The Jewish Question in Romania (1913)

Submitted by martin on 4 August, 2020 - 4:03 Author: Leon Trotsky
Romania in 1913

Trotsky worked as a correspondent for a liberal paper in Kiev during the Balkan wars of 1913. In this article he demolished the liberal pretences of the Romanian monarchy by pointing to its oppression of the country's Jewish population.


The ultimate and most authentic manifestation of Romania is to be found in its Jewish question. King Carol is proud of the fact that he has never deviated from the “strictly constitutional” path. The Romanian press enjoys a large degree of freedom, and from time to time it publishes quite fantastic “expressions” to describe the King, without suffering any consequences for so doing. Ministers here are not given the title of “Excellency”. Political emigrants are not extradited. But beneath these guilded political liberties there lies the real and authentic Romania – and if that expresses itself most profoundly of all in the situation of the peasantry, then it manifests itself most graphically of all in the Jewish question.

300,000 Romanian Jews do not count as Romanian citizens. Like their fathers and grandfathers, they were born on Romanian soil. They did not and do not enjoy the protection of any other state. But, nonetheless, they are considered to be foreigners on Romanian territory. A Romanian Jew is completely denied the protection of the constitution. Like some stray vagabond, any Jew can be expelled from the country at any moment. Families which have bonded with Romania in the course of successive generations never cease to be aware that they are only lodgers. But that is not all. While excluding Jews from citizenship, the state nonetheless burdens them with the full weight of civic obligations. Jews not only pay all taxes but also do military service. Declared to be aliens, they serve in the Romanian army. The state which refuses Jewish workers, artisans and merchants the right to the status of citizen of Romania – that elementary right which is enjoyed by every pickpocket of Romanian origin – this same state called to the colours in the most recent mobilisation 30,000 Jews who lack all rights.

All Romania reveals itself in its Jewish question. The feudal serfdom of the peasantry, the budgetary parasitism, the political domination of the cliques of nobles and parvenus. All this reaches its apogee in the all-round deprivation of Romanian Jews of any rights.

Romania is ruled by Purishkevich. He is the master of Romania’s soil, he has plunged his arms into the state coffers up to his elbows, and the social and political atmosphere here is thoroughly permeated by his intellectual and moral malodours. Purishkevich “hates” Jews. But this hatred is of a particular type: Purishkevich cannot do without Jews. And he himself knows this full well. He needs a Jew, but what kind of Jew? One deprived of his rights and devoid of individuality by virtue of his lack of rights. This Jew must serve as the middleman between Purishkevich-the-landowner and the peasantry, between Purishkevich-the-politician and his clientele – as a leaseholder, moneylender, intermediary, and mercenary journalist. He must do the foulest of jobs for Purishkevich – there are no other kind of jobs to be done for Purishkevich – and do them without respite. But there is yet more. As a party to feudal exploitation, the Jew who lacks all rights must at the same time serve as a lightning rod for the anger of the exploited. Having fleeced the peasant of his last penny, and having emptied the state coffers which have been filled by the same peasant, the Romanian Purishkevich then fulfils his ultimate calling when, from an orator’s tribune or in the columns of his newspapers, he angrily thunders against the Jew-leaseholder, the Jew-moneylender …. In this feudal serfdom lies the basis of Romanian antisemitism. But this is not the end of the matter. In a stagnant society, in which a web of constraints results in a slow rate of economic development, most unmet needs push the different groups onto the path of least resistance – onto the path of antisemitism. The parvenus – the new landowners who have bought up or leased estates from the nobility – naturally want to concentrate rural usury in their own national, Christian, true-Romanian hands. Driven out of their villages, Jews form almost a third of the Romanian urban population. The artisan, the shopkeeper, the restaurant-owner, and alongside of them the doctor and the journalist, are terrified by the competition of the Jews. The lawyer, the functionary, the officer fear that a Jew with rights would take away from them their clients or the offices they hold. The teacher and the priest, the rural agents of the feudal-national state philosophy, assure the peasant that his poverty and servitude are the fault of the Jews. The newspapers, insofar as they reach the peasant, tell him the same. Antisemitism becomes a state religion, the last psychological cement of a thoroughly decomposed feudal society, one which has been wrapped from above in gold leaf: the ultra-liberal constitution.

