Home » Banat » General Information » In Search for the Lost Banat   

Vasile Docea

In Search for the Lost Banat

1.The guilty traveller’s Banat

            The unsuspecting traveller, in search for new adventures, attempting at discovering unknown worlds or exploring exotic lands, is only an invention of our imagination. And I don’t mean here the traveller himself, as we all go from one place to another, for longer or shorter periods of time; I mean his unsuspicious nature. Let us simply admit that such an innocent traveller does not exist. The discoveries he makes – or pretends he makes – are a novelty for no one, not even himself. What he notices are things he already knows he is looking for and waiting to find. Any traveller bears, like a sort of guilt, his own horizon of expectation, which, in fact, belongs to the wider horizon of the milieu he is part of and the period he lives in.
            Travelling in the Banat today – a region which, generally speaking, is confined, in the north, by the river Maros, in the west by the river Tisza, in the south by the Danube, and in the east by the western part of the Middle Carpathians, with the small river Cerna – is totally different from what it was like one or two hundred years ago. And I don’t mean here the comfort of the trip or even the condition of the landscape, which are, obviously different. I mean, first of all, the traveller himself. His horizon of expectation is different today. He knows from the very beginning he won’t cross one province alone, but three different countries: Romania, Serbia and Hungary. For him, the Banat is no longer Banat,  it is no longer a single territory. He expects to find a Romanian one, a Serbian one, and a smaller Hungarian one. Each of them with its own borders. Borders that exist not only on the „field” or on political maps. Embedded in his mind (as well as in ours), they direct his senses and manipulate his thinking.
            In the 18th and the 19th century, travelling in the Banat meant, in fact, staying within the borders of one country only. One expected to find – and did so – only one Banat, the province at the south-eastern extremity of the Habsburg properties. The perspectives could vary, according to the route and the direction one took while crossing the rectangular region, with a surface of 27,721 square km[1], almost the size of Belgium today or one third of Portugal.
            If one crossed the region along the Danube, as many did[2], one would have immediately gone for the aquatic image of the Banat. A Viennese painter, Ludwig Ermini[3], coming down the river in the years 1823-1824, produced thirtylithographies of a Banat where he saw more water than land. His aquatic Banat spreads from Panciova (near Belgrade) to the West and Orșova to the East[4]. The drawings present a conventional nature, whose shape exists more in the artist’s mind than on the field. The characters adopt postures premeditated by the engraver. Similar to characters on an opera stage, they only appear in order to play an extra role in Ermini’s graphic compositions, to contribute to the harmony and equilibrium of the tableau. The Romanians, often accompanied by various alcohol containers, are fishermen, shepherds or farmers, while their wives are invariably holding the distaff and one or more children. One immediately spots the Turks due to their equally conventional equipment, including the turban, the rifle and the shisha, while the Germans wear the urban suit while walking, in pairs, in the streets of Hercules’ Baths. Georg Karl Borromäus Rumy’s texts, which accompany Ermini’s illustrations, are „constructed” in a similar manner. In fact, their author didn’t bother to sail down the Danube himself. His journey is imaginary, based on other authors’ books and on Ermini’s engravings. He mistakes, among others, Baziaș, inhabited by Serbians, on the Danube, the location of an Orthodox monastery, with Buziaș, inhabited by Romanians, situated farther to the North. The Banat he is describing is a bookish one, full of confusions and details one would have never encountered on the field.
            The Danube route in the Banat was later followed by a series of 19th century French artists – Michel Bouquet, Auguste Raffet, Lancelot –, whose works show different images of the same lands, images which also share the aquatic element[5]. Fewer artists preferred the Banat on dry land, and among them Théodore Valério[6]. In 1854-1855, travelling from the north to the south, from Oradea, beyond the northern frontier of our county, to Orșova, Valério is not very interested in the landscape, but in the people. His portraits remake the route crossing Arad and Lipova by the river Maros, Lugoj by the river Timiș, but also the villages in the area. The human geography he is shaping is a selective one, as the artist prefers the exotic characters. His Banat is one of exoticism at any cost: Romanian shepherds in long coats, of Gypsy fiddlers and of long-haired peasants in extremely baggy clothes.
