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The Historian’s Personality and the Originality of His Work

by Miodrag MILIN

Professor of History, Senior researcher at the Romanian Academy of Sciences

Victor Neumann is one of Romania’s most important contemporary historians. His long list of published books represent contributions to the illustration, analysis and explanation of past and present events, facts and ideas, as well as the knowledge and understanding of Romania from the perspective of local and regional history. He is known for a variety of approached themes and solid work methods, but also for the originality in his results.

He was born in Lugoj, Romania, into a middle-class family of intellectuals from the Banat region. His father was Andrei Neumann, an accountant; his mother, Ana-Cătălina, née Gîrban, a school-teacher. Victor Neumann studied at the Real-Humanist High School of Ineu (the town where his parents found jobs in the war’s aftermath), and later at the History-Philosophy department of Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj. Neumann prepared his graduation thesis under Professor Pompiliu Teodor. He completed his doctoral studies in history at the University of Bucharest, coordinated by noted academician Răzvan Theodorescu. For many years, he benefited from invitations and grants from various prestigious international academic institutions, supplementing his post-doctoral education. Worth mentioning are internships from Maison des Sciences de l’Homme as well as those from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales of Paris; Institute for Advanced Study in Humanities and Social Sciences of the Royal Academy of Art and Sciences, Amsterdam; Central European University of Budapest; Institut für Osteuropäische Geschichte of the Vienna University; and The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. Thanks to his status as a Fulbright Scholar of the U.S. Department of State and Rosenzweig scholar of Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., and scholar of National Endowment for the Humanities, also in Washington, he had the opportunity to work alongside leading intellectuals from American socio-political sciences field, having published the results of his own research in prominent international academic papers. He also participated in conferences in centers of excellence including Columbia University, New York; Emory University, Atlanta; University of Georgia, Athens; Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, both in Washington, D.C.

During his career, Neumann has worked as a curator, librarian, high-school teacher, scientific researcher, and university professor. Between 1990 and 1992, he was counselor at the Romanian Ministry of Culture. Neumann is an eminent historian and has been at the West University of Timișoara since 1998, first as an Associate Professor and later, Professor of History. He has been a Visiting Professor at prestigious European, British, American and Israeli universities and institutes. His complex personality and innovative spirit mark his decades of activity and vast experience. His works contain novel information, hypotheses and theories based on strong facts and polished arguments. They are connected to history, fundamental anthropology, conceptual history and political theory. His contributions, dedicated to the knowledge of multi- and interculturalism, nationalism, fundamental concepts of socio-political languages and historical theory, are nothing short of remarkable.

Neumann’s doctoral thesis, The Genesis of Modern Ideas in Central and South-East Europe, has been published under the title of The Temptation of Homo Europaeus. The Genesis of Modern Ideas in Central and South-East Europe, and has been printed in four Romanian editions: Științifică Publishing House, 1991; All Publishing House, 1997; Polirom Publishing House, 2006; RAO Publishing House, 2015. The book has been translated into English and was included in 1993 as part of the prestigious series East European Monographs, Boulder, Colorado, printed and distributed by Columbia University Press. While our colleague was working on his doctoral thesis and researching the archivistic and bibliographic references, as well as when he was enriching his theoretical portfolio, academician Răzvan Theodorescu wrote the following: “Nurturing the desire of a strict, but supple specialization… Victor Neumann is clearly enticed by the complex episode of premodern and modern South-East European history. He recalls with knowledge and elegance Herder’s seal upon the South-Oriental Europe, the historical sentiment of Obradović and Rajić’s contemporaries, of Paisie Hilandarski, the great Transylvanians from Blaj, the historical thinking of Bălcescu generation, the lesser known world of the German Enlightenment and romantic publishers from Transylvania, among others … The destiny of a world of culture and interference … reads in filigree, chapter upon chapter, due to Victor Neumann’s lively curiosity” (Foreword, Convergențe spirituale (Spiritual Convergences), 1986). Academician Dan Berindei wrote about the same moment of Neumann’s career: “…Victor Neumann’s volume (Vasile Maniu. Monografie istorică - Vasile Maniu. Historical Monography, Facla Publishing House, 1984) represents an important contribution to the history of culture. Its main virtue is, undoubtedly, the comparative approach of the phenomena, the complex historical analysis, achieved through the knowledge and understanding of a vast and varied documentary material. This work enriches the patrimony of Romanian spirituality and deserves all the eulogies” (Contemporanul - The Contemporary, issue 9, 1987).

