In 1938, King Carol II turned the monarchy into a dictatorship by abolishing the 1923 constitution. In the turbulent year of 1940 the nation was reorganized along fascist lines. That May, under heavy German pressure, Romania joined the Axis de facto. In June, acting in accordance with secret provisions of the Soviet-German Nonaggression Pact of August 1939, the Soviet Union forced Romania to cede Bessarabia and also northern Bukovina, which had not been Russian before. Germany then forced Romania to return part of Transylvania to Hungary and the southern Dobruja to Bulgaria.
King Carol II had alienated his people by his open affair with a mistress and widespread corruption. National outrage over the loss of half of the nation's population and territory allowed the profascist, anti-Semitic Iron Guard to bring about Carol's abdication in September 1940.
Carol's nineteen-year-old son Michael (Mihai) replaced him but was a figurehead. The prime minister, World War I military hero General Ion Antonescu, exercised real power. In November, Romania officially joined the Axis. Antonescu sent troops to participate in the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 in order to reclaim Bessarabia and northern Bukovina. He continued offensive operations in the Soviet Union on promises from Hitler of additional territory, including the Black Sea port of Odessa. Romania ultimately supplied more troops to the war against the Soviet Union than all the other German satellites combined.
Antonescu rejected appeals after the disastrous Battle of Stalingrad from other Romanian political leaders to withdraw the nation's troops from the Soviet Union, claiming, no doubt correctly, that Axis victory was no longer possible. Romania had mounted the tiger and was now obliged to finish the ride. Finally, in late August 1944, with Soviet forces having crossed the eastern border, King Michael ordered the arrest of Antonescu and announced Romania's withdrawal from the Axis alliance.
Romania now fell under Soviet occupation. The armistice signed in Moscow on 12 September 1944 required Romania to join the Allies; relinquish Bessarabia, northern Bukovina, and Dobruja; and pay to the Soviet Union war reparations equivalent to $300 million. The Soviets in return promised to restore to Romania northern Transylvania from Hungary. The Paris Peace Treaty of February 1947 ratified these agreements.
During the war, Romania suffered some 600,000 casualties. Antonescu was tried by the communists in May 1946 and executed. Soviet pressure, meanwhile, impeded King Michael's attempts to form coalition governments. During March 1945–June 1952, the communist takeover proceeded under the Soviet-installed regime led by Petru Groza. Never a major force in Romanian politics, the Romanian Communist Party (PCR) had fewer than 1,000 members in 1945.
Nonetheless, the Groza government systematically squelched rival parties and appointed communists to key ministerial and army posts. Prominent figures included Ana Pauker and Vasile Luca, who returned from Soviet exile, and Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, Teohari Georgescu, Nicolae Ceauşescu, and Alexandru Drăghici, who had been imprisoned during the war. A new secret police force, the Securitate, formed in 1945 under Soviet direction, enforced communist control and directed a network of concentration camps. As a result, in the rigged election of November 1946, the PCR gained almost 90 percent of the vote. King Michael was forced to abdicate in December 1947.
In 1948, the PCR merged with a wing of the Social Democrats into the Romanian Workers' Party (PMR). Now known as a people's republic, Romania adopted a Stalinist constitution with Gheorghiu-Dej, Luca, and Pauker heading the PMR Central Committee. Banks, industries, mines, and transportation were nationalized, and a state planning commission was set up. Already a member of the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform), in January 1949 Romania joined the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon), formed to promote economic development and cooperation among communist states.
Industrialization and the forced collectivization of agriculture proceeded rapidly. These moves led to food shortages and reduced exports, causing the government to slow down collectivization. Concurrently, churches were placed under government control, and much of their property was seized. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's purges after the 1948 Soviet-Yugoslav split prompted Gheorghiu-Dej to remove prominent rivals. He became PMR general secretary and Romanian premier in 1952 when Groza was named president, an honorary post that Groza held until his death in 1958.
Gheorghiu-Dej's premiership initially led to somewhat better living conditions. The largest concentration camps closed, and wages rose. After Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin in February 1956, Gheorghiu-Dej feared criticism as a Stalinist. He therefore responded by consolidating control of the Securitate, now headed by Interior Minister Drăghici, and purging anti-Stalinists.
During the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Romania allowed Soviet troops to reinforce the Hungarian border, although it refused to send troops to Hungary. Uneasy about the Hungarian minority in Transylvania, the government reduced Hungarian language education there, merged the Hungarian Bolyai University of Cluj with the Romanian Babeş University in 1959, and in 1960 modified the borders of the Hungarian Autonomous Province, an area that Ceauşescu would eliminate in 1968.
