Ceauşescu uprising. It is possible that, due to its historical background and civic culture, the population of this city more easily adopted a critical attitude against the authoritarian and especially against the totalitarian policy. Despite the demographic changes after World War II, and despite an exaggerated surveillance (initiated by the political police) against the persons belonging to minority communities, the inhabitants of Timişoara and the newcomers had been able either to perpetuate or respectively to imitate the civic values practiced by the interwar generations. Due to this fact, beyond compare to any other city’s situation in communist Romania, Timişoara continued to distinguish itself by an exemplary civic organization. The merit of understanding the great chance of cooperation and therefore, of organizing a civic society, belongs to those people who felt, thought and acted beyond their ethnic and confessional affiliations4. Feeling themselves more comfortable with their status as citizens of the bourgh, they acquired in time openness towards diversity of any kind. This attitude would have not been possible in linguistic and religious communities over-preoccupied by their own ethnic-identity.  It is not just an environment of mutual respect between the majority and minorities, but also coexistence where the individual’s community-oriented education seemed to be — and sometimes was — essential.  It is worth remembering the wish of a large segment of the population to live in freedom, to conduct business, to freely move across the borders, to have free access to information. Their interest for stable welfare standards had always been their life philosophy. Nor was the concern for money, household and material values neglected during the last years of Ceauşescu’s regime. Even during the food shortage at the end of the ‘70s that was harsher during the ‘80s, there were social layers that succeeded in maintaining a reasonable living standard. The Mehala flea market stocked by goods coming from abroad, namely from Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria and Germany, played an outstanding role in preserving and stirring up interest in the Western products. Authorities tried to suppress these markets repeatedly. As for the thirst for information of Timişoara’s middle class citizens, one can remark that they had often watched the Belgrade, Novi-Sad and Budapest television broadcasts. They used to manufacture special antennas in order to intercept the TV programs from the neighboring countries.


The Rejection of the Closed Society


            The elite was educated in the old spirit of the city; in other words, it became the fruit of the local habitat. It was not idealized by the masses, nor did it try to impose itself as a model. Its sense of normality was surprising compared to the behavior of the intellectuals in other towns, or cities of Romania. The Timişoara elite still preserved some of the characteristics of the Central European intelligentsia5. That explains why the Bucharest authorities expressed a kind of reserve for the values of this city, an attitude which continued to be manifested even after the regime changes in December 1989. Undoubtedly, the cultural elite of Timişoara did not benefit from an extensive promotion in the national media. It was due to the fact that the Banat County, as a border region, had uncontrollable contacts with its Central European neighbors. Moreover, the Banat has been populated by minority groups, too, to whom the authorities have always looked with a constant suspicion6. In the latter sense, the surveillance of the Hungarian, German, Jewish and even Serbian communities was notorious. It could be demonstrated, however, that a kind of decent living was possible as a result of the civic environment of Timişoara.

            The communists aimed at indoctrinating the population with a different ideology than that of the liberal bourgeoisie.  There were, however, many examples that certified that they did not succeed in their endeavor. Why did they fail? On the one hand, the preservation of a Central European state of civilization, deriving from the 18th century Austrian cosmopolitanism, made possible the coexistence of the traditional communities of Timişoara, namely the German, Hungarian, Romanian, Serbian and Jewish ones. On the other hand, the intercultural and the inter-confessional phenomena in the region explain the inhabitants’ rejection of the ghetto-life and the idea of the purity of origins. Moreover they expressed a greater reserve for the traditionalist ethnic policies7 of the official ideologists which built on the background of the dictatorial regimes of Antonescu in the ‘40s, and later of Ceauşescu. The perpetuation of the urban habit of association and setting up new social segments willing to adapt themselves to the changes which occurred in post WWII Europe, made the survival of the civic society possible. Like the cities of Lemberg or Cernăuţi, Timişoara has been a pre-eminently intercultural city, where -- unlike the neighboring regions -- the ethnic barriers have not been relevant. An important question that could be raised is: how has the civic culture been preserved and also how has it been able to contribute to the political transformation of 1989? A few distinctive phenomena took place in Timişoara during Ceauşescu’s rule which represented an avant-garde in the content of ideas. The cultural activities implicitly or explicitly were carrying the touches of nonconformism and of a hidden protest. A way of freethinking was developed due to some intellectual and artistic societies and also to social-communitarian ones. Among them -- the Sigma Group, the Aktionsgruppe Banat of the German language writers, Professor Eduard Pamfil’s Bionics Club, the multilingual society within the Writers’ Association, the inter-confessional reunions, cinema halls and the Phoenix band – were outstanding for their activities. They all expressed dissatisfaction and critiques of the regime, namely, the rejection of the “wooden tongue” and of the totalitarian ideology.