Academician Florin Constantiniu paid special attention to Neumann’s doctoral thesis and his work, The Temptation of Homo Europaeus. The Genesis of Modern Ideas in Central and South-East Europe. Regarding the perspective proposed by Neumann in the book, Constantiniu noted: “This triad – closeness-knowledge-communication – is fundamental to the evolution of today’s Romanian society and for the healthy regeneration of Romania’s relations with its neighbors and other countries. If we desire to free ourselves from the reflexes of tribalism, of national narrow-mindedness, of ethnical exclusivism, we have to promote closeness, knowledge and communication with those of different opinion, different belief, and different kin than ours. If we want to be European, not geographically (that we already are), but also spiritually, then reading Victor Neumann’s work can bring us in contact with an experience, though distant in time, full of fecund suggestions for us, the people of today” (National newspaper, September 1997).

Literary historian Adrian Marino also formulated his ideas about The Temptation of Homo Europaeus: Temptations defines an essential concept, a whole state of mind, a spiritual and cultural continental area of historical importance and a method of study for the history of ideas. It is worthy, really, to take a closer look at such concerns … Victor Neumann writes a history of ideas using a European and liberal approach. His vocation is rationalist, anti-mystic, anti-totalitarian and anti-obscurantist …” (Cuvântul (The Word) magazine, issue 8, 1998).

In commenting on the English edition of the same book (The Temptation of Homo Europaeus, 1993), James Niessen of Rutgers University and Maria Todorova of the University of Illinois highlighted both the documentary and the theoretical contributions that were included within the work: “The national pride (of historians and philologists) invested in the Teleki, Bathyány and Brukenthal collections (from Transylvania) ... couldn’t hide, as Neumann shows, the fact that through ‘cultural channels’, complex meetings among peoples and cultural schools geographically situated at great distances one from another took place. The collections and their readers were extremely diverse” (Niessen, review in Libraries & Culture, University of Texas Press, issue 41.3, 2006, note 15, p. 327). Concerning the fluid national identities, owing to multi- and intercultural heritage, Todorova writes about Neumann’s thesis: “A more profound view indicates an identity that nervously oscillates at the re-opened border between Balkans and Central Europe and, generally, between West and East, ‘a region embodying the transition among the Occident and the great Asian Orient’ (Imagining the Balkans, apud Balcanii şi Balcanismul – Balkans and Balkanism, Romanian translation by Mihaela Constantinescu and Sofia Silvia Oprescu, Humanitas Publishing House, 2000, p.84).

On the occasion of publishing the third edition of The Temptation of Homo Europaeus (Polirom, 2006), Bogdan Murgescu noticed an element that singularizes the book, namely the relation between two different temporalities: one referring to the studied theme, the first Central-South-East European modernity (eighteenth century), and the other lived by the historian, Ceaușescu’s national-communism (end of the twentieth century): “Victor Neumann’s book can be read as a reflection of disquietude displayed by a group of intellectuals with cosmopolite vocation, impacted by the isolationism and retrograde attitudes of ‘Ceaușescu’s era’, which attempted to build a universe of normality through the world of books and ideas and which, when the shackles were broken by the Revolution, tried to assert its European identity in a nuanced and balanced manner. His enterprise is governed by the ideas of Enlightenment, by the refusal of national and religious allegations, by the choice of laicism and by the tryptic of ideas: closeness-knowledge-communication. Obviously, Victor Neumann empathizes with the intellectuals of early modernity and their manner of cultivating the scholar vocation and the Europeanity in times of less than favourable conditions” (Dilemateca, Bucharest, Issue 14, July 2007).

