A “brief” history of …. Romania

A “brief” history of …. Romania


First thing, the present:

Official language of today’s Romania is Romanian. The one and only language of Eastern Europe with romanic roots and still some quite unspoiled latin words. Owing to the strongly heterogeneous  population (according to assessments of 2011 ca. 89% Romanians, 6,5% Hungarians, 3,3% Roma, 0,2% of german origin) in some areas the principally spoken languages are Hungarian and German. The language of the Roma, Romanes, sometimes is still spoken in areas with a strong Roma community.
2012 Romania had about 21,4 Million inhabitants, 2015 only about 19,87 Millions and the number is constantly decreasing year by year due to low birth-rate and continuous migration. Every third Romanian as a second job works as small farmer. 1817km of the 2508km national boarder  are marked by rivers, about 60% of the surface are exploited as farmland and the Romanians have the highest traffic mortality rate in whole Europe.
The calculated per-capita income is likely to be around 780€ per month, but a huge part of the population doesn’t have more than 400€. The unemployment-rate 2015 stood at 7%. No other european country still has as many brown bears (approx. 5500) and wolves (approx. 4000) living in the wild. As well the number of wild street dogs is european top. 2012 in Bukarest alone 8348 people were bitten by wild dogs. There are more than 200 Dracula films worldwide, the first one was released in 1931.
Romania is the world’s largest producer of circuit boards, notebooks und Wifi-components and probably the only country were you find advertisement for roof tiles everywhere!
Concerning freedom of the press (Reporters without boarders) 2015 it has been No. 49. of 180 worldwide.
In the List for Human Development Index (an indicator for prosperity) it is only No.58.
In the Corruption Index 2015 it is No.57 of 167 in the world (first is Denmark, last are Somalia and North Korea) and on the list of gross domestic product per capita (simplified, money per person) it is around No.72 what means No. 17 in Europe.

So far some facts.

But now, the past…

Romania as a state in it’s present day form actually only exists since 1918.

The individual parts of the country have quite different historical backgrounds and traditions and repeatedly belonged to changing dominions with diverse cultural influences. THE people of Romanians actually does not exist and even the historical Count Dracula (Vlad Tepeș) was a Hungarian!
The country has been torn between different rulers and invaders again and again and has been at the mercy of large empires.
It was only by a foreign prince and his political successors that the country could be united under one flag about 100 years ago.
That is to say, to understand modern Romania we’ll have to take into account the changeable ways of its history down to the 20th century .

This is what this little story is about, larded with absolutely exciting side stories worth telling! Therefore not that short 😉 But form your own opinion…

A brief comment in advance: as history in the different regions of Romania didn’t proceed in a uniform fashion, just a short enumeration of the historical regions/principalities: Maramureş, Walachia, Moldavia, Bukovina, Bessarabia, Transylvania/Siebenbürgen, Crişana, Oltenia, Banat and Dobrudscha.

In pre-Christian times Thracian tribes lived in what is now Romania. In the 7th century BC the Greeks began to settle on the Black Sea coast.
In the 200 years to the birth of Christ the Dacians ruled the empire. The Roman Empire was attracted to the huge gold deposits and therefore became an increasing threat until after several campaigns Emperor Trajan finally conquered the region 100 AD, and the Dacian kingdom became a Roman province. And the way things go, boys and girls of both people mingled, formed the Daco-Romans and became what we can call the forefathers of present day Romania and henceforth the main language was Latin. As during the 270th AD belligerent Goths increasingly pushed into the country, Emperor Aurelian wimped out and draw back the roman troupes south of Danube.

