About two thousand years ago the land of Dacia, which corresponds roughly to today’s Romania, became known throughout the Roman Empire for its wealth of silver and gold. The Romans liked such things so they colonized. The Dacians protested, and after about two hundred years of hassle the Romans left. Over the next several hundred years a lot of peoples invaded Dacia, such as the Goths, the Skaters, the Punks, the Nerds… okay, seriously, it was the Goths, the Huns, the Gepids, the Avars, the Bulgars, the Pechenegs and the Cumans. None of them stayed very long, though they may have left a cumulative legacy; some theorists suggest that modern Romanians are a mixed product of Dacia’s many colonizers.
In the Middle Ages there were three Romanian principalities — Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania. Transylvania became part of Hungary and eventually achieved independence…just in time for the Ottoman Turks to conquer Romania in 1541.
For the next several hundred years of Ottoman rule, even after the Austrio-Hungarian Hapsburgs took back Transylvania, Romanians were second-class citizens in their own land. They rebelled several times and eventually earned their independence in 1878. In 1881 Romania even brought back its monarchy and crowned a new king — all hail King Carol I!
In World War I Romania tried to remain neutral but eventually sided with Great Britain and the Allies. When the Allies won, Romania took back a lot of its long-lost lands, including Transylvania. This ushered in the short-lived age of România Mare (“Great Romania”), which included the scandalous and controversial rule of King Carol II (some hail King Carol II!)
During World War II little was “great” in Romania; hundreds of thousands of Romanians perished in battle, both due to terrible living conditions and at the hands of both Nazis and a Nazi-sympathizing Romanian government in the Holocaust. After World War II the Soviets occupied and the Romanian Communist Party came to power.
In 1965 Nicolae Ceaşescu became Secretary General of the Romanian Communist Party. Ceaşescu, who had long been a Communist organizer–he had been arrested at the age of fifteen for distributing Communist pamphlets–developed a penchant for relative Romanian independence from Moscow. During his first few years in power he became popular with Romanians and the West alike for pursuing a foreign policy that differed slightly from the Soviet party line. For example, he was the only Warsaw Pact leader to condemn the Soviet leadership for invading the Czech Republic in 1968. He also accepted a huge loan from the International Monetary Fund, which is something he and the Romanian people would soon come to regret.
In 1971 Ceaşescu visited East Asia and returned impressed with the autocratic leadership style of China’s Mao and that of a fine fellow from North Korea named Kim Il Sung. He proceeded to develop a cult of personality, calling himself the “Conducător” (the “Leader”) and “Geniul din Carpati” (“The Genius of the Carpathians”). He also started using a scepter and commissioned sculptures that portrayed him as a king. He decided his taking of international loans was a mistake–something with which much of the Romanian population agreed–and initiated the process of repayment. In doing so he implemented economic policies that resulted in a substantial lowering of the Romanian standard of living.
The Romanian economy rapidly devolved throughout the ’80, but supporters claimed Ceaşescu had no idea that the country was in trouble. (According to Wikipedia, “Special contingents of food deliveries would fill stores before his visits, and even well-fed cows would be transported across country in anticipation of his visits to farms. In at least one
emergency, he inspected [and approved] a display of Hungarian produce, which apart from some corn and several melons, was largely constructed of painted plastic and/or polystyrene.”) Whether or not Ceaşescu knew what was really happening in his country he publicly promoted Romania’s economic successes all the while brutally disposing of anyone who dared express dissent.
By the late ’80s Romania had had enough of the Conducător. In 1989 the people overthrew him in a dramatic and abrupt revolution. They put him and his wife on trial–a hasty, hour-long televised affair–then rapidly and definitively “terminated his leadership.” He was the last Soviet-era dictator to fall.
Since the age of Ceaşescu successive Romanian governments have increased political and social freedoms and have even led the country through a period of some economic growth, though living standards remain low. The 2008 recession was particularly devastating to the Romanian economy and inspired its leadership to borrow heavily from the international community; ironically, Romania now owes more to the International Monetary Fund than any other nation.