Totem and Taboo in Romania: A Psychopolitical Diagnosis

This article was published in Volume 6, Number 2 of Mind and Human Interaction by Vamlk D. Volkan. The full reference is: Volkan, V. D. (1995). Totem and taboo in Romania: A psychopolitical diagnosis. Mind and Human Interaction, 2: 66-83.

Vamlk D. Volkan, M.D., is Professor of Psychiatry and Director of CSMHI at the University of Virginia.

Long ago primitive people lived in small tribes led by despotic leaders. With his unlimited power, the leader or father considered all the women of the tribe his exclusive property. If the young men of the tribe, or sons, expressed jealousy, they were killed, castrated or excommunicated. Their fate unbearable, the young men joined forces, killed the father and ate him. But the father’s influence would not disappear. In death he became more powerful.

This story was told by Sigmund Freud (1913), who explained that by eating the leader, the sons’ hate was satisfied. The problem was, they had also secretly loved their father and felt guilty for killing him. In fact, the guilt feelings led them to renounce what they had set out to accomplish through his murder: because of their guilt, they could not have sex with the women of the tribe.

Told under the title “Totem and Taboo,” Freud’s tale is speculation on the unrecorded history of primitive mankind. To “reconstruct” a historical beginning that would explain the psychology of the collective mind and support what he was finding in the dark recesses of the human psyche, such as incestuous wishes and the guilt feelings they induced, he fashioned this explanation after having studied a variety of anthropological sources. His story continues: haunted by the ghost of their father, the sons replaced him with a horrible and strong animal, a totem. It absorbed the sons’ ambivalence—the simultaneous hate and love 1 they were experiencing for their dead father. Since the ghost of their father lived in the totem, however, the sons were still not free of his influence, and their hate for him, as well as their love for him, continued.

While some primitive cultures developed human sacrifices and cannibalism to free themselves of a totem’s influence, others developed rituals in which consumption of a symbolic animal totem was strictly forbidden on all occasions except special festivals, in which it was ritually killed and communally eaten, thus allowing all to disclaim responsibility for the killing. The sacrificed animal was then mourned by the entire clan, and an uninhibited celebration followed. The ritual mourning performed in primitive totem festivals is not parallel, however, to a gradual and effective work of mourning in which loss eventually is accepted and internal adjustments are made.

What interests us here is that the love and hate felt toward the father, or his image (the totem animal), led to a peculiar paradox. Hate killed the father, but a secret love caused him or his image to be kept within the sons. Since they ate the leader or what represented him, the leader “lived” in the sons. In psychoanalysis, the process of “eating” the other (psychologically speaking) and making oneself resemble the one who is lost is called identification. It is an unconscious process. And by unconsciously identifying with the other, we perform functions that were performed earlier by the now-gone “other.”

The totem thereby developed other functions. According to one of Freud’s sources, J.G. Frazer, “the clan totem is reverenced by a body of men and women who call themselves by the name of the totem, believe themselves to be of one blood, descendants of a common ancestor, and are bound together by common obligations to each other and by a common faith in the totem. Totemism is thus both a religious and a social system” (see Freud [1913], p. 105). Hence, the totem animal was used to maintain two useful prohibitions—one against killing the totem animal (patricide) and the other against having sexual relations with women of the same totem or clan (incest).

On Christmas Day in 1989, Nicolae Ceaușescu was “killed” by the Romanian people. A despotic leader who had ruled Romania for twenty-four years, Ceaușescu was the Communist Party Chief, Head of State, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Chairman of the Economic Council, Head of the Securitate (Security Services), Chairman of the Political Academy, and the “architect” of a “new” Bucharest. He was the proverbial dreaded and yet secretly loved father figure. Killing him, especially on this sacred and symbolic day, gave rise to a reenactment of Freud’s “Totem and Taboo,” and while few today would openly admit that Romania was better off under Ceaușescu, he psychologically lives on in many ways, as well as symbolically through his “totem.”