The European Syncronization


            The Sigma Group represented a vanguard movement in the Romanian art, as it offered new understanding and definition of the world, by appealing to the industrial aesthetics, marketing, industrial geometry, complementary colors, design, descriptive geometry, and bionic study. Iosif Király, an alumnus of the Art School of Timişoara, where the Sigma Group members used to teach, introduced us to these elements in the Timişoara of the ‘60s, when the intellectuals where concerned rather with the act of inward creation than with the past.


“In fact” — he confesses — “we had no spare time for the past; the present was so eventful, we were living each moment with such an intensity that there was no more room for anything else. Art and culture were produced right under our eyes”.


            The high school students were reading not only Sartre, Kafka, Joyce, Ionesco, and Hesse, but also an avant-garde literature in the field of the social sciences written by Marshal McLuhan, Alvin Tofler or Nicholas Schoffer. They were listening to music by Shostakovici, Schönberg, Bartók or Stravinski. The environment was a stimulating one, the students were being treated by their teachers as peers; this fact gave them a feeling that they could walk shoulder to shoulder with their teachers to new horizons. Stimulated by art motion pictures, foreign books and journals, by lectures on the history of arts and the study of the visual languages, they also discovered the activity of the Sigma Group in the neighborhood. The group’s influence was so powerful — Király says — that their disciples set up their own artistic workshops, where they would debate the philosophical issues concerning the contemporary world8. The students’ exhibition of 1976 at the Kalinderu Gallery in Bucharest was to confirm the existence of a prestigious workshop without comparison in Romania at the time. An art critic compared the student exhibition in Timişoara with “a living ensemble, open, caught unguarded in full swing, in full development. The dense atmosphere of a balanced respect for tradition floated above it, along with the spirit of the sober and courageous experiment, free from any prejudices or other snobbish claim”9. The critic also noticed with indignation that the exhibition was not advertised even though the works could have given birth to a genuine emulation. It was clear that the Timişoara Art High School was unique among the art schools in Romania, therefore the question arose about which art faculties were prepared to take in such graduates.

            The Sigma Group — set up around Ştefan Bertalan and Constantin Flondor, also including famous artists such as: Doru Tulcan, Molnár Zoltán, Diet Sayler — has become a reference point not only in the field of the arts, where it decisively contributed to the renewal of the language of the fine arts, but also in the field of ideological debates. The wish for a renewal was obvious with all these artists. That is why, in the ‘60s, they became the promoters of a way of communication different from the communist-dictated one10. The various subjects put forward, the artistic education striving for open systems, the study of nature, the outrunning of the established forms, and the introduction of experimental study, all this made possible the evolution of a special environment in the cultural milieu of Timişoara. The group’s preoccupations speak about a dynamic universe, about their intention to stimulate a permanent public dialogue. The emphasis on the personal experiences of each of the artists’ who belonged to the Sigma Group or was influenced by it, is to be noted. The existence of an avant la lettre constructivism was to impress the experts and the public at the Nürnberg biannual exhibition in 1969 and indicated not only participation at an international artistic forum, but also a real European synchronization of the Timişoara group. The way art started an authentic dialogue with science gathered positive comments from the most authoritative critics in Romania and abroad. Sigma was not only a symbol of authenticity, but also a team spirit such as had never been seen in other intellectual clubs in Romania. Such a milieu bespoke a cultural and social confrontation, and it soon showed up.


Eduard Pamfil: The Aspiration for a Gradual Reconstruction of

the Civil Society


            Professor Eduard Pamfil was the coordinator of the psychiatry seminars in Timişoara, and he also conducted the Bionics Club to which artists, musicians, philologists, historians, mathematicians and philosophers belonged. This club set up a genuine ritual of ideas, fruitful debates and non-conformist theories. The meeting between the painter, Ştefan Bertalan — the initiator and animator of the Sigma Group — and Eduard Pamfil was symbolic for the creative milieu of the city.

