URBANA — Keith Arnold Hitchins passed away Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, at Carle Foundation Hospital, Urbana.
He was an internationally honored historian of Romania but also of Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe and many Asian countries. From 1967 until his retirement in 2019, he was professor of east european history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
He was the only child of Henry Arnold Hitchins and Lillian Mary Turrian and the last surviving member of his close family. His father was a commercial artist and writer of business advertisements, and his mother was a homemaker. Arnold was of English ancestry; Lillian’s parents were from German- and French-speaking areas in Switzerland.
Keith attended a very small rural school in his hometown then went on to complete a bachelor’s degree at Union College before earning his doctorate in history from Harvard University in 1964. His adviser at Harvard, Professor Robert Wolff, told him he was being excused from undergoing the traditional dissertation defense in view of the very high quality of his dissertation, which dealt with the National Movement in Transylvania.
Hitchins’s acquaintance with Romanian language and culture began in 1957-58 at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he studied with Emil Turdeanu and Jean Boutiére. Not long thereafter, he became the first American Fulbright Scholar to be invited to study in a country behind the Iron Curtain.
A strong shelf is needed to accommodate hundreds of articles and the more than 20 books Hitchins wrote or edited, some about Transylvania but most about Romania. Much of his work focused on the prominent role played by intellectuals and clergy in the formation and consolidation of Romania as a modern nation-state as well as on the country’s Europeanization while remaining faithful to its Orthodox and Greek-Catholic heritage. Showing their gratitude for Hitchins’s scholarly choices and recognizing his remarkable intellect, the post-communist Romanian government, the Romanian Royal House, the Romanian Academy and the nation’s foremost universities lavished their highest distinctions upon him.
Hitchins could recount a few stories about being pursued by the Securitate forces in communist Romania. At the same time, he did not forget the many examples of generous hospitality accorded him, being so highly esteemed that the regime invited him to write a biography of Nicolae Ceaușescu, a proposition he left unanswered.
Hitchins’ first teaching took place at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where for seven years he taught European history but also the Russian language. Then, after a brief period on the history faculty of Rice University in Texas, he was lured to the University of Illinois, where he spent the most important years of his academic life.
Although Hitchins helped his former graduate students in many ways, he believed that each of us has to work very hard on our own to succeed. He believed in complete loyalty and was not known to have ever broken a single friendship in his entire life. As a true historian, he felt the burden of the past in everything he did. The past lived in him. He had all the illuminations of wisdom and none of its pedantry.
He will be deeply missed.