Greater Romania
A look at Romania during the Interwar Period

The world was reeling from the horrors of the Great War. As the armistice was signed and the bedraggled but victorious Allies began organizing the post-war world, the general international mentality was determination to never again experience a World War. Many countries had temporary success during the following decade, which gave the false impression that peace had been achieved. However, the illusion would soon disintegrate. After World War I, Romania experienced a period of apparent stability, success and democracy, which would only collapse in the later years of turmoil due to internal conflict and world chaos.

The Romanian people have been widely dispersed throughout history. The common aspiration of national unity was born of “ethnic and regional fragmentation.”¹ In the 1300s, two primary principalities formed: Moldavia and Wallachia². These fell under Turkish rule some two hundred years later, though were never an integral part of the Ottoman Empire. The two principalities joined to form the country of Romania and declared sovereignty from the Empire after fighting a war of independence in 1877³. In 1881 a kingdom was declared under King Carol I, and for the next four decades the political scene was dominated by relative stability and two large parties: the conservatives and liberals. The nationalistic ideal of a state for Romanians had begun to become reality, yet approximately half of the twelve million Romanians still lived in other European countries, such as Transylvania. Nationalism and the drive to achieve autonomy for all Romanians would drive a foreign policy centered on expanding and absorbing the land on which Romanians resided.

With the outbreak of World War I, Romania initially claimed neutrality. In 1916, however, tempted by the promise of Transylvania from Russia to further national unity, King Ferdinand decided to unite with the Allies, and declared war on Austria-Hungary. The Allies’ victory and the ensuing arrangements brought great success to Romania, a benefit of being on the winning side of the war. The 1918 Paris Peace Conferences resulted in Romanian sovereignty over Transylvania, Drobuja, Bessarbia, Bukovina and part of the fertile Banat. The Treaties signed at Neuilly, Saint-Germain, Trianon and Paris (1919-1920) resulted in the union of Romanian-inhabited provinces into a single state consisting of 15.5 million people and almost 300,000 square kilometers – a double in size. Romania met little resistance to its expansion, the most significant being Hungarian opposition to the Romanian occupation of Budapest. Romania retaliated to their threats by occupying Budapest anyway, and plundering extensive booty.

Expansion not only fulfilled the centuries-old dream of uniting all Romanians in a single country, but brought other nationalities under Romanian rule, though Romanians were still by far the dominant ethnic group at roughly 70% of the population. A greater proportion of other ethnicities were urban, while Romanians remained almost completely rural and as peasants. With its new size and prowess, Romania left the First World War fundamentally altered and with fresh strength. It was the end of the Old Kingdom, and the beginning of Greater Romania.

Greater Romania of the 1920s was characterized by major reforms to strengthen national unity and state life. Though the stable two-party balance was shattered after the war, the liberal¹ party, led by Ion I. C. Bratianu among others, was largely dominant throughout the 1920s, with the National Peasant Party, led by Iuliu Maniu, as the main opposition party. This led to the demise of conservative ideals Conservative ideals and lessened German interest, a diminished role for the Church, and lessened protection of land interests¹¹. Notably, the two dominant parties were proponents of democracy¹². In 1923, one of the most democratic Constitutions in Europe was established, though it allowed for a highly concentrated state¹³. Universal male suffrage was introduced in 1918, as a result of a pre-war liberal program promised by King Ferdinand. Within years, around four million people were registered to vote¹⁴ . A structure of national legislature with a senate was created, the Romanian Orthodox Church lost legal supremacy, Jews were given legal citizenship rights and King Ferdinand gained the right to appoint prime ministers¹⁵.

Life in developing Romania varied greatly from class to class. The quality of life for many rural peasants, who comprised a majority of the population, was poor. They had low incomes and, according to sociological studies of Romanian villages of the thirties, poor diets, with too much starch and too little protein and fat¹⁶. Middle-class Romanians were able to make enough to live reasonably, as were most industrial workers, which caused a tempered union movement¹⁷. Economic development led to the redesign of cities, with widened avenues and large new buildings. For example, the capital city Bucharest saw an increase in industrial areas and it tripled in population, but still maintained the open qualities that had earned it in the nickname “Little Paris”¹⁸. Education, too, saw reform. The liberal governments passed laws requiring primary schooling, and attendance at universities increased so that the literacy rate among Romanians reached a new high of 57%¹⁹. Cultural activity blossomed, with a new young generation uninhibited by prewar obsession with nationalism, though it still remained a popular concern. New institutions such as sociology and political science abounded, and intellectuals actively debated through popular journals; some of which renounced Westernization in favor of a return to traditional values²⁰.