Gheorghiu-Dej's final years marked a gradual shift from Soviet domination. The last of 35,000 Soviet ground forces left Romania in July 1958, even though air and naval bases remained. Soviet-Romanian trade dropped off in 1958 when Gheorghiu-Dej refused Khrushchev's request that Romania delay industrialization and specialize in supplying agricultural products and raw materials to Comecon members. In defiance, Gheorghiu-Dej began to seek Western financial and trade support. Critical of the Soviet Union's role in the Sino-Soviet split and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Romania strengthened its relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC) and Yugoslavia, and Khrushchev's ouster in October 1964 prompted negotiations to remove Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti (KGB) advisors.
Emerging as first secretary of the renamed PCR after Gheorghiu-Dej's 1965 death, Ceauşescu continued rapid industrialization and an autonomous foreign policy, whereby Romania began its role as mediator between the United States and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam). Ceauşescu's popularity rose when he denounced the Warsaw Pact's August 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, which ended the Prague Spring. This anti-Soviet stance precipitated U.S. President Richard M. Nixon's August 1969 visit and Ceauşescu's return visits in the 1970s.
The Warsaw Pact's invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 also convinced the Ceauşescu regime to promulgate a new military doctrine, the "War of the Entire People," to resist any incursion, whether from NATO or Warsaw Pact nations. The subsequent Law on National Defense (1972) stated that Romania's armed forces would take orders only from the country's national command. Forces of Patriotic Guards were set up to supplement the regular armed forces, and defense strategy focused on prolonged resistance, small-unit attacks, and a scorched-earth policy in case of invasion.
Romania enjoyed a brief period of relative prosperity thanks to Western trade concessions, large foreign credits, and a plentiful supply of energy and raw materials. New construction reduced the housing shortage. Denouncing his predecessor's hard line, Ceauşescu freed political prisoners and deposed Interior Minister Drăghici. This all soon changed as Ceauşescu reimposed rigid central planning. Inspired by a visit to the PRC and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) in 1971, he encouraged a cult of personality. Upon Premier Ion Maurer's 1974 retirement, Ceauşescu filled the newly created office of president.
Thereafter, natural disasters, export deficits, and energy depletion led to near economic collapse. Romania's foreign debt rose from $3.6 billion in 1977 to $10.2 billion in 1981. To pay the debt, Ceauşescu imposed strict food and electrical rationing and, to boost the country's workforce, forbade abortion and contraception. The so-called systematization campaign to resettle villagers in agroindustrial centers destroyed historical landmarks and evoked international criticism. Continuing suppression of minorities, especially of the Hungarians in Transylvania, prompted a string of protests. Increasingly removed from reality, Ceauşescu surrounded himself with sycophants, appointed family members to leading positions, and further weakened the country with his lavish lifestyle and grandiose schemes. Western support dwindled, especially when the 1978 defection of Ion Pacepa, deputy director of the Department of External Information (DIE), the foreign secret service, revealed Ceauşescu's disinformation campaign to gain Western aid and trading benefits.
In March 1989, a publicly released letter signed by six senior PCR members in the name of the National Salvation Front (NSF) signaled the government's imminent demise.
In December 1989, antigovernment demonstrations in Timişoara soon spread to Bucharest, where Ceauşescu had called a progovernment rally. The populace and much of the army turned against Ceauşescu and his wife, who fled in a helicopter but were captured, tried, and summarily executed on 25 December 1989.
Political tensions did not end with Ceauşescu's fall. Initially a caretaker government, the NSF, led by Ion Iliescu, was elected in 1990. Soon after, student protests demanding the trial of Securitate agents and Ceauşescu associates erupted in Bucharest. Miners brought in from the Jiu Valley brutally intervened. Allegations persist that former Securitate agents have retained powerful positions. Violent ethnic clashes flared in Tîrgu-Mures in 1990, followed by protests against the 1995 Education Law. Nevertheless, Hungary and Romania signed a Treaty of Cooperation in September 1996 whereby Hungary renounced all claims to Transylvania and Romania agreed to guarantee minority rights. Romania became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2004 and joined the European Union (EU) on 1 January 2007.
Anna M. Wittmann
Deletant, Dennis. Romania under Communist Rule. Iasi, Romania: Center for Romanian Studies, 1999.; Fischer-Galati, Stephen. Twentieth Century Romania. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.; Hazard, Elizabeth W. Cold War Crucible: United States Foreign Policy and the Conflict in Romania, 1943–1953. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.; Tismaneanu, Vladimir. Stalinism for All Seasons: A Political History of Romanian Communism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.