Gábor, Egry, October 21st, 2019
Francis Joseph’s statue was initially a very controversial piece of public art in the city of Karánsebes/Karansebesch/Caransebes. Once the seat of a border regiment (which was disbanded in 1876), the region gave a series of well-known and loyal officers and generals to the Habsburg army, and the population of the city— predominantly Romanians and Germans—cultivated the memory of their heroic feats. However, the plan for the erection of a statue to Francis Joseph in the city of Caransebes was originally received coldly by Romanian nationalists, who saw it as sign of voluntary submission to Magyarization. Leaders of the Romanian national movement even organized peasant protests against it, but nonetheless the statue was unveiled amid huge festivities by Archduke Joseph in October 1906.1
Thirteen years later, after the city finally came under Romanian rule, the new authorities were quick to remove Francis Joseph from the marble pedestal in the central park of the city, a move vocally disapproved of by the local Romanians.2 For a while no one really seemed interested in the fate of the bronze statue, nor in erecting anything on its empty pedestal. Until, that is, a military inspection of the voluntary firefighter association’s storage rooms in 1924 accidentally revealed the metal emperor hidden in a corner.3 (As hidden as a 2.75 meter tall statue could ever be…) This discovery set in motion the administrative chain of command and soon the city was ordered to transfer the statue to the military arsenal in Bucharest, where it was supposed to be melted down and used for the purposes of the army. Someone, however—allegedly from the city council—had an even better idea: the old statue could be repurposed into a new statue of the king of Greater Romania, Ferdinand I.4 As we shall see, this version of the story, which was presented in the press, was hardly true; in fact, a government order from 1925 commanded the city to erect a statue for the king, Ferdinand I, and for this purpose use the material from the Francis Joseph monument. Nothing happened, however, and the mayor was again reminded of his duty in 1926, when he replied that due to the financial crisis it was impossible for the city to come up with the necessary funds. Another reminder came a year later and was met with the same reply, but the situation became more serious for the reluctant city in 1928. The usual elusive answer satisfied neither the Ministry of Interior nor the Ministry of Defense, and the city was forced to start working on a solution.
Although process set in motion may have appeared more earnest than the earlier rejections of the project, for an observer trained in the public events of dualist Hungary (a period that was crucial for the socialization of most of the city’s politicians) it reflects an eerily familiar set of tactics of delayal that were often a target of jokes before 1918. The city—with rhetorical flourish abounding in its resolution—set up a commission, consisting of the county prefect, the mayor, and an ever-larger number of local notables. At its first session, the committee, which had grown to include even more local notables among its members, decided to invite Constantin Argetoianu, the current minister of agriculture and a seasoned political turncoat, to become the honorary president of the committee.
They also requested that he propose sculptors for the statue, as he—the Bucharest gentleman—would be more familiar with the best artists of the country. In light of the preceding developments, it is hard not to see the activities of the committee as simple delaying tactics employing every available means to maintain the status quo. Already at its first session, one of the members argued that the pedestal of the original statue—where the Romanian king’s monument was to be erected—was unsuitable. He pointed out that the Francis Joseph statue was placed in the city in a Hungarian spirit at a location only suitable to express its anti-Romanian character. It was facing Romania as an enemy and presenting the emperor as the defender of the Banat against the Romanians. Thus, a similar set up of the Romanian king’s statue would demean the unifier of the Romanians. (In reality, the statue was simply at the corner of the city’s main square, at the edge of a park and facing the main street that even today leads from the Catholic church to the most important public buildings surrounding the park.)
Nevertheless, the growing pressure on the committee made them initiate action, and the mayor contacted Argetoianu, who recommended a sculptor from Bucharest. Plans were prepared for the statue, while another artist made an official offer as well. Fortunately (for the city council, that is), budget calculations showed that the statue would cost around 500,000 lei, even while using the bronze from the Francis Joseph statue. And even more fortunately, Argetoianu’s candidate found the original monument to be in a state of deterioration, making its material unsuitable for reuse. Still, even with the successful prolonging of the design process and with the favorable expert opinion on the unsuitability of the bronze, it is safe to assume that committee members were relieved to hear of the fall of the liberal government and Argetoianu with it in November 1928.
It took more than a year to come to the matter again under the new National Peasant Party administration. Things came to a head in the spring of 1930 and took another surprising turn when, after another order insisting on the melting of the Francis Joseph statue, the interim city administration (an unelected group consisting of appointees on the basis of party loyalty, usually made up of loyalists of the actual governing party) abandoned the evasive delaying tactics. Instead, the five-member Comisia interimara issued a resolution stating that the commission had evaluated the statue and found that it had extraordinary artistic value. Designed by János Fadrusz and after his sudden death realized by one of his disciples, Rezső Gál Rollinger, the statue was to be preserved. And somewhat surprisingly, the incoming, elected city council stood by the decision and asserted the property rights of the city over the statue, even in the face of claims made by the army. Through 1931—the year that the latest document in the file was produced—the statue remained in the voluntary firefighters’ storage. No statue of a Romanian king was erected on the empty pedestal. Only in 1943, during Ion Antonescu’s tenure and in the shadow of his ethnocratic state, did there appear on this spot the figure of General Ion Dragalina, a soldier from the last generation of the erstwhile border regiment, who left Habsburg service for that of Romania and died in November 1916.
- Egy még föl nem állított szobor. Pesti Hírlap, vol. 27., nr. 251., September 10, 1905. p. 32–34.; Városok Lapja, vol. 1. nr. 7., October 15, 1906. p. 8.
- 2 Central Historical Archives of the Romanian National Archives, Bucharest, Fond Direcția Generală a Poliției 8/1919, 240. f.
- 3 The archival material offering a glimpse into the events detailed below is found in the Caraș-Severin County Section of the Romanian National Archives, Fond Primaria Orașului Caransebeș, dosar 14/1924-1929.
- 4 Ellenzék, vol. 45, nr. 242. October 25, 1924. p. 4.