Reminiscing about the Hungarian zoologist and histologist István Apáthy (1863–1922), the German physiologist Albrecht Bethe (1872–1954) noted his friend’s many scientific qualities alongside his ardent Hungarian nationalism. Apáthy, according to Bethe, would ‘return to sender’ any letter addressed to him at Klausenburg, the German name of the capital of Transylvania, instead of Kolozsvár (the city’s Hungarian name). This story is revealing of the solemnity with which the Hungarian scientific elite defined their ethnic loyalties in Kolozsvár at the beginning of the twentieth century. By that time, Kolozsvár/Klausenburg (Cluj in Romanian) was fully established as the main cultural and university centre of Hungarians in Transylvania and beyond. But this process of scientific nationalisation was long in the making. As demonstrated skilfully by Borbála Zsuzsanna Török’s book, the convergence between ethnicity, history and culture in Transylvania, alongside local and regional patriotism, was the outcome of a long and complex process of multilingual and multiethnic interaction that began at the end of the eighteenth century.
Mostly seen through competing Hungarian and Romanian nationalist historiographies, Transylvania has been, for a long time, very unequally (and often unfairly) treated. Perfectly equipped to write about this region’s multiethnic and multicultural past, and fluent in the main local languages (Hungarian, German and Romanian), Török has written a fascinating and provocative book, of great interest not only to historians of Hungary and Romania (and East-Central Europe more generally), but also to those working on transfer of knowledge in Europe and elsewhere. As the subtitle suggests, the aim of this study is to understand the entangled history (histoire croisée) of various traditions of knowledge the main focus of which was ‘the encyclopaedic and systematic description of the land’ (p. 2), known in German as Landeskunde and in Hungarian as honismeret. Transylvania is an ideal case-study for such an undertaking, as the homeland of at least three major ethnic communities—Germans, Hungarians and Romanians—and of at least five major Christian denominations: Catholic, Protestant, Unitarian, Greek Catholic and Greek Orthodox. Prompted by the Enlightenment’s encouragement of vernacular languages, new forms of knowledge (historical, ethnographic, linguistic and demographic) emerged at the end of the nineteenth century in Transylvania, as much a reflection of similar developments elsewhere in Europe at the time as the outgrowth of the intellectual flexibility of the Transylvanian intellectual, political and religious elites. First formulated by the Germans of Transylvania in juxtaposition with the Josephist reformist agenda, Landeskunde gradually became not only the shared cultural orientation of the educated Germans, but soon was appropriated and transformed by the Hungarian elites in Transylvania, and, to some extent, by the Romanians. Appropriately, the focus here is on the main learned societies established in Transylvania during the nineteenth century: the Saxon Association for Transylvanian Landeskunde (1842–1947), the Transylvanian Hungarian Museum Society (1859–1950) and the Transylvanian Association for Romanian Literature and the Culture of the Romanian People, 1861–1950); the latter two were re-established in 1990.
An excellent discussion in the first three chapters of the book shows how Landeskunde and honismeret served as sources not only of intellectual synchronicity, but also of culture- and identity-building. A new hierarchy had also emerged, privileging the Germans and the Hungarians over the Romanians and others in Transylvania, although, as pointed out by Török, during the first half of the nineteenth century, this scholarly structure was less about ethnicity and more about the institutionalisation of knowledge (covering areas as diverse as museums, learned societies, publications and the social mobility of local scholars).
A more radical version of Hungarian honismeret emerged after the 1848 Revolution, and especially after the incorporation of Transylvania into Hungary (1867). As outlined in Chapter Three and, especially, in Chapter Four, this transformation not only challenged the German cultural leadership in Transylvania, but also determined the nature of the Romanian cultural agenda, which from the outset was oriented less towards regional patriotism and more towards transnational cultural activities. In pursuing their increasingly competing visions of fatherland, the Transylvanian Hungarian Museum Society and the Transylvanian Association for Romanian Literature and the Culture of the Romanian People gradually developed more radical versions of ethnicity and difference. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the increased ethnicisation of cultural agendas in Transylvania led, by the early twentieth century, to intense competition between the Hungarians and the Romanians, and, to some extent, the Germans, over political rights. The much-cherished knowledge of the fatherland in Transylvania based on interspersed cultural, linguistic and religious traditions no longer seemed functional in an age of conflicting narratives of national belonging.
This is a very densely-written book, offering an astonishing amount of information and innovative ideas. It is both stimulating and invaluable as a teaching resource, and, for those interested in multiple identities, the book brings into sharp focus a range of issues relating to language reform, vernacular literature, regional politics, counter-elites and, indeed, the Hungarian–Romanian debate over Transylvania. The thorough scholarship, unbiased approach to controversial topics and use of a wide range of primary sources make this book essential reading for the historian of modern Europe.