The editorial publications that followed, Interculturalitatea Banatului, Ideologie și Fantasmagorie. Perspective comparative asupra istoriei gîndirii politice în Europa Est-Centrală (Polirom, 2001; RAO, 2015) ; Neam, Popor sau Națiune? Despre identitățile politice europene (Curtea Veche, 2003, 2005; RAO, 2015); as well as their English translations, The Interculturality of Banat, Ideology and Phantasmagoria. Comparative Perspectives upon the History of Political Thought in East-Central Europe; Kin, People or Nation? About European Political Identities, brought Neumann closer to the attention of Romanian and international historiography. References about his works are continuously appreciative and often formulated by leading personalities of Romanian and foreign science and culture. The collection of studies, Ideologie și Fantasmagorie (English edition under the title Between Words and Reality. Studies on the Politics of Recognition and the Changes of Regime in Contemporary Romania, The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy/The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., 2001), has been cited in Romania and abroad. Reflecting on the Romanian edition, Antonela Capelle-Pogăcean (from Centre d’Études et des Recherches Internationales, Paris) states that: “Following the communist decline, the Romanian historiographic field encountered a diversification of research, themes, discourses, theories and methodologies. Historian Victor Neumann’s work is part of the renewal movement … Well acquainted with Romanian, Hungarian, Jewish and German cultures, he shifts effortlessly between the space of English, French and German social sciences. The historian from Timișoara uses the Central-East-European areal as field of research and he approaches it through both cultural diversity and inter-disciplinary perspectives” (Balkanologie, Paris, issue 1-2/2002).

The Romanian translator of Plato and Aristotle, renowned philosopher Andrei Cornea, Professor at the University of Bucharest, speaks about the objectivity and professionalism of the studies included in the book Ideologie și Fantasmagorie (Between Words and Reality. Studies on the Politics of Recognition and the Changes of Regime in Contemporary Romania): “Victor Neumann does not bring verdicts, nor tells the reader what to think; he stays true to the stylistic and conceptual ‘objectivism’ of the professional historian…” (Observator Cultural, issue 113, 2002). Equally important is the opinion of political scientist Anton Sterbling from the University of Regensburg. He is impressed by the analytical and critical approach of the Romanian historian. “Surpassing the traditional forms of thinking and writing about past and present, which are often brimming with stereotypes and preconceptions inherited from totalitarian media, Victor Neumann suggests contextualizations, comparative perspectives, and fresh, universally valid, meanings” (Halbjahresschrift für südosteuropäische Geschichte, Literatur und Politik, year 14, issue 2, 2002).

Florin Lobonț, a professor of philosophy at the West University of Timișoara and Romanian translator of a number of Karl Popper’s works, claims that the nine studies included in the volume Ideologie și Fantasmagorie are “philosophically-methodologically unified” and they show exactly how “the history offers the most fecund understandings when it is regarded as history of ideas … Thus configured, the history implies a spiritual bond among individuals, reminding us of Raymond Aron’s ascertainment that history deals always with the spirit … and it, in fact, cannot be truly separated from the history of philosophy or of spirituality in the broadest sense …” (Observator Cultural, issue 132, 2002). As for the conceptual renewals included in the book, Neam, Popor sau Națiune? Despre identitățile politice europene (the English translation having been published under the title Conceptually Mystified. East-Central Europe Torn Between Ethnicism and Recognition of Multiple Identities, Enciclopedică Publishing House, 2004), Lobonț observed that, “It is recommended as a more than useful lecture for a relatively large spectrum of readers, respectively all those interested in the relation between the individual and group identity, the crises and conflicts it could generate, the idea and emotional frames that generated various forms, phenomena and expressions … The text represents a very good example of systematic analysis of the origin and trajectories of some important coordinates of the political culture, useful for many open-minded intellectuals … Last, but not least, the work addresses students, whom Professor Victor Neumann offers an example of investigation and resolve for a problematic, potentially conflictual reality, which directly concerns them, to the greatest extent, which must be analyzed with scientific detachment and responsibility” (Observator Cultural, issue 257, 2005).