While the totems of primitive tribes are animals, plants, or natural phenomenon such as rain, in Romania the present leadership serves as a totem since it is perceived by many as an extension of Ceaușescu’s regime, while also remaining different. Shared shame and guilt, as well as a secret love for Ceaușescu, and the inability to collectively and effectively mourn his death and the many changes and upheavals in Romania, has led to ambivalence about the current government. Some Romanians realize that while much has changed, much has not. They hate the aspects of Ceaușescu that the government embodies, but allow it to continue because it serves as a link with a past that they have not yet come to terms with. In turn, 2 Romania’s leadership absorbs the people’s ambivalence and plays a role, most likely without being aware of it, in keeping Ceaușescu’s ghost alive through the continuation of some of his policies. Ethnic conflict between Romanians and Hungarians living in Romania has therefore continued.

This paper presents an example of psychopolitical diagnosis in which historical, legal, political and other issues are examined through a psychological lens so that one can begin to understand the emotional and mostly hidden societal processes that intertwine with and influence “real world” concerns. To effectively deal with ethnic problems such as those in Romania, it is necessary to use multiple perspectives, including psychoanalytic concepts.

Identifying psychological processes among the population in Romania that, though hidden, could still fuel ethnic animosity in this region was my specific task as a member of an American team of researchers headed by former diplomat Joseph Montville. Hungarians make up the largest minority in the country, and ethnic strife between the two groups, especially in Transylvania, has been a chronic problem in Romania. Some observers in the United States feared that the trauma caused by the fall of Ceaușescu and the USSR, and Romania’s subsequent search for a new identity and place in the world, could result in increased ethnic conflict or even open warfare between Romanians and Hungarians living in Romania. According to Gerner (1993), Hungarians are an especially significant category of ethnic minority in Romania given the fact that they are the defining majority in a neighboring state. I visited Romania for the first time in late February and early March 1993, more than three years after Romania’s 1989 revolution and Ceaușescu’s death. My plan was to interview former dissidents, parliamentarians from various political and ethnic parties, scholars, journalists and publishers in Bucharest, Romania’s capital, and Transylvania. My findings are based on over thirty formal interviews conducted with a wide spectrum of influential Romanians and Hungarians, as well as informal interviews and discussions with many others during two trips to the region in 1993 and 1994.

Background History

Outside their native Hungary, Hungarians form a significant minority in Europe. Of Romania’s 23 million people, 2.2 million are ethnically Hungarian. The majority live in Transylvania, an area that has, throughout history, been claimed by both Hungary and Romania. The roots of Romanian-Hungarian conflict over Transylvania date back over a thousand years. According to traditional Romanian history, Roman legionaries intermarried with local Dacians (ancient Dacia is now known as Transylvania); those that remained behind after the Roman soldiers left established Romania’s historical claim to the region. Hungarians, on the other hand, trace their lineage to Magyars who settled in the reportedly uninhabited mountainous heart of Dacia in the eleventh century. Therefore, both groups claim the area as their ancestral homeland, and strong emotions abound on the subject. As an illustration, Hungarian and Romanian émigrés attending a conference at Columbia University in the early 1990s nearly came to blows when discussing “whether a few Latin words contained in a Hungarian chronicle written around AD 1200 prove or disprove the presence of Romanians in Transylvania well before the belated arrival, in the ninth century, of the Hungarians” (Deák, 1992, p. 45).

The origin of “modern” Romania goes back to 1859 when the Ottoman Empire, which still included the areas now covered by Romania, was fast declining. That year, due to external pressure, the Ottomans consented to join the principalities of Moldavia and Walachia under one ruler. Thus, Romania was born, though it still remained a suzerainty of Istanbul (Sugar, 1977), and complete independence was not finally achieved until the Conference of Berlin in 1878. However, Transylvania, which is part of present-day Romania, had been given to the Hungarians by the Ottomans in 1699, long before the birth of modern Romania. Present day Romania was consolidated in 1918 after World War I through the inclusion of Transylvania, the Banat of Temesvár and other regions. In 1940, northern Transylvania and other areas were once again lost to Hungary, only to be reacquired in 1944. Needless to say, the constant border shifting and the balances of power that accompanied them have left their impact on the region.

