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George Barit (1812-1893)

GEORGE BARIT (1812-1893) Pioneer journalist and political leader of the Romanians of Transylvania. His father and grandfather were Greek Catholic priests, and thus it was natural that he should attend the schools of Blaj, the Greek Catholic cultural center in Transylvania, and should then become a priest. But he chose teaching as a career, and in 1836 he became the director of the school established by Romanian merchants in Brasov, a post he relinquished only in 1845, when he decided to devote full time to journalism.

As a journalist Barit considered himself to be an "enlightener" whose primary task was to arouse his people to a conciousness of their spiritual heritage and their national and human rights. He thus shared the main preoccupation of the Romanian generation of 1848, which placed the well-being of the nation ahead of all other considerations. He chose to contribute to this "noble cause" by encouraging the development of an indigenous culture. For the mass of the common people he called for more schools, better-trained teachers, and a modern curriculum; for the thin strata of intellectuals and the middle class he urged expanded contact with Western European literature and thought, the refinement of language, and the study of Romanian history.

The instruments of his ambitious program were the two newspapers he had founded in 1838 the weekly Gazeta de Transilvania (The Gazette of Transylvania), the first political newspaper of the Romanians of Transylvania, and Foaia pentru minte, inima si literature (The Journal for Mind, Soul and Literature), another weekly which concerned itself with a wide range of cultural and social questions. He gave particular attention to language, to which he assigned multiple functions as a vehicle for new ideas and a "shield" of national distinctiveness. Like others of his generation, he insisted that Romanian culture develop in accordance with its Roman origins, and with this goal in mind he published numerous articles on the Latinity of the Romanians and their language. As the "key to progress," he proposed that the Romanian language be "refined and purified," by which he meant the removal from it of Slavic and other "foreign" words. But he also recommended moderation, out of concern that wholesale Latinization would create an unbridgeable gulf between the mass of the people and the intellectual and thereby disrupt the very unity a national language was supposed to foster. After all, he pointed out, the function of the intellectual was to enlighten his fellow man, a task he could perform only if they spoke the same language.

Also in the interests of national unity he encouraged writers from the Romanian principalities of Moldova and Muntenia to contribute original work to his newspapers, and he himself reprinted numerous articles of general cultural interest from newspapers in Iasi and Bucuresti. But he had to be circumspect in his handling of contemporary political problems in Transylvania. His newspapers were subject to prior censorship, and he knew that discussions of controversial issues would never see print. To get around the censor he often published articles on political or social conditions in other countries which resembled those in Transylvania and then appended a short commentary to ensure that his readers knew that Transylvania was the real subject. In the 1840s, as political activity in Transylvania became more animated in response to rising national feeling and demands for constitutional and economic reform, Barit could deal more directly with such critical issues as the nationality problem. But he was conciliatory and did not openly call into question prevailing political structures. Despite all the difficulties he encountered, his newspapers served as forums for the expression and molding of public opinion and fostered cohesion in a movement which was still diffuse and lacked an adequate institutional base.

In his own writings Barit revealed himself to be a political and economic liberal in the Western European tradition. The guiding principles of his thought were faith in the ability of man to surpass himself and a commitment to assure man freedom to exercise his reason and to determine his own destiny. In applying these principles to prevailing social conditions in Transylvania, he sought harmony among its diverse peoples by assuring each the right to develop its political and cultural life unhindered so long as it did not infringe upon the rights of others. For the Romanians, in particular, he sought proportional representation in local government and in the provincial diet, an equitable share of public funds for Romanian schools, and guarantees of the use of Romanian in schools and the Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches.

Such a program was typical of the thinking of Romanian intellectuals in the decade before the revolution of 1848. Barit's ideas on economic development were also characteristic of his generation. His model was Western Europe. He was, for example, convinced that economic life in the future would be dominated by large-scale manufacturing enterprises and he expressed unreserved admiration for the bourgeoisie in the advanced industrial countries as the most "creative and modern" of all social classes. Moreover, he embraced the chief tenet of modern industrialismžto produce as many goods as efficiently as possibležand he urged a greater "intensity" in economic life and the inculcation of the spirit of gain and acquisitiveness in both workers and factory owners. Yet, he showed little inclination to regulate economic activity in the interest of society as a whole and seemed satisfied to let the principle of supply and demand work inimpeded.