In a review of the book, Between Words and Reality. Studies on the Politics of Recognition and the Changes of Regime in Contemporary Romania, the historian Rebecca Haynes, Dean of the Faculty of Slavic and East-European Studies at University College London, acknowledges that Victor Neumann’s studies discuss “...the region (of Central and South-East Europe) not only as a multicultural standard of Romania, but also as a model of integrating Romania to a diverse and tolerant Europe... For this reason, Neumann’s volume appeals to those who would like to study Romanian socio-political contemporary history, but also to understand Romania from a regional and intercultural perspective” (Slavonic and East European Studies Review, London, issue 81, 3, 2003).

The book Istoria României prin concepte. Perspective alternative asupra limbajelor social-politice (Polirom, 2010), coordinated by Victor Neumann and Armin Heinen, (English edition entitled Key Concepts of Romanian History. Alternative Approaches to Socio-Political Languages, CEU Press, 2013), was widely and positively discussed by the specialized and literary press, and also in numerous daily newspapers. Professor Andrei Corbea-Hoișie, of A.I. Cuza University of Iași, observed that this book is a “completely new methodological approach in the Romanian historiography, an approach inspired by ‘conceptual history’ inaugurated in post-war Germany by Reinhart Koselleck, a diachronic view upon a number of key-concepts of the Romanian social, political and cultural language (patriotism, democracy, constitution, kin and people, national style, liberalism, education, Europe, etc.) regarded in their evolution as indicators of the modern Romanian society, concurrently analysed by the magnifying glass of their ‘productive’ tradition in the Romanian socio-political thought and practise.”

Neumann dedicated more than a decade of his scientific research to drafting Istoria Banatului (The History of Banat), the first monography of this region written by Romanian, Serbian and Hungarian historians. Conceptualized, structured, coordinated and edited by Neumann, the book contains 23 chapters written by 15 collaborators. On the occasion of its release, at the Senate of the University of Bucharest, academician Ioan-Păun Otiman stated: “On the occasion of this select book release, I would like to start by expressing my great joy that today such a notable book is published, which highlights Banat as it was, as we are now looking at it and, most importantly, how we will regard it in the future. I’m particularly happy to have contributed, in one way or another, to the publishing of this most important book, chiefly through countless discussions with Professor Neumann, regarding the need for culture and science in Banat, in order to write a history of the region. Today, we have this joy and I congratulate Professor Neumann for this outstanding scientific achievement …” (University of Bucharest, 18th of July 2015). On the same occasion, academician Răzvan Theodorescu declared that, due to Victor Neumann’s studies and research, he learned “a series of facts about cohabitations, about Jewish cohabitation with Christian Orthodoxy, about the Orthodoxy of this region and its complicated relations with the Transylvanian and the Serbian churches; about the issues of Catholicism and Greek-Catholicism … When this volume, Istoria Banatului (The History of Banat), was presented to me, I did not know it would be published in such remarkable graphic quality. I was impressed not only by his own – and by his collaborators’ – scientific prowess, but also by how he managed to gather, sine ira et studio, a bouquet of fifteen authors, historians, art critics, sociologists, coming from different geographical horizons. This is the kind of research we need to conduct. If someday, every (Romanian) great historical region would own such a monography, we would be much wealthier” (University of Bucharest, 18th of July 2015).

Professor Adrian Cioroianu, former Dean of the History Faculty from the University of Bucharest and Romanian ambassador to UNESCO, acknowledged in similar fashion the aforementioned book, along with the entire work of the Romanian humanist: “Who other than Victor Neumann could better coordinate such a volume dedicated to the region of Banat? I do not mean to suggest there couldn’t’ve been others, but rather that I truly believe that he has been one of the most active intellectuals of the last two decades. He is one of those intellectuals who discussed most profoundly, most informedly, most methodologically equidistant this important cross-border region. Beyond the admiration we bear him, the complicity we feel regarding Victor Neumann – a bright academic and a true citizen – what I really appreciate is that Mr. Neumann is a disciple of Enlightenment, a disciple of this fragment of European history called the Enlightenment Century, along with its incredible beneficial consequences upon European culture. I believe that the subject of Enlightenment could never be over discussed, especially now, when our century seems to enter a stage in which the legacy of the Enlightenment will be re-discussed, not just in France or Germany, but also here. The cultural legacy of the lights must be debated, and having an academic colleague so dedicated to this cultural inheritance, so eager to connect the history of his region to the beautiful history of Enlightenment pleases us greatly” (University of Bucharest, 18th of July 2015).