At the Berlin Congress of 1879, when European diplomats needed to use no more than their fingers to reshape the map of south-east Europe, one of their main concerns was to give European capital unhindered access to the newly formed states. Closely connected with this was the demand for civic equality, irrespective of nationality and religion, and paragraph 44 of the Treaty of Berlin1 made recognition of the independence of the Balkan states conditional upon the implementation of this demand. This confronted Romania with the necessity of granting full civic rights to its 300,000 Jews – otherwise it would end up outside of the international law created by the Berlin Areopagus, and would be deprived of even those minimal guarantees provided by international treaties. But the political cliques who rule Romania did not even want to hear about granting civic rights to Jews. State independence and a buttressing of its international position – when and where has a feudal caste ever voluntarily sacrificed even a fraction of its privileges for the sake of such distractions? And thus began an enervating dispute between “Europe” and the Romanian government about the fate of Romania’s Jews.

This is one of the most interesting pages in the diplomatic history of Europe. Neither by virtue of his family traditions nor by reason of his position in Romania could King Carol (at that still a “Prince”) be counted as a Judeophile. He sincerely resented the fact that his recognition as an independent prince of Romania depended on the question of the fate of some Jews there, Jews who had hitherto lived without any rights and could continue to do so in future – but he understood from his contact with European diplomacy that there was nothing to be done and that concessions needed to be made. The father of the king, Karl-Anton of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen – who did not leave his son without the benefit of his advice and put him in touch with a powerful relative in Berlin – wrote to the Romanian King as early as 1868, ten years before the Berlin Congress, when European diplomacy was confronted by the question of Romania’s Jews by virtue of paragraph 46 of the Treaty of Paris2: “I have already previously expressed the view that all Jewish affairs are noli me tangere (“touch me not”). This fact is an illness of Europe’s childhood, but it is a fact which must be taken into account. There is nothing about it which can be changed, because the financial power of Jewry rules over the entirety of Europe’s press. In a word: moneyed Jewry is a great power. Its goodwill can be very profitable, but its hostility very dangerous.”

The old feudal potentate who abhors mysticism refers to the power of finance capital, which, in his view, coalesces with Judaism. For both Hohenzollerns, father and son alike, the Jewish question is not the question of the fate of the most wretched pariahs who inhabit the foul outskirts of the cities of Moldovia but, all in all, solely the question of a business transaction with the Rothschilds and the Bleichröders, who “control the European press”.

Jewish pogroms and the judicial-administrative outrages inflicted on Jews in Romania repeatedly placed this question at the centre of the attention of Europe. Questions in parliaments, agitation in the press, diplomatic notes …. In 1872 the German Emperor Wilhelm I wrote a letter in his own hand to his Bucharest relative, the import of which boiled down to: an end must be put to “all this”. European public opinion, which in those times was still not accustomed to the spectacle of Jews being persecuted, pushed its diplomacy in the direction of active intervention. In June of 1872 King Carol wrote to his father about this: “Several months ago the Israelites here still enjoyed the sympathies of certain circles. But after they had raised such an outcry in Europe, and since the time when the Jewish press of all states attacked the country (Romania) in such an ignominious manner and wanted to obtain equality of rights for Jews through coercion, the latter now have no cause for hope here any more.” Of course, King Carol knows finance Jewry – that great force. But he has not managed to recognise anything else – that the Romanian nobility is not at all inclined to renounce its privileges for the sake of the international interests of its homeland, that the stock-market Jews are also not prepared to renounce a tidy profit for the sake of their Moldovian co-religionists. “Jewish haute finance (high finance) – the King wrote to his father – has declared that it will not only not conclude any financial transactions with antisemitic Romania but that it will also counteract all attempts to do so. Nonetheless, we concluded an agreement about a tobacco monopoly with a major Hungarian-Jewish company, and, beyond all our expectations, obtained an offer of eight millions a year – a splendid deal for both parties!”

Only after the Berlin Congress did the affair take, so to speak, a more decisive turn. As already noted, the international position of Romania was made directly dependent on the resolution of its Jewish question, and – most startling of all – it was Germany which pursued Romania the most energetically. Bismarck – in a certain sense, the executor of the Berlin Congress – broke off direct diplomatic relations with Bucharest as long as Jews were not granted equal rights. “I fully appreciate,” wrote Karl-Anton to his son in March of 1879, “the almost insuperable difficulties and obstacles which lie in the way of resolving the Jewish question, but it would be wrong to fight against the will of Europe. … Literal implementation of the decisions of the Berlin Congress is a sine qua non (necessary condition) because neither England nor France nor Germany nor Italy will make any concessions at the eleventh hour.”