            The traveller who is dissatisfied with the idea of crossing the Banat at a run, from the west to the east or from the north to the south, can only settle down for a while in a certain place, preferably in the capital city of Timișoara, where from he can move around the entire region. This is what the Venetian Francesco Griselini did, for example, between 1774 and 1777. His book, Attempted Political and Natural History of the Timișoara Banat, printed in a first edition in Italian, in 1780, then, in the same year, in a German translation[7], presents the observations made by the author during his repeated explorations of the region, but is more than a mere travel note. Quantitatively, it is more because the author, in the first half of the book, remakes the history of the Banat, starting with the Roman history, using many sources of all kinds. Qualitatively, it is less than a travel note as, when Griselini transforms himself into an ethnologist, he presents a conventional, generical Banat, an average of his observations, adjusted with the help of references taken from other authors. The scientific obsession of the period prevents him from describing things as he sees them and pushes him towards overgeneralizations. In the ethnological part of the study, he doesn’t talk about the inhabitants in particular, but about a generic Romanian and a conventional Gypsy. His idealized characters have a series of qualities impossible to find, in reality, in the same person. Having the ambition of turning travel into science, he prefers empty and pointless overgeneralizations and rejects the detail, the vivid particular example.
            Griselini is himself a guilty traveller, by virtue of his judging the world he visits from the perspective of his own world’s values. What interests him is to find and describe the things that are in opposition with what he knows from home. In Griselini’s time, the period of the Enlightenment, western Europe is about to define its identity, centred around the concept of civilization[8]. But identity is defined not only by being aware of one’s own qualities, but also – maybe more so – by placing the others at a distance. The others’ flaws are, in fact, the absence of those traits you think you have, which you call qualities and which you think are essential for civilization. The attraction the westerners have for exoticism during the Enlightenment stems from the need to find an opposite pole, something that would consolidate their own identity. For Griselini, civilization meant the sum of concepts such as education, cleanliness, hygiene, comfort, order, respect for the law, pragmatism. Since the Banat was at the south-eastern end of the Austrian monarchy, thus at the border with the East, he thought he would necessarily find here all the traits that make the East different.
            That is why the ethnological part of his study begins with an extensive chapter devoted to the Gypsies, though they represented, as he himself admits, only 1.66% of the population in the Cameral Banat (without the territory of the frontier regiments). The Gypsies he finds in the Banat – where, it seems, they came from Egypt, being a combination of Egyptians, Ethiopians, and primitive populations! – are dirty, live on a shoestring, are promiscuous, unstable, and when they do have homes, they are mere huts dug in the ground; they steal and rob and have no respect for the law. But the Romanians are not treated gently either. After noticing that they are „the most numerous of all the nations working in the Banat” – 57% of the population of the Cameral Banat – and that they are the Romans’ descendants („followers of the famous nation who was equally skilled at handling the plough and the sword”), he draws the contemporaries’ attention that they
            „have fallen now into a profound barbary: primitive and ignorant, full of physical and moral flaws”.
            Griselini’s dirty and promiscuous Gypsies and the primitive and ignorant Romanians are the reversed image of the western prejudice about what civilization should mean; they stand for a sort of anti-civilization.

2. The Banat as a name

            The name of the region has nothing to do with its inhabitants’ origin, ethnicity, language, or religion, as it is the case in many other places. The origin of the place name of the Banat is still a matter of controversy. Some claim it comes from the root of a verb present in the language of several Germanic nations, ban, meaning „to procclaim” or „to announce”. It was then imported in medieval Latin, as bannum, which means – for the Franks, for example – „proclamation”, but also the „district” where that proclamation would be implemented.
