Interview conducted by Dr. Anca Șincan for the series 45 pentru 45* at the La Punkt magazine
Can you tell the Romanian public in a few words who Gábor Egry is?
I was born in Hungary with no family connections to Romania or Hungarians from Romania. Since I was twelve or so, I wanted to be a historian, and so far I have not deviated from this goal of mine. I graduated from ELTE, Budapest, and earned my PhD there too in 2006. Initially I was interested in the history of financial institutions, and I wrote my dissertation on the role of the Transylvanian Saxon financial institutions in the national movement until 1914. But—partly as an obligation to my institute—I switched to topics pertaining more to nationalism and national identity among minority Hungarians, later more broadly in East-Central Europe.
Since 2002 I have worked at the Institute of Political History, the legal successor institute of the Institute for the History of the Party before 1989. It is a small and private institute, devoted to modern history, the history of the workers’ movement, and the left. (We are still sometimes called Communist, although next year the last of my colleagues who worked there before 1989 will retire. I will be the oldest and most experienced researcher, with my 43 years.) Throughout the years I climbed the career ladder, and since 2017 I’m director of the institute too.
Meanwhile, I’ve received fellowships at New Europe College, Bucharest (I loved to be in Bucharest for half a year); Imre Kertész Kolleg, Jena; the Center for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies, Stanford University (via Fulbright); and the Institut für Ost- und Südosteuropaforschung, Regensburg. I’ve held scholarships from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and grants from the Hungarian National Research Fund—most of these were to analyze everyday ethnicity, local society, and nationalism in interwar Romania and Czechoslovakia, a topic I was working on even before finishing my PhD until 2015.
Initially, I was not publishing much abroad or in English, but it gradually happened that I did so just by developing more numerous and stronger ties with colleagues in the world. So you can find a growing number of publications of mine that, finally, not only Hungarian colleagues can read. Since 2014, I’ve been working on a project that was also imagined to be a pilot project—a comparison of local transitions from Austria-Hungary to the successor states. And miraculously, last year I got an ERC Consolidator Grant to broaden this endeavor to the whole defunct Habsburg Monarchy.
As neighboring countries with national territorial claims upon one another and historiographical wars fought all over the world, Romania and Hungary have thematic research intersections for a growing group of researchers to focus on. A growing body of literature is coming out of these intersections. Where is Gábor Egry positioning himself in this current narrative?
I had a recent experience with a documentary on Hungarians in Romania, aired recently, as part of a kind of informational campaign at the hundred-year anniversary of Greater Romania’s foundation. I was one of the experts interviewed, and shortly after it was presented an article on the website historia.ro criticized it heavily as a traditionally Hungarian, somewhat revisionist, and anti-Romanian work. (I do not think it was justified criticism, apart from some minor points, but it is not about refuting it here.) I was not identified as the main culprit (I wasn’t even named, unlike my colleague Csaba Zahorán), but it was still a bit awkward. In this case, not many of my thoughts explained in the documentary were left (for example, the director cut what I said about Archbishop Metianu’s nephew who was chief prosecutor of Brasov county in 1917–1918 and instrumental in all trials of Romanians accused of collaboration with the Romanian occupation in 1916, and who always insisted on harsh sentences that were commuted or reduced by the military court in Cluj as an appellate court), but what I tried to explain was always a narrative that deviates both from the Hungarian and the Romanian canonical narratives. Even from the more recent and moderate ones.
Thus, I consider myself a “revisionist” in both countries, but not for the sake of gaining publicity or debunking myths. One of the main threads I encounter in almost all of my research is the dubious quality and self-serving nature of all claims of oppression and suffering as a general, all-encompassing experience of minority societies before WWII if contrasted with the situation on the ground. I’m not asserting that minority individuals were not subject to abuses or their rights were not restricted, either in Hungary or in Romania. But to relate their story and portray their life as permanent suffering is problematic, not least because states were not homogeneous, just as these minority groups were diverse. Sometimes a different experience was conditioned on peculiarity, like that of the Greek Catholic Maramures nobility, an important part of the county elite well before 1918 and also after the “Great Union,” who were also reluctant to give up their Hungarian contacts and cultural habits. But one can also find it in Lugoj, or Caransebes. But—and this is mostly the case in Greater Romania—it was often the result of differences within the state. Just because there was a law, a decree, a ministerial order aimed at restricting the lives of minorities, it did not necessarily mean it was executed duly and properly.
Agents of the state had room to manoeuvre and some wriggle room to interpret the rules and the ideas legitimizing the state. Or they just simply realized that something is unrealistic, like the police in the city of Abrud in 1938 when they were instructed to stop sending laconic monthly reports to Bucharest on Hungarian irredentist activism. (The regular police report was always the same two-sentence paragraph: “The Hungarians did what they used to, nothing specific.”) Instead, their superiors argued, they should follow closely and report in detail everything Hungarians did because every Hungarian society, all Hungarian activities, were manifestations and means of irredentist propaganda and conspiracy. The local police bowed to the instruction and changed the reports. Starting with the next one, the reports were always the same sentences: “The Hungarians did what they used to, but as we all know that every Hungarian activity is irredentism, the police devote intense attention to them.”