             Pamfil’s ideas expressed an ideal way of communication between the emotional and the intellectual sides of the human being. 


“Bertalan is” — Pamfil used to say, thus defining himself, too — “a champion of anti-conformism. All the things, all the gestures, all the speeches that can end in a confortable and placid way are safely avoided, if not even unbearable for him […]; everything he does is touched by his wish of being an entity striving for something, nourished by the continuous stress of being dissatisfied with himself”11.


The civic education he had got in his family and in the Paris school that he attended right after the war, made Professor Eduard Pamfil one of the primary reference points for many generations of young people who approached the values of humanity. Pamfil’s political ideas were stimulated by his scientific and philosophical results. He did not have followers, as did other philosophers had in Eastern Europe, particularly in Czechoslovakia, Hungary or Poland. The role of his criticism of the totalitarian political system, in various occasions, had not always been really understood, but it stimulated his thinking with the aim of finding its way out from under the influence of the neo-Stalinist dogmatism. He had the same tendency to gradually reconstruct civic society just as had the Czech, Polish and Hungarian dissidents. He referred to them whenever he could, however, without succeeding to start a proper movement of protest. His refined speeches on the occasion of his numerous lectures, and his analyzes of the social phenomena, gave evidence of his deep understanding of the world. The support he offered to all those who were persecuted by the regime was substantial. The Psychiatric Clinic of Timişoara and the Psychiatric Hospital of Gătaia had already been a refuge for the protesters to the communist regime, for the so-called misfits and for those who had the courage to oppose the anti-human measures of the Ceauşescu’s. He became a model simply because he succeeded to communicate in a language that was completely liberated from commitment to the totalitarian ideology. Professor Pamfil was a keen supporter of the European orientation in culture, and he was against the traditionalist trend imposed by the media and educational system. He was involved in the city’s life more deeply than any scholar. His presence in the literary milieu, at art exhibitions and in the concert halls, gave him the opportunity to form genuine cultural clubs and to speed up the process of forming the individual. Eduard Pamfil was the symbol of morality which could not be doubted, not even by his enemies. This was the reason why the clubs he initiated preserved not only a civic attitude, but, above all, a way of reflecting normality.


The Rejection of the Totalitarian System


            In addition to the previously mentioned groups, the Universitas think-tank was set up affiliated to the Student House of Culture. It was known also under the name of Aktionsgruppe Banat [The Banat Action Group]. More directly related to the contemporary social and political problems, very soon the group turned to a championing rejection of the official ideology. It was made up of young writers of German language; among them, Gerhardt Ortian, William Totok, Richard Wagner, Ernest Wichner, Anton Sterbling, Rolf Bossert, Anton Bohn, Werner Kremm and Johan Lippet, are worth remembering. This society was intensely active during the first half of the ‘80s. The texts written by its members in Romanian and German were published in various periodicals in the cities of Timişoara, Braşov, Sibiu, Cluj and Bucharest. The group was well informed on trends in world literature and, also, on the political ideas in Germany and Austria. The pacifism of the “beat” generation marked the group members profoundly. They had been well educated and analyzed seriously the newspapers and journals of the time, the legal system and Ceauşescu’s discourse, in order to understand the main trend in Romanian policy. The group was at times criticized by the official cultural media. It soon drew the attention of the Securitate, the political police. Under suspicion since early ‘70s, Aktionsgruppe Banat was accused of plotting against the communist regime. The young German writers published or read in public poems and essays with a content that denounced the substance and nature of the existing regime. Many of poems read in the Universitas Society (Aktionsgruppe Banat) suggested the group’s anti-communist attitude. These included Entsheidungsfragen bei einem Macht-Prozess [Decisive Issues in a Trial of the System], Mit Chile im Herzen [With Chile in Our Hearts], Allerhand aus einem Modejournal, das ziemlich teuer und kulturausgerichtet ist [Various Matters in a Rather Expensive Fashion Magazine Whit Cultural Biases]. In fact, their author, William Totok, was one of the most suspected and harassed members of Aktionsgruppe Banat, and finally was sent to prison12.