            Others consider that ban comes from Persian, where it means „master”. From there, it was taken by the Avars and brought to the Panonian region, where they ruled in the 6th and the 7th centuries. The same population is held responsible for yet another interpretation, according to which the origin of the word ban could be found in the name of a great military leader, Bajan Khagan[9]. These opinions are contradicted by those who believe that ban comes from an old proto-Indoeuropean root, bha, which means „to speak”. Last but not least, another opinion considers the term ban to have a Slavic origin. The position of the ban apparently existed in the communities of southers Slavs, in the regions of Croatia and Bosnia, even before the arrival of the Hungarians , who borrowed it from them[10].
            Irrespective of their origin – Germanic, proto-Indoeuropean, Persian, Avar or Slavic –, the terms ban and Banat were used in the south-eastern European Middle Ages to denote a military-administrative function, as well as the territory where this function was valid. In the south-eastern part of Europe there were, in those times, several Banats. In Croatia there were officials called Ban, and so were in Bosnia, whose territory was called a Banovina. In the region, the term Ban seems to have been what Markgraf was in the Germanic space, the ruler of a frontier land, with important military responsibilities.
            In the Middle Ages, between the kingdom of Hungary and the principality of Wallachia there was the Banat of Severin, now under the lordship of Hungarian kings – who had probably given its name –, now in the jurisdiction of Wallachian princes. It contained only the south-eastern part, by the Danube, of the later Banat, during the Austrain rule.
            After the Hungarian armies’ defeat at Mohacs, in 1526, the territory between the Maros, the Tisza, the Danube and the Carpathians, so far organized in several Hungarian counties, fell in the hands of the Ottomans.[11]. The war between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans between 1716-1718 brought the region under the lordship of the Court of Vienna[12].
            Once the Austrian rule was installed, the term Banat became the official name of the province whose welfare was in the hands of the „Kaiserliche Banater Landes-Administration”. It was only in 1778 that the region got under Hungarian administration again, being organized again in counties (Temes, Torontal and Karasso), losing its previous name. But the name Banat was preserved for a part of the former province.Even before this date, the „Banat Military Frontier” had been organized along the Danube and the eastern border of the province, with two regiments – German-Banat and Illyrian-Romanian –, which would remain under the direct command of Vienna until it was dissolved, in 1872.
            The term Banat became an official name again in 1849. At that moment, the Court of Vienna added the Serbian Voyvodina to the three counties, becoming a single province, with the name „the Serbian Voyvodina and the Timiș Banat”, having its administrative centre in Timișoara. After the compromise of the Austro-Hungarian dualism in 1867, when the territory became administered by Hungary, the name Banat lost its official character, the region being called the Southern Hungary (Dél-Magyarorság).

            Banat did not become the administrative name of the province again after 1918, when the old historical province was divided among Romania (2/3), Serbia (1/3) and Hungary (1%). Only for a short period of time, during the communist regime, between 1960 and 1968, the western part of Romania, with the present counties of Timiș and Caraș-Severin and a part of the county of Arad, had the official name of „the Banat Region”.
            Even though the administrative function has disappeared, the name Banat is still in use on the territory surrounded by the Maros, the Tisza, the Danube and the Carpathians. From a geographical point of view, the area bearing this name is a very well shaped one. On the other hand, it has a strong historical value, related especially to the Austrian period, when the region was a whole, unseparated by politics, under a single rule. Last but not least, the Banat survived as an identity structure for the inhabitants of the region. The Romanians living here call themselves Banatians, the Serbians consider themselves „Banat Serbians”, while the Germans call themselves „Banaterschwaben”, identifying the Banat with the „Heimat”. Perhaps that is why the region kept its name alive, despite the administrative lack: it doesn’t bear the name of any of its inhabiting communities. It therefore belongs to everybody.

