On November 1, 2020, American historian Keith Hitchins passed away at the age of 89.
On November 1, 2020, American historian Keith Hitchins passed away at the age of 89. He was one of the people who wrote about Romania when it was in one of its darkest of times, during communism, when censorship and repression were a fact of everyday life. However, Hitchins did not shirk his responsibility as a historian, maintaining the highest of moral and academic standards.
Radio Romania spoke to historian Marius Turda, professor at the Oxford Brookes University, about the distinguished career that Keith Hitchins had:
“This is a sad loss for Romanian historiography, as well as for American and European academia. Keith Hitchins was famous in Romania, the US, and the UK. He published books about Romania at Oxford University Press, and was warm and generous with students and colleagues alike. This has to be remembered, in addition to his contribution to history sciences, to his humanity, and the generosity he showed to all people who got in touch with him. I remember writing to him in 1993, when people still wrote letters by hand, and I told him I was studying the nationalist movement in Transylvania. He was very kind, and immediately wrote back, and we started corresponding. We met a few times after that, of course.”
Romania's modern history is marked by the national idea, just like in all the other Central and Eastern European countries. Some of the harshest face-offs were those between Romanian and Hungarian historiography related to Transylvania. Marius Turda told us about how Keith Hitchins managed to strike a balance between the totalitarian cultural climate and the extreme attitudes related to writing history in both countries.
“In a nutshell, we can say that, in the extreme ideological climate in the 1960s, most Central and Eastern European countries started slanting towards nationalism, especially Romania and Hungary. This nationalist take on the past was an environment in which Hitchins managed to hold the middle ground, writing in a way that was supposed to persuade both Romanian and Hungarian historians to find common ground. At the same time, he was considered as one of the writers who leaned more towards ideas circulated by Romanian historians, rather than Hungarian. He did not do that for nationalist reasons, but out of sincere affinity with Romanian culture, since he had learned Romanian very well. He tried to explain this because he had put a lot of work into studying Andrei Saguna. Hitchins used to say that there is a good side to patriotism and nationalism, which in the Romanian case led to the union of 1918. His style was an objective one, I wold call it positivist, and he managed to sail smoothly in the murky waters of Romanian and Hungarian historiography.”
One great contribution that Hitchins made was in terms of the perspective he took on religion, according to Marius Turda:
“One other idea he circulated, and which stuck, was that we have to take very seriously the religious leaders of nationalist movements, and even use them as a starting point. This is what he did in his book about Andrei Saguna, in which he tied the birth of Romanian nationalism to the cultural and religious rise of Romanians. This was not an easy thing to do during the 1960s and '70s, when religion was considered an enemy of the people. Hitchins came to tell us that we cannot understand nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe unless we tie it to religion, to the work that the clergy did to educate the common folk. So far, he was the best at this endeavor. He started a whole tradition in terms of how to think of Eastern European nationalism.”
In October 2012, Radio Romania interviewed Kieth Hitchins on the topic of Romania's declaration of war against the United States, in December 1941. The famous historian spoke about the role that General Ion Antonescu played back then. He said that his belief was that Antonescu was much more leaning towards Britain and France, and that, in spite of his disdain for parliamentary democracy, he would have been close to the French and British, rather than the Germans. He said it was his tenet that Antonescu declared war on the US as a German ally, and that the Germans must have surely applied pressure on him to do so. Either that, or he felt that to be the natural thing to do in order to cultivate good relations with Germany, but that he went against his will when he did it, unenthusiastically.
The life work of American historian Keith Hitchins was founded in finding a way of writing the history of a country unwillingly ruled by a totalitarian regime while being outside the regime. Romanian and American historiography have lost a man with generosity of spirit, a consummate academic, and a warm personality. Luckily, the important work he did outlives him for generations to come.