In some months, the centenary of a historical event almost forces itself into the limelight. In October 1922, Benito Mussolini and his fascists came to power in Italy. Exactly 100 years later, a woman from the fascists’ successor party is elected prime minister in Italy. An open admirer of Mussolini is elected president of the senate. The dictator’s grave is a place of pilgrimage.
But we have covered Italy in this series before, when I introduced the proto-fascists of Fiume. And you have been reading about this in the newspapers and listening to it on the radio the whole month already. This series, however, likes to put the obvious events to the side and instead shine a light on the less illuminated spots of world history.
One of the countries unjustly neglected is Romania.
This finally gives me the opportunity to combine this history series with a travel story. And it so happens that I haven’t been to Bolzano or to Rome this summer, but in Alba Iulia. In German, the city is called Karlsburg, but because the it is now indisputably in Romania and no longer in Austria, I will use the Romanian name. After all, we don’t want to be like the Hungarians, who use their unpronounceable Hungarian names for all cities to which they lay irredentist claims, i.e. Gyulafehérvár or Károlyfehérvár or Erdélyifehérvár in the case of Alba Iulia. Buying a train ticket in Hungary to a city in a neighboring country is an ordeal each time, because the railroad staff insist on using the Hungarian name. Vienna is called Bécs, but if you mispronounce it, you end up in Pécs. Probably, the whole Hungarian tourism sector lives off foreigners who can never leave Hungary because they don’t know that Bratislava is called Pozsony and Cluj is called Kolozsvár.
But back to Alba Iulia, and with that straight to Italy again. Because what do we find in Alba Iulia?
The Capitoline Wolf with baby Romulus and baby Remus!
Because – to summarize things in a way which is only slightly oversimplifying – Romania is the real successor to the Roman Empire. This was the place where the Romans settled after having battled and then made up and mixed with the Dacians. This explains why Romania is that island of Romance language deep in Eastern Europe. If you ever go there and speak Italian or Spanish, you will be surprised by how much Romanian you can understand or at least read.
And that’s not some crazy claim by me or by Romania. Quite the contrary, it is also recognized by Italy. Because the wolf statues, which you find in front of almost any city hall in Romania, were given as presents by Italy. During the time of Mussolini! Shocking how everything is always connected with everything else, but we don’t have the time to get lured into that particular rabbit hole today.
Because we want to focus on 15 October 1922, when King Ferdinand I was crowned as King of Greater Romania.
That Ferdinand came from the German town of Sigmaringen, which is why his full name was Ferdinand von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. Now, if you know how bad the Hohenzollern family has been for Germany, setting all of Europe ablaze, committing war crimes, genocide and plundering the German people, you are going to wonder how anybody could be so stupid as to pick a Hohenzollern guy. Especially in 1922, after all of this was well known.
Well, if Romania had had a choice in 1922, they surely wouldn’t have made that mistake.
But Ferdinand had already been King of Romania since 1914. He had inherited the job from his uncle Karl, who, as Carol I, had been Prince of Romania since 1866 and King of Romania since 1881 and who had no surviving children of his own.
Newly established countries inviting a foreign prince to rule over them was nothing extraordinary at the time. In the 19th century (and in the United Kingdom until today), people could not imagine how a country could function without a monarch. And thus, countries like Greece, Bulgaria, Finland or Romania went looking for a prince, preferably a second- or third-born son, who couldn’t expect to inherit anything worthwhile at home. Someone like Prince Harry. Or like Eric Trump. If he isn’t in prison already.
Romanians first inquired with the Belgian royal family, but none of them was interested. Considering how Belgium governed in the Congo, this was a stroke of luck for Romania. Although Romania’s colonial history is nothing to be proud of, either.
The Hohenzollern family, on the other hand, were never plagued by lack of ambition. Also, Romania had gold. And thus, Prince Karl Eitel Friedrich Zephyrinus Ludwig von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen accepted the job offer.
King Carol I made some good decisions and some bad decisions. Large infrastructure projects, the railroad, bridges across the Danube, and one of the most beautiful royal castles in the world, Peleș Castle.
But there were also a few corruption scandals, the violent suppression of the last European peasants’ revolt in 1907 and, the biggest mistake, a secret military alliance with Austria-Hungary.
When World War I began in 1914, King Carol I wanted Romania to join the war on the side of the Central Powers. For one because of the secret treaty with Austria-Hungary, but also because the German war emperor Wilhelm II was his cousin.