3. The locals’ Banat

            The construction of identity is a complicated process of selection, in which the collective memory has a leading role. Our collective memory is responsible for the selection, from the ocean of past facts and the long series of personal experiences, what it deems specific, rejecting what it considers unspecific. In the Banat’s construction of identity, the moment when the Turkish rule turned into Austrian administration, in 1718, played the role of a founding act. The mechanism of collective memory accepts as an identity landmark the period after 1718, denying the previous one.
            This mechanism can be noticed in the very first Romanian chronicler of the province, Nicolae Stoica of Hațeg (1751–1833). In his chronicle, written between 1826 – 1827, he presents the two successive administrations in the Banat in black and white. The replacement of the Turkish administration with the Austrian one is conceived as an escape from barbary and admittance to civilization.
            „Until this peace – the chronicler writes, evoking the 1718 Turkish-Austrian Passarowitz treaty – the Timișoara Banat had been tossing and turning under Turkish tyranny for 164 years! The inhabitants had fled, leaving the land deserted, only with the old swamps and ponds, while the wilderness had taken possession of the whole region”.
            The waters covered the province, making it impossible to inhabit. But the waters and swamps weren’t the only problem, since they brought with them „many a disease, malaria and plague epidemics”. The marshes were full of repulsive creatures, such as „snakes, bugs, mosquitoes, frogs”, but there were also wild beasts, some of them frightening: „wolves, bears, stags, boars, hares, foxes, wild cats”.[13] Nicolae Stoica of Hațeg was an Orthodox priest, and his imaginary bestiary is a specific one. When he creates a dark image, he makes use of Biblical archetypes: the flood, epidemics, fierce creatures. In his work, the image of the Turkish Banat has all the ingredients of an apocalyptical world.
            For the new Austrian administration after 1718, ruled by the governor Count Claude Florimond Mercy d’Argenteau, our chronicler reserves only positive opinions. During his administration, Catholic and Orthodox churches are built, as well as schools, the river courses are regulated, the agriculture becomes competitive, towns are expanded and the citadels are consolidated, roads and markets are built, factories and public edifices are erected. The colonizers’ arrival is, in Nicolae Stoica of Hațeg’s view, one of those positive actions:
            „there was a lot of deserted, wild land in the Banat plains and when Mercy learnt about it, in 1730, he had colonies established here, so the Germans first, then the Italians and the Spaniards came to the Banat, building new villages”.[14]
            In short, the chronicler suggests that, once the Austrian administration is installed, the Banat is admitted to the civilized world.
            The same period of the Austrian administration is responsible for the shaping of the multiethnic and multiconfessional character of the region. The demographic policy between 1718-1918 led, on the one hand, to the multiplication by five of the local population, and, on the other hand, to the radical transformation of the ethnic and religious structure[15]. Each group created its own identity but, in time, a regional identity was also constructed. The problems caused by the intercultural communication of the region were dealt with, in time, at the level of regional identity, by imposing the concept of tolerance. Once again, the collective memory worked selectively, rejecting the conflicts of the past and embracing the experiences that could be used as pleas for mutual understanding, peaceful cohabitation and cooperation.
            The 18th century colonizations occasioned the contact between the Romanian communities in the older settlemets and the „foreign” ones, mostly with the German community in the new villages. Despite the diversity of mutual contacts and attitudes, two categories can be identified: conflictual and peaceful, with many shades of meaning each. An instance of a conflictual contact is offered by the same Nicolae Stoica of Hațeg. In 1788, the German colonizers in the village Cutrița (nowadays Gudurica, in Serbia), in the southern Banat, complained to the emperor that the Romanians in the neighbouring villages had repeatedly „plundered them, robbing their houses”. The measures taken against the culprits by the emperor and carried out by the imperial army were bloody, as the chronicler puts it:
            „We were told that no fewer than 800 people died in this way. And the 62 men the Germans indicated as the chief culprits, in whose houses they had found the stolen goods, including two priests, were found and hanged by the emperor’s men”.[16]
            Examples of misunderstandings, though not as serious as the above-mentioned incident, can be found until late in the 20th century. But we can equally find proofs of peaceful cohabitation. Focusing on the 18th and the 19th centuries and on the manuscripts of the rural Banat, the historian Valeriu Leu described the manner in which „the German becomes, in the Romanian folk consciousness of the region, the promoter of a valid economical model”.[17] In this case, far from being a conflictual experience, we see how one community sets an example for the other.
