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The Geography that Forged Our History

The Geography that Forged Our History

No. 7-8, Sep.-Dec. 2017 » Bridging News


“The school is worth as much as the professor is. A people is only worth as much as its representative personalities.”

(Simion Mehedinți, 1928) 

 “100 years” or a more pretentious name: “The Centenary” 

I do not know if we, Romanians, have a fixation for numbers, I tend to believe not, but we certainly have a penchant for inaugurations: we inaugurate whatever, in any way, just in case. We have reached the performance to crown them all, in 2018, of cutting the ribbon on a school toilet (!), or an end of a road that goes from nowhere to anywhere, and many others. We inaugurate with great pomp the openings of new “construction sites”, no matter which construction, because/although we are certain of one thing, that we will never finish them.

The recipe of the Centenary seems no different: 100 years ago our country was a cartographic fiction, almost non-existent, and then became “round like a medal” (Simion Mehedinți) – Great Romania, or “chubby” it was called – and, considering the new country borders, given by the process of territorial unification, we went to the Paris Peace Conference (1919-1920) with two delegations for one (united!) country:

Romania had one delegation, Bessarabia had its own delegation (although, its reunion with “its mother, Romania”, was voted in unanimity on the 27th of March 1918, in Parliament). “The child” over the Prut river had remained distrustful that the motherland would defend its interests at Paris, it in itself being unprepared for such a historic process… It was not a novel situation, as just half a century before the Great Union, Alexandru Ioan Cuza, the chosen ruler of the United Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia (1859), was commuting from Bucharest to Iași (both capitals): a united country, that for three years kept two parliaments, two governments and two of almost everything.

One year after the Peace Conference in Paris, the situation in Romania was as follows: Ion Gheorghe Pelivan, from the tribune of the Bessarabian Peasants’ Party (former National Moldavian Party), resounded – “We, the Bessarabians, are dreamers, idealists. We have been educated in the literary works of Puskin, Turgheniev, Dostoievski, Tolstoi, while those over the Prut river are reprobates, only thinking about easily enriching themselves!” (Adevărul, 1921) – thus, a kind of Bessarabia for Bessarabia. Across the Carpathians, Alexandru Vaida-Voevod, from the tribune of the National Peasants’ Party (former National Romanian Party in Transylvania), was affirming: Transylvania for Transylvanians! A voice from the crowd, an “anybody” called Simion Mehedinți wrote (Caiete, vol. II, 2015 postum, p. 6): “As a professor of geography and ethnography I always ask myself: … Would I nott be time for somebody to talk in the name of the state also, after having spoken so much in the name of parties, clubs, and all personal interests?”.

100 years later, Romania of the year 2018 finds itself in the following situation: the Moldavia between the rivers Prut and Dniester, accompanied by the posh appellation “Republic”, signals to West and takes to the East, being unconvinced of a repetitive unionist act (not even expressing it at a theoretical level at least), the Moldavia between the Carpathians and Prut river protests in the street to lobby for an ordinary highway that would connect it to “the country”, and Transylvania is tempted by a “high speed” railroad that would link it to… Budapest. Meanwhile, in Bucharest, an obscure minister haughtily announces from his desk, in a press conference: “The government has decided, because the Centenary projects were not entirely fulfilled [I ask myself if any were!?!?], to prolong it to 2019, eventually 2020, because, as I understood, back then, everything was finally completed only in 1920!” This is how the 101 years long, and the 102 years long century was invented… Or, putting it otherwise, we have opened an epochal “construction site” in 1918, and we have yet to finish it to the present day…

Let us return, for a moment, to our professor of “geography and ethnography”, Simion Mehedinți, who, as early as 1902, has individualized an archetype of the Romanian political character, under the name “Mr. Babble” (“Trăncănescu”, in Romanian!), making use of the replica of Mephisto, Goethe’s character from Faust – “Just where ideas are lacking, words come in time, to replace them” (Politica de vorbe și omul politic, 1920, p. 10): “On the eve of declaring war, Romania had all the forms of civilization, but the proper spiritual background was entirely lacking: parliaments without will, ministers without conscience…, heads of parties without the sense of responsibility. It is understandable there are more causes of this decrease, but the most significant one was, without a doubt, the assault of too inferior elements in the political world (Ibidem, p. 5). What is there left to add? Only that any resemblance with the present time is purely coincidental...