But the Romanian political cliques did not make any concessions. In the parliamentary chambers there was no progress in dealing with the question. Bismarck became more and more impatient. How close to his heart the Iron Chancellor held the interests of Moldovian Jews was quite amazing: in his eyes, the interests of the Hohenzollern on the eastern throne paled into insignificance compared with the fate of some pariahs devoid of rights. This exemplar of selflessness, however, was slightly marred by the question of Romanian railways: that the Bucharest government should pay for their construction through Berlin bankers was also advocated in Berlin as a necessary condition for recognising the independence of Romania in its new frontiers. The Romanian government itself wanted to pay for the construction of the railways, but did not want to agree to the Shylock conditions of the Berlin bankers, headed by the Jew Bleichröder. Then the whole affair shifted in an unexpected direction. It became clear that Italy would be satisfied with the purely formal act of scrapping paragraph 7 of the Romanian constitution, which was the basis in law for the denial of rights to Jews. England demanded the for-show naturalisation of at least some Jews. Most intractable of all was Germany: it demanded … payment for the railways construction on Bleichröder’s terms. It gradually became clear that this was also the main condition for Bismarck. The emaciated abstractions of equal rights for Jews were consumed by the bloated stocks and shares of the Bleichröder banks. There now commenced dogged and intense bargaining by both sides, in which the price of stocks and shares became so intertwined with the price of Jewish blood that the negotiating parties themselves could not always properly distinguish what exactly was being discussed at a given moment.

Meanwhile, in the parliamentary sphere one crisis followed another. Members of Parliament and Senators did not make any concessions. “Large-scale landowning is heavily indebted – wrote the King to his father – Romania does not know of entail and estates are passed from hand to hand. When Jews obtain the right to buy land, then from that day on all estates will transfer to them by law, as all mortgages are in their hands.” Gradually, however, the parliamentary chambers calmed down: the coalition ministry made it clear to them that, in the final analysis, it was a matter of purely formal recognition of requirements of the Treaty of Berlin, and a demonstration of “good will” by way of naturalising a certain number of Jews. But the main issue was paying for the construction of the railways. With an admirable frankness Bismarck explained to the Romanian plenipotentiary Sturdza* where the dog of Berlin’s concerns about Jews was buried.

[Dimitrie Sturdza – A Romanian writer and statesman. He took part in the overthrow of Prince Cuza. From the seventies of the nineteenth century he repeatedly occupied ministerial posts, including that of Prime Minister. A prominent leader of the National Liberal Party.]

The construction of the Romanian railways was undertaken by the Jew Strousberg, who involved powerful Silesian magnates in the affair. They, in turn, involved all their relatives, in-laws, friends and subordinates. The stocks and shares of the Romanian railways turned out to be in the hands of the great and the good of this world: grandees, ladies-in-waiting, their aunts, their lackeys, their coachmen – in a word, “all Berlin”. When Strousberg’s business affairs faltered, King Wilhelm had to intervene in order to save the Silesian magnates. The king temporarily covered some losses from his own coffers, but then got the banker Bleichröder involved. The latter intervened “as a matter of honour” but did not want to carry the losses. He took over responsibility for the affair, but demanded that Romania bought the stocks and shares from him on the basis of the conditions which he would set. The conditions were ruinous and ignominious. But Bismarck came to Bleichröder’s assistance and declared that the price of the stocks and shares was the price of Romania’s independence. But could he have acted any differently when the affair involved the interests of Silesian magnates, ladies-in-waiting, their lackeys and even the private coffers of the King! But what have the rights of Romanian Jews got to do with any of this? What do they have to do with it? Bismarck threatened to get serious about demanding implementation of the Treaty of Berlin in relation to equal rights for Jews if the Romanian government did not accept the conditions of the stock-market Jew Bleichröder. The question thereby ended up as a colossal financial-political act of blackmail in which the stakes were 100 million Mark invested by the Prussian nobility in Strousberg’s enterprise, and in which the rights of Romanian Jews served as the means of extortion.

