UCL European Institute


Romania: Creating the Nation-State, 1918 and Beyond

9 April 2018

The Great National Assembly in Alba Iulia 01 December 1918

The Romanian nation-state came into being 100 years ago this year, when Transylvania, which until then had been under Hungarian rule, was united with Romania. Dennis Deletant reflects on how the creation, by the Treaty of Versailles, of states with ethnic majorities produced numerous new ethnic minorities throughout the region.

For many Romanians 1 December 1918 marked the day when, to use the words of SeamusHeaney, 'hope and history rhyme'. That 'rhyming' was an echo of President Woodrow Wilson's address to the Congress of the United States on 08 January 1918 in which he proposed Fourteen Points as a blueprint for world peace that was to be used for peace negotiations after World War I. Among his proposals were the promise of 'self-determination' for those oppressed , and a world organization that would provide a system of collective security for all nations. This later point was incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles and the organization would later be known as the League of Nations.

The enthusiasm with which the union of Transylvania, formerly under Hungarian rule, with Romania on 1 December was greeted is recounted by Nicolae Mărgineanu, a high school student in the Transylvanian town of Blaj at the time, who became an instructor in psychology at Cluj university in 1926 and was the first Romanian holder of a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in 1932:

Summer [1918] passed as quickly as can be, and in September I was  back in [high] school. Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points werecommon knowledge at the time, his conditions for durable peace included the right to self-determination for all subjugated peoples. In light of those fourteen points, the hungry masses in Berlin, Vienna, and Budapest were crying for peace.
A few weeks later, the revolution broke out, first in Vienna, then in Budapest. Soldiers were laying down their arms and returning home. The Hungarian language stopped being taught, and one evening all of us students gathered in the cathedral square and burned our Hungarian language textbooks, linking hands and dancing around the bonfire. I will never forget the song we sang: 'Let us join hands / Whosoever is Romanian of heart . . .' On December 1, 1918, the Grand National Assembly gathered in Alba Iulia and decided that Transylvania  would join the motherland. The Romanian army crossed the mountains and soon reached Blaj. 
What glorious times! The new affirmation in enduring fact of the Union of all Romanians was an unforgettable celebration, which lasted for months.[1] 'Awake, Romanians, from deathlike slumber' was resounding in all the cities and villages.[2]

That the union of Transylvania with Romania should have evoked such emotion is hardly surprising; the Romanians, with two thirds of the population a clear majority in the province, had been amputated from their parent state, their identity had been consistently denied, and attempts had been made by a number of Hungarian historians to give them a new one in order to disguise their origin. After more than a century of such manipulation it was only natural that the instinctive atavistic identity of the Romanians in Transylvania with their brothers and sisters across the Carpathians in the Romanian kingdom should have asserted itself in 1918. And in that assertion, the justice of the Romanians' right to exercise self-determination in order to correct what they considered to be the injustice of the suppression of their identity was self-evident. But the righting of that wrong ran the risk of creating new injustices against the minorities of the newly-enlarged state created by the Paris Peace Settlement.

The creation of a national state represented the object of the national movements of Europe, both Eastern and Western, during the 19th century. The leaders of these movements in Eastern Europe adopted the principle of the nation-state, the political unit accepted by Rousseau in his later works and adopted by his disciples, since if applied to their homelands, it offered the hope of freedom from imperial domination. Most of these nations were freed from foreign rule with the help received during the First World War, directly or indirectly, from Britain, France and the United States. The dismemberment of the three empires of the Habsburgs, Ottomans and Romanovs, either through military defeat or internal collapse, was a prerequisite for the establishment of the successor states of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia, Finland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. These new states made a significant contribution to the break-up of these empires. Their legitimacy rested, on the one hand, on their part in the overthrow of foreign rule, and on the other, on their "right", admitted by the victorious Western Powers at the Paris Peace Conference, to form an independent state on the basis of national self-determination.

Britain, France and the United States regarded the creation of nation-states as a means of reducing the possibility of further conflict in Europe by satisfying nationalist aspirations. After all, had not the tension within the multi-national Habsburg Empire provided the spark which ignited the War? There was validity in the reasoning that the fewer the national minorities, the greater the chances of assuring peace. Judged in numerical terms, the Paris Peace Treaties can be deemed to have reduced by half the minority problem; whereas before 1914 approximately one-half of the peoples of Europe were minorities, after 1919 only one-quarter were. But in the process of eliminating old tensions, the postwar European territorial settlement introduced new ones, for the imperial territories from which the new nation-states were built were not ethnically homogeneous either. Different peoples shared the lands, with the result that the new states incorporated significant ethnic minorities.

