Romanian troops marching in Transylvania.
Renewed hostilities between Russia and the Porte in 1877–1878 provided another opportunity for Romania to enhance its international standing. Prince Carol provided Romanian support for the passage of Russian troops to the Balkan front. When the Russian siege of the fortress of Plevna was stalled, Carol answered a call for military assistance on the condition of assuming overall command of the front. After the ensuing allied victory, Romania annexed northern Dobrogea, and was recognized as an independent kingdom. Despite its indebtedness to Romania for its military contribution, Russia insisted on the return of the three south Bessarabian counties it had ceded to Moldavia in 1856.Within Bessarabia, Russification (the promotion of Russian culture) was harsher than anything Romanians had experienced under the Habsburgs. Romania turned now to Austria-Hungary for an alliance, later increased by the adherence of Germany and Italy, that would be renewed repeatedly until World War I. This alliance was diplomatically and economically advantageous to Romania. Though its precise terms were kept a secret from the public, its existence was not.
Carol I proved effective in a long rule lasting until his death in 1914.The government was the most stable in the Balkans, with Liberal and Conservative ministries succeeding each other at five- to ten-year intervals. Governments ran elections after their appointment and the electoral law was restrictive, but the press was uncensored and the system did provide for some responsiveness to public opinion. Romanian education and culture made steady progress. The Brătianu family provided continuity to the Liberal Party and the country through a series of able leaders. A public system of education, decreed by Prince Cuza, began to become a reality late in the century after an energetic school-building program. A Mining Law in 1895 opened Romanian oilfields to foreign investment, as the result of which American, British, and especially German capital became influential in their production and exports. There was a vigorous debate about the proper balance between Westernization and traditional culture. Taking a more conservative position, but not rejecting modernization per se, was the highly influential Junimea literary movement, which warned against superficial Westernization or ‘forms without content.’ The greatest Romanian writer, Mihai Eminescu, was associated with this movement.
Romanians also made cultural progress in Hungary. The government took energetic steps after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise to support Hungarian culture in minority areas, founding a Hungarian university in Cluj in 1872 and subsidizing Hungarian education generally. But although national minorities had little political power, they were on average economically better off and enjoyed a higher rate of literacy than in Romania. Their own churches, schools, press, and banks enabled the Romanian minority to maintain and even enhance national identity. The Romanian National Party enjoyed the support of a growing Romanian middle class and produced a number of impressive leaders. While the few Romanians elected to the Hungarian parliament were generally in opposition, they were publicly loyal to Austria-Hungary and not vocal advocates of secession. Romanians were only one-third of the population in Austrian Bucovina, but they participated in the provincial diet and imperial parliament and enjoyed higher education in their own language at the trilingual university in the capital city, Cernăuţi. Romanian culture and political expression was weakest in Russian Bessarabia. Steady Russification reduced the Romanians by 1897 to less than half of the population. They were almost totally absent from political life until after the Revolution of 1905.
The Kingdom of Romania had its darker side, namely the treatment of its peasantry and Jewish minority. The land reform of 1864 gave peasants outright possession of their land, but its amount proved insufficient and had to be supplemented through sharecropping and arrangements that left peasants increasingly dependent and in debt. A peasant revolt in 1888 was a foretaste of a much more serious one in 1907, the worst on the European continent before the Russian Revolution. Thousands of peasants were executed in its brutal suppression. Jewish immigration to the principalities was welcomed during the first half of the century under the Russian protectorate, and this population made a substantial contribution to economic development. For many social conservatives like Eminescu, however, Jewish capitalists seemed to threaten national culture and exploit the poorest Romanians. Jewish farm tenants were a particular target of peasant violence during the outbreak of the revolt in 1907. In Bessarabia, Chişinău was the site of major pogroms in 1903 and 1905; as a result, thousands of Jews emigrated from Chişinău to the United States.
Romania’s alliance with the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) was supported by most politicians of the Conservative Party, but criticized by the Liberals and especially by nationalists who deplored Hungary’s minorities policy and even demanded the liberation of Romanians across the Carpathians. On the eve of World War I, rising political tensions in both countries brought the national question to a head. Romania proved itself the strongest of the post-Ottoman states in the Second Balkan War, hosting the Peace of Bucharest in 1913 that awarded it southern Dobrogea (the Quadrilateral), a territory with few Romanians. The Liberal government declined to support the Central Powers when the European war broke out. This decision was a difficult blow for the native German King Carol, who died in the war’s first months. His nephew Ferdinand, who succeeded him as king, was more amenable to change.
Romania negotiated an agreement with the Entente in 1916, by which in return for an invasion of Transylvania it was promised protection of its flanks by simultaneous Russian and French attacks and cession of the province after the war. The attacks by the allies did not take place; instead Romania was flanked by the Germans and Bulgarians. Romanian forces had to evacuate Bucharest in November. The court and government retreated to Iaşi, and although it won notable military victories over the Germans in 1917, Romania was forced to conclude a separate peace with the Central Powers in May 1918. The collapse of the Russian tsardom and then of Austria-Hungary created an optimal situation for Romania. The Central Powers recognized Bessarabia’s decision to join Romania in March 1918; then in November Romanian troops marched into Transylvania after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian front. The union of the formerly Hungarian lands with Romania was proclaimed at a mass assembly in Alba Iulia on 1 December, whose anniversary would become Romania’s National Day. The longed-for Greater Romania arose suddenly, through a remarkable coincidence of events.