100 Years in the History of Romania: The Most Important Events

Diana Condrea
Diana Condrea
Diana is a tourism consultant, tour guide, travel writer and amateur photographer. You can find Diana on LinkedIn

Find out interesting facts about the history of Romania from the last 100 years, the most eventful century of its existence. Two World Wars and devastating ideologies marked its destiny. Still, it was the communist regime that changed forever the country’s history.

Romania gained and lost territories and hundreds of thousands of people died in the wars. More drama followed. Close to two million suffered as political prisoners during the communist regime. Only decades later, Romania found its freedom and its way back to democracy.

Discover the key events in the history of Romania.

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Postcard image of Romanian soldiers in the Great War

Romania until 1918

Prince Carol the 1st became the first king of Romania, and independent Romania became a kingdom on May 10, 1881. Its territory included the historical provinces of Southern Romania, Eastern Romania, and Dobrogea.

At the time, Transylvania was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and Bessarabia was occupied by the Russian Empire.

Romania map

Romanian borders after 1859

Photo source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

History changed course in the Great War

Romania entered WW1, in August 1916, on the side of the Allies (France, the UK, the Russian Empire). Its goal was to free Transylvania from the Austrian-Hungarian oppressive rule. Despite its late entry into the war, the first months were disastrous for the military Romanian history.

The capital was occupied in November 1916 by the German and Bulgarian troops. Almost surrounded,  the government and the royal family moved to Iasi, the biggest city in Moldavia. Because of the high number of refugees and wounded soldiers, the entire region quickly became overcrowded, facing major food and basic goods shortages.

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Postcard image of King Ferdinand and Queen Maria on the front

The French Mission, based in Iasi, reorganized the army. It was a crucial step in obtaining important victories in 1917, some of the most important in the history of Romania. The liberation of Bucharest followed shortly, but both the army and the civil population suffered tremendous shortages and losses during the war. Around 300,000 soldiers died, and over 700.000 civilians lost their lives, many from typhoid fever. Better times came with the end of the war.

(Source: historia.ro)

The Unification of Bessarabia and Romania

On March 27, 1918, the Country Council of Basarabia voted in favor of the unification with Romania. It was one of the few major successes Romania had obtained in the Great War up to that point. Basarabia declared its independence from Russia a few months before, in January 1918. It was the first historical Romanian province that united with the Kingdom of Romania.

The Unification of Transylvania with Romania

The 1st of December, 1918 is Unification Day, a major moment in Romanian history. On this date, more than 100,000 people were present in the citadel of Alba Iulia. Their 1,228 delegates adopted the resolution that ratified the unification of Transylvania (including the regions of Banat, Crisana, Maramures) with the Romanian Kingdom.

The General Congress of Bucovina had decided as well, a few days before, on November 28, the unification with Romania.

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Alba Iulia, 1st of December, 1918

Photo source: The Virtual Union Museum

The Constitution of 1923

A new Constitution was adopted on March 23, 1923. It was one of the most liberal and democratic in Europe of the time. It guaranteed equal rights and freedoms for all citizens. Religion, ethnic origin, or language were no longer discriminatory. The Constitution also granted the right to vote for all adult men, an important step for modernization in Romanian history.

The death of King Ferdinand (1927)

The premature death of King Ferdinand in 1927 changed the course of Romanian history. His six years old grandson, Prince Mihai, became king, and a regency of three persons had to serve until he turned 18.

But this arrangement was short-lived. In 1930, King Ferdinand’s firstborn, Carol II, claimed the throne from his own son. His previous two abdications didn’t stop him.  His comeback affected tremendously Romania’s democracy and faith in WW2.

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Left: Prince Ferdinand, King Carol the 1st, and Prince Carol II/Right: King Ferdinand

Photo source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

The territorial losses from the summer of 1940

Romania suffered significant territorial losses in the summer of 1940 while it was still a neutral state. The USSR occupied Bessarabia, northern Bucovina, and the Herza region, a total surface of over 50.000 square kilometers, at the end of June 1940.

Two months later, after a decision imposed by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, Romania lost again over 51,000 square kilometers. Bulgaria occupied Southern Dobrogea, and Hungary almost half of Transylvania.

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In yellow, the region occupied by the Hungarian army

Photo source: https://ro.wikipedia.org

The king’s lack of reaction to the ultimatums led to his abdication in September 1940. His son, Mihai, followed to the throne for the second time in Romanian history. One year later, the country entered WW2, against the Soviet Union, to recover its territorial losses.

August 23, 1944, a key date in the history of Romania

King Mihai arrested General Antonescu who was the de facto ruler of Romania after 1940. On the same day, he announced that Romania was turning the weapons against its ally, Nazi Germany. 