The East European states had, on average, minorities compromising one-quarter of their populations. Of the large states, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia had minorities representing respectively an estimated 52% and 57% of their total populations, while Poland and Romania incorporated minority populations of 31% and 29% according to their censuses. Czechoslovakia contained the Germans of the Sudetenland; Poland, the Germans of East Prussia and the Ukrainians of Eastern Galicia; and Romania, the Hungarians and Germans of Transylvania, the Jews of Moldavia, and the Ukrainians and Russians of Bukovina and Bessarabia. Herein lies a contradiction, for these states, founded on the concept of national self-determination of the majority, merited as much the description of multi-ethnic as of national. This is not to deny that the Peace Settlement achieved its goal of creating states with majority nationalities. Before 1914, not one of the empires of Central and Eastern Europe could boast of a nationality which constituted a simple majority. In the Russian Empire the Russians numbered 44%, and in the Habsburg Empire the Austrians counted for 37% and the Hungarians 48%. After 1919 new states were fashioned with simple majority nationalities, the strongest being the Hungarians and Bulgarians (almost 90%), followed by the Poles and Romanians (about 70%), and trailing some way behind the Czechs and the Serbs (about 45%). The nation-state of the dominant majority had taken the place of the empire of the dominant minority in the new post-war Europe. But in the redrawing of national frontiers new minorities were created and with them the seeds of new territorial disputes sown.

This potential for upheaval was recognized by the Great Powers who made their guarantee of new national frontiers conditional upon protection for minorities. President Woodrow Wilson made this clear in a speech of 31 May 1919 at the Preliminary Peace Conference in Paris:

We cannot afford to guarantee territorial settlements which we do not believe to be right and we cannot agree to leave elements of disturbance unremoved which we believe will disturb the peace of the world .... If the great powers are to guarantee the peace of the world in any sense is it unjust that they should be satisfied that the proper and necessary guarantee has been given… Nothing, I venture to say, is more likely to disturb the peace of the world than the treatment which might in certain circumstances be meted out to minorities.

For the protection of racial, linguistic and religious minorities, treaties were signed with Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia and Greece guaranteeing certain rights of education and worship and participation in the state bureaucracy. Almost identical provisions were introduced into the Peace Treaties with Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary and Turkey. However, no means of enforcing the treaties was established and by the early 1930s they were effectively meaningless. While the treaties stipulated that state legislation should protect minority rights, they established no machinery for monitoring whether such provisions were acted upon at an administrative level. The League of Nations, in supervising the application of the treaties, proceeded from the assumption that governments would act in good faith in honouring their commitments.

For their part the new successor states regarded the treaties as an unwarranted infringement of their sovereignty and resented the fact that the Great Powers should make international recognition of their statehood conditional upon respect for the treaties. Moreover, they felt that they were the victims of double standards, for why, the argument went, should the Great Powers and the states of Western Europe not adopt similar minority treaties? In the absence of any general application of the principle of minority protection, the League came to be looked upon as unjust by the new states with the result that discrimination against minorities was equated by the new states as a reaffirmation of national independence and as a validation of their efforts to create cohesiveness through national integration and majority dominance. Of course, the minorities' wish to retain their identity was incompatible with this aim and they were therefore looked upon with suspicion by the majority; they were regarded as a potential threat to the security of the new state since they and the territory which they occupied could be in many cases disputed by covetous neighbours who had been formerly dispossessed, in Poland's case by Germany and the Soviet Union, in Romania's by Hungary and the Soviet Union. A feeling of insecurity thus offered an additional reason for the governments of the newly created states to associate the process of consolidation of the nation state with the need for absolute sovereignty in dealing with subject minorities.

The new minorities of the post-1919 period were, in their turn, incensed with the Peace Settlement, for having been deprived of their former privileged status as part of a majority group. The Hungarians in Romania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and the Germans in Czechoslovakia and Poland both belonged to this category. Portraying themselves as "victims of Versailles", they campaigned against the Peace Settlement and vigorously defended their ethnic identity in the face of pressures to integrate them. By placing loyalty to their ethnic group above loyalty to the state, they invited discrimination and when this inevitably occurred they appealed to their "mother states" for assistance. In the cases of the German and Hungarian minorities, such assistance was more than readily given since both Germany and Hungary considered themselves to have been grossly maltreated at Versailles and were bent on revision of the Peace Settlement. Thus support of their minorities was soon translated by these states into encouragement of irredentism in an effort to destroy the European status quo. Not surprisingly the host states of these minorities suspected them of being "fifth columns" in the service of a hostile power, and regarded it as no accident that the largest number of petitions to the League on alleged minority abuses were presented by the Germans in Upper Silesia, followed by the Hungarians in Transylvania.

