Professor Mihai Berza: A visionary of Romanian research into the Levant

Founders of Levantine Studies in Romania

Commemorative session marking 40 years from the death of Professor Mihai Berza, Director of the Institute of South-Eastern European Studies


A specialist in Mediaeval History, the world-renowned historian Mihai Berza made a name for himself through his erudition and the great synthetic capacity of the studies he undertook in his over 40 years of academic activity, from the history of economics to that of ideas, and from genealogy to heraldry.

Mihai Berza was born on the 23rd of August 1907 in Tecuci. He embarked on his university studies in 1929 at the Faculty of Letters and Philosophy in Iaşi, which he followed with doctoral studies abroad, in Rome and in Paris. In 1939, he was named Deputy Director of the “Nicolae Iorga” Institute of Universal History. In 1944, he chaired the Department of Methodology and Historiography and the Department of Genealogy and Heraldry at the School of Archival Studies. In 1950, he was tenured Professor at the Faculty of History at the University of Bucharest, head of the Department of Mediaeval, Modern and Contemporary History. In 1963, he became the first Director of the Institute of South-Eastern European Studies, a position he held until the final year of his life.

He was a corresponding member of the Romanian Academy, a titular member of the Academy of Social and Political Sciences, the Vice-President of the International Association of Byzantine Studies, member of the Serbian Academy of Science and Art and of the Academy of Lisbon, and an invited Professor at the Collège de France.

Mihai Berza passed away on the 5th of October 1978.


Prof. dr. Emil Constantinescu, președintele Consiliului Științific al Institutului de Studii Avansate pentru Cultura și Civilizația LevantuluiProfessor Emil Constantinescu, President of the Scientific Council of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Levant Culture and Civilization:

“Mihai Berza, a man of character: memories from under the Communist dictatorship”

“We are gathered here today to commemorate one of the great personalities of Romanian culture and the historical sciences, one we view as a predecessor to our own Institute. I have extended my invitation to remembrance to those notable personalities that can share some of their own memories about Professor Berza, and I would kindly ask you to allow me to begin with my own.

303, For those very young, that is a mere number, not particularly worthy of significance. Yet for those whose university studies involved reading the Humanities at the University of Bucharest – Letters, Philosophy, History and Law – and were students between 1953 and 1961, 303 is a number they will never be able to forget. In student code, 303 meant a certain student hall of residence, situated in the former Royal Stables on the banks of the Danube. Within the building, there was a large hall, in which condemnation hearings were oft held. From time to time, all totalitarian regimes need to instil fear, for it is through fear alone that they can ensure their dominance. And their greatest fear is their fear of intellectuals – undoubtedly a justified one – because Communist regimes collapse when the intellectual elites began to speak freely; when, as Vaclav Havel had predicted, they overcame their fear.

Fear needed to be constantly reinforced and thus, in the aforementioned period, condemnation hearings were regularly held. One could always find reasons to hold such meetings and, in order to maintain and exacerbate the general feeling of terror and dread, the people destined to be subjected to the humiliation of a particularly well-organized audience were carefully chosen. Those who associated with the condemned were immediately condemned in turn, being seen as no better or, often times, as being guiltier than those initially the object of these violent verbal condemnations – especially in the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when students at the Humanist faculties in Bucharest tried to organize a solidarity action at “the Clock”, in University Square. Those first on the scene were arrested and summarily sentenced. The students at the Faculty of Law, among whom I was at the time, were taken to the Tribunal to see how their colleagues were being condemned. The Party did not settle for that, and also oversaw the organization of their condemnation sessions.

At 303, the session was presided over by the Prime Secretary of the Municipality of Bucharest, Florin Dănălache. A brute. Today, we avoid this topic; yet it is well-known that until 1989, when Communism finally and bloodily fell in Romania, with the exception of Ştefan Andrei, of Ion Iliescu and Manea Mănescu, the Central Party Committee and the leadership of the Communist Party were comprised of people of the same cloth as the two Ceauşescus themselves: people with barely four elementary school grades to their name, sometimes with a so-called workers’ university or political studies degree. This Florin Dănălache, whom I remember very clearly, was seconded by the head of the student organization, Iulian Cârțână. Those students that were denounced by their fellow peers were forced to acknowledge their guilt, and Rector Jean Livescu – a nullity –, a German teacher from Iaşi who had become a university professor and rector, would stand up and declare: “From this moment onwards, he is no longer a part of the CYU (the Communist Youth Union), and no longer a part of the University!” The consequences would not stop there. Many were afterwards sent to re-education through forced labour, or to prison.