The Romanian economy during the 1920s seemed to thrive in conjunction with the new government. Its industrial output doubled between 1923 and 1938²¹. In agricultural production Romania ranked fourth in Europe and fifth in the world. By the end of the 1920s, almost 60% of Romanian land was in agricultural use, predominantly for the purpose of growing grain, which had long been, and continued to be, a successful export²². The liberal government attempted to actively promote agriculture by instating land reforms and supporting modernization, but the former failed and the latter was quite sluggish.²³ Industrial development, on the other hand, progressed significantly, and drew much political debate. The National Peasant Party desired an open-door policy to attract foreign policy, but the Liberal Party preferred domestic industrialization to maintain independence. The liberals succeeded in this venture, gradually decreasing the percentage of foreign capital and passing multiple protectionist policies, which reduced imports and led to a spike in industrial capacity.²⁴ Romania became one of the leading producers of oil in Europe and the world²⁵, and its chemical industry was the most productive²⁶. However, the fiscal success would not endure; the Great Depression in the early 1930s wreaked havoc on countries’ economies around the globe, and Romania was no exception.

Romania was similar to other European nations of the time in that the surface prosperity veiled but did not eliminate deeper-rooted problems that came with integrating new foreign nationalities, culture, and politics with the ways of the Old Romanian Kingdom. The land reform that had conceptually righted disproportionate ownership actually kept many peasants in poverty as they lacked the equipment, techniques and finances to efficiently farm their land, and the newly acquired properties were continually divided due to inheritance laws. When the global Depression struck in the thirties and farm prices collapsed, the hopes of small landowners for a solution to uneven land distribution and success were crushed.²⁷ The social class discrepancies had hardly been alleviated. Corruption plagued politics and land reforms. The structure of new election laws allowed for political bosses to manipulate votes.²⁸ The rising nationalist sentiments of most Romanians led to ethnic confrontation amidst the nation building. Since the small portion of city dwellers were non-Romanians, anti-urban sentiments developed along with xenophobia. Anti-Semitism increased as well, as Jews were seen as the “antipode” to the peasant, which meant hostility towards the laws permitting Jewish citizenship.²⁹ The liberal government, though a proponent of democracy, banned some rival political parties in the mid-twenties, such as the tiny Communist Party and the Iron Guard, a nationalist, Anti-Semetic, and anti-Western party similar to but independent from other European right-wing extremists of the time. The liberal institution could not weather the deaths of four major leaders, the king, Ion I. C. Bratianu, Vintila Bratianu, and Ion G. Duca, which opened the way for King Carol II to lead in the Iron Guard.

The liberal government faced an “embarrassment of riches” with the wealth born of World War I, which brought momentary glory but only succeeded in masking internal social and political challenges.³⁰The political leaders that created greater Romania arrived on the tide of liberalism of the past century, and did not endure long enough to modernize and solidify the country, so that the democratic roots were swept away by radical events around the world, particularly the rise of fascism³¹. Much like Germany in the aftermath of World War I making the sharp transition from Imperial to Weimar Republic, Romania made a dramatic shift from the ways of its Old Kingdom to Greater Romania. As with Weimar, the new liberal Romanian democracy seemed promising, but was really only a veil of success that masked deeply rooted problems that were never properly addressed. The Great Depression and rise of fascism led to the downfall of the seemingly progressing country. Directly following World War I, Romania appeared to be a prosperous country on the way to a stable democracy. By the end of the 1920s, however, the success was over, and the dream of the democratic founders of Greater Romania, dead.


1 Livezeanu, Irena. Cultural Politics in Greater Romania: Regionalism, Nation Building, and Ethnic Struggle, 1918- 1930. N.p.: Cornell University, 2000. Google Books. Web. 9 Dec. 2009. <http://books.google.com/ books?id=5ysbpAyJjoAC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q=&f=false>. p. 5
2 In the 2nd century, the land was originally conquered by the Romans for use as a supplier state. Romania literally translates to “Land of the Romans”. "Romania." CultureGrams. Proquest, 2009. Web. 18 Nov. 2009. <http://online.culturegrams.com/world/world_country.php?contid=5&wmn=Europe&cid=131&cn=Romania>.
3 Ibid.
4 Georgescu, Vlad. The Romanians A History. Columbus: Ohio State University, 1984. Print. p. 192.
5 Calafeteanu, Ion. "History of Romanians." Roembus.org. Embassy of Romania, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2009. <http://www.roembus.org/english/romanian_links/history_of_romanians.htm>.
6 Watkins, Thayer. "The Economic History and the Economy of Romania." San José State University. San José State University, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2009. <http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/romania.htm>.
7 Calafeteanu
8 Bachman, Ronald D. "Romania: A Country Study." Country Studies. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1989. Web. 1 Dec. 2009. <http://countrystudies.us/romania/>.
9 Liveneascu p.9
10 For perspective, Romanian liberalism post-World War I could be compared to American conservatism (Watkins)
11 Watkins
12 "Greater Romania." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2009. Web. 9 Dec. 2009. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/508461/Romania/42873/Greater-Romania>.
13 Calafeteanu
14 Georgescu p.191
15 Bachman
16 Georgescu p.202
17 Ibid p.223
18 Ibid p.203
19 Ibid p.203
20 Ibid p.203
21 Calafeteanu
22 Georgescu p.198
23 Ibid p.198
24 Ibid p.201
25 Calafeteanu
26 Georgescu p.201
27 Ibid p.203
28 Bachman
29 Livezeanu p.8
30 Ibid p.7
31 Goergescu p.206