400 years followed in which the relatively defenseless country was plundered, annexed and influenced by all the warring tribes, that had spread through the surrounding areas. Goths, Huns, Avars and Slavs. In the 6th century AD the Bulgarians appeared on the scene and hereby the christianization of the population. Furthermore, Cyrillic was introduced as written language and was kept up until the 19th century. From the 9th century AD on the Hungarians obviously took a fancy on the area, and as first foreign people settled permanently in the region. All of the above mentioned left traces of their culture, language and their genes.
Until the 13th century AD the Hungarians finally had successfully placed the country under the rule of their crown. As there were recurrent devastating attacks by the Tatars and other tribes and the Hungarian King Bela IV likely wasn’t willing to feed his own troops to them, he had the bright idea to settle some kind of mercenary army in the area of present-day Transylvania. He could win german settlers, the Saxons and a Hungarian ethnic group, the Székler, for this task. These Saxons (Sachsen) have no connection to those living in Germany today.  It’s more likely that the name refers to the word Saxones, that’s how knights, nobles and other free German were called.
These presumedly have been members of the Crusades and the Hungarian king offered them, instead of fighting against pagan Saracens to combat equally pagan tribes from the East. In return for playing Hungary’s border guards he granted them until then unoccupied land, considerable autonomy and tax breaks, thus laying the foundation for the development of future multi-ethnic Romania, which is still alive today.

Just a short excursion to the development and maintenance of German culture after the arrival of the Saxons to Transylvania, an area which received the German name of Siebenbürgern, after the 7 “castles” or cities that they founded. One of the first was the subsequent Hermannstadt / Sibiu then in the North Bistritz / Bistriţa and in the East Kronstadt / Braşov, between which their autonomous region  increasingly enlarged, in the South limited by the Carpathian Mountains.
More people moved to the area and the population formed a unique, homogeneous identity as their customs and laws could develop very quickly and strongly by the granted autonomy.
Despite invading Mongols in the 13th century quite lucrative commercials and wealthy guilds blossomed through Europe-wide trading. Because this prosperity didn’t remain unnoticed by the Turks, devastating looting occured every now and then and thousands of people were abducted. In response, the Saxons built fortified churches, typical of Transylvania, lots of them still existing today, as fortresses and protection for people, supplies and riches and of course to obtain God’s protection with a church as the center! But faith and high walls could not prevent the area from being overtaken by the Turks, until everything changed again under the growing power of the Austrian Habsburgs. But that’s another story (if you’re interested in it, have a look at A brief history of …. Austria“).

Anyway, hundreds of thousands of people of german origin lived in Transylvania as predominant part of the population up to the 20th century.
Then the exodus began and it surely had different reasons: mainly the prosecution of the german Saxons after the atrocities of the German Reich during World War II and the prospect of a much better life in Germany during communist dictatorship in Romania. Like this over the years and especially after the collpase of Romania and the overthrow of the Ceauşescu regime in 1989, the thinning out of the Saxons continued. Today only a few thousands are left. The villages deserted, achievements that we value as cultural heritage today disintegrated.
But in recent years, there is hope of obtaining this for centuries formative culture and projects are established for the renovation and maintenance of traditional buildings and fortified churches (e.g, the Mihai Eminescu Trust supported by the British Prince Charles). The remaining Saxons got help to help themselves and attention was drawn onto villages like Biertan or Viscri by the inclusion onto the UNESCO World Heritage list, what encouraged them to maintain their heritage and gave a boost to tourism. In my opinion this sometimes takes on strange forms, e.g. by showing the newly moved Roma and Romanians, by means of photo panels that are positioned centrally in the town-centers, how the houses are to be renovated and how not: e.g. that a shining pink or yellow does not correspond to the traditional more pale pastel-coloured shade and that a gable is not just a gable! One can only hope that this special region can be preserved in the long run!

And let us not forget the Szèkeler, because they still leave their mark on wide swathes of land in present-day Romania. Unlike the completely resettled Saxons this ethnic group already lived in the southwestern part of todays Romanian territory. The question where their origins lie, is not yet completely settled, but several facts speak for a proximity to Hungary, like the undoubtably Hungarian dialect. As well this ethnic group took a similar autonomous development as the Saxons and is still numerically represented much stronger with > 1 million people, bilingualism even in official areas and administration, as well as with obtained and living customs and festivities.

Ok, where have we been?

Oh yes somewhere in the 13th century!