Regarding the historian’s personality, Bogdan Murgescu, professor at the University of Bucharest, affirms the following: “We have had the privilege to be nourished by Mr. Neumann’s energy and intellectual subtlety, because in this instance Neumann is not only a historian and a high class intellectual with fine analysis, but also an artisan of historical research and cultural life in its entirety. It is an extraordinary accomplishment to interact with such a man and gain positive energy, being stimulated towards conceptual history, our field of collaboration … his concerns on regional history, the grasp of the complexity and peculiarity of Banat, are extraordinary elements that prove Victor Neumann’s worth … This volume is exceptional. In it there is a bevy of diverse matters, but all very interesting and in relation to each other. It stimulates one’s mind. You can read about the regional features of Baroque, the eighteenth century Habsburg reforms, the nineteenth century Serbian culture, themes that we had so little known about. I believe it is very important to always see what connects, not what separates us, and, from this perspective, the volume Istoria Banatului (The History of Banat) performs a great service to regional and Romanian culture, in its entirety” (University of Bucharest, 18th of July 2015).

Summing up the conference Nationalism and Sectarianism, organized by Victor Neumann at the 2017 Jerusalem International Book Fair, the Jewish publicist Mirel Horodi precisely describes the theoretical direction of the scientist: “Victor Neumann developed the multi- and intercultural theme in Central and East Europe. His theories in the field of conceptual theory are illustrated in the volumes: Tentația lui Homo Europaeus. Geneza ideilor moderne în Europa Centrală și de Sud-Est / The Temptation of Homo Europaeus. The Genesis of Modern Ideas in Central and South- East Europe (1991; 1997; 2006; 2015), Ideologie și Fantasmagorie / Between Words and Reality. Studies on the Politics of Recognition and the Changes of Regime in Contemporary Romania (Polirom, 2001; RAO, 2015), Neam, popor sau națiune? Despre identitățile politice europene / Kin, People or Nation? About European Political Identities (Curtea Veche, 2003, 2005; RAO, 2015) and Conceptualizarea istoriei și limitele paradigmei naționale / The Conceptualization of History and the Limits of National Paradigm (RAO, 2015). Neumann disavows the nationalist interpretation and promotes, through conceptual history, a comparative and trans-national perspective of the intellectual life, seeking to discover the shared or different meanings of notions from one language and another. The eighteenth century Enlightenment brought the modernization of society through literacy, emancipation and reforms, preserving the traditions and opposing revolutions. The Ottoman and Austrian empires, which ruled over Central and East Europe, had been multicultural. The Ottoman Empire had distinguished itself through tolerance towards the religious diversity of Balkans. In the Habsburg Empire, the emancipation and the status of equal citizenship for all the inhabitants of the crown territories – regardless of their language and traditions – proved to be efficient means. The history of Banat is significant in this matter. Before 1800, the nation had been defined according to religion or state belonging. The ethno-nation and the ethno-national state had been the product of the nineteenth century. The ethno-national idea emerged under the influence of literary writings and romantic histories. The rationalist Enlightenment, of French origin, replaced the German nationalist romanticism, as proved scientifically by Herder (1744-1803) and Fichte (1762-1814).