            The two types of reactions, hostile and tolerant, can also be noticed in the attitude towards the Jewish community, starting from the same 18th century, up to the 20th century. An inventory of hostile reactions contains, on the one hand, all the measures taken by the state authorities against the Jews, since 1776, during Maria Theresa’s reign[18], until the anti-Semitic laws during the Antonescu government, during the Second World War. On the other hand, it contains the gestures of exclusion made by the other communities or by parts of them, such as the Romanian Iron Guard members’ attitude in the inter-war period or that of Nazi groups within the German community, in the same period[19]. What was, however, retained by the Jewish collective memory in the Banat, despite this hostility and discrimination, were the tolerant attitudes. Recent research, especially that in the filed of „oral history”, tends to confirm this notion. The members of the Jewish community in the Banat prefer to remember the tolerant gestures rather than the past discriminations. An anonymous subject from Lugoj, evoking her husband’s and her own experience of the Antonescu regime, states that „we never felt anti-Semitism on our skin” or that „we suffered no anti-Semitic persecution”. But the statements contradict the subject’s stories: her husband’ exclusion from the Bar, his interdiction to practice law because of his Jewish origin, the loss of properties, her husband’s internment in a work camp, social exclusion[20]. The examples could continue and they are very numerous.
            We deal with a similar selection at the historiographic level. There is nothing unusual in this, since historiography is, in its turn, a component of the collective memory. Consequently, the contradiction noticed in the subjects retelling their life’s story can be also found in those writing history. Francisc Schneider, for example, in a study on the history of the Jewish community in Timișoara, thinks „there was no serious anti-Semitic manifestation” in the city or in the region and that „this local melting pot was tolerant”.[21] An opinion which, again, is not supported by the facts evoked by the author: the anti-Jewish legislation during the Second World War, the anti-Semitic gestures of certain political groups, the spoliation in the name of „Romanianness” in the same period. What may seem contradictory at the level of facts, though, is possible when we refer to the collective memory.
            The locals’ Banat is generated in the laboratory of collective memory, just as the travellers’ Banat is the expression of a period’s horizon of expectation. They both belong to imagination, which nurtures the region’s identity.

[1] Ion Lotreanu, Monografia Banatului, Timișoara, Institutul de Arte Grafice „Țara”, 1935, p. 1.
A general presentation in Nicolae Iorga, Istoria românilor prin călători, vol. I-IV, the second edition, București, Editura Casa Școalelor, 1928-1929.
[3] Zwei hundert vier und sechzig Donau-Ansichten nach dem Laufe des Donaustromes von seinem Ursprunge bis zu seinem Ausflusse in das Schwarze Meer..., Wien, Leopold Grund, 1826. The album contains lithographies by Adolf Kunike after the drawings signed by Jakob Alt and Ludwig Ermini and accompanied by explanations signed by Georg Karl Borromäus Rumy.
Ermini’s 30 drawings, representing the left bank of the danube between Panciova and Orșova, therefore the southern limit of the Banat, were republished by Vincențiu Bugariu, Banatul de altădată, Timișoara, Tipografia Românească, 1931.
Reproductions of the drawings were published by G. Oprescu, Țările române văzute de artiști francezi (sec. XVIII-XIX), București, Editura Cultura Națională, 1926.
[6] G. Oprescu, op. cit., published 17 reproductions of his drawings, whose original copies were found in the Stamp Cabinet of the National Library in Paris and the Fine Arts School Library in Paris.