March 12th, 1959. The session lasted a very long time. The proceedings were begun by an assistant from the Faculty of Philosophy, who was also a seminarian in Law. She stood up and unmasked a fellow student who had skipped the seminary on Scientific Socialism three days prior, telling her colleagues she was going to see her mother-in-law who was baking pastries. This was the gravest of motives. She was jeered and thrown out of the University. This was just the prelude, however, with the purpose of the meeting being to condemn the actions of Professor Pippidi. The motive for this was very clearly enunciated by the young and brave historian, Iulian Cârțână: Professor Pippidi had refused to sign the appeal in support of Manolis Glezos. The Prime Secretary of the Greek Communist Party, a remarkable figure who had flown a national flag on the Acropolis under the German occupation, had again been arrested in 1958, following a previous arrest in 1948 during the civil war in Greece. The entire Socialist bloc was supposed to sign appeals in favour of Manolis Glezos, but Professor Dionisie Pippidi had not put his name down. “Why didn’t you sign the appeal for Manolis?”, asked Dănălache. Professor Pippidi wasn’t even allowed to speak, because the time was better spent giving the floor to his colleagues who were supposed to condemn his actions. To the surprise of all, Professor Berza did not violently and vulgarly condemn Professor Pippidi; even worse, he tried to come to his defence, which was unpardonable. The applause from a small group of Law students – myself included, together with my colleagues Ţepeneag and Mutulescu – were drowned out by the boos of the crowd, devoted to their sanctioned mission to jeer.

The conclusion of the whole affair was that the people guilty of committing the crime of joining the “defendant” were to be eliminated from the higher education circuit and the scientific milieu altogether. Things did not turn out quite this way, because in the meantime “higher Party organs” reversed this decision. Yet its purpose was achieved. Its goal wasn’t so much the elimination of certain people who traded in ancient or mediaeval history, less interesting to party propaganda; the goal was to influence and intimidate the student body and the other professors. Years later, a few of us who were there that day, or who were deeply influenced by what happened at 303, were reunited. Two of these people are here today, sitting to my right and my left respectively, and you will likely hear their stories as well. The third is unfortunately not with us anymore, but is someone I evoke very fondly. I am speaking of Professor Zoe Petre, who recently passed away, and who played an extremely important role in the establishment of this Institute.

In Romania, the Communist regime was first and foremost a criminal regime. Professor Gheorghe Brătianu, the mentor of Mihai Berza, was assassinated in Sighet Penitentiary for refusing to rewrite his works on Bessarabia and on the Black Sea. He was gravely ill yet was offered no medication, and once he died, he was cast out into the cemetery for the poor. A man’s legacy, erased – what a horrible crime. Assassinations would be carried out both within and outside of prisons, to say nothing of the cultural crimes that were being committed by the regime. The transformation of the boyar mansions across Romania – which were often home to extensive libraries and pieces of art – into I.A.S. headquarters for keeping sheep, where they fed the fires with precious books, or into mental wards for schizophrenic patients, destroyed a great deal of our common heritage. This only happened in Romania, as the Bolsheviks put the works of art in Russia away for safe keeping. They, at least, had that much respect. In Romania, the Communist party was led by illiterate and uncultured brutes, who hated culture with every fibre of their being.

We find ourselves today celebrating 100 years since our Great Unification, yet these things are still left unspoken. When you set yourself the goal of genuinely talking about the past hundred years of history, and all you focus on are a few battles and great achievements, when you omit the horrible dramas that your people had to suffer through, you bring nothing of value going forward. Unfortunately, the younger generations have nothing to learn from these centennial celebrations, which have done little other than accentuate the moral crisis our country is going through. This is why I believe that now, when this opportunity to talk about Romanian identity – which can only be a cultural identity – was missed, we must evoke the great personalities of the past such as Mihai Berza, they who will remain in our histories not only through their work, but also through who they were. Meaning, through their character. The dignity of a nation is not determined by its President, its Government, or its Parliament. It is the sum of the individual dignity of each person, and of the self-respect that we each must nurture before ever hoping to garner the respect of others.”


Academician Răzvan Theodorescu, vicepreședinte al Academiei Române:Academician Răzvan Theodorescu, Vice-President of the Romanian Academy:

“Mihai Berza, a professor of great distinction.”

