Geography and History
Romania is the seventh largest EU country by both population (approximately 21 million) and landmass. Enjoying a 150 mile stretch of Black Sea coast, and land borders with Bulgaria, Ukraine, Moldova, Hungary and Serbia, Romania has absorbed influences from the Roman, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires before its full flowering as a nation at the end of World War I. This year, 2018, marks the 100th anniversary of Romania as a unified country.
Then known as Dacia, the Roman conquest of the region is depicted on Trajan’s Column, a reproduction of which is on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. This legacy remains in both the Romanian name and language, considered closer to Latin than even the modern Italian tongue.
Romania’s mountainous geography creates natural enclaves, pockets where the distinct cultures of later invaders could take deeper root. At the country’s heart lies Transylvania and the sweeps of the Carpathian Mountains. Here the Saxons found a home, a presence stamped into the land through a series of fortified churches, many now UNESCO World Heritage sites, and part of the conservation efforts of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. And Transylvania too is where Vlad Tepes — on whom the Dracula myth is based — once ruled, facing off against the advancing Ottoman Turks. In Moldavia to the North East, we find the home of Romania’s first true national hero, Ștefan cel Mare, fighting against Hungarians in the West, Poles to his north and Ottomans from the South. His example paved the way for Mihai Viteazu, a leader under whom the three provinces of Wallachia, Transylvania and Moldavia were briefly united as a Romanian proto-nation (1600).
Ottoman advances could not be held at bay forever, and by the middle of the sixteenth century Turks held sway over all of modern Romania albeit it with Moldavia, Transylvania and Wallachia maintaining significant practical autonomy. As a melting pot of different faith traditions during this period, Romania lays claim to the first decree of religious freedom in Europe, The Edict of Turda, in 1568.
The story of Romania continues with a strengthening of Austro-Hungarian influence at the expense of the Ottomans, but also growing calls for real independence and emancipation. Momentum for this grew during the European nationalist upheavals of 1848 and then in 1866 when a coup d’état led to the provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia coming together under Prince Carol, later King Carol I, as the United Principality of Romania. Following the Russo-Turkish war, Romania declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire and in 1878 the United Principality was recognised for the first time as an independent state. Although conquered by the Quadruple Alliance in World War I, the eventual defeat of these powers and final collapse of the old Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires created, at last, the conditions under which Transylvania could become a full part of a unified, now Kingdom of Romania, in 1918.
But convulsions in Russia, and indeed in central Europe, boded ill for the new nation. The rise of Hitler and Stalin, and their alliance that precipitated the Second World War, led to the Nazi-aligned General Ion Antonescu taking power from a discredited King Carol II after his ceding the contested region of Bessarabia to the Russians. With the fracture of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Romania entered the war on the German side, fighting with the Nazis for four years. As the tide of war turned against Hitler, and with Russian forces massing on its north east border, Romania’s young King Mihai I overthrew Antonescu switching the country to the Allied side thus denying Germans access to much needed oil from the Ploiesti refineries. Some historians think this action by The King may have shortened the War in Europe by six months (for an intriguing account of a British SOE action to support resistance forces in Romania you can do no better than Ivor Porter’s Operation Autonomous: With S.O.E. in Wartime Romania).
As Hitler and Stalin had privately agreed the partition of Romania before the war, so too did a wartime deal at Yalta force a fate upon it following the Nazi surrender. Falling into Stalin’s sphere of influence, the machinations of communist factions locked Romania solidly behind the evil side of the Iron Curtain after 1947 when King Mihai was forced first to abdicate then leave the country. While its first communist leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej cemented relations with Russia and implemented the structures of totalitarianism, it was Nicolae Ceaușescu who perpetrated the most vicious crimes on Romania during his 34 years of repression and personality cult dictatorship. It remains one of the more shameful acts in Britain’s history that this man could be awarded a Knighthood on the basis of a notional split from communist Russia. An enduring image from the eventual collapse of communism in Europe is the execution by firing squad of Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena on Christmas Day, 25 December, 1989.
In the years since his death, Romania has recovered, at first slowly, from the horrific legacy communism always imposes. In 2004 it joined NATO and in 2007 became a full EU member. Together inside, or as a partner with the European Union, Romania will always value its friendship and multi-faceted relationship with Britain.