[7] Francesco Griselini, Lettere odeporiche ove I suoi viagi e le di lui osservazioni oggeti si descrivono, giuntevi parecchie memorie dello stesso autore, che riguardano le scienze e le arti utili, Milano, 1780; Franz Griselini, Versuch einer politischen und natürlichen Geschichte des temeswarer Banats in Briefen an Standespersonen und Gelehrte, vol. I-II, Viena, 1780. For the purposes of this study, I used the Romanian edition: Francesco Griselini, Încercare de istorie politică și naturală a Banatului Timișoarei, preface, translation and notes by Costin Feneșan, Timișoara, Facla, 1984.
[8] For the construction of Western Europe’s identity during the Enlightenment, see, for example, Larry Wolff, The Map of Civilisation on the Mind of the Enlightenment, Stanford University Press, 1994.
[9] Walter Pohl, Die Awaren. Ein Steppenvolk im Mitteleuropa 567-822 n. Chr., München, 2002.
V. Tulescu, Românii din Banat și raporturile lor cu populația alogenă, part I, in „Buletinul Societății Române de Geografie”, București, an. LX, vol. I, 1942-1943, p. 147.
[11] For the Ottoman period of the Banat’s history, see Traian Birăescu, Banatul sub turci, Editura Revistei „Vremea”, Timișoara, 1934; Cristina Feneșan, Cultura otomană a vilayetului Timișoara (1552-1716), Timișoara, Editura de Vest, 2004.
[12] Costin Feneșan, Administrație și fiscalitate în Banatul imperial 1716-1778, Timișoara, Editura de Vest, 1997.
[13] Nicolae Stoica de Hațeg, Cronica Banatului, the second edition, coordinated by Damaschin Mioc, Timișoara, Facla, 1981, p. 169.
[14] Ibidem, p. 170.
[15] Between 1770 and 1910, the Banat population grew from 317,928 to 1,582,133 inhabitants. As for the ethnic structure, in the two moments mentioned we have the following figures: in 1770 there were 181,639 Romanians, 78,780 Serbians, 43,201 Germans (the number includes 3,000 French and Italian colonizers) and no Hungarian; in 1910 there were 592,049 Romanians, 387,545 Germans, 284,329 Serbians and 242,152 Hungarians. Cf. Rudolf Gräf, Germanii din Banat sau istoria între două emigrări, in Smaranda Vultur (ed.), Germanii din banat prin povestirile lor, București, Paideia, 2000, p. 22 (study available at pp. 13-32).
[16] Nicolae Stoica de Hațeg, Cronica Banatului, pp. 255-256.
[17] Valeriu Leu, Imaginea „neamțului” în însemnările de pe cărțile vechi românești din Banat, in Al. Zub (ed.), Identitate / alteritate în spașiul cultural românesc, Iași, Editura Universității „Al. I. Cuza”, 1996, p. 246 (the study is available at pp. 240-246).
[18] Victor Neumann, Istoria evreilor din Banat. O mărturie a multi și interculturalității Europei central-orientale, București, Editura Atlas, 1999, pp. 23-36, chapter Ordonanța (Judenordnung) privitoare la evreii din Banat.
[19] A comprehensive analysis of the German-Jewish relations in Hildrun Glass, Zerbrochene Nachbarschaft. Das deutsch-jüdische Verhältnis in Rumänien (1918-1938, München, R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 1996.
[20] Interview by Sonia Liebermann in April 2000 and published in Alexandra Jivan, Călin Rus, Smaranda Vultur (coord.), Minorități: identitate și coexistență, Institutul intercultural Timișoara, 2000, p. 45-58.
[21] Francisc Schneider, Zona Timișoarei e un creuzet interetnic, in Smaranda Vultur, Memoria salvată. Evreii din Banat, ieri și azi, Iași, Polirom, 2002, p. 58.