But Romania is both a peaceful and a Francophile country. (Because of the common Latin origin, Romanians find it very easy to learn French. And when they come to Paris, they think, “Oh, this looks almost as fancy as Bucharest.” But because Western Europeans dominate the cultural discourse, Bucharest is called the “Paris of the East” instead of the other way around.)
Romanians had no desire for war, let alone war against France. Moreover, they did not have too much sympathy for Austria-Hungary, because the Romanians living there (mainly in Transylvania) were suffering from the Magyarization policy. So they refused to serve in the war. Nationwide. The German-Prussian king was so enraged by this refusal to obey his orders that he died out of protest in October 1914, only two months into the Great War.
And that’s when his nephew, Ferdinand I, became King of Romania.
He happened to be married to a British lady (who, for reasons of gender equality, had also been crowned queen), so that war against Britain would have been a constant bone of contention at the family dinner table.
And so King Ferdinand I bowed to the will of the people, remained neutral until 1916, and then led Romania into World War I on the side of the Allied Powers.
Kaiser Wilhelm II was so furious about this, he had Ferdinand erased from the Hohenzollern family tree, although this probably left the Romanian king quite cold. Especially when it became clear that Germany and Austria-Hungary would be the big losers of World War I.
To illustrate the consequences of that war for Romania, I should finally make use of a map, I guess.
The area marked in piggy pink was Romania before World War I, practically the union of the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. This was the territory of which Carol I was first prince and then king.
When World War I was over, all the lilac areas also wanted to belong to this likable country: Transylvania (which is simply the name of a beautiful region in Europe, even if it makes you think of vampires), parts of Banat, Maramures, Crișana and Sathmar, the southern part of Bukovina and Bessarabia (the latter is today’s Republic of Moldova).
Suddenly, Romania was twice as large as before. That’s what happens when you’re on the right side in a world war and you speak a lot of foreign languages, so you can easily navigate your way around the peace conferences in Versailles, Trianon and so on.
Speaking of Trianon: I’m spending this month in Hungary, and in every little village here, there is a monument proclaiming that this treaty will never be recognized under any circumstances. The trauma of Trianon sits so deep, not least because it is constantly reactivated by the government, that I will have to dedicate a separate article to it.
Ferdinand I was already King of Romania, but because his workload had now increased considerably, the Romanians thought it only fair to ask if he wanted to continue being king. After all, no one should be forced to work overtime every night against his will. Besides, he would henceforth have to go on longer business trips with the notoriously slow Romanian railway. The king said, “I can do that,” and the Romanians were so happy that they vowed to have another coronation ceremony.
And because people insisted on building a new coronation cathedral for this purpose, it took until 15 October 1922, when Ferdinand I and Mary, King and Queen of Romania, were once again crowned King and Queen of Romania. I think this is a very healthy approach. Sometimes, you have to pause in life and ask yourself “Do I really still want this?” instead of mindlessly muddling along in the same job year after year.
Because I was in Alba Iulia this summer, I can show you some photos of the coronation hall and the coronation church. In the latter, the oversized (because of Greater Romania) crown still hangs from the ceiling.
On hot days, I like to visit churches, to have a rest. However, Orthodox churches have no pews to sit down. Fortunately, right next to it is the Roman Catholic, i.e. the Hungarian church. Because the Hungarians (and Germans and other ethnic minorities) were, of course, allowed to continue living in Transylvania, although they all became Romanian citizens in 1920. In this part of the country, you still hear both languages, and there are cities, e.g. Târgu Mureș / Marosvásárhely, where half of the population speaks Hungarian. And landscapes like Szeklerland, where 90% speak Hungarian. The only important thing is, like here in Alba Iulia, that the Hungarian Catholic church must never be taller than the Romanian Orthodox church.
“Don’t support begging!” a sign says, as I exit the coronation church. That’s funny because the Orthodox Church is the most persistent beggar of all.
But you don’t go to Alba Iulia for the churches. Nor for the coronation hall. Not even for the very extensive museum. No, you visit Alba Iulia because of the citadel, where all these aforementioned buildings and the whole old town are located. A huge, heptagonal fortress, built – in order to avoid disputes between Romanians and Hungarians – by the Habsburgs. There used to be many such fortifications, but rarely are they so well preserved and – because the new town has established itself at a respectful distance – so clearly recognizable as in Alba Iulia.
