I’ve mentioned in a few earlier posts that I wish the school systems could teach more Eastern European history in high school. If I could have had just a simple, working knowledge of the principalities and small nations, I would have been inspired to learn more about them, earlier in life. Instead, Eastern Europe was lumped into the category “Soviet Satellites”, as if they were irrelevant, country sized Sputniks. We were given no other information.
I first became interested in the history of Romania, then a “Soviet Satellite”, in the mid 1970s. My then roommate was entranced by all things related to Dracula. He loaned me one of his biographies about Vlad the Impaler. I soon discovered that the Hollywood version of Dracula was only a pale parody of the real tyrant. Beyond Vlad, I couldn’t find much else about Transylvania nor Romania, until I took the required college level introduction to world history course.
This first serious exposure to Eastern European history was very compressed because the relationships and wars between the “major” powers took up most of the course-work. Despite the lack of time, the names Banat, Crisana, Maramures, Moldava, and Wallachia entered my vocabulary. The small land area of Romania and Transylvania had become a little more interesting to me.
The history of the region is quite extensive and intertwined with the histories of Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian Empires. I’ll jump forward and attempt a short summary of events there, from the 1800s to the early 1900s.
The tiny principalities that comprise contemporary Romania were in the midst of political struggles between the Austrians, Russians, and the flagging Ottomans. Northwestern Moldavia had been occupied by Austria. Transylvania had been absorbed into Austria’s Empire, but kept some autonomy. Russia continued her earlier influence over the rest of Moldavia and Wallachia and quarrelled with the Ottoman Empire over the other Romanian principalities. Those disagreements were at the heart of the wars between Moscow and Istanbul, during the 1800s.
Meantime, the Romanian desire for freedom from the three empires, that had been suppressed for so many years, was reawakened with the emergence of a bourgeoisie class in the region plus the defeat of the Russian Empire in the Crimean War. As a result, Moldavia and Wallachia were politically unified in 1859.
After a Russian victory over the Ottoman Empire in a later war, Romania was recognized as an independent state and Kingdom by 1881.
Meantime, Austria fell to defeat by Prussia in 1867. The result was the reorganization of Austria into the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. At this time, Transylvania was forcefully absorbed into Hungary. This period marked a time of economic and ethnic repression and gave rise to a wave of emigration from Romania to North America.
In 1912, at the conclusion of the first Balkan War, the Kingdom of Romania wished to occupy much of Bulgaria. Intervention by Britain and a treaty halted Romanian action. In June of the following year, the Second Balkan War erupted after unsuccessful Bulgarian raids on Greece and Serbia. Romania was drawn into the conflict in reprisals against Bulgaria. An armistice was signed on July 30, 1913.
During the conflict, the Romanian farmer-soldiers had seen Bulgaria’s more liberal version of civilization. They wanted something similar back home. In 1914, the Liberals rose to power and enabled massive electoral and agrarian reforms.
Romania’s next opportunity to reclaim Transylvania came during the chaos of the first World War. The Kingdom of Romania broke their official neutrality on August 15, 1916 with their declaration of war against the Central Powers and Austria-Hungary. Romania’s stated aim was the liberation and unification with Transylvania.
As the Great War was drawing to a conclusion, Austria-Hungary was disintegrating and Germany had been drawing back from the Western Front. This was the opportunity that occupied Transylvania had been awaiting. The principality’s National Party drafted a resolution for the right of self-determination. The movement for unification of Romania and Transylvania solidified.
In early November, Hungary was in disarray with near anarchy. Taking advantage of the confusion, the Romanians notified the Hungarian government that it had taken control of much of Transylvania. The national council of northern Budovina joined Romania. Romania then took advantage of the greatly weakened German forces and entered Walachia. By November 30th, the Romanian military occupied most of Transylvania.
On December 1, 1918, representatives of the Romanians in Transylvania and the Transylvanian Saxons met in public in the Transylvanian city of Alba Iulia, to proclaim the Union of Transylvania with the Kingdom of Romania. Later that month, an assembly in Alba Iulia passed the resolution unifying all the Romanian principalities into a single nation.
The celebration of the December first event came to be known as Great Union Day. After several decades, the holiday was finally officially celebrated after the 1989 Romanian Revolution. The post-communist declaration referred to the Union of Banat, Crisan, Maramures, Romania, and Transylvania.