A revolution moved across the Habsburg Monarchy in March 1848, Barit enthusiastically welcomed Metternich's fall in Vienna and the broad program of reform set forth by Hungarian liberals in Pest. He praised the promised civil and religious equality as prerequisites for all social and cultural progress, for he judged freedom of speech and assembly as natural to man as eating and drinking. He even foresaw the establishment of a parliamentary form of government based upon universal suffrage and the equitable representation of all social and ethnic groups, and he had no doubt that this new order would open political and economic life fully to the Romanians and thus enable them to protect their national interests. He saw no reason, therefore, why the Romanians should fear the union of Transylvania with Hungary, as the Hungarians demanded, an d he rejected the warnings of others that it was only the first step in the assimilation of the Romanians. Nonetheless, he urged Romanian intellectuals to be active and to place their nation on a solid foundation by establishing schools and cultural societies, by creating a modern literature based upon indigenous themes and traditions, and by writing histories extolling the virtues and glorious past of their people.

With conservatism in Central Europe in full retreat in the spring of 1848 Barit became convinced that the Habsburg Monarchy was undergoing a profound transformation and foresaw federalization as a means of satisfying the aspirations of its many nationalities. For Transylvania, in particular, he proposed the creation of a federation of Hungarian, Saxon, and Romanian cantons on the Swiss model. Such a constitutional framework, he thought, would enable each people to administer itself and promote its own social and cultural ideals and at the same time ensure the well-being of all through a representative federal parliament where matters of common concern could be settled. He thus shied away from the more drastic solutions to the nationality problem in Transylvania advocated by a number of Romanian leaders, who demanded full autonomy and were little inclined to reach a compromise with the Hungarians.

Barit played an important role in the Romanian national movement between May 1848 and March 1849. At the national congress held at Blaj on May 15-17, 1848, which the intellectuals had convoked in order to assert Romanian nationhood, Barit sided with the moderates. He therefore urged that any proclamation of Romanian political autonomy be combined with a declaration of loyalty to the Habsburg dynasty and that the protest against the union of Transylvania with Hungary be placed last instead of first in the congressžs list of demands in order to avoid a definitive break with the Hungarians. Like his fellow moderates, he was all too conscious of the weakness of the Romanians. Yet, at the same time he was certain that the changes sweeping the old Empire had ushered in an era of reconciliation and cooperation among peoples.

At the congress he was elected one of its vice-presidents and a member of the National Committee, which the congress charged with organizing and directing the campaign to achieve national aspirations. He was also a member of the delegation appointed by the congress to present its program to the Transylvanian diet, which was scheduled to meet in Cluj at the end of May. During his brief stay in the capital his hopes for a peaceful resolution of the issues dividing Romanians and Hungarians were dashed.

The diet, with its overwhelming Hungarian majority, ignored the claims of the Romanians to nationhood and voted in favor of the immediate union of the principality with Hungarian. The news that the Emperor Ferdinand had sanctioned the union on June 10 deepened his disillusionment, and he sadly concluded that henceforth the Romanians could rely only upon themselves to achieve their "just aspirations." He spent the next nine months first in Brasov, where he put his newspapers at the service of the national cause, and then in Sibiu, where he participated in the work of a reorganized and more militant National Committee. When in March 1849 he and other members of the committee were obliged to take refuge in Muntenia in order to escape capture by advancing Hungarian armies, his role in the revolution came to an end.

Yet, his contributions to the Romanian national movement had just begun. Over the next forty years they took many forms. He continued his work in journalism. Even though Austrian officials forced him to relinquish the editorship of his newspapers in 1850 as punishment for his protests against their disregard of Romanian aspirations, he wrote constantly on a variety of subjects and founded a new, independent newspaper, Observatorul (The Observer) in 1878. He was also at the center of Romanian politics. Bitterly opposed to the Compromise of 1867 because it ignored Romanian claims to autonomy and brought about the incorporation of Transylvania into Hungary, he organized a protest movement known as "passivism," which rejected the new Dual Monarchy and was to dominate Romanian political thinking until the end of the century. In 1881 he was one of the founders of the Romanian National Party, the leading Romanian political organization in Transylvania, and served as its president from 1887 until 1890, when he retired from politics. Yet, he remained active in cultural affairs. He completed his most important work, a three-volume history of Transylvania, served as president of the Transylvanian Association for the Literature and Culture of the Romanian People (ASTRA), and just months before his death he was elected president of the Romanian Academy in Bucuresti. Because of a long and distinguished career which touched almost every aspect of Romanian public life, he must be numbered among the four or five outstanding Romanians of nineteenth-century Transylvania.

Keith Hitchens


Radu Pantazi, Viata si ideile lui G. Baritiu: Studiu si antologie Bucuresti, 1964.

Vasile Netea, George Baritiu: Viata si activitatea sa Bucuresti, 1966.

George M. Marica, Studii de istoria si sociologia culturii romane ardelene din secolul al XIX-lea Cluj-Napoca, 1980, III.

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