The group played an outstanding role in the development of opposition against the totalitarian system. Both conformism and opportunism were rejected alike, but as the historian, Peter Motzan, noted there were both polemic and prescriptive commitments in the activist and participative lyricism of these poets. The presence of Richard Wagner and Rolf Bossert, of William Totok’s reflections and questions, of the family saga transposed in ample and detailed narration, and of the questioning of the past from perspective of the present (as in Johann Lippet’s case), all this demonstrated how this group focused on a reality that aspired to be ideal. Everything Aktionsgruppe did was a proof of detachment from political exhibitionism encouraged by the totalitarian national-communist system. The communist authorities suspected the Romanian Germans of entering into conflict with the government. This served as their pretext for opposing the protest attitude of the German writers of Timişoara.

            In fact, this was another reason to encourage and speed up the emigration of this minority to Germany. It is worth remembering that some members of the Aktionsgruppe Banat claimed affiliation to Marxist ideology, though the Romanian national-communism had nothing in common with Marx. Moreover, it was the period when the Ceauşescu regime was approaching the extreme-right orientation through chauvinist, racial, and anti-Semitic behaviors. Some newspapers in the Federal Republic of Germany reported about the dissidence of the German language writers in Timişoara, and expressed their astonishment to find out that, in a communist country like Romania even the Marxist writers were interdicted. Under the title Kulturpolitik mit Polizeieinsatz. Marxistische Rumäniendeutsche stören die revolutionäre Ruhe ihres “sozialistischen” Staates [Cultural Policy and Police Repression: The German Marxists of Romania Disrupt the Revolutionary Peace of their “Socialist” Country]13, Dieter Schlesak described the paradoxical situation when not only were some writers silenced in a communist state because of their Marxist ideas, but even the doctrine-oriented debates were forbidden. Aktionsgruppe Banat criticized the populism of Ceauşescu’s propaganda that distorted the Romanian realities.           

            Although the activity of the Society died out after a few years, its merit lay in the fact that it defended the dignity not only of its members, but also of a city prosecuted by the authorities particularly because of its cosmopolitan orientation. Aktionsgruppe Banat was very active in city life during 1972-1975, but its initiatives did not move the civil society to demonstrate against the social order. Still the German writers showed that a way of opposing the system was possible becoming an example for their fellow-citizens. A few years later, Petru Ilieşu — one of the best-known and appreciated poets of the ‘80s — was influenced by the ideas of the German group in Timişoara. His outlook, similar to that of his generation, was fed by his contact with the world of music. In charge of the Music and Dance club at the Student House during his student years, he was influenced by Western rock music. Consequently, in 1982 Ilieşu conceived a protest manifesto against Ceauşescu’s regime. It included such slogans as: “Down the Criminal Ceauşescu!”, “Down the Communist Party!” which were repeated also by the poet, Alexandru Gavriliu. Soon arrested after went public with his protest, Ilieşu was questioned and later set free through the intervention of Nikolaus Berwanger14, the ex-editor-in chief of the German newspaper. Once more, the population could see that beside the subservience imposed by the regime, an attitude of protest was possible.


The Phoenix Band: A Spokesperson for the Younger Generation


Among the cultural events with great impact on the youth was the Phoenix band. There is almost a consensus that this rock band contributed one of the strongest forces of social cohesions in Timişoara and had a positive echo all around Romania. Phoenix was a symbol of the people of Timişoara, particularly of the younger generation, which grew up in the cultural and artistic environment of the city. It was a multicultural group whose members were Romanian, German, Hungarian, Serbian and Jewish musicians. The band became distinctive because of its sharp perception of the social and political realities. The lyrics they sang were manifestos of the young generation: protests against indoctrination and against mediocrity. The group found its own style, and cultivated a proper view of the interaction of the area with the European culture. In the ‘60s, Phoenix was inspired by the musical and photographic themes of the hippy movement. “The popular ideas, the Bohemian mentality and the picturesque aspect of the representatives of the peaceful flower power rebellion fascinated us" — Nicu Covaci, the leader of the group, remembers.


“We were convinced that that was the way; any young man who desired to free himself from the false morality and narrow mindedness of the leaders, had to follow it. Some radio stations were forbidden, some art and music magazines or even journals from the West were considered decadent and were forbidden as well. The censorship was even more obvious and more powerful in the whole of cultural and social life. All this was trying to turn aside the dynamic flow of change which had become evident. But those who were struck by the virus of liberty were able to cross the barriers and find the information they wanted. Each issue of “Bravo”, “Musical Express” or "Rolling Stones” was read hundred of times, devoured by excited young people who were trying to identify with their idols”15.