In the last decade of the Ceaușescu regime, possibly in order to deflect attention away from deteriorating economic conditions, Romanian nationalistic sentiments were intensified. The government paid “relocation inducements” to ethnic Romanians for moving to Hungarian-populated regions and in turn curtailed cultural opportunities for Hungarians in Romania. Yet in juxtaposition to such issues of ethnic conflict in Transylvania is the historic legacy of periods of ethnic harmony. In 1568, while wars of religious intolerance were raging elsewhere in Europe, an atmosphere of acceptance and understanding prevailed in Transylvania. In fact, at certain points in history, Transylvania was a model for the coexistence of diverse nationalities and ethnic groups. But today, even though Ceaușescu is dead, harmony and coexistence has not returned.

Ceausescu and the Revolution

Nicolae Ceaușescu was born to a large and poor peasant family about one hundred miles west of Bucharest. After only a few years of formal education, he left his family at the age of eleven, moved to Bucharest, and in his teens became a communist. Although he was first jailed for his political beliefs, by 1948 Romania was a “people’s republic,” and Ceaușescu was welcomed into the Communist Party. He came to power in 1965 and ruled for twentyfour years. Yet he grew increasingly “paranoid” in the later stage of his reign. Many in the West were not familiar with Romania’s totalitarian leader prior to his sudden and violent fall, but nor was it a secret that Ceaușescu and his government were involved in extreme human rights violations, institutionalized discrimination, exile, harassment, and torture. Abortion was banned so that more Romanians might live to carry out his grandiose plans; to quell dissent, typewriters had to be registered with the police so that the source of any anti-Ceaușescu correspondence could be identified.

Romanian internal affairs did receive international attention in the 1980s, however, when Ceaușescu announced a plan to raze 8,000 of Romania’s 13,000 rural communities. While his goal was ostensibly to build a better Romania, it was also clearly targeted to destroy Hungarian settlements, although some Romanians and other minorities would also be affected. While the objective of “sytematizing” rural Romania was never fully carried out, large parts of Bucharest were leveled in order to build new structures confirming the superiority of Romanian culture and its Roman lineage. In 1985, a fifth of historic Bucharest was bulldozed. Over 9,000 homes, one cathedral, and more than a dozen churches, most of 4 which had been built in or before the nineteenth century, were resolutely destroyed. In their place Ceaușescu ordered the building of Casa Poporului (“House of the People”) and the three-kilometer-long “Avenue of Socialist Victory.” Next to the United States’ Pentagon, Casa Poporului is the biggest building in the world, covering a surface area of thirty acres.

A substantial portion of Romania’s limited resources were devoted to turning Bucharest into “the first Socialist Capital for the new socialist man.” Before his death, Ceaușescu visited Casa Poporului a few times each month and often ordered major alterations. In the late 1980s, a crew of 20,000 worked on the project around the clock. Ceaușescu died, however, before the house and the Avenue of Socialist Victory were completed. Today, the white, four-tiered structure has been renamed “Parliament House” and the avenue, Bulevardul Unirii (“Unity Avenue”).

That the Romanian revolution was sudden and came as a surprise did not mean there was no resistance to the regime until Christmas of 1989. Ironically, Bishop Laszlo Tökes, today the most outspoken critic of the current government, was also the leading personality of the 1989 Romanian revolution which overthrew the Ceaușescu regime. In 1986, Tökes, a Reformed (Calvinist) minister and ethnic Hungarian, was “temporarily assigned” from a location in northern Transylvania to a church in downtown Timișoara, a city in southern Transylvania with a mixed population. His tenure there was supposed to end on December 15, 1989, at which time he was expected to return to his former parish. According to one story, Tökes first got into trouble when he allowed students to recite nationalistic poetry in church. Some months later, he was “urged” by the government to relocate to another church or face suspension from the ministry.

Tökes’ congregation, who liked the young and charismatic minister, rose to his defense and demanded that he remain in Timișoara. Upon notice of eviction, 200 congregation members came to guard him on December 15, 1989. Things were bound to come to a showdown. As in similar power plays that were occurring in communist-dominated countries throughout Europe (this being the era of glasnost), Tökes courted the press and played the role of Hungarian spokesperson. Needless to say, his predicament was highly publicized, and the people of Timișoara, including Romanians, flocked to the scene to show their support.

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