The 14th century brought the autonomy of the regions Walachia and Moldavia, which in turn had to defend their boarders intensely against the invading Ottoman Empire up to the end of the decade ,but were defeated at last. It also is during this period that the interesting story of Vlad Tepes III. Draculea, who in due course became known as the template for the bloodthirsty Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel, takes place (Draculea quite unspectacularly refers to the membership in the Dragon Order, an association that had sworn eternal opposition to the Ottoman Empire.)
As son of the reigning Prince of Walachia, he was taken prisoner by the Ottomans at an early age As the Walachian nobles rebelled in 1447 and killed his father, the Turks seized the opportunity, invaded the country and put Vlad as marionette on the throne, thinking he could be easily guided in their interest. After some back and forth with the Hungarians, which led to his dismissal, nine years later he defeated the Turks, now in alliance with the Hungarians, and became ruler of Walachia once more. In the following years, he braved the ever advancing Turks (not a scrap of marionette!) and with regard to domestic affairs pursuing a hard line, insisting on law, virtue and order. To  enforce his will alongside sophisticated torture methods such as skinning, hanging, burning, blind ing and amputating his preferred method has been the impaling, which he had learned from the Turks during his captivity. An extremely cruel method of execution in which the stake was pushed into the victims body, leaving all vital organs intact, what led to a slow, agonizing death partly over 48h.
That is how he handled rebellious nobles, unchaste widows, unfair merchants and his Turkish enemies. Furthermore, the saying goes that he used to drink the blood of his enemies….Greetings from Bram Stoker’s Dracula! The impaled were set up outside the walls and left there hanging for months as act of deterrence. 1462 the set up of 10-20 0000 impaled Turkish soldiers at the borders did not fail  its effect on the remaining Ottomans. The massacre was given the name of “Forest of the impaled” and earned Vlad his immortal reputation.

His further story, however, is kind of tragic: the turks, led by his half-brother, overthrew him, he fled and sought cover with his supposed ally the Hungarian king who clapped him in irons for 12 years until for strategic reasons he was married to one of the kings’s cousins and hereinafter vanquished the Turks at the side of his cousin Ştefan cel Mare, Prince of Moldavia (still cherished hero nowadays). He was reinstated as a Prince once more, shortly thereafter toppled again, died on the run and his head was pickled in honey and delivered to the Turkish Sultan…When in 1931 his grave was opened, no body could be found… Uuuhhhhhh, maybe he’s still plying his dreadful trade as an  undead in Transylvania???

The already mentioned Ştefan cel Mare or Stefan the Great, (1433-1504), Prince of Moldavia, deserves further separate mentioning. Firstly because he withstood the steady attacks of the Turks and disputes with Hungary and defeated an Ottoman army of 120,000 men with its 40,000, secondly because in more than troubled times he managed to stay at government for no less than 49 years, thirdly because when there was no more chance, he made a politically wise pact with the Ottomans, that guaranteed further autonomy to his principality and fourthly because in nowadays Romania you can not escape his name, because he built a large part of the world-famous Moldavian monasteries and his name is mentioned in all imaginable and unimaginable contexts!

Uiiiii, I must hurry up, the following in a short summary: the 16th century saw the end of an independent Hungarian kingdom, the power structure in the region got out of joint, the Turks advanced further and were defeated in 1599 under Michai Viteazu, Transylvania, Walachia and Moldavia for the first time were united for insanely 4 month, than it came thick and fast, parts of Romania finally fell to the Ottomans, and those as generally known, got as far into the West as Vienna!

From the 17th century on, an ever-increasing counter-power to the Ottoman Empire formed, the Habsburgs. For certain parts of Romania the air was getting thinner and also attempting a revolt in Moldavia, Walachia and Transylvania failed in 1848. And additionally in the 19th century, the Russians started to get involved.

1859 Alexandru Ioan Cuza succeeded to unite Walachia and Moldova in one Romanian State. However, for the Great Powers he was clearly too much reform-oriented so they deposed him and embarked on a very different kind of government formation. They were looking for a ruler from abroad! As they couldn’t find a suitable candidate in the 1st round of the casting show, Napoleon entrusted (probably not without ulterior motive) the young german Prince Karl of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, who had absolutely nothing to do with Romania, but thankfully took the deal and first as Carol I. was made Prince and later in 1881 King of Romania.
This position was directly exploited by his Royal Highness and he commissioned the construction of Peleş Castle, one of todays most beautiful Romanian Castles. And he didn’t economize, but let lay electric power, install an elevator, central heating, a cinema, a glass-roof that could be opened mechanically and a bathroom, that still today would be of good standard!! And all this between 1873 and 1881!!