Eventually, resentment at what was interpreted as the League's repeated infringement of her sovereignty drove Poland to repudiate her minority treaty in September 1934. The lack of response from the League, and its inability to impose sanctions of any kind against a member state, were cruelly exposed and sounded its death-knell as an agency for minority protection. Poland's action merely confirmed a reality which the international community had been unwilling to recognize, namely that the League was unable to guarantee minority protection. Blame for that failure has been partly laid at the door of the League and its minority committees. Its limited resources, its inability to enforce decisions, its exclusion from membership of the minority committees of delegates from the host or "mother" states, severely hampered the League's effectiveness. But the League could only be as strong as its members made it and here the attitude of the Great Powers was crucial. Their unity of purpose in imposing the minority treaties was weakened by the United States' retreat into isolationism and their commitment to justice undermined by France's military alliance with the new East European states which made here hostile to minority issues. Britain was left as an unwilling protagonist in the League of minority issues and was reluctant to support measures which she herself would not apply mutatis mutandis. Essentially, however, minority grievances were regarded as a minor issue by Britain and France and had always to be subordinated to the wider need to maintain the European status quo and preserve peace. Whatever the merits of a particular case it must not be allowed to disturb the Paris Peace Settlement.

Wilson discovered during negotiations in Paris that his ideal of freedom of the national group was impossible to translate in an international agreement. 'The doctrine of self-determination, expressive of national freedom, Wilson soon discovered to be an untrustworthy guide, incapable of universal application.' Conflicting aspirations meant, for example, that the principle of self-determination, if applied in the Sudetenland, would contradict the premise of self-determination upon which the new state of Czechoslovakia had been based. In addressing this conundrum Wilson invoked the application of the principle of justice:

It must be a justice that seeks no favourites and knows no standards but the equal rights of the several peoples concerned. No special or separate interest of any single nation or any group of nations can be made the basis of any part of the settlement which is not consistent with the common interest of all.

Yet, as proved in Paris, governments felt that justice to their own people required 'a protection of national security that often could be achieved only at the expense of another.'

This leads us to the question of whether political legitimacy can be situated outside the majority national culture? This can only be achieved if the narrow emotional base of ultranationalism, based on its self-centred past, can be transcended. The problem therefore is to suppress the instinctive identification with an ethnic group, which constitutes ultranationalism, and this can be done by consciously recognizing the need to so. Unfortunately, in periods of radical change, as in the years immediately following the Paris Peace Settlement, feelings of insecurity developed and those feelings were often based on inter-ethnic fear and prejudice, sentiments ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous politicians. Buttressing these sentiments were economic concerns, suspicion of neighbouring states, and intolerance towards one's fellow beings. Suspicion of neighbouring states would have been reduced had it been made clear that the legitimate interest of a neighbour to follow the development of a national minority did not give it a right to involvement in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.

Democracy is not solely an abstract notion, embodied in constitutional principles, but a way of thinking and of behaving. Intolerance induces a perversion of attitudes and mentalities and therefore raises great obstacles in the path of democratization. One of these obstacles is the idea that the relationship between the majority and the minority must be one of subordination instead of coordination. Assumption by the majority of a birth-right to dominate the minority underpins intolerance. The idea of domination or supremacy excludes the principle of equal rights and as long as this idea survives, the majority and minority become polarized. Polarization reduces the chance of compromise, of bargaining. The latter are a feature of all successful democracies; this is the view that informed Woodrow Wilson's approach to the Paris Peace Settlement. It is one which has lost none of its validity today.


[1] The Romanians in Russian-ruled Bessarabia, who also represented the largest ethnic group in that territory, voted through their National Council for union with Romania on April 9 [Old Style] March 27] 1918.

[2] The national anthem of the Romanians. See Nicolae Mărgineanu, Witnessing Romania's Century of Turmoil. Memoires of a Political Prisoner. Edited by Dennis Deletant. Translated by Călin Coțoiu (New York: University of Rochester Press, 2017, pp.19-20.

Dennis Deletant OBE is Emeritus Professor of Rumanian Studies at UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies and Ion Ratiu Visiting Professor of Romanian Studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC.

Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.