You can see from these examples why I flatter myself of being a revisionist of both historiographies. What strikes me, and what is exemplified for me by the article mentioned above, is that even if one is inclined to offer a narrative that is more positive towards either party, its reception depends more on how one tackles some ingrained building blocks of national consciousness. My perception of interwar Romania is less negative than that of most of my Hungarian colleagues and one would expect it to be received well in Romanian historiography, but as I think it was a development grown out of a much better situation of certain Romanian social and regional groups in dualist Hungary (i.e., they were not subject to full-fledged oppression, they could even be important parts of local and county elites, cooperate with the Hungarian government, etc.), it is not necessarily embraced wholeheartedly by Romanian historians. But it is true for Hungarians as well. They would probably love to nuance the portrayal of dualist Hungary’s nationalities policies making it look less oppressive, just because I argue that the so-called “trauma of Trianon”—a crucial element of the politics of identity and memory in Hungary which did not exist as a social phenomenon encompassing the whole Hungarian society—was rather a cultural trauma mediated by social actors who were either affected negatively by the peace treaty or hoped to gain social and political advantages. It often happens that not even my argument concerning dualism is taken well.
But I do not want to seem to be a martyr. I’m aware of the existence of researchers, and not just individual champions but a growing number of them, who are ready to tackle sensitive issues, who are competent in doing it. So, I’m not a pioneer, neither do I think that I’m standing somewhere right in the middle. But I do think I can offer some ideas that would further this common cause of ours. What I think we can and should do is first to apply a longer-term perspective (not simply comparing the periods before and after 1918 but focusing on ruptures and continuities) and to find ways to reveal practical entanglements too. The latter is what I attempted to do earlier with focusing on the different facets (everyday and political) of Transylvanian regionalism, Hungarian and Romanian alike. It was fascinating to see how ordinary people used a common cultural code and habitus for drawing boundaries towards people from outside of the province and how it was even part of regionalist discourses, too. (Like Alexandru Vaida Voevod arguing that he was always a free man because he held a Hungarian noble title and was not liberated by some Bucharest liberals.) I find it extremely fascinating and illuminating. This is the starting point of my present research, too, to find these entanglements at the local level, where it was often obscured by heated nationalist rhetoric.
There are but few ERC projects that focus on Romania. You are the principal investigator in one of them. Can you tell us briefly what the project is about?
It’s probably an exaggeration to say that the NEPSOTRANS project focuses on Romania, but it lends significant attention to it. The idea is to make thorough comparative analyses of local and regional transitions from Austria-Hungary to its successor states in order to develop a typology as a basis of generalizing the findings and a template for further research on what I call post-imperial transition. The project entails 9 regions, two and a half from Romania. (The half one is the Galicia-Bukovina borderland—our colleague, Dr. Elisabeth Haid, will lay the emphasis on the Galician side of the border, but still include Bukovina.) These do not simply serve as case studies but also examples of specific geographic, social, and economic contexts. Maramures is a backward, mountainous, dominantly agricultural area with a high share of peculiar Jewish populations and a Romanian elite that was well-integrated into dualist Hungary. The southern Banat is also mountainous, but more industrialized (and includes the peculiar port city of Orsova too). Thus, these regions are of the same importance for the project as the other ones, and we will also study cases that are better covered by the existing literature and/or invite people to contribute to the project with their own, ongoing research too.
We intend to cover four so-called key themes from this local perspective: (1) state, state-building and state-society relations; (2) local elites and their diverse challengers; (3) ethnicity; and (4) local discourses of the transition, and how these relate local worlds to the broader ones. The time frame is from remobilization to the—temporary—state consolidations at the end of the 1920s, and the main issue we are interested in is how local societies embedded into an imperial framework and state structure negotiated their position with nation-states. The comparison will not be the usual one: we will first develop so-called intercrossings (the main analytical units and objects of histoire croisée) and compare them, not just single institutions, structures, networks, phenomena.
I hope to gain insights into long-term transformations and short-term processes too, and to learn more about how these societies lived and operated before 1918 and how this legacy impacted their subsequent trajectories. Again, I flatter myself that it is a very complex framework, uniting different historical approaches (social, political, and economic history, historical sociology, anthropology, etc.) that will yield knowledge relevant beyond history too, most importantly regarding states and statehood. What is an empire? What is a nation-state? How do they operate in reality? Such questions are the most important ones in this regard.
