Alongside the national anthem, flag and currency, the National Day is one of the most important symbols that define the identity of a state and individualise it in the international arena. It is determined either by consultation of the public,–with the referendum being one of the most important tools, or by empowered entities such as the Parliament or the Government. When it is established, they regularly have in mind an event of great relevance to the community: proclamation of independence, the date of birth of the head of state (usually the monarch), a small military victory, fulfilment of a process of state unification, so on and so forth.
The modern Romanian state, prior to 1947, celebrated its National Day on 10 May, date bearing a triple significance from a historical point of view: the enthronement of Carol I of the German dynasty of Hohenzollern (1866); proclamation of national independence (1877) and the coronation of the same Carol I (1881). On this day complex celebrations were organised, attended by an important number of citizens. Usually, the beginning would be marked by a religious service (Te-Deum), attended by the royal family, members of Parliament, of Government, Army generals and officers as well as various other representatives of state institutions. Twenty one cannon shots were fired.
A moment very much enjoyed by the people of Bucharest was the military parade, usually taking place in the Royal Palace Square in Bucharest, where the Army would unveil its latest acquisitions in terms of weapons, equipment and uniforms. Members of the body of officers were also upgraded in rank on the 10th of May. Decorations, commemorative medals, jubilee coins or stamps with historic meaning would be issued and popular feats and outdoor banquettes would be organised. The National Day was therefore a moment of celebration, of concord, when differences of any sort, including political, would be muted and set aside.
After the unseating of the monarchy on 30 December 1947, the Council of Ministers passed a decision with the number 903 of 1949 setting the National Day on 23 August. On 23 August 1944, the regime headed by Marshall Ion Antonescu was removed; Romania exited its alliance with Germany and joined the United Nations coalition.
The change of regime and alliance was made by a coalition of political forces led by King Mihai, the Romanian Communist Party being just one of the several organisers of the action. However, once installed in Romania, the communist authorities \confiscated the date of 23 August which, despite all controversy, was indeed a major event in the Romanian history in the 20th century.
For the next forty years (1949-1989), celebrations on that day would take massive mobilisation of forces but, beyond the glamour imprinted by the regime, they always had an artificial, imposed character. It became a tradition in Bucharest to have the military parade followed by a ‘demonstration (march) of the working people’. This latter activity would be held in all county capitals, meaning that hundreds of thousand were forced to march past the representatives of the communist party and express their ‘joy’ and adhesion to the regime.
During the last decade of Ceausescu’s regime the tradition of the annual military parade was suspended, with parades being held only every five years. The last one was in 1989, marking 45 years since 23 August 1944. It was also the year of the fall of the communist regime in Romania as well as in the entire Eastern European region.
After December 1989 the discussion was on choosing a different date for the National Day, as the existing one was no longer consistent with historical reality. In addition, the excessively ideologised character ad propagandistic manipulation of 23 August made their fair contribution to the discrediting of the event. For that reason, on the first days of 1990, an intense debate was held on the need to identify a new date for the National Day.
Following the election on 20 May 1990, the post-Revolution Romanian Parliament adopted Law No. 10 of 31 July 1990 setting the National Day on 1 December. The decision was confirmed afterwards by the Constitution adopted by the Constituent Assembly on 21 November 1991 and entered into force after adoption by national referendum on 8 December 1991. Section 12, paragraph 2 of the Fundamental Law stipulates: ‘The National Day of Romania is 1 December’. The same provision was carried foreword to the Constitution revised by Law No. 429 of 2003 and approved by the national referendum on 18-19 October 2003.
It was the first time in the history of this country that the Constitution expressly stipulated the National Day. All Fundamental Laws before that – those of 1866, 1923, 1948 and 1965 – did not contain any such provision.
The Parliament decision setting the National Day on 1 December was an act of historic justice, because, according to what has been often said and written, it was ‘Romania’s astral time’. On that day of the year 1918, 96 years ago, the Grand National Assembly of Alba Iulia decided the unification of Transylvania and Banat with Romania. It was the coronation of an aspiration widely shared by the political elites and Romanian public opinion on both sides of the Carpathian Mountains, one for which Romania had previously entered the war.