Historians believe that his brave and high-risk decision shortened the duration of WW2 by six months and saved numerous lives. For his courage, King Michael was awarded the Legion of Merit by American President Harry Truman.

The Soviet occupation changes the country’s history

The Soviet army occupied Romania immediately after the arrest of General Antonescu. The Russians took 100,000 prisoners from the allied Romanian army stationed on the Eastern border. More people were arrested and deported to Siberia in the following months. Moscow only agreed to withdraw its army from Romania in 1958.

(Source: Final Report of the Presidential Commission for the Study of the Romanian Communist Dictatorship, 2006).

The forced abdication of King Mihai

King Mihai abdicated on December 31, 1947, after he was blackmailed and held at gunpoint. Communist Prime Minister Petru Groza threatened to kill one thousand students who marched in the king’s support. It was more than a simple threat. No one could doubt him. The so-called enemies of the state were arrested daily.

The abdication marked the destruction of democracy in Romania. The takeover of power by the communists was complete for the following 42 years.

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Left: King Mihai Right: Petru Groza

Photo source: https://en.wikipedia.org

The annihilation of the interwar elites

The Romanian Communist Party, illegal for most of the interwar period, had less than 1,000 members in 1944. Its situation changed completely after it became clear that the Soviets took over the country.

The party leaders started a brutal campaign against Romania’s elites. The usual suspects were army officers, politicians, professors, doctors, priests, students, and even peasants. They quickly became the enemies of the new world.

Sighet Memorial

Map of extermination prisons, labor camps, psychiatric asylums

The report of the Presidential Commission for the Study of the Romanian Communist Dictatorship presents the reality of the well-planed annihilation. Almost two million people were political prisoners. They were either sent to extermination prisons, forced labor camps, psychiatric asylums, or exile settlements. The peak of the terror was between 1948 and 1964.

Visit Sighet and Pitesti Memorials, two of the former communist prisons, if you want to find out more.

Collectivization and nationalization

These two processes had an unprecedented impact on Romania’s economy and society. Both were imposed in a violent way, following the Soviet model imported without considering the differences between the history of Romania and of the USSR. 

Nationalization was the first to begin. In June 1948, the National Assembly, the institution that replaced the Parliament, voted for the law that allowed the confiscation of private property. This abrupt decision affected everyone, small business owners or major companies.

Sighet-Memorial

The cortege of the Sacrificial Victims from the Sighet Memorial

The collectivization of agricultural land lasted over one decade, until 1962. Sadly, it marked the end of the traditional peasant village. Its success meant peasant uprisings, executions, tens of thousands of arrests, and deportations. It remains, until today, one of the darkest episodes in the history of Romania. 

Ceausescu became Secretary-General in 1965

The first communist dictator of Romania died unexpectedly in March 1965. The competition was open, but Ceausescu was the unlikely heir of Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej. Well-connected and perceived as weak by preeminent party members, Ceausescu was named Secretary-General.

In just a few years, he changed the rules of the game and became the absolute leader of communist Romania.

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Portrait of Nicolae Ceausescu and the miners exhibited at Ceausescu Mansion

Ceausescu became one of the most detested and cold-blooded communist dictators in the world. His economic measures led the country to extreme poverty and a general shortage of basic goods. His political decisions increased corruption among party officials and encouraged nepotism.

The cult of personality that glorified him and his wife as the country’s saviors was one of the most absurd in the entire communist world. The Palace of Parliament remains the best example of his megalomaniac views.

The Romanian Revolution from December 1989

Nicolae Ceausescu was unwilling to step down despite Soviet and American interventions. He was the first to believe in the fabricated image of his own cult of personality. His reluctance to accept any change led to the fall of the communist regime.

The Romanian Revolution started in Timisoara and spread immediately to the largest cities in Romania. It lived its most dramatic moments in Bucharest where over 1,000 people died. Ceausescu tried to escape but was betrayed, arrested, and executed a few days later, on Christmas day, December 25.

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Army tank, the Revolution Square in the background

Photo source: https://rarehistoricalphotos.com

The anti-communist protests from April-June 1990

A political coup changed the course of the Romanian Revolution. This allowed members of the former Communist Party to seize political control. They were immediately contested by the civil society who wanted a fresh start in the first free elections from May 1990.

The peaceful 52 days long protest became the longest anti-communist protest in the world. It ended tragically after 10,000 workers and miners violently crushed it between 13 and 15 of June. The number of victims remains still unknown. This remains the darkest episode of recent Romanian history.

In 2017, Ion Iliescu, the ex-President of Romania, was accused of crimes against humanity for his role in the repression. There’s is still no verdict, probably the most awaited in the history of Romania.

NATO and the European Union

After a rough start in the 1990s and a difficult transition, Romania joined NATO in 2004 and the EU in 2007.

We hope you enjoyed uncovering a bit more of Romanian history.

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