A nine-member team will work on the project, everyone looking at one region (I will study the southern Banat). We will hold workshops, a conference devoted to every key theme, and publish thematic volumes and a final monograph, the latter as a real collaborative work with collaborative authorship. Therefore, no one working on local and regional histories from this period should be surprised if he or she receives an invitation from us. ?
Doing research in Romania, what are some of the insights you could offer young researchers about to embark on their work?
Expect a mess in the archives and never stop looking for further sources due to laziness or because what you had seen so far was just useless, repetitive, or simple administrative stuff. Romania’s archives, not just the Bucharest ones but the territorial sections of the National Archives, keep a rich treasure that is poorly treated. I’m not in a position to judge why, but compared to how archival material is organized in other countries I have done research, Romania offers unorganized, unselected, unevaluated material, often in the state it was left by the respective state organs that generated or collected the documents or as it was later stored in their institutional archives. Sometimes it is a logical system, but very often it isn’t. Nevertheless, with persistence many unexpected treasures will be unearthed and I suggest not to stop and presume you have seen everything just because one set of documents reinforced your hypothesis.
Once I was looking for material on language exams in Bucharest and there were two dossiers with consecutive registration numbers indicated to hold documents in this regard. The first one was what you would expect, dismissal of minority public servants and the related documentation. The second one, however, consisted of documents on the aftermath of the exams and a lot of information on how the Romanian prefects wanted to save their minority subordinates from being laid off. They even cheated with exams, turned to pensioning, or engaged in protracted legal battles with their superiors in the government. From these documents—exam results, essays with corrections, correspondence, etc.—and from comparing the supposed results with lists of minority public servants from a few years later, it was clear that local Romanians rather wanted to defend minority officials. A non-Romanian and non-Hungarian colleague, whom I will not name here, had written extensively on these exams. But looking at the sheet listing the users of the files attached to the dossiers, it was obvious that he initially had looked at the first one—and probably being reinforced in his original conceptualization of what happened, did not look at the second one with the “juicy” documents. So, finally, I was the lucky one to write an article, published in Slavic Review last year, reinterpreting the language exams and the situation of minority public officials in interwar Romania.
I have found a large number of Romanian colleagues, from the younger and from the middle-aged generations, who are open minded, well-educated, and keen to follow the latest development in terms of theory and methodology, and with whom interaction has greatly benefited me and broadened my horizon. I also try to follow developments in the broader social sciences (my own curiosity for everyday ethnicity was triggered by sociologists Rogers Brubaker, Margit Feischmidt, Jon Fox, Liana Grancea, and their work on Cluj), often through my existing contacts from NEC and from CEU, Budapest. This is a thriving a world and I encourage everyone to engage with it!
As for the professional environment, I have rather positive experiences, but I was in a sense privileged—my stay at NEC was the basis to foster connections that I can still rely on, and I also tend to be less insistent and more patient. With time, one can find the right contacts and partners and circumvent institutions that would try to impose their own, traditional, national interpretation. On the other hand, if you have credentials, use them. These Eastern European professional contexts are still much based on authority and showing of some credentials can help you to overcome initial resistance. On the other hand, always be polite and trust the ladies in the archives (it is indeed striking how feminine this occupation is in Romania!); they really want to help and not hinder you.
I know that since the ERC project is only now starting any future plans will be connected with it. Still can you tell us what is next for Gábor Egry?
In the next years the ERC project will occupy most of my time, I fear. Although I try to keep up with developments in other fields I have studied (mainly politics of memory), I’m resigned to the fact that among the present circumstances in Hungary I will probably have to deal with broader issues of public significance. However, it is probably not that tragic, at least it will force me to think of new methods to connect with the public and leave the ivory tower of historians.
As for further research, there is nothing that has crystallized so far. Earlier, all of my new topics grew out of the previous ones relatively logically, but this time I have a sense that somehow this project will be the last one devoted to this period and to my favorite topic today: ethnicity. I would consider writing a synthetic historical account as the next proper challenge for myself, something that is another stage of a historian’s career, beyond what I have achieved so far. But meanwhile I have some pet ideas to write at one point later, like a history of interwar Bucharest, organized around the material yielded from a close surveillance of a journalist. Or the history of three cities, three different Cluj/Kolozsvárs (the refugee one in Turda and Sibiu, the returning one from Hungary, and the “local” one, the city of the Hungarians who had just regained political dominance with all of their minority experience and had to confront both the newcomers and the looming threat of Romanian “irredentist” refugees) between 1940 and 1944.
I also hope that finally I will get a foothold within higher education too. Working in a private research institute has its luxurious side: one can devote most of his time to research, not be bogged down by administration and teaching, not be restricted with applications, etc. But I’m confident that after having spent almost two decades as a historian (since the start of my doctoral studies) I could probably give something to the new generation, tell something about how to be a good historian. There is one thing, however, that I did not consider so far and do not see myself considering in the near future: abandoning history.