On the 17th of December 1918, he was writing to the King, asking for an audience concerning the following matter: “…I was hit by the stranger circumstance that, while in other ministries when governments fall, only the Secretaries-General and the minister are replaced, in Cults and Instruction [today’s ministerial portfolio of Education] almost the entire administration is changed – the Gymnasium’s principal, the subprincipals, the inspectors and even county inspectors – and I was saying: this removal without judgement nor choice… it must stop. A form of education can’t live with two heads, as the policy requires, as neither can any man nor creature live with two heads. This is why I was proposing to open professorial careers, not electoral ones, for the members of education. To ensure the stability of those careers, but a stability unblemished by political influences…”.

Back then, 100 years ago, Mehedinți was quickly disabused of his notions. He left politics for one mission alone – to make people, not laws, sententiously stating: “(…) A false education can kill faster than any virus. (…) However, I add a characteristic detail, that only experience has entirely proven it to me: a law, be it as good as it is, is only worth as much as the people that apply it. (...) Meaning science, education, culture. (...) A great school is the strongest support, more endangered now than it ever was” (Caiete, vol. II, 2015 postum, p. 16 și p. 2).

We will not belabour the obvious coincidence with present situation, we will only ask the question: has anything changed, are we different, do we look different now, a hundred years later? And in that case, what does this celebration of the Centenary of the Great Union mean for us, or what should it mean? 


“There are ages that lack the suitable person.”

(Simion Mehedinți, 1945) 

What is Romania? 

Quite many questions. And it is far from us the intention of “crushing the world’s crown of wonders” (Blaga’s sublime verse) or the historical moments that became, somewhat, conventional… Equally, we do not desire to be touched by the Pott’s disease of originality, by reinterpreting (also readable as “reinventing”) anything.

A photograph, from the inexhaustible streams of the Internet, remained stuck in my brain, earnestly persisting: the photo of a cloud. The cloud looked strikingly like Romania, having its present cartographic shape. My mind enlightened! This is exactly what Romania is like. From a geopolitical point of view, Romania as a state is a construction so volatile that it can dissipate precisely as a cloud, when a stronger breeze strikes.

For example, in 1859 (the Small Union), our state was called The United Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, with a cartographic outline that looked like a “flying eagle with its body missing” (Theobald Fischer), with its center of gravity outside the country (!); in 1862 it became The United Principalities of the Romanian Land and Moldavia, while Cuza was slowly sneaking in, through his ambassadors, the denomination of Romania, to accustom Western chanceries to this name, that became official only in 1866, in the Constitution of Carol I.

World War One reduces us, as previously mentioned, to a cartographic fiction, and the year 1918 brings us new borders, the natural ones, that were ravished again, in 1940, by the Second International Arbitration in Vienna. We find ourselves with borders in the shape of “a crocodile’s tail” (Simion Mehedinți) penetrating the body of the country until close to Brașov. Having its fate sealed by Churchill, on a paper note that was passed under Stalin’s eyes, Romania gets a slight adjustment of the borders after WW2.

If we count only from 1918, during the last century, meaning as far as three generations, grandfather - father - son (grandson), how many times have our frontiers been changed? Each one of the three generations has known a different cartographic configuration of the state called Romania.

So then, why are these things happening to us? Which are the historical mechanisms that determine such a dynamic? Could it be our geographical settlement at the periphery of Europe? We take a look upon Ukraine, a much bigger country than Romania, that has modified considerably from 2014 to 2018: losing the Crimea Peninsula (re-attached to Russia), losing the East – the separatist self-proclaimed republics Donetk and Lughansk (“New Russia”) – and, in the past few days, losing most of its access to the Black Sea by apparently being hemmed in the Azov Sea.

Cărtărescu, in his Solenoid, was right – unknowingly and without intention, he has best defined geopolitics: to want up to a thousand and to only be able up to six… The Great Powers manifest power out of reflex, reserving for themselves also the liberty of respecting or not the international law, while the others, fallen into the “six” camp, must understand geopolitics for minimizing their losses. They lose anyway, as the situation is always asymmetric. 


There are people that lack the right circumstances.

(Simion Mehedinți, 1945) 

Who are we, Romanians?   

To the question “who are we, Romanians?” or better phrased “who/what is the Romanian people?”, one of the greatest Romanian historians, Gheorghe Brătianu, answered: an enigma and a historical miracle (an expression that became the title of his book in 1940).

