In order to understand Banat’s current landscape, it was first necessary to capture the wider historical, cultural and socio-economic context. Once this has been achieved, the project’s next challenge is to capture Banat’s live history – the open and creative history passed on from generation to generation orally — and to seek to get as close as possible to the core of the rural universe and discover those places that are emblematic for the region’s dynamic, movements of people, and ethnic and cultural diversity. These places will then become fireplaces, host cultural activities, and be promoted as landmarks of the region.
“Banat” is historical concept with multiple meanings. Today, “Banat” can refer to three different areas included in the the territories of three states: the Romanian Banat, the Serbian Banat and the Hungarian Banat. However, these three areas put together make up a historical reality that existed until the end of the First World War, often referred in contemporary historiography as “the historical Banat”, which has been from centuries a territory of borders, migrations and confluences. Situated in the east of Central Europe, an area or social and political instability, the region of Banat was inhabited by various ethnic groups whose national consciousnesses developed in close connection to each other. Banat’s role as a border region and its successive administrations by different states and empires of continental importance, have accentuated Banat’s traits as a place of passage and implicitly, of connection, where the East met the West, influencing each other in various measures, a place of cultural interferences.
Annexed to the Roman Empire in 106 AD, the region of Banat was left by the retreat of the Roman troops in 271 AD defenseless in front of the many migratory tribes. It was only towards the end of the first millennium that the first records appear of state formations in the area, namely that led by Glad, followed by the one led by Ahtum. But from the beginning of the second millenium and for the next couple of centuries, Banat belongs to the medieval Kingdom of Hungary, and, due to its strategic position, quickly develops to become an outpost of Christian Crusaders against the Ottoman Empire, a place of transit, of confrontations, of displaced populations.
But the successes of the Christian expeditions leaving from Banat only served to delay the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. At the beginning of the 16th century the hungarians are defeated at Mohács (1526) and Banat becomes part of the Ottoman Empire. The region will stay under Turkish domination until the end of the 17th century. During this time, the area faced a significant influx of foreign population, encouraged by the new administration to move here from neighbouring territories or from elsewhere, which will cause major changes in the social landscape of Banat.
At the beginning of the 18th century, Banat was occupied by the Habsburgs who, taking advantage of the weakening Ottoman Empire, were expanding their domination to the east. With the triumphant entrance of the Habsburg general Prince Eugene of Savoy in the city of Timișoara, the region passes under the direct administration of the Habsburg Crown, who ignores the demands of the Hungarian aristocracy for restitutio in integrum, the full restitution of the lands owned before Mohács. The Habsburg rule in Banat extended, with various degrees of involvement, until 1867, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was created and Banat was transferred to the Hungarian Crown. The progressive measures taken during this period have gradually integrated Banat in a modernity specific of Central-Europe.
From the beginning, the Habsburg administration aimed to completely restructure the province, paying special attention to the demographic structure, acting towards the stabilisation of the local population and the colonisation of the newly conquered land with settlers. The retreat of the Ottomans had led to the depopulation of the area, and the remaining population, mostly Romanian and Serbian, was insufficient. Consequently, three waves of colonisation (1718-1740, 1744-1772, 1782-1787) consisting mostly of catholic Germans, but also Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Italians, French, Jews, Bulgarians and others, brought about a major change in the demographic landscape. At the same time, new Serbian and Romanian populations arrive (Oltenians, Transylvanians and Walahians from neighbouring territories, or Aromanians from the Balkans).
Also, at the end of the 18th century, the Habsburg Crown auctioned its lands in Banat, attracting blood nobles and wealthy families from Hungarian, Greek, Serbian, Armenian and Aromanian backgrounds. This new multiethnic, multiconfessional privileged social class had a significant contribution to the development of Banat in the 19th century.
After the First World War, the region of Banat was divided following ethnic lines: two thirds of the historical Banat were ceded to Romania, one third to Serbia and a small part to Hungary. However, in the last years, cross-border cooperation has been on the rise and the need to permeate the borders set at the beginning of the 20th century has started becoming evident.
In the 20th century, the history of the Romanian Banat closely followed that of the country. After becoming part of Romania, Banat was faced again with an intake of population, this time Romanian coming from all the corners of the newly formed Romanian state. At the same time, ethnicities that identified more with the Central-European space left, moving to the West. Even so, at the end of the interwar period, Banat was keeping its character as a pluricultural, multiconfessional region.
The beginning of the communist regime in Banat brought about two episodes of forced dislocation of population: first the deportations to the Soviet Union at the end of 40s, then the deportation to Bărăgan in 1951-1956, the later still an open wound in the collective memory of the region.
During the later years of the communist regime, the Western border of the country was a symbol of hope for a better life in a democratic country. After 1989, the region followed the country’s tendencies in terms of migration, and especially emigration. Recently, Banat was confronted again with an influx of population in the context of the international refugee crisis and the massive waves of migration with which Europe is confronted.
A border region for centuries, Banat should also be understood in terms of its relation to the centre, whichever it may have been in a specific historical period, and the diffusion of cultural models. During the Habsburg and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the capital (later capitals) would establish a model that would then be assumed, amplified and modified in accordance with their local traditions by urban centres, who in turned were imitated by the surrounded rural areas. The result was a spectacular and very efficient polycentric system. If at the end of the 18th century, new tendencies reached Banat with difficulty and a certain delay, starting with the 19th century, the fashion and technical advancements of the centre would make it to Banat and even to the rural areas almost instantly. However, as a periphery area, Banat was located far enough from the centre to receive influences for several parts, which it has synthesized and transformed according to its own traditions.
This study was initially published in the MOVING FIREPLACES. 2017-2018 book.
Photo credit: Flavius Neamciuc