Great Union of 1918. The project of a generation

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For Romanians, the year 1918 was one of contrasts, a year in which one went from agony to ecstasy, as the saying often goes. First, the Romanian state left the war, concluding peace with the Central Powers in Bucharest (24 April/7 May). Then, six months later, through a spectacular turn of events that nobody sensed, the great union was accomplished, thanks to the historic decisions in Chisinau (27 March/9 April), Cernauti (15/28 November) and Alba Iulia (18 November/1 December).

The listing of events might suggest that Great Romania was a creation of circumstances, an expression of the “luck” so rarely seen in the history of smaller nations. Some, out of superficiality or, most often, out of ill will, rushed to present this as a certainty, an axiom.

History, however, operates with its long duration, so that phenomena and processes that occur at a certain moment gain profound explanations that allow the discernment of their special dynamic. That is the case of the union of Romanians in 1918.

It is very well known that Romanians, due to complex causes, lived for centuries in several state units, and Romanian territories were part of surrounding great empires – the Habsburg (Austro-Hungarian) and the Russian empires. This was not an exception in European history, other people too, such as the Germans and Italians, having the same status.

Beyond local particularities, beyond animosities that sometimes went as far as armed conflicts, Romanians were one and the same people, their unity, Latinity (Roman origin) and continuity in the same geographical area being unanimously recognised throughout the centuries. Miron Costin was convinced that “the correct name of old is Romanian, just like the inhabitants of the Hungarian countries and the Wallachians call their country and how they write and speak their language: the Romanian Country.”

Several decades later, the great scholar Dimitrie Cantemir wrote a description “of the whole Romanian Country (which was then split into Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania) since its foundation by Trajan.”

Nicolae Iorga, the Romanians’ greatest historian, wrote: “The Romanian Country once had a meaning that very many have forgotten and some never understood; it meant the entire land ethnographically inhabited by Romanians.”

Against this backdrop of unity, the project of the political and territorial unity of Romanians took shape in the mid-19th Century, the century of nationalities, of national rebirth for many European people: Serbians, Greeks, Italians, Bulgarians, Norwegians etc.

It is the merit of the Forty-Eighters’ generation to have thoroughly argued the necessity for Romanians to become part of the historical flow of the era and to unite as part of the same state. Mihail Kogalniceanu, born on the Cogalnic River, in Bessarabia annexed by the Russian Empire in 1812, gave in 1843, at the opening of the national history course at the Mihaileana Academy, the most beautiful definition of the homeland of Romanians: “that whole span where Romanian is spoken,” while national history was “the history of Moldavia as a whole, before it was torn apart, of Wallachia and of the brothers from Transylvania.”

In “The Desires of the National Party” of August 1848, a document of the revolution, drafted by the same Mihail Kogalniceanu, the union of Moldavia and Wallachia was deemed “the cornerstone without which the entire national edifice would collapse.’

This objective materialised in the favourable context of the Crimean War (1853-1856) through the union of the two countries on 5 and 24 January 1859, under the sceptre of Alexandru Ioan Cuza. A prince of union and reforms, Cuza aspired to “the Great Union,” but circumstances were not favourable.

The idea was not abandoned, circulating in cultural milieus in the country and abroad, simultaneously with another one that sought the modernisation of Romanian society through the adoption of the Western model.

At the end of the 19th Century and the start of the 20th Century, the national project took concrete form in backing the struggle of Romanians across the mountains, subjected to a brutal process of denationalisation in the context of the creation of Austro-Hungarian dualism (1867).

Significant for this orientation is the reaction of the Romanian soldiers at the conclusion of the campaign in Bulgaria in 1913. They asked General Alexandru Averescu, Chief of the General Staff and the man in charge of the operations south of the Danube: “Mr General, when will you take us across the Carpathians?”

The start of the First World War put the Romanian nation in front of an insurmountable dilemma regarding the national project. The greatest powers of the time were confronting each other, grouped in two coalitions – the Central Powers and the Entente, and Romania had national claims on both sides. Any choice would have simultaneously meant an abandonment. The debates, it is known, were ample and tense, and eventually the Entente camp won, the Entente-o-phile current holding the majority at the level of the political class and public opinion.

Romania chose the path of arms for the fulfilment of the national ideal, namely for union with Romanians under the domination of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the first stage, the Romanian army was defeated, the 1916 campaign resulting in large-scale defeat, Oltenia, Muntenia and Dobrogea being occupied by the adversay. The restoration of the army in Moldavia was up next, the support of the French Military Mission, led by General H.M. Berthelot, being very important. With a new army and a different state of mind, Romania took its well-deserved revenge in the summer of 1917, through the battles of Marasti, Marasesti and Oituz. However, they could not be capitalised in political-strategic terms, so Romania was forced to leave the war, concluding peace with the adversary.

Meanwhile, two big events decisively influenced the course of the world war – Russia left the war as a result of the deposal of the Czar (February-March 1917) and the Bolshevik takeover of power (25 October/7 November 1917); U.S. entered the war on the side of the Entente (6 April 1917).

Against the backdrop of Russia’s disintegration, Bessarabia, through a rapid process of national rebirth, united with Romania on 27 March/9 April 1918. What followed in early November 1918 was Romania re-entering the war, the union of Bukovina (15/28 November 1918) and of Transylvania (18 November/1 December 1918). The national project materialised, thus, in its maximum form, also in line with the generous programme of U.S. President W.Wilson (the famous “14 Points”), launched in early 1918 and supplemented later on.

A multitude of factors contributed to this happy ending: the disappearance of the European aristocratic empires: Russian, Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman; the intelligence of most of the Romanian political class on both sides of the Carpathians and both banks of the Prut River, which managed to overcome the traditional disputes; the patriotism of Romanians, who loudly expressed their will to live together within the same state; the contribution of the armed forces, which managed to annihilate all attempts on the part of the former oppressors to maintain the previous anachronistic situation etc.

The Union of 1918 was not achieved by way of arms – even though, in August 1916, Romania opted for this option – but through democratic mechanisms, in line with the standards of the era. The Country Council in Chisinau, the General Congress of Bukovina and the Great National Assembly in Alba Iulia were the representative bodies of Romanians. Represented in them were all socio-professional categories, all political, religious, cultural orientations etc. Likewise, in the case of Bessarabia and Bukovina, the representatives of some national minorities, who expressed their options, also took part.

Apart from the decision to unite with the Country, the bodies also long debated the reforms and measures to be taken for Great Romania to also become the New Romania. Of course, not by chance, the Constitution was adopted in 1923, a fundamental document with a profoundly democratic character, which stood at the basis of Romanian society’s evolution in the interwar period.

The Great Union from 99 years ago represents a moment of national concord which materialised a national project, theoretically crystallised in the mid-19th Century and fulfilled through the activity and sacrifice of a generation rightfully considered heroic. The solidarity around this ideal, the devotion toward the public good and the fate of the nation is the greatest lesson that the generation of the year 1918 imparts on us, those who have the chance of celebrating the centennial of the greatest achievement in our own history. It is worth pointing out that all Romanians went, in the span of a century, from the Phanariote regime to Great Romania.