In August of 1879 the cautious Karl-Anton wrote to his son: “I think that the railways question was the most important one for Germany throughout, and that the Jewish question was more of a pretext than a goal.” When the Bucharest government was confronted by the affair, now stripped down to its stock-market essence, its task was slowly simplified to the ultimate degree. Rob the state of several tens of millions to the benefit of Bleichröder, and demean the “dear homeland” in the sight of the Jew-banker who had demanded that control of Romania’s railways remain in Berlin – had the governing castes really ever baulked at such a hurdle? The conditions set by Berlin were accepted, after which the “resolution” of the Jewish question was reduced to an empty formality and to the purely for-show naturalisation of 900 Jews who had taken part in the Turkish campaign of 1876-78. The remaining 299,100 Jews remained in exactly the same situation they had been in before the Berlin Congress.

Who played the more honourable role in this story? Bismarck, who inflamed passions with his roars of liberalism as he saved the coffers of the king and the cashboxes of Bleichröder? Bleichröder himself, who added on several per cent – to mark the lack of rights of his Romanian co-religionists? Or the ruling Romanian oligarchy, which was ready to sell its motherland wholesale and retail, so that the feudal absence of rights and the arbitrariness of caste rule might remain inviolable? It is not easy to answer these questions. Only one thing can be said with absolute certainty: When you read the diplomatic documents of this affair and the private correspondence of the interested parties, then you cannot escape a feeling of profound disgust for even a moment ….

Population statistics are in a sorry state in Romania, and any figures for the numbers employed in different occupations can therefore only be approximations. G. S. Labin, secretary of the “Union of Romanian Jews”, who has provided us with the necessary clarification, estimates that there are around 30,000 families of workers and petty artisans in Romania, amounting to 150,00 individuals, i.e. over half the entire Jewish population. In addition there are shopkeepers, merchants, industrialists, leaseholders, 400-500 doctors, 30 to 40 lawyers, the same number of journalists, several engineers and two professors. Out of this total population about 900 participants in the Romanian-Turkish war were naturalised in 1879, scarcely half of whom are still alive; about 400 were naturalised by “individual” legislative ordinances after 1879. This same period saw the promulgation of 300 to 350 laws relating to the exclusion of foreigners, i.e. first and foremost, Romanian Jews. These legislative restrictions not only failed to provide anything to the peasantry, they were also not even intended to do so – they were tailored through and through to the protection of the interests of the ruling and exploiting caste. Jews were denied the right of abode in villages, but this right was extended to the Jew-leaseholder, i.e. the Jew who was needed by the landlord. After the peasant uprising of 1907 a law was passed which banned “foreigners” from leasing more than 4,000 hectares, a law which was not in any way a response to the peasants but one which increased the dependence of the leaseholder on the landlord. A succession of laws have barred Jews from state, municipal and communal service. A Jew cannot be a lawyer, an owner of a chemist’s shop, a dealer or a stockbroker. This year, on the eve of the mobilisation, a special law equated rural markets with stock markets in order to oust Jews from market trading. Jews cannot be members of the managing bodies of guilds. But because the latter have a state-mandatory character, guilds in which there are no Christian artisans have to form the most unnatural unions with other guilds, in order to provide themselves with a managing body. Jewish children are not accepted in state primary schools. They are accepted in secondary educational institutions only if there are “free” places, i.e. almost never. Jews create their own schools, using private funds. The result is that a wall is built between Jewish and Romanian children, but at the same time the masters of the situation make the “bestowal” of civic rights on Jews conditional on the dissolution of Jewry in the Romanian solvent. There has recently been agitation against private Jewish schools, simply because these schools raise the cultural level of the Jewish masses, and it is quite clear that the higher the cultural level of the Jews ensnared in their lack of rights, the more dangerous they are for the putrid Romanian state institutions. In their tens and hundreds worker-Jews who take part in the economic or political struggle of their class have been expelled from the country as “dangerous foreigners” by whatever is the government of the day. Even in hospitals Jews are treated as second-class patients. And so on – without end ….

