During 1849-1850 Harvard history professor Francis Bowen challenged the accepted wisdom that the Hungarian revolution led by Lajos Kossuth was primarily a struggle for freedom and a democratic republic. Instead, Bowen pointed out, Hungary fought mainly against its own non-Hungarian nationalities – the Slavs, Germans and Romanians (Wallachs). And that fight was brought about by the Hapsburg Empire’s eleventh-hour decree of equal rights for all in the empire that threatened the absolutist privileges of the Hungarian aristocracy, which up to that point enjoyed full legal immunities, paid no taxes, and, regarding the Romanians specifically, denied them any representation in the Transylvanian Diet whatsoever. Bowen further described from first-hand sources General Bem’s campaign of atrocity against the Romanians that “almost exceeded belief” and the self-hating chauvinism of General Damianich, who declared to his co-ethnics that “I come to exterminate you, root and branch; and then I will send a ball through my own head, that the last Serb may vanish from the face of the earth.” (F. Bowen, “The War of the Races in Hungary,” North American Review, 1850: 132; F. Bowen, “The Rebellion of the Slavonic, Wallachian and German Hungarians against the Magyars,” North American Review, 1851: 226)
Bowen was not combating European opinion as much as the popular opinion of his own countrymen. Swayed by the vision of another new democratic republic in international politics, by the apparent vindication of the still unusual American model, and, not least, by a Hungarian propaganda whose best weapon was Kossuth’s extraordinary eloquence, even the US Presidential Administration – and the Massachusetts State Senate also sitting on the board of Harvard University – briefly made public support of Kossuth and his revolution an aspect of American policy.
Bowen was subsequently attacked as a “falsifier” and “perverter” of historical truth. He was criticized for relying only on sources that supported his argument. There was a concerted effort to discredit him as a plagiarizer of both words and ideas. It was insinuated that he was a front for, or even an agent of, Austria. And he was openly accused of being a proponent of Absolutism – and thus an enemy of American democracy – and an “admirer of Haynau and Metternich,” at the time the bêtes noire of international public opinion. “I do not believe,” stated one detractor, “that there can be found elsewhere in the English language in the same compass, so many blunders, so many falsehoods, so much literary dishonesty.” Bowen was taken to task for opposing “the general opinion, not of this country only, but of the civilized world.” (R. Carter, The Hungarian Controversy: An Exposure of the Falsifications and Perversions of the Slanderers of Hungary (1852); M. Putnam, The North American Review On Hungary (1851))
Bowen’s critics focused much of their attack on his sources, describing one of the most important, “which has furnished him with not less than a dozen of his citations,” as “a production of no value whatever, and not worth noticing.” (Putnam (1851): 343) The work in question – Hungary: Its Constitution and Its Catastrophe (1850) – was derided as “too contemptible for serious notice” and its author alleged to have been “an Austrian agent,” or “an Englishman in the Austrian service (there are hundreds in the [Austrian] army,” or a “paid advocate of Metternich or Haynau.” (Carter (1852): 25) In fact, the source was British constitutional expert Sir Travers Twiss, Fellow of the Royal Society, Counselor to the Queen, professor of civil law and political economy at Oxford University and professor of international law at King’s College London. Twiss was often called upon to aid British Embassies on the thorniest legal issues of international diplomacy.
Not one to shrink from a challenge, Bowen marshaled more than a dozen German, French, British and Hungarian sources on the topic only to find himself accused of all sorts of crimes and misdemeanors (including a “bitter aversion” for the Hungarian language and an “intense hatred of the Hungarians.”) In the course of these attacks his livelihood, and even his life, were threatened. In the last such overt incursion against the freedom of academic expression at Harvard, in February 1951 the Massachusetts State Senate used its position on the Harvard board to remove Bowen from the University’s McLean Chair of history.
Harvard University, led by a president who had occupied the same chair of history immediately before Bowen, held the allegations as unwarranted and entirely spurious. The Massachusetts State Senate was removed from the Harvard Board altogether – never to return – and in 1853 Bowen was rehired and unanimously appointed to the Chair of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy and Civil Polity, a position he held actively for the next 36 years. Harvard University continues to award an annual Francis Bowen Prize in Moral Philosophy to this day.
I feel some affinity with Professor Bowen. While making no claim to his erudition (Bowen, after all, graduated first in the Harvard class of 1833), I recently published two volumes – With Friends Like These: The Soviet Bloc’s Clandestine War Against Romania and Extorting Peace: The Romanian-Warsaw Pact Clash and the End of the Cold War – concerning Romania’s behavior as a state actor within the Soviet alliance, within the wider socialist community, and internationally. In them, I challenge previously accepted wisdom with new evidence proving that Romania was not the Soviet Union’s “Trojan horse” in the West (or anywhere else), that Romanian policies and actions significantly constrained Soviet international behavior during the Cold War, and that the Kremlin “permitted” Romanian independence only the same sense that the Moscow “permitted” the independent behavior of the USA – because it was compelled to do so for lack of any viable alternative and not because it did not desperately desire and actively seek to do otherwise.
