Though my ability to feed my family depends entirely on humankind’s affinity for written communication, I’m often surprised by the power of words. Case in point: the developing brouhaha between Hungary and Romania over a plaque tacked onto a statue of King Matthias (right). The monument is located in the Romanian town of Cluj, where the 15th-century Hungarian monarchy was born. When the local council recently restored the statue, it tacked on a descriptive sign that, due to a single sentence fragment, threatens to poison relations between neighboring NATO members. The plaque’s sin? It quotes from a Romanian historian who seems to believe that King Matthias wasn’t really Hungarian at all:
In May Hungarian ambassador Oszkár Füzes was stopped by police from placing flowers on a controversial plaque put in front of a statue of medieval Hungarian King Mátyás (Matthias) in the ethnic Hungarian town of Cluj. The plaque, noting a rare battlefield loss by Mátyás to Moldavian forces in 1467, read “he suffered defeat at the hands of his own nation.”
The Romanian Culture Ministry said the inscription had not been approved by the state historical commission and is therefore illegal. However, Cluj town hall claims it proceeded within the law.
More on the ensuing controversy here. As you might imagine, hardcore nationalists on both sides of the Romanian-Hungarian divide have been using the plaque to make political hay. It all seems nonsensical to my thoroughly American brain, especially given the fictional nature of “pure” ethnicity. Wouldn’t an intermingling of genes (and thus heritages) be the norm in an interzone like Cluj?
But some people thrive on a sense of grievance, and thus look for every opportunity to feel as if their identities are being threatened by exceedingly minor slights. Unfortunately, these insecure actors tend to have a disproportionate voice in politics, to the detriment of rational discourse. And so a few words on an obscure plaque end up having serious implications for people who otherwise couldn’t tell King Matthias from King Tubby.