When the 1st World War erupted Romania primarily remained neutral, but within the Royal family there were discrepancies which side should be supported and they finally voted for the Entente against the Central Powers. A successful decision, as it led to the doubling of the Romanian dominion and the formation of a multi-cultural Greater Romania after the war.

Between the world wars, there then was a time of pact-making and fathoming out alliances, cause you never knew who was friend or foe.
After a first reconciliation with the emerging Nazi Germany, Romania experienced an increasing development of right-wing ambitions and foundation of new nationalist parties, in its most extreme and ultra-fascist guise in form of the Iron Guard.
When King Carol II. noted that he could no longer cope politically with these parties, he simply set up a royal dictatorship, banned most of the parties and largely restricted the right to vote! Ok, maybe this will work!! Finally he executed 252 members of the Iron Guard and publicly exhibited their corpses. That reminds me of good old Vlad Tepeş!! It’s not surprising that things do not work like this and so the King, in a kind of military coup, was deposed and General Marshall Antonescu took over government business as fascist dictator.

He opened the country’s doors for Hitler and helped him with the annihilation of 200,000 Romanian Jews and 40,000 Roma. As it became predictable that Hitler Germany would loose the war, he acted the wryneck, joined the Russians and took over 50,000 German soldiers in captivity. This saved the Romanian independence and probably helped shorten the war, but in total the war cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Romanian soldiers and countless civilians.

But what followed would be another horror and the dying took no end.
Under the influence of the Soviet Union, the people’s Republic of Romania was proclaimed in 1947 under George Gheorghiu-Dej and a communist one-party-scheme should spread its terrors until 1989 and kick the country into further abyss.
Farmland and factories were nationalized, people resettled, intellectuals, priests, dissidents and partisans, who put up resistance in the mountains were murdered or deported to one of the nation-wide erected prisons and labor camps, language was changed and every effort made to convert the people into functioning, non-thinking workers in accordance with the objectives of the communist regime.

After the death of Gheorghiu-Dej, one of the crazily insane dictators of the 20th century appeared on the scene. And his story shall be told here as well, because it contains so much cruelty, peculiarity, odd  and whimsical behavior, also by Western states, that one can only learn from it.
Nicolae Ceauşescu, grew up as the son of a simple farmers family with 10 siblings, went to Bucharest as a teenager to become a shoemaker and there for the first time came into touch with the still banned Communist Party.
In subsequent years, he’d wind up in prison several times, where he met the also detained, already mentioned George Gheorghiu-Dej and became his protégé.
After World War 2 he steadily worked up his way in the now emerging Communist Party, held various offices and in 1965, after the death of his patron, reached the very top. By clever accumulation of party-offices he created peu á peu the status of an autocrat for himself, which he probably only shared with his dictator-wife Elena, whom he maneuvered into several important positions. With regard to domestic policy he abolished every part of political liberty, as well as the freedom of speech (the sole possession of a type-writer could end with the death-sentence!) TV and Radio were under his complete control and centered more or less on his person only. He built up a dictatorial personality cult around himself and his wife, that didn’t have to hide behind Kim Jong Il’s in North-Korea!  He preferred to be called „The Leader“, „The chosen One“, „Earthly God“ or „The Genius of the Carpathians“.
The enforcement of his ideology was especially  pushed by his favorite weapon, the secret police Securitate (it is estimated that by 1980 every 30th citizen was a spy!). It spread paranoia, fear and terror, cause you really did not know whether your own mother or your children would betray you and you would end up in one of the infamous jails.