In taking on conventional wisdom I was fully aware of the need to provide a broad array of specific cases with thousands (about 5,000) of sourced footnotes in order to prove that a paradigm shift in interpretation was warranted. On this point I stand with Bowen that “questions of fact, when by any means the prejudices of the community have been excited in relation to them, can be settled only by abundance of testimony; and we have therefore summoned into court a crowd of witnesses … whose united and harmonious testimony can leave no doubt upon a mind of ordinary capacity, however unwelcome the truth may be, or how obstinate soever the bias by which its reception at an earlier day was prevented.” (Bowen (1851): 236-237) Indeed, the manner in which cognitive biases operate, and how they operated regarding US-Romanian and Soviet-Romanian relations in particular, is a central theme of my work.
In various attacks which Professor Bowen would have found familiar, I have since been accused of “falsifying” and distorting history. My work, some claim, is “unilateral.” (A. Pavelescu, 3/4/11, wordpress.com) My name, others suggest, has been placed on the opinions and work of others. (C. Vasile, 17/12/11, contributors.ro). And some even claim that I am a front – or agent – of Romanian intelligence, a proponent of “National Stalinism,” and an admirer of and apologist for Nicolae Ceauşescu – the bête noir of international public opinion for much of the last quarter-century. (V. Tismaneanu, 11/05/13, 20/12/11, 30/5/11, contributors.ro)
More imaginatively, I am accused of posing as an American spy (after years of publicly refuting media allegations that I was “the CIA’s antenna”) and as having requested and been granted Romanian asylum from repressive American democracy during the Ceausescu regime – although probably not for economic reasons. (A. Bădin, 18 & 19/10/12, badin.ro)
Of course, any challenge to conventional or accepted wisdom is bound to stir up emotion, controversy and criticism. Such contrary revelations have not only to be proved but to be proved over and over again, in enough specific cases that the new contours emerge clearly, before paradigms and interpretations are changed. There is no mystery or conspiracy here. Paradigm change is admitted only with great reluctance by those who have grown accustomed to the old paradigm, and especially by those who have based their own interpretations and even their careers upon the now obsolete paradigm. What will remain of their work if their orienting foundations are shown to be little more than clay feet?
That said, many of the allegations listed above are obviously intended to distract attention from the books. Their aim is not to engage the arguments contained within them but to refocus attention away from them; and upon anything that can in some way be construed as culpable in the attitudes or behaviors of the author, either discovered or invented. Some detractors have indirectly appealed to US institutions and authorities to join in their campaign by alleging a threat to US interests in Romania, and even to Romania democracy itself, caused by my subversive labors. I have, for example, been accused of seeking to undermine US policy and discredit the CIA.
In 1850-1852 Professor Bowen was subject to a similar offensive involving the misrepresentation of his sources, spurious attacks on his methodology, and allegations of insidious motivation and clandestine agency. One detractor openly acknowledged in a 66 page diatribe that the first 50 pages were devoted to attacking Bowen’s sources and how he used them (and, although not openly admitted, his “dubious” motivations for writing on the topic). (Carter (1852)) The final portions of that diatribe comprised simple denials and reiterations of the initial contention – from the same or similar sources – that prompted Bowen’s articles in the first place.
Thus, declared the critics, there had never been “since the earliest times, any political distinctions in Hungary, founded on difference of nationality,” and Hungary, “never attempted to proscribe the languages of the non-Magyar inhabitants of Hungary, or to impose the Magyar upon them by violence.” (Putnam (1851), p. 293; Carter (1852), p. 54) The proofs offered were the assertions of Hungarian officials and Hungarian aristocrats in Europe and America, which consistently reflected only what was most liberal and generous in Hungarian political thinking at the time. The Romanians/Wallachs, the critics insisted, enjoyed full equal rights and “any misapprehension on this subject that could exist among the Wallachs is only to be accounted for by their extreme ignorance.” (Putnam (1851), p. 332)
The evident failure to comprehend the broad difference between declaratory and implemented policy, between expressed intent and actual behavior, was astoundingly naïve. Bowen’s U.S. critics appear not to have known, for example, that Budapest nullified the application of equal rights in Transylvania as soon as it was decreed by Vienna in 1848 (thereby mobilizing the great assembly at Blaj). Limited to official Hungarian declarations, those critics were compelled to rely on falsifications, simple denials, and (self-) deceptions in campaigning against Professor Bowen, his writings, and the variety of his sources and witnesses.