Political Workings of the Ideology of Remoteness: Imagining the Szeklerland as a Moral Site of Cultural Resistance in the 20th Century

Mountains imagined as remote, primeval and rough inspired not only romantic artistic works, but also fin de siѐcle political ideologies. The Carpathians in the Szeklerland, a Hungarian-speaking enclave located in Transylvania, was the site of Szekler resistance during the Hungarian War of Independence in 1848-49 and came to locally symbolize the idea of heroic struggle, whether against Tartars, Austrians, Romanians or other alien threats.

This project investigates how Szekler elites exploited the symbolism of the mountainous landscape while developing an ideology of remoteness that, in turn, buttressed their claims for regional autonomy throughout the twentieth century. More broadly, the project explores how ideologies of remoteness also dominate moral and political reasoning in other mountainous regions seeking autonomy or independence, such as the Scottish Highlands, Turkish Kurdistan, the Basque Country, Kosovo, or South Tyrol.

The Szekler ideology of remoteness has its origins in the late nineteenth-century status of the Szeklerland as a borderland within the Habsburg Hungarian Kingdom. As a result of the center-periphery interaction between intellectuals from Budapest and the Szeklerland, Szekler peasants were imagined as embodying the ancient spirit of the Magyar warrior fighting for freedom and protecting both Hungariandom and local identity. Native cultural nationalists translated the remote, pure and rough Szekler nature into Szekler characterology. Szekler novelists, for example, portrayed their characters as defined by moral strength, ethnic purity and masculinity, in spiritual communion with their land and isolated from the perverting cosmopolitanism and modernity of the cities. Drawing on the geographic isolation from the national center, Szekler intellectuals self-Orientalized their native region.

Intellectual elites called on locals to regenerate their lost moral values by bolstering their remoteness from (and resistance to) allegedly amoral threats, such as "Jews", Budapest, Romania or "modernity". Responding to perceived crises of identity, local elites employed powerful emotional symbols and ceremonies, such as funerals, for forging a sense of Szekler groupness. Remoteness constantly enriched its imagery with widely-circulating ideologies such as primitivism, racism and Fascism. Thus, Szekler moral discourse adapted to a historically shifting "other" – from Greater Hungary to Greater, Communist and Post-Communist Romania. Szekler elites perceived this ever changing "other" as a perennial threat to local identity.

The project examines two important phases in the imagining of a moral Szekler territory: first, the development of the ideology of remoteness since the late nineteenth century and, second, how throughout the twentieth century this ideology was used to legitimize claims for political autonomy.


Prof. Stefanie Schüler-Springorum