The period of the ‘60s, coincided with endless searching for identity, and also for ways to appeal to the audience. The songs expressed the thoughts and feelings of a generation which, mocking the stereotypes, strove for free expression. Phoenix showed that in Timişoara a movement of the young people who spoke their minds and ignored formalism was born.

The challenges of the generation, whose spokesperson was the band of Nicu Covaci, Florin Bordeianu, Josef Kappl, Mircea Baniciu, Günter Reininger and Béla Kamocsa, became a real problem for the authorities. The surveillance of Phoenix became the responsibility of all institutions in charge of propaganda in the county of Timiş and the city of Timişoara. The non-conformist conduct of the band’s members, their clothes, and the new type of social relationship they promoted, i.e. the lack of inhibition before the authorities, created a new atmosphere in many social milieus. The lyrics of their songs were also the work of some writers who grew up in the academic environment of Timişoara, among them, Victor Cârcu, Şerban Foarţă and Andrei Ujică are the most representative ones. There was a kind of communication between those who wrote the lyrics, the musicians and the audience, which reflected a hidden revolt against the communist authorities, against the marginal condition of the younger generation, and against all those who were trying to forbid the right to look at the Western world. Phoenix was a distinctive cultural and social landmark due to which a special attitude in the post-war Timişoara was possible. For Timişoara Phoenix constituted a continuous mocking of the communist authority, and multiplied the number of young people who later were to contradict the official ideology. In the ‘60s through ‘70s a new generation emerged which did not have many things in common with the communist party.

            The leader of the Phoenix band was right when he remembered that very few people believed in the communist slogans during that period. “Only the schmucks, whom I instinctively disregarded, were still flapping their mouths and wanted to convince people why they did not believe in themselves”, Covaci used to say. However, the idea of communism continued to be at work in various social strata, often with personal interests being much more predominant than the sincere attachment to the ideology. Verticality thrived in the Timişoara milieu, and the Phoenix band encouraged it in each of its concerts. The visionary side of the songs proved that the band did a political job by keeping awake the consciousness of the people who faced a system that falsified values. The stress was put on the Romanian folklore inspired songs — which Nicu Covaci and some music critics considered important in the band’s destiny. The option was also an ideological one, a compromise willy-nilly with the communist system which became again reflected by nationalist ideals. It was not the only successful farce of Ceauşescu’s regime, but it was one of the sliest, and its consequences lasted for a long time.


The Echo of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956


Every culture influences smaller or larger social groups. As was demonstrated, these were means of protection against the abuse of the totalitarian system. However there were some instances in Timişoara when the society adopted an explicit political orientation and took a stand against the domestic communist regime or against Soviet domination which extended over the countries in the whole East-Central European area. The phenomenon of rejection of the extreme-left ideology was much more obvious inasmuch as the very low salaries, ideological lies, controlled and centralized economy, and absence of organization menaced the very biological existence of the people of Banat who used to have higher living standards compared to that of the population in some other regions of Romania. In 1956, the citizens of Timişoara, Lugoj, Arad, Reşiţa -- workers, civil servants and students -- protested against the Soviet invasion in Hungary. Their solidarity with the Hungarian revolutionaries was so strong that, at a certain moment — i.e. the last week of October and the first week of November — it seemed that such manifestations were out of the communist authorities’ control. The revolution that would happen three decades later appeared ready to start in western Romania.  Manifestos were spread all over the country, with the following messages: “We are against the USSR”, “We don’t want to learn Russian” and “Bring down Georghiu-Dej and his clique of parvenus!”, “We struggle for a better life and freedom!”, “Students, fight against the intervention in Hungary of the butchers from Kremlin!”, “Well done, Hungarians!”, “Freedom must come to Hungary and soon will come here, too!”. The example of the actions initiated by the students from the Medical and Pharmaceutical School in 1948, but mainly the civic conscience of the students of the Polytechnic Institute who, in October-November 1956, had the courage to organize protests and to formulate anti-totalitarian claims similar to those of the revolutionaries in Budapest, demonstrate that the citizens of Timişoara were not indifferent to the social order, Soviet pressure, and humiliation before Moscow, which was deciding the level of life.

