Why is 1st of December the Romanian national day?

It’s all about religion and politics between the East and the West. There was, actually, little choice of another symbolical day. The 1st of December was proclaimed National day in 1990, immediately after the fall of communism in Romania. In this article we’ll try to cover the other choices and why they were overruled.

Long, long time ago

It all started in the Middle Ages. Yes! Long, long, time ago. You heard it right – in the Middle Ages. In the 14th century, the small principality of Moldavia (ro. Moldova) was formed. It included the Vlachs (aka Romanians) East of the Carpathians. The newly formed state was part of the feudal society of the time. The ruler was subject to the Hungarian crown. A pretty hierarchical society.

In return, the ruler of Moldova was feudal lord over his boyars (local nobles). He could grant land and titles. The rulers of Moldova granted lands to their supporters until they started claiming and giving land that was not inhabited only by Romanians. In other words, because of the rising power of Moldova, the rulers started granting lands over the river Nistru (the most eastern border of the country).

Please keep this fact in mind that the area over the Nistru was not yet a unified country. This information will come in handy later on in this article. This is the beginning of the story. It’s one of the reasons why we celebrate the National Day on the first of December.

Later on, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russians and the Tatars ruled over this area in turn. Everyone of them laid claim to the lands and everyone of them considered the others their rivals. The best part was that none of the claimants had enough power to tip the balance of strength in the area.

The first ever National Day of Romania

In the USA the National Day is celebrated to remember the fallen heroes that fought for Independence. Setting the National Day on the same day you declared independence from an empire was like a trend of the 17th-18th centuries. A time of political struggle for smaller nations to free themselves from oppression. In what will later become Romania, the people of that time had two ideals: independence and unification.

So, in the 18th century, the Danubian Principalities – Modova and Wallachia – were 2 distinct small principalities. They were under the control of either the Ottomans, at least on paper, or the Russians, in truth. Here was the border and the lands that witnessed about 10 Russo-Turkish wars. In one of these wars, the Eastern part of Moldova, Basarabia, was annexed by the Russians. So, in 1812, this part became officially, on paper, part of the Tsarist Empire. Even more, because in one part of the country Bugeac) a great deal of Nogay Tatars lived, the Russians started a process of rusification, similar to what will later happen in Crimea. Why? Simple! The Tatars were Muslim and in this way the Ottomans will always have a reason to start a war.

The Crimean War

Anyway, these principalities were in the middle of 2 kinds of conflicts. First was the ever present religious conflict- the West that was more secular and the East that was more pious and connected to tradition. It was also about the conflict between Catholicism, Orthodox and Muslim, though, the latter was the most permissive. The second type of conflict was over political domination of the area. The two great giants, the Ottomans and the Russians fought over dominion over the Balkans – a place where both Muslims and Christians lived, were both Turk and Slavs lived. Both were entitled to these lands, but nobody asked the people of these lands.

In the midst of the current of national-states creation, small countries will play a big role. So, in the Crimean War – in which the Ottomans were helped by Great Britain, the Russians, after conquering the Danubian Principalities were forced to set them free and give southern Moldova back (Bugeac region, the one with a large Tatar population). In this way, between the Ottomans and the Russians will be a clear buffer state. Not a great place to be. Remember the lands given by rulers of Moldova? Who’s land was it anyway? It didn’t matter! The border between Moldova and the Russians was always a good place to start a war.

After giving back Southern Moldova (Bugeac region), the Russians started an even greater process of russification in what remained of Moldova in their borders. In 1867 they even forbade Romanian language (even though Romanians were a majority in that part of the country). Moreover, they started calling the lands Basarabia, not Eastern Moldova, to sever any connection with the past.

Alexandru Ioan Cuza

Coming back to the Crimean War, this kind of fighting was something new. It anticipated the Great War to come. This was the first total war, with great casualties to the local civilian population, in which mass media had a great role in building support amongst the western people against an enemy. This thing will be replicated in any major war to come.

The peace treaty of Paris, in 1856, on top of giving the Bugeac region (Southern Moldova, the land between the Black Sea and Prut river) to Moldova, it informally recognised the independence of the Danubian Principalities of Moldova and Wallachia. The next logical step was the unification of the 2 principalities. It happened in 1859, under Alexandru Ioan Cuza. Seven years later, he is removed and in his place, Carol Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen becomes prince of the United Principalities.

Independence was a right and an obligation

On the 10th of May, 1877, Carol proclaims de jure and de facto Independence from the Ottoman Empire. It was the beginning of the 10th Russo-Turkish War. After this moment the name of Romania starts to be used to talk about the two principalities in the dialogues with the Western allies. In 1881, the Principaties become Kingdom of Romania, and they include also Dobrogea, the region between the Black Sea and Danube.

This way, 10th of May becomes the National day for a long time. The future first Romanian King proclaimed independence and he became the king of all the people in the Kingdom of Romania.

The second National day

All went well for the newly formed Kingdom of Romania for a long time. Great politicians, engineers and foreign diplomats helped develop the kingdom to a new big player in the region. The country flourished economically and it started its evolution from a former vassal principality to an autonomous country.

So that it is clear, King Carol I helped mediate the relations of Romania with the West. But, he was not born of this country and many people still saw him as a foreign ruler. Even if he always refereed between the conservative and liberal parties of the day. Didn’t matter if he built mosques, synagogues and churches alike. Even if he did all he could to be king of his people. He was never seen as a Romanian.

His heir however, because he accepted that his children be baptised Orthodox, was accepted as a Romanian King. King Ferdinand followed his uncle reign in 1914 and, together with his wife, Queen Mary, continued to make Romania prosperous.