The military developments during the years of the ‘Big War’ as the 1914-1918 conflict was also called, had a sinuous path, Romanians hanging in the balance, feeling slough of despond, but also triumph, such as the battles in the Marasti-Marasesti-Oituz triangle (July-August 1917).
The Romanian national unitary state however was not the direct result of the participation of this country in the first world conflagration. Nonetheless, Romanians’ sacrifices did carry a great moral value. The unification was the achievement of the Romanian political elite, on the right and left bank of River Prut, on both sides of the Carpathians, who benefited from a remarkable popular support. Something that made a big difference in the equation of the great union was the world context at the end of WWI, with the big absolutist empires gone – Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and German. If it hadn’t been for such radical changes of the world and European political map, it would have been very difficult for Romanians to fulfil their dream of unity.
The political establishment ahs the merit of channelling with wisdom the generous thrust of the crowd and of organising the unionist effort very diligently. The unification with Romania of Bessarabia (27 March/9 April 1918), of Bukovina (15/128 November 1918) and of Transylvania, Banat, Crisana and Maramures (18 November/1 December 1918) was decided upon by representative political bodies from the respective provinces. A noteworthy fact is that the union declarations were accompanied by programmatic documents, Stipulating many democratic reforms. At the same time, the representatives of national minorities took a stance for union, be it within the Country Assembly in Bessarabia, the General Congress of Bukovina or, later on, in the case of Transylvania.
As far as Transylvania is concerned, by the way it was organised and by its results, the Grand National Assembly in Alba Iulia was both an example of national concord above political interests and an example of generous attitude towards minorities. It benefited from the massive support of Romanians from across the mountains, over 100,000 going to Alba Iulia to enthusiastically acclaim the historic union resolution.
The acts of union in the year of grace 1918 received international legal enshrinement through the peace treaties of Saint Germain (1919), Neuilly sur Seine (1919), Trianon (1920) and Paris (1920)
Since a quarter of a century ago, we have been celebrating the National Day on 1 December, which enables one to identify a few features regarding the role and meaning of this day in the Romanian society of today. One first conclusion is that the historic meaning remains intact, or even grows with the passage of years. In a global world with major turbulences in the region, generating major threats to national integrity and unity of the states, the Great Union of 1918, achieved under exceptionally difficult conditions, generated by the end of a devastating war, appears as a miracle. This is why we continue to study, analyse, but also praise the work of the generation of those days, characterised by wisdom and political skill, devotion to the welfare of the community, in a single word reasoned patriotism. It was a moment of national concord which today appears as exemplary.
A second conclusion is that the post-1989 Romanian society has not always lived up to the standard set by the generations preceding us. This ascertainment does not come from some passeistic feeling or nostalgia, an idealisation of the past covering underachievements, differences, errors of judgement, disputes of other times. Of course, the debate is very generous, but a simple comparison of the two decades between the two Wars and the 25 years since December 1989 speaks against the latter period.
Without idealising the inter-war period in any way, such a trend does exist in Romanian historiography , one has to note, among other things, the constant growth of Romanian economy, reaching its maximum level in 1938, as well as the cultural explosion that made it possible for Romania to actually count on the European map in that area.
After December 1989, the Romanian society, traumatised by four decades of totalitarian regime, recovered with difficulty, had a hard time finding the correct road to take and the economy experienced periods of decline and stagnation. All that was fuelled by never-ending and meaningless political quarrels, the generalised corruption and a decline of communitarian solidarity. The feeling of dissatisfaction became general and some of the citizens decided to leave the country seeking material or moral personal fulfilment.
Under such circumstances, the annual National Day celebrations have been sometimes deprived of the glamour, joy, solemnity and unity imposed by the referential historic day of 1 December 1918. We could often see parallel festivities, with the Power and the Opposition organising separate events and even uttering spiteful speeches on daily topics.
We believe that Romanians need to re-instate the National Day, to find again the happiness of being together, of paying tribute to the former generations for what they did for us, following their example so that we, too, can leave the generations to come a robust edifice where they can live, with which they can identify themselves and where they can achieve complete fulfilment. The road is, of course, not easy, but our Euro-Atlantic membership of NATO and the EU, crucial to our viability as a nation and state, is a very solid prerequisite for success.