Romania’s National Day: A View from Strasbourg
By: Dr. Ion Jinga
Photo Credits: imperialtransilvania.com
104 years ago on 1st December1918, Romanians from Transylvania, representing the absolute majority of the population in this historical Romanian province ((Fényes Elek, a 19th century Hungarian statistician, estimated in 1842 that in the population of Transylvania the majority were 62.3% Romanians), voted the union with Romania. It was the accomplishment of The Great Union and 1st December is now the National Day of Romania.
By significance and consequences, 1918 would deserve to be included in the “Stellar Moments of Humankind” - the book of great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig - because it brought the end of WWI and the collapse of 4 empires, while 12 new independent states were formed, 9 countries lost territory and 15 states completed their national unity.
Each year on 11 November, we commemorate The Remembrance Day, recalling the epic battles which took place in WWI from the high ridges of the Vosges Mountains to the peaks of the Carpathian Mountains. About 17 million soldiers and civilians were killed in WWI between 1914 and 1918. On the Eastern front in Europe, 800,000 Romanian soldiers fought on the Entente side and 335,706 of them have fallen in combat – 6% of all military deaths in The Great War. 130,000 Romanian civilians also lost their lives. The bodies of 3,000 Romanian soldiers rest in Alsace. Not far from Strasbourg, Soultzmatt military cemetery - the largest Romanian necropolis in France - contains the graves of 803 Romanian soldiers who died in captivity in 1917 due to ill-treatment, malnutrition, frost and exhaustion. The cemetery was unveiled in 1924 by King Ferdinand and Queen Maria of Romania. A marble plaque bears the Queen’s words honoring their memory: “Far from the country for which you sacrificed yourselves, rest in glory”. The Great Union and modern Romania were built on their bones.
Initially neutral, in the spring of 1916 Romania was insistently requested by France and Great Britain to enter the war in order to relieve the huge German pressure on the West front. The Allies promised their troops would launch an offensive in Greece. Romania intervened in WWI and in August 1916 crossed the Carpathian Mountains into Transylvania, where its soldiers were received as liberators. As Romanian troops advanced rapidly in Transylvania, 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 put on hold all other campaigns, throwing its main weight against Romania. In the South of the Danube River, Bulgarian and Turkish armies joined the German forces and Romania was simultaneously attacked from three sides. The Government was forced to withdraw from Bucharest to Iasi, in Moldova. To protect the retreat, a fierce resistance was organized on the peaks of the Carpathians, between my native town Campulung Muscel and the city of Brasov. In order to make the defense impenetrable, the Romanian High Command brought there the 70th Infantry Regiment from Campulung, formed by inhabitants of the region, who had their families living in villages just behind the front line. They successfully stopped the advance of much better equipped and trained German Alpine Corps. It was a “Romanian Thermopylae”. A reminder of that terrible battle are the relics of over 2,300 soldiers who rest for eternity in 21 crypts of the impressive Mausoleum on the Mateiaș Mountain. On sunny days, it can be seen from my house.
In October 1916, a French military mission led by Henri Berthelot, a brilliant general who after WWI became the military governor of Strasbourg, arrived at Iași and, between January and June 1917, supervised the training and resupply of the Romanian Army. In the summer of 1917, the Romanian troops regrouped in Moldova succeeded in breaking the Austro-Hungarian front in the Battle of Marasti. German general Von Mackensen promptly launched a counterattack at Marasesti, announcing his superiors "Gentlemen, I will see you in two weeks in Iasi!", while the Austro-Hungarian army attacked the Oituz Valley. Both offensives were repelled by Romanians, who in some occasions fought only with the bayonets. The Battle of Marasesti is considered the "Romanian Verdun", as almost 22,000 Romanian soldiers lost their lives there. As a result of these operations, nearly 1,000,000 Central Powers troops were tied down there, prompting The Times newspaper to describe the Romanian front as "The only point of light in the East".
The following year, on 11 February 1918, US President Woodrow Wilson announced his famous principle of self-determination: “National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. Self-determination is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action.” Inspired by this principle, on 27 March 1918 Bessarabia (part of medieval Romanian Principality of Moldova and annexed by Russia in 1812) proclaimed its union with the Kingdom of Romania. On 28 November Bukovina (separated from Moldova and attached by force in 1774 to the Habsburg Empire) also voted the union. Three days later, on 1st December 1918 Transylvania decided the union with Romania. Then, on 15 December 1918 the representatives of the Transylvanian Saxons approved the act of union and on 19 February 1919 Baron Joseph Fay, speaking in the Parliament in Bucharest on behalf of the Szekely people living in Transylvania, expressed their support for the union with the Kingdom of Romania.
After The Great Union, Romania became a country defined by diversity, multiculturalism and democratic values, with its ruling elite educated in Paris, London and Berlin.
During the hectic 20th century, the country experienced democracy, three dictatorships and again democracy. After returning to democracy in December 1989, Romania joined the Council of Europe, NATO and the European Union. The huge transformations it undergone in the last 33 years are acknowledged by the Resolution 2466 (2022) adopted in Strasbourg on 13 October 2022 by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), on “The honoring of membership obligations to the Council of Europe by Romania”: “Since its accession to the Council of Europe, Romania has made important progress with regard to the functioning of democratic institutions and respect for human rights. The Assembly commends the Romanian authorities for demonstrating political will and commitment to fully respect their obligation to comply with democratic standards. The Assembly commends Romania for its commitment to protect the rights of persons belonging to national minorities. Romania can be considered as an example of good European practices in this area.”
Today, Romania has diplomatic relations with 192 states and is a strong supporter of a rules based international system with the UN at its core. It is the sixth largest EU member state in terms of geographic size and population and an important contributor to the North Atlantic Alliance collective security. In times when we witness the Russian illegal war of aggression against Ukraine - a blatant violation of the UN Charter and a major threat to the European security architecture -, Romania does everything in its power to help Ukraine and the Ukrainian people fleeing the horrors of war. As the PACE resolution of 13 October notes: “Since the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation on 24 February 2022, Romania has been confronted with large waves of refugees from that country. Romania is to be commended on its swift reaction and its assistance to a large number of people in need of international protection.”
Post Scriptum: Like an arch over time, 106 years after General Berthelot’ mission to Iasi, France has been designated the framework nation of the NATO multinational battle group in Romania, part of the common defense, deterrence and protection mission on the Eastern flank of the Alliance.
Dr. Ion I. Jinga
Strasbourg, 1st December 2022
Note: Opinions expressed in this article do not bind the official position of the author.