The rise

In the Balkans the conflict between smaller countries like Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia and the declining Ottoman Empire tilted the balance of power in the region. In this case, Romania intervened and helped the Ottomans in a moment when they were about to loose their capital, Istanbul. The stories say that any empire that lost Constantinople, now Istanbul, is meant to die.

The next few years will see the Great War starting. Romania considered it was best to remain neutral, first due to the fact that the army was not yet modernized and secondly because it was surrounded by possible threats.

To the East, the Russians were still upset for loosing Bugeac region half a century earlier, but King Carol had a treaty of nonaggression with them. To the South, the Bulgarians craved southern Dobrogea, lost in the second Balkan War, but were having too many economical problems. And to the North and West, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was weakened by internal conflicts and also was part of a treaty signed in 1883.

The Great War is comming!

After the death of the very cerebral King Carol I, in 1914, Romania remained neutral until in 1916. Carol favoured the central Power (Germany, Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy), but the political leaders of Romania supported the Entente. The new King, Ferdinand, agreed to support the political leaders opinion. So, Romania entered into conflict against the Central Powers, to unify Greater Romania.

Romania, just before the Great War became rather friendly to tsarist Russia, the great Tsar even visited Constanta. The great power in the East forgiving Romania for its defeat in the Crimean War. Unfortunately, the Bolsevic Revolution started in Russia. This, in fact, was one of the reasons why initially Romania was defeated. When the dust settled after the First World War, Romania recovered. In the end, it conquered Transylvania from the now extinct Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The end of the First World War

Three dates are really important at the end of the First World War:

  • 27th of March – Basarabia (Eastern part of Romania) agreed to unite with the Kingdom of Romania,
  • 28th of November – Bucovina (Northern part of Romania agreed to become part of the Kingdom) and
  • 1st of December, in Alba Iulia. The majority made of Romanians and Germans agreed to become part of Greater Romania. Even if the Hungarian minority disagreed.

However, so that the Kingdom would be accepted by other powers a few treaties had to be signed. The most important one, the Treaty of Trianon, in 1920, accepted the newly formed borders of Romania. The only country that had an interest that didn’t sign was Russia. They still considered that the land in Basarabia was rightfully Ukranian and so, of the Russian Federation. In fact they implied that the lands were stolen in the middle ages (see the first part of the article).

So, because they never agreed to the terms, a few years later they invoked the treaty as a bargaining chip with nazi Germany. The Russian Federation demanded Basarabia and finally they got it, along with all of Romania and Eastern Europe. They got a little more than asked.

The communists came

On the last day of 1947, the communists forced the last king of Romania’s abdication. Immediately after they got rid of King Mihai, the communists proclaimed 23rd of August as the new and only National Day. This day commemorates the day in which the struggle against the fascist started. The moment when our red brother came to the rescue. They were never asked to come. And even though they were asked to leave they didn’t to so for more than 40 years.

So, for a good part of the 20th century, Romania celebrated with great parades and lots of pretended joy, the day of salvation from the fascists. Even though it was never under direct rule of fascists when Romania was saved. The second National Day celebrated another form of independence on the 23rd of August.

The third National Day

In December 1989 the anti-communist revolution started overthrowing the communist government of the time. After a brief fight for power, elections were held. The first free elections between the 3 parties: the traditional parties that were disbanded by the communists and reinstated after 1989, the liberals and the conservatives, and the newly formed National Salvation’s Front (made up of second ranked former communists). Guess what, the latter prevailed. The day was later named Blind Men’s Sunday, because voters (who didn’t know how to vote when they were asked to do so for the first time in their lives) elected the same kind of people they overthrew.

Anyway, the new government was due to propose a new National Day. Everybody was expecting this, but they had little choice, from their perspective.

Recap

Let’s recap! If they set the first ever date, 10th of May, they accept that the exiled king was entitled to power and they didn’t want this. The second ranked communists, now calling themselves democrats saw the king and the day that was know to the majority of the people as the king’s day, 10th of May, a great threat. Keep in mind that these were the same people that didn’t let the king on Romanian soil for a very long time after the revolution.

If they set the date as 23rd of August, they send the message that they are still communists. So, they turned to history. What other choices did they have?

Basarabia and Bocovina were lost in the Second World War, so their unification with Romania wasn’t a good idea to commemorate. It would open up old wounds and make the government look weak in relation with the neighboring Ukraine, part of the USSR. Keep in mind that this government was little too friendly with the USSR.

Other significant dates were not to be found in the small history of unification and independence of this country.

The only one left was the 1st of December, the day Transylvania voted to unite with Romania. But this was going to turn the Hungarian minority against the newly and very fragile government. For the Hungarian minority this date represented, and still represents, the moment when they lost a great deal of rights. Its the time when they became a minority and not the ruling nationality.

The conclusion – the why

So, to save face, the government set up a plan. They invited the leader of the anti-communist and opposition party, Corneliu Coposu, to proclaim this day. So, he did so on the 1st of December, in Alba Iulia. It was a trap! With one swift move the government gained favour with the Hungarian minority and helped the opposition on its path to destruction.

There were voices that asked for the new National Day to be held on the 22nd of December. It represents the day when all of Romania united against the communist leader, Nicolae Ceausescu. The day when he fled by helicopter. Unfortunately, some people of the government were on the wrong side of the barricade at that time and saw it too risky for their image.

In conclusion, the date the government chose was political at best. It was a way to wipe their face clean and wash their hands of the past sins. I prefer to remember this day, for the unification, and furthermore for the Prunaru Charge. We’ll talk about this in a future article, it’s enough stories for today.

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