As early as 1966 he decided, that in the future there would be a need for more work-capacity and launched one of his most perverted projects, the Pro-Birth Campaign, with the aim of a 5-child family. He proclaimed that “the fetus is the property of the community”. Contraception and sexual education were banned, abortion was illegal and did a woman have one done anyway and had a complication, doctors, backed by legal sanctions, were forbidden to treat the women. Like that about 10,000 women died during his tenure! A chastity-tax of 10% was imposed until one had children and women under the age of 45 were rallied at their workplaces and had to let themselves be examined for signs of pregnancy in the presence of officials, whom in confidence were called the „menstruation-police“. The birth rate increased markedly, as well as the children’s mortality rate that was up to 83 dead infants per 1000 births! Many parents fled, already overwhelmed by their own forced lifes or were in jail or expelled the excess hungry mouths. This produced millions of orphans who lived under miserable conditions in horrific orphanages that existed until the 90’s and also an incredible number of up to 100,000 street children!
In the 80’s his megalomania led to the construction of the now widely known Transfăgărășan Road in only 4 years, and his  systematization program intended the complete destruction of 8000 villages, especially in Transylvania and the relocation of their residents into communist apartment blocks. As the national debt was too high, he exported the products of agriculture abroad and left the population to hunger. With the construction of the giant Parliament Palace in Bucharest he wanted to surpass the Kumsusan Palace in North Korea in size and splendor and created one of the largest buildings in Europe concerning surface.
For decades, he managed to keep all his atrocities in secret and was courted by the West during the Cold War, because he stood against the USSR and he was the first Eastern Bloc leader to establish diplomatic contacts with the FRG without considering the GDR. He refused to participate in the suppression of the Prague Spring, took part in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles that were otherwise boycotted by Eastern Bloc, etc., etc ..
For this conduct he received amongst others from Germany the special class of the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit in 1971 and the Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath by the British Queen … It makes you want to puke!!!

In 1989 one communist regime after another toppled like dominoes. In Romania, it all started with the fact that the orthodox priest Father Lászlo Tökés publicly excluded the dictator from his church, what led to the priests dismissal. The following demonstrations sparked wildfire across the country. Ceauşescu sent troops to Timişoara to shoot down the insurgents, but the troops were no longer willing to act by his orders and deserted to the insurgents on 19.12.1989. Two days later Ceauşescu, who not even in his sleep would have thought that he was coming to a close, like many times before, held a speech from the balcony of Parliament and was booed by 100.000s and given “Murderer!!” calls. The situation escalated and claimed more than 1000 deaths on the side of the insurgents. But the fire was lit and the next day Ceauşescu declared a state of national emergency before he and his wife Elena had no choice but to flee from the roof of his palace by helicopter.
They were caught, hauled up before an anonymous military court (this he had made possible by proclamation of state of emergency!) and shot on 25.12.1989.

It is now believed that this uprising can be understood as a coup d’ètat and that the Communist Party had already decided for months to end Ceauşescu’s autocracy. As the private luxury apartments of the Ceauşescus were opened, they found a collection of incredible wealth with kitchen scales made of pure gold and rows of Elena’s shoes studded with diamonds.

One would think that this would have ended the Communist rule… Far from it! The second row took over very quickly and renamed itself into “National Salvation Front“. The party under Ion Iliescu  won the first „free and democratic“ elections since 1946. New name, same politics! Only in 1996 he was voted out of office by a people that still suffered from poverty, hunger, inflation and unemployment. A glimmer of hope?? His successor Emil Constantinescu was able to improve the situation only slightly and the 2000 elections ran out in „mafia-style“. The 1996 dismissed Iliescu again took the helm. 2004 electoral fraud was conjectured, but the “people’s representatives” managed to cope with the various problems, among others corruption, organized crime and food insecurity, so that an EU membership in 2007 became reality.

The last nine years have seen repeated political unrest and EU funds pumped into the country probably often end up nowhere near where they should go. Pollution, corruption and the situation of the many children still living in orphanages have improved somewhat, but the ratio of income to cost of living, unemployment even among highly trained academics and life in the countryside still full of privation, far from all progress, has lead to an exodus of young Romanians to the better-off countries in Europe and to a stagnation of the development of Romania.

After our trip, during which we really took a shine to the country and its people, we can only hope that the living conditions of the Romanians increasingly improve, but without depriving them of their unique individuality and without eradicating the wonderfully simple traditional life that still exists in many regions !!