By Dr. Ion I. Jinga
Each year since the fall of the Communist regime, on December 1st, Romanians celebrate their National Day. On December 1st, 1918, at the end of the First World War, Romanians in Transylvania – representing the absolute majority of population in this province – decided to unite with Romania.
This was the completion of The Great Union, as previously, on March 27 and November 15, 1918, the National Assemblies of Bessarabia and Bukovina – both ethnically and historically Romanian – had also decided the union with their motherland. Earlier that year, on February 11, the US President Woodrow Wilson had proclaimed the principle of self-determination of nations: “National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent.”
17 million soldiers and civilians were killed in the First World War, between July 28, 1914 and November 11, 1918. Initially neutral, in the spring of 1916 Romania was insistently asked by France and Great Britain to enter the war in order to relieve the huge German pressure on the Western front. Based on the Allied Powers’ promise to launch an offensive in Greece, Romania intervened in WW1 and in August 1916 entered Transylvania, where its soldiers were received as liberators. As Romanian troops advanced rapidly, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany told to his aides: “The war is lost” and field marshal Von Hindenburg wrote: “It is certain that so relatively small a state as Romania had never before been given a role so important and, indeed, so decisive for the history of the world at so favorable a moment. Judging by the military situation, it was to be expected that Romania had only to advance where she wished to decide the world war…”
But there was no Allied offensive in Greece and the German High Command decided that all other campaigns in the West and in the East would be put on hold while Germany threw her main weight against Romania. Meanwhile, Bulgarian and Turkish armies joined the German forces and Romania found itself simultaneously attacked from three sides. The Government was forced to withdraw from Bucharest to Iași, in Moldova.
To protect the retreat, a fierce resistance was organized on the peaks of the Carpathian Mountains, near my native town Câmpulung Mușcel. In order to make the defense impenetrable, the Romanian High Command brought in the 70th Infantry Regiment from Câmpulung, formed by inhabitants of the region, whose families were living in villages just behind the front line. They successfully stopped the advance of the more numerous and better equipped German Alpine Corps. A reminder of the epic battles which took place there in the autumn of 1916 – a Romanian Thermopylae – are the relics of over 2300 soldiers who rest for eternity in the Mausoleum on the Mateiaș Mountain.
In July 1917, the Romanian Army broke the Austro-Hungarian front in the Battle of Mărăști. German general Von Mackensen promptly launched a counterattack at Mărășești, announcing his superiors “Gentlemen, I will see you in two weeks in Iași!”, while the Austro-Hungarian army attacked on the Oituz Valley. However, both offensives were repelled by the Romanians, who in some occasions fought only with their bayonets.
On the Eastern front in Europe, 800,000 Romanian soldiers fought on the Entente side and more than 335,000 of them made the ultimate sacrifice, representing 6% of all military deaths in the First World War. The Great Union and modern Romania were built on their bones.
The Great Union of 1918 was the accomplishment of the centuries-old national dream of bringing all Romanians around the Carpathian Mountains together in a unitary state. Back in history, the first union of the three Romanian principalities – Walachia, Transylvania and Moldova – had first been achieved in 1600 by Prince Michael the Brave, Ruler of Wallachia. The union was short-lived, as Michael was assassinated on August 9, 1601, but he remained in the minds of Romanians as the first legendary unifier, and his vision became the goal of subsequent generations. Then, on January 24, 1859, Walachia and Moldova united into a single state, The United Romanian Principalities, which in 1866 took the name of Romania.
After The Great Union, Romania became one of the most important actors in Central and Eastern Europe, a country defined by diversity, multiculturalism and democratic values, a regional power with a convertible national currency fully covered in gold deposits, and with a ruling elite educated in London, Paris and Berlin. Had Romania not experienced the Second World War and 42 years of Communism, today it would have probably had a level of development comparable to the United States, United Kingdom, France or Germany. In more than 100 years since the historical moments of 1918, Romania has experienced democracy, dictatorship and again democracy, and had different forms of government and different levels of socio-economic development. Today, it is the sixth largest EU member state in terms of size and population, a valuable NATO member, a strategic partner of the United States, a gateway of Europe to the Black Sea and a security provider in the region. Romania has now a vibrant economy and a remarkable human potential. It is also the land of priceless natural treasures, a paradise of classical architecture and of fabulous traditions. Much still remains to be done, but during all these transformations one thing has always stayed unwavering: Romanians’ love for their realm.
In the evolution of each nation there are “astral moments” of change, accomplishment, despair or triumph. The Union of 1600 was a moment of glory, followed by bitter failure. December 1st, 1918 is a chapter of triumph. The History Book of Romanians has its first lines carved in stone 1900 years ago, on Trajan’s Column in Rome, commemorating the Dacian Wars. Since then, Romanians have remained within the same geographical space without interruption, “With the sword in hand, guarding all the horizons. And behold, we are still at home!”, as so eloquently noted the great historian Nicolae Iorga (In Memoriam: on November 27, 2020, we commemorated 80 years since his tragic passing away).
History never steps back, but its legacy may be inspirational in shaping the future.
*Ambassador Jinga is Romania’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York
**Opinions expressed in this article do not bind the official position of the author.