The conditions of feudal stagnation, juridical denial of rights, and political and bureaucratic iniquity are not only a dead weight which crushes the Jewish masses economically but are also a cause of spiritual decomposition. Whether Jews form a nation in their own right can be discussed for ever and a day, but it remains a fact that Jews collectively reflect the economic and moral conditions of the country in which they live, and even where they are artificially isolated from the majority of the population, they remain a constituent part of it.

Protest against the ignominious lack of rights, struggle for a better future, seek support in the advanced elements of the Romanian people – Jews here have never been able to do any of these things. Under the whip of the nobles they merely bowed their heads still lower and, in the pause between two blows, voiced assurances that, in essence, they were almost quite satisfied. In 1879, after Romania had so dazzlingly “deceived” Europe (but only because, of course, Europe allowed itself to be deceived), King Carol wrote to his father: “The Jews here are sensible enough not to display dissatisfaction and are now rushing to solicit naturalisation” …. We have already seen above what the “sensible” behaviour of the Jews resulted in for them: 300 new exclusionary laws.

It is true that in the last three to four years a certain movement of political thought has appeared among Romanian Jews, and that this has led to the creation of the “Union of Romanian Jews”. The aim of this organisation is political-educational work in the Jewish masses, and arousing in them an interest in their own lack of rights. The “Union” has its own weekly newspaper “Unity” – the unity of Jews with Romanians – as the organisation emphasises in every way possible that it does not encourage any national-separatist goals. But the stingy Jewish bourgeoisie does not donate any money even for a daily paper, although such a paper might have a great political significance. “What use are rights to me?” – the renowned Romanian satirist Karadzhali used to say about the Jewish moneybags here – “What I need is capital.”

It is superfluous to say that the entire past of Romanian Jews – a past which is woven out of an absence of rights, humiliation, grovelling and “patriotic” hypocrisy – weighs down on the tactics of the “Union”. The Union not only renounces energetic agitation in the masses, fraternisation with the democratic elements of the Romanian people, and open appeals to the public opinion of European labour – no, this renunciation, which it might still be possible to view as temporary and born of duress, has been transformed by the Union into its principal weapon; it advertises its renunciation; it boasts of its dilatory passivity; it shuts out European voices in defence of Romanian Jews; it openly declares that it does not believe in struggle and does not consider it possible; and all its calculations and expectations are based on the enlightened sensitivities of the ruling oligarchy. This policy found its most repulsive expression during the last Balkans crisis. The “Union” – the union of destitute, humiliated, rightless and persecuted Jews – rushed to take its place in the ranks of the combatants of Romanian chauvinism. It announced in its paper that it did not give way to the most authentic Romanian antisemites in matters of “patriotism”, i.e. in the appetite for a piece of foreign land. The Union banged the drum, called on Jews to make donations to the Navy, and to join the active army as volunteers.

An individual minister can be deceived or placated, but it is impossible to bribe, placate or deceive an entire ruling class, all of whose instincts of ruling have been developed to the ultimate degree. There is, however, someone else whom the “Union” misleads with its politics: its own audience.


Translated by Stan Crooke from: “L. Trotsky: Collected Works”, volume six, Moscow-Leningrad, 1926.

First published in “Kievskaya Mysl”, nos. 226, 229 and 230, 17th, 20th and 21st August 1913.

Numbered footnotes below are taken from the Collected Works.

The one footnote in the original is in the text above in square brackets.

1) Para. 44 of the Treaty of Berlin: “In Romania differences of religious belief and confession may not serve as a reason for the exclusion of anyone, or the non-recognition of anyone, in all matters relating to the enjoyment of civic and political rights, access to public office, official professions and honours, and the exercise of different free trades and crafts in any locality.”

Freedom of, and the outward manifestation of, any acts of worship are guaranteed for all natives of Romania and for all aliens, and no constraints may be imposed on the hierarchical structures of the different religious communities and on their relations with their spiritual leaders.

The nationals of all powers, those involved in trade and others, will enjoy full equality in Romania, without distinction of confession.”

2) This is clearly a reference to para. 23 of the Treaty of Paris of 1856 (signed as a result of the Crimean War between Russia and, on the other side, England, France, Turkey and Sardinia), according to which “the Sublime Porte is obliged to maintain in its principalities (Wallachian and Moldovian, i.e. in Romania) independent and national governance, and equally also complete freedom of religion, legislation, trade and navigation.”

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