The 20th century was, to be blunt, pretty crappy for citizens of many countries. Those of the Soviet Union, who were forced to endure two world wars, civil war, the onset of communism and Stalin’s murderous regime, had it particularly bad, for example.
Other nations that had a rather rough go of it during the 20th century include:
- Poland (the loss of 450,000 men in World War I even though it was not independent at that point, a war with the Soviets from 1918-1921, invaded and decimated by Nazi Germany with a huge loss of life – estimated at more than 6 million, including 3 million Jews – then placed under Soviet hegemony for 45 years);
- Korea (annexed and brutally subjugated by Japan from 1910 to 1945, divided and then involved in a ruthless civil war from 1950-53, and both North Korea and South Korea still at daggers with one another); and
- The former Yugoslav republics (cobbled together in part through Woodrow Wilson’s machinations after World War I, invaded by the Nazis – who set up a brutal puppet state – commandeered by Tito after the war, and finally rent asunder by brutal internecine conflict in the 1990s).
Another country that would probably like a do-over for the 20th century is Romania, which didn’t acquit itself very well in either world war and suffered under the whip of two particularly odious dictators during the Cold War.
Romania chose to remain neutral for the first two years of World War I before joining with the Entente Powers in the summer of 1916. Unfortunately, Romania then quickly found itself overwhelmed by the Central Powers, which occupied two-thirds of the country.
When Russia capitulated to Germany following the Russian Revolution, Romania found itself surrounded and was forced to sign a harsh peace treaty. Although it was ultimately able to acquire territory under the Treaties of Saint Germain, Trianon and Paris, total Romanian military and civilian losses between 1916 and 1918 were estimated at nearly 750,000.
Things turned out even worse in the Second World War for Romania. Originally loosely affiliated with Great Britain and France, Romania opted to align itself with Nazi Germany after the start of World War II when the Nazis made quick work of most of Western Europe.
Not only did Romania troops participate in Operation Barbarossa, playing a large role during the fighting in Ukraine, Bessarabia, Stalingrad, and elsewhere, the nation was bombed by the Allies from 1943 onwards and invaded by advancing Soviet armies in 1944.
In 1944, Romania switched sides and joined the Allies, but following the war it still lost significant amounts of territory, and approximately 370,000 Romanian soldiers died during the conflict, 300,000 Romanian Jews were killed and 200,000 other Romanian civilians died.
Following the war, Romania was occupied by the Soviets. The communists captured the 1946 elections through fraudulent means and ensconced themselves in power.
The nation was under the direct military occupation and economic control of the Soviets until the late 1950s, and its natural resources were continuously drained by mixed Soviet-Romanian companies which were set up to exploit Romanian assets.
The Romanian secret police was as brutal as any in Soviet bloc, and free speech and political liberties were curtailed under communism.
Beginning in 1948, the regime of dictator Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej launched several purges in which numerous “enemies of the state” and “parasite elements” were targeted. Punishment included deportation, internal exile and internment in forced labor camps and prisons, as well as murder.
In 1965, with the death of Gheorghiu-Dej, Nicolae Ceaușescu came to power. While Ceaușescu tried to distance himself from the Soviets, he also greatly extended the authority of the secret police and sought to create a cult of personality.
In 2006, the Presidential Commission for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania estimated the number of direct victims of the communist repression in Romania at a staggering 2 million.
After decades of misery, Ceaușescu’s reign ended in dramatic fashion with the dictator’s execution during the violent Romanian Revolution of December 1989. In all, an estimated 4,500 individuals died during that brief upheaval.
With the death of Ceaușescu, Romanians embraced multi-party democracy and free market reforms. The country’s economy has experienced its ups and downs over the past quarter century, but the nation is still struggling from the loss of so many citizens who chose to emigrate, either to escape communism or for greener pastures once they were legally able to leave.
Given the events of the 20th century in Romania, it’s safe to say a good time was not had by all, or even by very many.
(Top: Romania’s fascist dictator general Ion Antonescu, left, walks with Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in Munich during the summer of 1941.)