            The Hungarian revolution of 1956 had huge impact on the academic milieu of Timişoara, many belonging to other social strata who spread detailed information about what was going on in Budapest alarmed the communist executive of the region and the government. The movement organizers, namely Teodor Stanca, Aurel Baghiu, Friedrich Barth, Ladislau Nagy, Aurelian Păuna, Nicolae Balaci, Gheorghe Pop and Caius Muţiu, reflected a very deep understanding of the problems the East-Central European world was confronting with, and particularly those of Romania. The above-mentioned organizers were the messengers of a great social discontent16. The Students instigated similar actions to those in Hungary, and conceived memoirs with a social-democratic content. They became also interested in the relationship between the Hungarian and Polish actions, thus manifesting remarkable political consciousness. The rejection of the Soviet domination and the intervention of the Russian army were topics often debated by the students of the Polytechnic Institute of Timişoara. The starting point of the anticommunist actions was the discontent regarding the subordination of the East-Central European countries to the system imposed by the Russians. Due to the military intervention in Hungary it was for the first time that this was properly perceived by thousands of people. The shortcomings of the Bucharest communist regime, the false news which spread by the central press and which contradicted all that was going on in the neighboring country was discussed.

The information received from Radio Kossuth became the main credible source regarding the revolutionary actions in the Hungarian capital. Because Timişoara was situated near the border, it had many who spoke Hungarian and news about the events in Hungary spread quickly. The protesting students of Timisoara put in their memories calls against the substance of the communist totalitarian system, namely: abolishing the cult of personality; the rational development of the economic sectors; establishment of commercial relationships with all interested governments, the capitalist ones included; withdrawal of the Soviet troops settled on the Romanian territory; and that the country be governed according to its interests and decent living conditions.

            The trial which followed the students’ movements shows the worries of the Gheorghiu Dej regime concerning the events in the capital city of Banat, Timişoara. The Court of Justice concluded that the students had tried to start a full movement, similar to the one in Hungary, and it seemed that this was so. The leaders of the Timişoara movement were sentenced each to eight, six and four years, respectively of “correctional prison” according to the decision of the Military Court. There was also a second group of students sentenced according to the same arbitrary verdict. One of the punitive measures of the government against the students of Timişoara was to forbid any kind of association. In spite of this order, a great variety of cultural and civic societies were born shortly after the events. Although surveillance was tougher, the organizers found new stratagems.


The Need to Change the Social Order


            In the ‘60s and ‘80s, the discontent of the civic society materialized in clandestine emigrations, in novels and poems which contained a hidden criticism of the Ceauşescu regime, in the research of some subjects (in the field of social studies) who were in disagreement with the officials, and in the refusal of some courageous citizens to enlist and accept the ideology of the system. In spite of all this and the population’s effort to resist a social order which was destroying the individual day by day, one cannot state that there was an organized project and plan to set-up a new administration for a democratic regime before 1989 in the social and intellectual milieus of Timişoara. The representatives of the civic society limited themselves to sporadic appeals and did not succeed in proposing a political alternative. Did they lack pragmatism or the courage to go all the way? Both, I think. Perhaps the absence of a systematic preoccupation for political problems forbidden in any training institution for decades was the real cause.

Despite the numerous evidences of the civic cultural activities in Timişoara in the communist period, it is obvious that there was no democratic opposition similar to the “Charter 77” of Czechoslovakia, the Solidarnošc (Solidarity) Union of Poland, and the dissident intellectuals of Hungary. In addition, the condition of a secondary city inside the country and the absence of any local autonomy hindered the genesis and co-ordination of a movement similar to that in the neighboring countries. In spite of the above-mentioned shortcomings, Timişoara became the first city of Romania in which most of its population was aware of the need to change Ceauşescu and the communist rule.