One century and a half under Roman occupation, a millennia of “ethnic alluviums” (who is not familiar with the famous mnemonic device from the “old school", gohugeslabulungpecutatu?, denoting the first syllables of each migratory wave crashing into the Carpathians), thus a millennia of historical anonymity, and a millennia of Transylvania being occupied, with higher or lower degrees of autonomy, another three centuries of Ottoman suzerainty, and in the middle of the 19th century we found ourselves with the Romanian people? This is Brătianu’s “miracle”, but what is the “enigma” behind the miracle? 


“I have lived with the thought of my nation, which I saw fulfilling itself like an artwork... and of Romania, round like a medal.”

(Simion Mehedinți, 1944) 

The geography that forged our history… 

When Simion Mehedinți was guided by Titu Maiorescu and Alexandru Odobescu to study geography in Paris in 1893, he could not have known that he would leave the French with their descriptive geography of the colonies across seas, to follow Friedrich Ratzel, the father of geopolitics, to Leipzig, after a short detour to Berlin, searching to get his Ph.D. with the honoured teacher (1885). And, just so, he could not have known that, understanding nothing of the occidental science, tired and stale beyond measure, sent by Ratzel himself to a resort in the Alps to recover, he would follow his own advice and went home to the Carpathians, home, in Soveja (1896-1898). Freed by the academic canons, in a meadow in Soveja, he understood what he could not understand of the Western education. He returns to Leipzig and submitted his Ph.D. thesis, entitled On the cartographic induction. On the 3rd of November 1900, he teaches his first geography course at the University of Bucharest – the birth of Romania’s (modern) academic geography.

The disease started healing: “…those that knew the shores of Seine better than those of the Danube (…) were living thinking of utopias rather than historical realities” (Simion Mehedinți, Ofensiva națională, 1913, p. 20). He changed the perspective: the Romanian space was not seen and understood from the occidental perspective anymore, but from the middle of its own horizon, from the Carpathians, the Danube and the Black Sea.

The Carpathians stopped being seen as a “spine”, that cancelled the existence of the Apuseni Mountains, and that made them susceptible of bearing a natural frontier. A peculiar geological accident (the intersection of four tectonic microplates) gave the Carpathians a unique shape on the Globe: round like a hearth (it has profound meanings if we think about the role of the hearth and fire in the history of human civilization). The mountain chain on the western maps has transformed into a series of low-altitude rocks, with bevelled peaks (“the peneplains” from the poem “Miorița”), circularly arranged, around a large depression, a true cultural and civilizational hearth, in which the Romanian people were sown – the only European nation that knows no other place of formation but the Carpathians. Neither do they know an exact date for becoming Christians. While the Romans believed in mens sana in corpore sano, the Dacian believed exactly the opposite, that there cannot be a healthy body without a healthy soul. In addition, the immortality of the soul was a daily belief in this place, before the birth of Jesus.

The round shape of the Carpathians has imposed the round shape of the ethnical basis of our nation, of our country, of the national territory of the Romanian state. And regardless of the historical vicissitudes, they have always reunited under the approximate same frontiers and shape: Dacia (in Antiquity), in 1600 (under Michael the Brave), 1918 (King Ferdinand I) and up to today’s Romania. The geography’s revenge (not Kaplan’s) on history… The characteristics of the Romanian Carpathians made them unsuitable for any artificial political borders.

If the Carpathians had a genetic role in the existence of the Romanian state, we must highlight the fact that the bright periods of the nation in the Carpathians were tightly bound to the access to Danube and the Black Sea. And the other way around, anytime in history when we lost access to the Danube and its maritime extension, we lost our independence, and the political serfdom began.

Without the Carpathians, the course of Romanians’ history would not have endured here, at the margin of Europe, as an island in the way of the storms, in a real geopolitical vice.

The 100th anniversary from the last reunion must not let us forget, as a folk, as a nation, as a country, as a state, that we exist thanks to the Carpathians, and that we are a nation of appreciable size, independent and free, thanks to the Danube and the Black Sea.

Editor’s note:
For Romanian-speaking readers, the argument of the article is developed in: Marius Neacșu (Ed.). 2018. România 1918-2018. Un secol de frământări geopolitice. București: Editura ASE.
Photo credit:
Răzvan Dumitru (detail from the front cover of the abovementioned book).


The Romanian-American Foundation for the Promotion of Education and Culture (RAFPEC)
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