“I would like to express my sincere gratitude for the invitation to evoke the spirit of one of the most brilliant professors I have ever had. Perhaps paradoxically, during the times of greatest hardship of the Stalinist and neo-Stalinist period, the Faculty of History at the University of Bucharest had never before had such talented professors, greater even than those in Iorga’s and Giurescu’s time. A handful of the most learned people imaginable, and from among them, I was closest to three. I have recently spoken about these three in composing a book with biographical inflections, where I gave their names to posterity: Emil Condurachi, Ion Nestor and Mihai Berza. I list them in this order because I have remained close to Emil Condurachi for my entire life; Ion Nestor was my undergraduate dissertation supervisor; and Mihai Berza, my doctoral supervisor. I had actually met Mihai Berza before becoming a university student, through some family ties. His son, Tudor Berza, my colleague at the Romanian Academy today, I had met when we were both children. At that time, I was also fortunate to meet Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaş, Tudor’s grandfather and Mihai Berza’s father-in-law. In a way, through my being here today as vice-President of this academic forum, the Romanian Academy pays homage to a family that, over three generations, gave us three members of the Academy: Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaş, Mihai Berza and Tudor Berza. While not being a direct student of his – I enrolled in Archaeology and Greco-Roman Studies – I would nevertheless attend his lectures because, out of all our professors, Mihai Berza was the most elegant, discrete and distinguished. He was a joy to behold, absolutely extraordinary. At one point, knowing full well what his concerns and preoccupations were regarding Southern Italy and the Eastern Mediterranean, I dared to ask him to conduct the proceedings of one of my seminaries’ works. Mihai Berza had the great kindness, and offered me the great privilege, of him attending the presentation of the paper, despite the fact that on the very same day he had been faced with great hardship and loss in his family.

In your speech, Mr President, you evoked the ‘303’ moment. We followed all the developments and lived through their inevitable consequences. I was with my colleague, the regretted Zoe Petre, known then as Zoe Condurachi. We spent the entire day together and we could not believe what was transpiring before our very eyes. During a break, the most vocal of the three accused, Ion Nestor, came over to us and told me: “We’ll be speaking about you.” I didn’t understand. Zoe and I were wondering what he could have meant… That same sinister Dănălache asked the three professors to give him an example of one student whom they thought they had educated properly, and Professor Nestor, Professor Berza and Professor Pippidi had come to the agreement that they would make mention of yours truly. Professor Nestor also had the unfortunate idea – and he later apologised and explained why he did it – to have a brief pause, and add: “The eminent student Răzvan Theodorescu.” Two weeks later, the same Dănălache demanded to know what had become of “the eminence.” I was kicked out of the CYU, out of the University, and forced into the unskilled labour pool. For three years, I was an ironmonger – concreter. I returned during the period of relative thaw, in 1963.

I will never forget the moment when, having successfully become a project researcher at the Institute of Art History, when accepted by George Oprescu, he added: “I heard about you from Berza.” … Between 1952 and 1954, Professor Berza had been removed from his position at the University and worked at the Institute of Art History, in a field alien to his academic formation that he nevertheless became a specialist in in those times of hardship: heraldry during the reign of Stephen the Great, the artistical repertoire of the period, Suceviţa Monastery… He was working with three others, whom I will always remember with love and piety: Emil Lăzărescu, Teodora Voinescu and Maria Ana Musicescu. In 1963, after George Oprescu received me and told me he had heard of me from Berza, the aging academician began to laud the achievements of Mihai Berza, despite him being the son-in-law of Tzigara-Samurcaş, whom he had hated all his life. Yet, he said: “That Berza is something else, though!”

Mihai Berza started off under the tutelage of Gheorghe Brătianu, to whom he would always feel a deep sense of extraordinary loyalty through the toughest of times. I remember how he spoke about him, in “Revue des études sud-est européennes”, even in Papacostea’s „Balcania”, at a time when you couldn’t even mention Gheorghe Brătianu’s name. Mihai Berza defended his doctoral thesis in Iași, where initiatives for Universal History were being formulated that did not exist, with the notable exceptions of Iorga and Brătianu, in Bucharest. Among other studies, it was in Iași that Oțetea, he who would go on to sign Mihai Berza’s PhD certification, had conducted studies on Guicciardini, and where Oreste Tafrali was undertaking studies on Thessaloniki. It was an emulation of universal history to which Mihai Berza contributed with „Amalfi preducale.” His PhD thesis was published in Italy in 1938 and, afterwards, in France. Berza followed this up with a remarkable and extremely interesting study of „Le sentiment national chez les lombards méridionaux”. At the same time, he was carrying out his own research into Carolingian France and the Carolingian moment: „Le voyage en France du Pape Jean VIII”, „Autour de l’élection royale de Mantaille.” He also authored a number of studies in the 1940s on the Black Sea. In modern times, Mihai Berza has drawn academic attention – perhaps even more strongly than Brătianu – to the fact that the Mongols, through a kind of Pax Mongolica, created a favourable framework for Italian merchants to ply their trade across the waters of the Northern Black Sea. All these studies ought to be collected into a History of Old Romanian culture. Mihai Berza is thoroughly deserving of the republication, perhaps even under the auspices of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Levant Culture and Civilization, of his works authored in the 1930s and 1940s, until the time his academic career was cut short. He was the son of a landowner after all, coming from a line of Moldovan petty nobility.