I set out for a walk. On the one hand, it is stupid to do so exactly at midday, when the temperature is at its hottest. On the other hand, but I can’t know that yet, it’s clever because this is the only way I will be back before nightfall.
Because walking around the citadel of Alba Iulia is a Herculean task. (Probably that’s why Hercules had to go to the nearby spa, bearing his name, after this walk.) From the distance, you can’t see how winding and wide the paths are, but when you walk in the moat, the towering walls make you realize painfully how trapped and lost you are.
I will give the architects the benefit of doubt that their intention was to increase the defensive capability, not to lead harmless tourists to their deaths. But they should at least put up warning signs, informing unsuspecting visitors that it takes several hours to walk around the old town. The path keeps twisting and turning. The seven corners turn into many more intermediate corners, subcorners, side corners, ancillary corners. Soon, I have lost all sense of orientation. Fortunately, about every hour there is a water dispenser in the moat, which apart from that and myself shows few signs of life.
This fortress must be the largest fortification in the world. Or maybe the second largest after the Great Wall of China. But I am not even sure of that, because the Chinese Wall is not laid in such tricky folds that visually deceive about its length. Before each corner, I hope to see the staircase that leads back to the old town. But behind every corner, there is only disappointment. And fascination with the sheer size and indestructibility of this building.
Ferdinand I suffered a similar fate with Greater Romania as I did with my walk. He, too, had taken on too much and died of exhaustion as soon as 1927. The new king was his then 5-year-old grandson Michael I, who had quite an eventful life: becoming king while still in kindergarten, then overthrown by his own father, proclaimed king again during World War II, dictatorship, royal coup d’état against the dictatorship, changing sides in World War II (from Germany to the Allies), overthrown by the communists, exile, return to Romania after Ceaușescu’s downfall, arrest, renewed exile for five years, and yet another return to Romania.
The history of Romania is so exciting and multi-faceted, I really don’t understand why hardly anyone is interested in it. And as you can see from the photos: the country is easily worth one or rather several visits.
In the meantime, Romania has become a bit smaller again, because the Soviet Union cut off a piece after World War II, which is now independent as Moldova. People still speak Romanian there, even though they call the language Moldovan. But the only people who claim that there are big differences between the two are those who have never been to the other country. Honestly, the differences between German, Austrian and Swiss German or those of the English spoken north and south of Hadrian’s Wall are much more pronounced.
In both countries, you also see graffiti stating that Bessarabia (the historical and geographical designation for the territory of Moldova) is part of Romania. And sometimes, people march from Chișinău to Bucharest or vice versa to express this demand for reunification.
Even the Moldovan entry for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, “Trenulețul“, is about a train ride between the two capital cities, stressing the similarities between both countries.
I once took the train to Moldova (and onward to Transnistria), and they really have such beautiful old trains with a living-room look. Each carriage has its own conductor who sells meatballs, pickles and vodka, handing it over the counter adorned with a flowery table cloth, like in your grandmother’s apartment. The vodka helps against plutonium, which is smuggled frequently in Transnistria. (That’s why I am relatively unimpressed by Russian nuclear threats. I believe most of the plutonium has already been sold on the black market.)
On the way back, I took the bus, and the driver slipped contraband to each passenger. Because no one else made a fuss about it, I didn’t want to be the spoilsport and also took a large bottle of clear liquid and a carton of cigarettes under my wing.
The reunification of Moldova and Romania is not even a bad idea. In any case, it would be the fastest way for Moldova to enter the European Union. They would just have to do what East Germany did in 1990 and simply join an EU member state, in this case Romania. That way, you don’t need to go through the tedious process of applying for membership, lengthy negotiations, and all that lawyer crap.
On the other hand, this would put the smugglers out of work.
- All articles of the series “One Hundred Years Ago …”.
- More history.
- Further reports from Romania, Hungary and Moldova.
I can’t imagine how fun it must have been to visit the whole city alone, all by yourself!
But with great fun comes great responsibility, says Spiderman.
If anyone can do it, it’s you. Only you. Alone.
Even more intrepidly, I then continued to Sighet – where world history was playing out across the Tisza -, to Baia Mare – not as polluted as it used to be -, and to Satu Mare, the world’s secret capital of Brutalism, a gem of architecture and culture.
Good thing no one was there to distract you.
When I am reporting for my esteemed readers around the world, I ain’t easily distracted.