Neumann attaches great importance to Moses Mendelssohn’s (1729-1786) role – German philosopher of Jewish origin, founder of the Haskalah movement (the Jewish version of Enlightenment) – for the understanding of the term “Enlightenment” and its meanings, in its German version of Aufklärung. Mendelssohn, devoted to the idea of universal human fraternity, wished for the reconciliation of religion and science, in opposition to Jewish ghettoization. He sensed the possibility and the necessity of cultural amalgamation, of Enlightenment and Romanticism, of East and West. Mendelssohn’s predecessors are Maimonides, the greatest Jewish thinker of the middle ages, and Baruch Spinoza, Dutch philosopher of Jewish origins. Regarding the notion of neam, particular to Romanian language, Neumann explained that the word, which means family, tribe or species, was introduced by the Transylvanian School as substitute for the notion of people or nation, similar to the German Volk. This term of identity does not have civic or judicial basis, unlike the concept of ‘people’ in French or Anglo-American interpretation, but is associated to origins, blood and homeland. Unfortunately, as the historian states ‘I noticed, even in most recent works, the preponderance of this term, detrimental to that of people’. The identity issue must be addressed in rational manner.

Neumann is the supporter of the term ‘multiple identities’. Each individual has multiple identities: from communitary, linguistic, cultural, religious, etc. perspective. Unfortunately, here intervenes ethno-nationalism. Pluralism and multi-culturalism are solutions to the problem. A good example to follow is contemporary Germany. The sectarianism and factionalism are no longer solutions in the modern world, which confronts itself with a phenomenon of relocation of individuals on global scale. The constitutionalism has to be reinvented, the rule of law and citizen rights must be revered, the administration has to be improved, the minorities respected and the history must be critically assumed. Neumann thinks that ‘European integration means, firstly, the option for democratic values, for multi- and trans-culturalism, for equal involvement of every entity to the socio-political and economic transnational life’. The Jerusalem debate was a good opportunity to understand the importance of conceptual history and to gain public interest towards Victor Neumann’s valuable works in this field, great topical works in a period when the ethno-nationalism is being resurrected while the multiculturalism is being questioned” (Mirel Horodi, Observator Cultural, issue 880, 14th of July 2017).

The scientific education of the historian, the documentary research, the conceptualization of the idea of Romanian identity in European context, the concern for work method, all bear the marks of high culture and originality of interpretation. The works signed by Neumann highlight the ideas that animated his research and made possible the drafting of volumes of valuable content. I will conclude this short portrayal of our colleague by quoting a relevant fragment concerning the historian’s manner of understanding history, culture and society:

“I am defined by the interest for science and arts, but mostly by the curiosity of understanding the complexity of human nature. The spoken and written word, the language and behavior, draw my attention. I am interested in all that is new in the field of methodology. I like to think on my own. Hence, the need to analyze terms, concepts, to rethink their signification. Hence, the tendency to propose paradigm changes, which I find useful for the contemporary Romanian and European culture. I am especially interested in old and valuable, in cultural and spiritual legacies, in architectural patrimony. My intellectual gesture is not a mere gratuity: I try to suggest behavioral references for the future, for the next avant-garde. I believe that Romania will change, that people will emancipate from the administrative and political servitudes, and will gain the necessary reflexes to cultivate civility, openness and innovation. In order for this to happen sooner, investment in education must be encouraged, while respect for the hierarchy of values, for social and professional positions has to be assumed the most by the citizens. I am open to authenticity, to my peers’ gestures and words, to new and valuable ideas, but also to stereotypes. I live what I write and I strongly believe in the messages I think and formulate. Researching the past means to me an attempt to unravel the world that was, beyond ideologies of former and contemporary politicians. Formulating future projects is part of my intellectual schedule. Writing is being alive, passing down to my potential readers what I study and what I believe about the issues I study. The lectures, the library research, the meditation, all have stimulated me. I probably communicate best through writing, owing to it the exercise of thinking, the way I have disciplined my mind. To my constant concern for the written word, I owe the continuous aspiration to progress in knowledge and understanding, to offer contributions to the understanding of local, regional, national or European history. My books are part of a methodological and conceptual registry in which, along with the critical analysis of the roots, with comparisons and contextualization, a special place is held by the discourse liberated of ideological and communitary constraints.”.

Simona&Victor Neumann_  la Univ. de Vest Timișoara.JPG

Victor Neumann în dialog cu Universitatea Natională de arte București

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