During the period of relative liberalisation, beginning in 1963 – 1964 and lasting until 1971, Professor Pippidi and Professor Berza would become corresponding members of the Romanian Academy. I remember when, once, I came across Professor Berza in the square in front of the Academy, who beamed: “Did you know they’re making an Institute of South-Eastern European Studies?” He was delighted, as the establishment of an institute of Balkan Studies had been his life’s dream, come to fruition with the assistance of Emil Condurachi and the younger Virgil Cândea. That was a very special time, a time of Romanian emulation of this field. It was a pleasure to join them, all the people I have mentioned, in attending various congresses. I also remember the walks down the streets of Athens in 1970, with Mihai Berza, Alexandru Rosetti and Zoe Dumitrescu-Buşulenga. It was then that Professor Berza was elected as President of the Commission for the History of Ideas.

For me, Mihai Berza will always remain a symbol of distinction, elegance, discretion and of an impressive erudition. Professor Berza will continue as one of the most beautiful effigies of my biography. On this 40th anniversary of his passing, I thank you for taking the time to remember him.


Dr. Tudor Berza, membru corespondent al Academiei RomâneDr Tudor Berza, Corresponding Member of the Romanian Academy:

“My Father”

“Memories of home are stored elsewhere than those of the teaching desk. Thanks to my father, my maternal grandfather and to the library, I considered pursuing a career in history. Had I followed through, I would have likely gravitated towards archaeology, from an intrinsic need for freedom and nature. I vividly remember the time when, at 15, one night my father came to me and said “You’ll not do for history!”. And so, I chose geology, leading to my meeting Emil Constantinescu in the auditoriums of the Faculty of Geology in 1961.

When my father passed away, I was 34. I had observed him during my 30 years of conscious existence, but his photographs and other images I would, by chance, find, captured moments that nobody ever spoke about. It was a small, lost, paradise.

Our family traces its lineage from southern Moldova from around 1700, from the grassroots. My great-grandfather had managed to amass a household of 300 hectares, which after his death he left to his son, Teodor Berza, my grandfather. He had four children, the youngest of which was Mihai Berza. Less skilful than his father, towards the end of his life he was left with notably less property than he had started with, but had managed to provide all his children with the finest education. The family extravagances were road trips to the West – via automobile –, activities usually reserved to those of better social standing who would own several thousand hectares.

In 1929, Mihai Berza finished his degree at the University of Iaşi, going on to teach in a number of schools in Iaşi and Fălticeni. During the same period, he also completed his military service, specializing in anti-aircraft artillery while keeping guard over the Danube. Between 1931 and 1933, having won a scholarship, he studied in Rome together with his first wife. In Rome, one of his colleagues was his good friend Dionisie M. Pippidi. In the next cohort of bursary students, the class of 1933-1934, was his future wife Ana, whom he met in Rome. The two decided to get married and – completely unusual for the time – went straight to their parents informing them of their decision, and the wedding date was quickly arranged for 1935. After that, Mihai Berza won a scholarship to Paris, where him and his wife spent the following period. Between 1937-1938 he was the Secretary of the School of Rome, during which time he completed his PhD. Between 1928 and 1943, Mihai Berza wrote 17 separate scientific studies and journal articles on the history of the Western European Mediaeval period, including his doctoral thesis that was published in the yearly Proceedings of the School of Rome,

Mihai Berza was then appointed via Royal Decree to the position of Professor at the School of Archival Studies and, in 1948, was transferred to the University of Bucharest. In 1942 his first son, Alexandru, was born, and in February of 1944 his second, myself. From that period, during the war, we are left with paltry few photographs, not least because the family was taking refuge. In 1950 his eldest son, Alexandru, died of leukaemia, a development that affected my father more than was widely known, and one that came to define the entire rest of his life.