            The protest of the Hungarian Reverend Tőkés László against the destruction of the villages in Transylvania was well received by the local population. His dissident activity began in 1981-82 with the clandestine periodical “Ellenpontok” and continued up to the end of the ‘80s as the head of the Calvinist Church in Timişoara. Unlike some other dissidents, Tőkés was encouraged by the ability and availability of the Hungarian authorities and press, which explains the unique character of the actions in the area of Timişoara. The opposition of the congregation on December 15th and 16th, 1989 against the attempt to remove Reverend Tőkés was the key moment which started the great revolt against Ceauşescu’s regime. The protest of the Calvinist congregation was received and assured by a significant segment of the city’s population which understood that the sufferings of the minority (the Hungarians) were similar with those of the majority (the Romanians). His house surveillance on December 15th had turned into the great anti-Ceauşescu and anticommunist demonstration during the following days17. The Securitate political police promoted and supported tense relationships with the neighboring countries, mainly Hungary. The western part of Romania, especially Timişoara was under continuous surveillance. Among the measures constantly promoted by the authorities was the cultivation of suspicion at the level of interpersonal and inter-confessional relationships as well as an attempt to compromise the peaceful cohabitation of the Romanian majority with the German, Hungarian, Serbian and Jewish minorities. In spite of this pressure that had lasted for decades, what happened in Timişoara in December 1989 was a landmark for the contemporary history of East-Central Europe. The civil society of this old city was not completely destroyed and this could generate the feeling of solidarity and the incendiary demonstrations which decisively contributed to the change of the social and political order.




1.       According to Gusztáv Molnár, “Problema transilvană” [The Transylvania Issue], in Altera (Tîrgu-Mureş: Liga Pro-Europa, 1998), no.8, pp. 42-67.


2.       Sármány Parsons, “Die Rahmenbedingungen  für die Moderne in der Ungarischen  Provinzstädten um die Jahrhundertwende”, in Andrei Corbea-Hoişie,  J. Le  Rider (eds.) Metropole und Provinzen in Altösterreich (Iaşi: Polirom – Vienna: Böhlau, 1996).


3.       According to Victor Neumann, Multicultural Identities in the Europe of Regions. The Case of Banat County, public lecture given at the Institute for Advanced Study/ Collegium Budapest on February 22, 1996; published in Discussion Papers Series, no.34, September 1996; and F. Liebhardt, Banater Mosaik. Beiträge zur Kulturgeschichte (Bucharest: Kriterion, 1996).


4.       The centralist policy in Romania during 1990-1996, accompanied by a nationalist discourse, delayed economic reform. Lately the city has gone through many changes. The multicultural configuration was considerably modified since many families belonging to the German, Hungarian and Jewish communities emigrated. The civic culture was deeply affected because the city was populated with newcomers from the countryside and from more backward regions in comparison with the Banat-Transylvania area.


5.      See Ion Nicolae Anghel, Cartea cu Pamfil [The Book with Pamfil] (Timişoara: Amarcord, 1996).


6.       See William Totok, Aprecieri neretuşate. Eseuri, articole şi interviuri 1987-1994 [Unretouched Appreciations: Essays, Articles and Interviews], (Iaşi: Universitatea Al.I.Cuza, 1995); and Victor Neumann, “Ebrei dopo diluvio. Gli orfani della Mitteleuropa”, in Lettera Internazionale,  (Rome, 1997), No. 54, pp. 62-64.


7.       The traditionalist or nationalist option is characterized by advocating Herder’s Volksgeist idea according to which the progress of the linguistic communities depends on the adoption of a socio-organic model. This nationalism pays great attention to the native values created in the rural milieu. Such an ideology – always conservative, often xenophobic and anti-Semite – had many partisans in the states of the East and Central Europe.


8.       See I. Király’s story in Ileana Pintilie, Ştefan Bertalan, Constantin Flondor and Doru Tulcan (eds.) Creaţie şi sincronism european. Mişcarea artistică timişoreană a anilor ‘60-‘70 [European Creation and Synchronism. The Artistic Movement in Timişoara of the 60s-70s], (Timişoara: The Art Museum, 1991).


9.       See Andrei Pleşu’s article: “Un liceu de arta plastică şi cîteva întrebări” [An Arts Highschool and a Few Questions], in Ileana Pintilie, Ştefan Bertalan, Constantin Flondor and Doru Tulcan (eds.) Creaţie şi sincronism european. Mişcarea artistică timişoreana a anilor ‘60-‘70 [European Creation and Synchronism. The Artistic Movement in Timişoara of the 60s-70s], (Timişoara: The Art Museum, 1991).


10.   Ileana Pintilie, “Punctele cardinale ale mişcării artistice timişorene 1960-1996” [The Cardinal Points of the Artistic Movement in Timişoara] in: Experiment in arta românească după 1960 [Experiment in the Romanian Art after 1960], (Bucureşti: The Soros Center for Contemporary Art, 1997).