The second stage in his life and career – following the dreadful 1950s, dreadful both for him and for the country – begins in the 1960s. Beginning in 1962-1963 he returns to the academic limelight, and is returned several of his previous titles including that of Doctor of Letters and a professorship at the University of Bucharest. From 1963 onwards, he would devote himself to the leadership of the Institute of South-Eastern European Studies. This was the period during which he came into his own as a professor, mentor, guide and director. During this time, Mihai Berza attended a number of international congresses on history. The disease that first appeared and was diagnosed in 1967 returned, ten years later; yet despite the odds, Professor Mihai Berza continued to work assiduously until his final days.”


Prof. dr. Tasin Gemil, Directorul Institutului de Turcologie, Universitatea Babeș-Bolyai, ClujProfessor Tasin Gemil, PhD, Director of the Institute of Turkology at the “Babeş-Bolyai” University, Cluj-Napoca:

“Mihai Berza, my mentor.”

„I consider it a great honour to have been invited to share some of my thoughts here today. I was not Professor Berza’s student; my university years were spent in Iaşi, where I also worked for a number of years and where I also got my PhD. While it is true that Professor Berza was in my doctoral review panel, I consider him my mentor for remotely guiding my research from Bucharest. Such is my view. I have always declared that I indeed have two mentors that shaped my scientific personality and evolution: Leonid Boicu in Iaşi and Professor Mihai Berza in Bucharest.

During that period, provincial researchers at regional Institutes would travel to Bucharest for further documentation. In trimestral shifts, I would effectively move short-term to Bucharest, for ten days or two weeks at a time, and visit Professor Berza. He would always warmly receive me, however busy his schedule might have been, and we would spend a good hour to hour-and-a-half talking. For half of the time that I had his ear, I would present my progress since our last meeting, and for the other half, he would provide helpful guidance which I would note down. These meetings were decisive for my academic career. Firstly, Professor Berza’s mantra – that stuck with me as well – was „Only write when you have something to write about”- to disseminate an idea, a piece of information firmly based in verifiable sources. „Have you found anything new?” If I had, I would talk to him about the respective document and he would always argue that I should publish it. We would discuss it, and he would provide bibliographical hints. Many a time, he would ask: „You know, these people who write so many books? Whenever can they find time to read one instead?” He was right, of course, but I have the feeling that that sentiment is much more applicable today than it was back then. Systematic and thorough documentation was the academic foundation he most ardently cared about.

Like I said, he was in my PhD review commission. When I received his notes, in a way I felt frightened, because his analysis had been as meticulous as to correct the accents in the French and Italian. He corrected the accents, of which were cited, and some were in the footnotes. I have carried forward his rigour and have in turn applied it to my own doctoral students. For this reason, over the past twenty years, I only graduated sixteen PhDs while other professors have passed hundreds. I read every submitted thesis with a pair of pencils, one blue and one red, once or even twice over. Nearly all my doctoral students have had to rewrite their PhD theses at least once, if not twice or thrice. I owe my rigour, serious nature and deep respect for the academic establishment entirely to Professor Berza.

I just recalled one of Professor Berza’s visits to Iaşi. Professor Petrescu – Dâmboviţa, the Director at the time, delegated me the honourable and very pleasant duty to await Professor Berza in the train station in Iaşi and to accompany him to his hotel. That night, we talked at length in the restaurant of the hotel and the next day he held a conference with a full house. He asked how much time he had, and when answered with „50 minutes”, he took his watch off, set it on the table, and in his baritone voice that silenced crowds and drew attention, spoke for exactly fifty minutes. He had an extraordinary oratorial talent.

Professor Berza was also my protector. It is to him and to Professor Emil Condurachi that I owe my visits to Turkey on UNESCO scholarships, without which I could not have pursued a career in this field. During the 1970s, after consulting Ottoman documents, I published a study on the tributes owed by the Romanian Principalities to the Sublime Porte. Of course, I had read the study by Professor Berza on the same topic, published in the S.M.I.M, I believe, in 1958. He had not had access to Turkish documents, and published his findings based solely on European sources. He consulted those sources so thoroughly, and analysed the financial and economic data to such a degree – even taking into account inflation for the period – that the numbers for the tribute that he forwarded in 1958, without consulting Ottoman sources, largely coincided with the numbers I found in the financial registries of the Ottoman Empire. His scientific rigour made Professor Berza reach such conclusions, in a field where numbers are the most important thing. I would like to express my undying gratitude towards Professor Berza and his memory, to whom I owe a substantial part of my scientific career.”

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