11.  Ion Nicolae Anghel, op.cit.


12.   William Totok, op.cit. William Totok, the dissident, the documents of the local Securitate show that he was charged because he promoted a bourgeoisie ideology in his poems and favored distrust for the law and for the totalitarian rule of Romania. According to his criminal record, file no. 2899 of 1975 by the above-mentioned police he was arrested for the offense of “propaganda against the socialist order”.


13.   Dieter Schlesak, “Kulturpolitik mit Polizeieinsatz. Marxistische Rumäniendeutsche störe die revolutionäre Ruhe ihres  <<sozialistische>> Staates”, in Frankfurter Rundschau of July 10,1976.


14.   Nikolaus Berwanger, German journalist and poet, represented all the minorities of Romania in the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party. In spite of his collaboration with the regime, he had great merits, such as having really protected many persons. The newspaper he edited for many years was the most liberal of all in Timişoara during the hard times of Ceauşescu regime.


15.  Nicu Covaci, Phoenix însă eu … [Phoenix, But Me...], (Bucharest: Nemira, 1994), p. 115.


16.   According to M. Sitaru, Rezistenţa anticomunistă. Timişoara 1956 [The Anti-Commnunist Resistance. Timisoara 1956], (Bucharest: Sophia, 1998); and T. Stanca, “Timişoara 1956. Filmul evenimentelor. Am fost printre organizatorii mişcării studenţeşti” [Timişoara 1956. The Story of the Events. I Was One of the Organizers of the Students' Unrest], in : 22 Review, (Bucharest, 1990), II, nr.44. See also A. Baghiu, “Memoriul studenţilor timişoreni din 1956. Cum a fost reprimată prima revoltă împotriva comunismului” [The memorial of the Timişoara students of 1956. How the first revolt against communism was suppressed], in: Timişoara Review (Timişoara, 1990), I, nr.124.


17.   Denis Deletant, România sub regimul comunist [Romania under the Communist Rule] (Bucharest: Fundaţia Academia Civică, 1997).




ANGHEL, I.N.,  Cartea cu Pamfil [The Book with Pamfil] (Timişoara: Amarcord, 1996).

CORBEA HOISIE, A.;  LE  RIDER, J. (eds.), Metropole und Provinzen in Altösterreich (Iaşi: Polirom – Vienna: Böhlau, 1996).

COVACI, N., Phoenix însă eu … [Phoenix, But Me...], (Bucharest: Nemira, 1994).

DELETANT, D, România sub regimul comunist [Romania under the Communist Rule] (Bucharest: Fundaţia Academia Civică, 1997).

LIEBHARDT, F., Banater Mosaik. Beiträge zur Kulturgeschichte (Bucharest: Kriterion, 1976).

MOTZAN, P, Vînt potrivit pîna la tare. Zece tineri poeţi germani din România [Moderate to Strong Wind. Ten Young German Poets of Romania], (Bucharest:  Kriterion, 1982).

NEUMANN,V., “Ebrei dopo diluvio. Gli orfani della Mitteleuropa”, in Lettera Internazionale (Roma, 1997), no. 54.

PINTILIE, I, “Punctele cardinale ale mişcării artistice timişorene 1960-1996” [The cardinal points of the artistic movement in Timişoara] in: Experiment in arta românească după 1960 [Experiment in the Romanian Art after 1960], (Bucharest: The Soros Center for Contemporary Art, 1997).

PINTILIE, I; BERTALAN, S.; FLONDOR, C; TULCAN, D. (eds.), Creaţie şi sincronism european. Mişcarea artistică timişoreană a anilor ‘60-‘70 (Timişoara: The Art Museum, 1991).

SITARIU, M., Rezistenţa anticomunistă. Timişoara 1956 [The anti-commnunist resistance. Timişoara 1956], (Bucharest: Sophia, 1998).

TOTOK,W., Aprecieri neretuşate. Eseuri, articole şi interviuri 1987-1994 [Unretouched Appreciations:Essays, articles and interviews], (Iaşi: “Al.I.Cuza” University Press, 1995).

Timişoara Newspaper, no., I, nr.124, 1990.

Altera (Tîrgu-Mureş: Liga Pro-Europa Press, 1998), No. 8.

Frankfurter Rundschau, July 10,1976.

22 Review, (Bucharest, 1990) II, nr.44, 1990.