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When I was in school in Romania I remember my history teacher saying that historically Romania has seen a lot of invaders (referring mainly from the middle ages-present) because it used to have a lot of natural resources. To what extent is this true? I know that Hitler used to get a part of his oil from a city in Romania called Constanta, and right now there is a controversy in Romania because a Canadian firm wants to purchase the rights to a very large gold mine. But historically was Romania invaded for its natural resources? If not, then for what reasons? (I realize that this last question is VERY general, so I don't mind a VERY general answer, such as "usually to expand territory") Thanks.

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A full answer would have to do a detailed comparison of resources and relative numbers of invasions across time and territories, which is a bit much, or else track down the motivations of leaders for each particular war, which someone might offer here. Let me get at your question in two ways: 1) What resources were there, and how were they exploited by various states that controlled the territory 2) Why might your teacher have used that particular explanation, and put this into the context of a particular historiography.

For this, let me focus on two sources, cited below in form [Source:Page Number]:

  1. Vlad Georgescu, The Romanians: a History
  2. Lucian Boia, History and Myth in Romanian Consciousness

Since it is best to be careful when we transport modern nation-states into the distant past where they did not exist, by "Romania," let us clarify this to refer to the various kingdoms, provinces, and other territories in history which had some form of political control that overlaps with the current borders of that state. These include the Dacian provinces in the Roman Empire, and at various times, Hungary, Transylvania, Wallachia, Moldavia, the Ottoman Empire, Austria, Russia, etc.

The Important Resources

Under Roman control, the resources of the region were "skillfully exploited" [1:7] by the empire. It was an important producer of grain, the gold mines of the Bihor mountains were particularly important, along with lead, copper, silver, iron and salt mines.

Grain, that is, the agricultural wealth of the region continues to be important, but with the many conflicts, the plains of Wallachia and Moldavia were depopulated and did not return to intensive agriculture until after 1829. [1:21] The agricultural sector suffers in general under many conflicts, the power structure that prevents the development of agriculture, and poor harvests in general. [1:82]

Instead, animal husbandry, especially cattle and hide exports, become important in Wallachia and Moldavia in particular and dominate from the 15th to 18th centuries. Oil comes into play in the 15th century in Moldavia and 16th century in Wallachia [1:24] but is not really a major part of the economy until the 20th century (when, as you mentioned, it is a key resource during WWII), though increases significantly after 1859. [1:125]

When Ottoman pressures come to bear on the region, especially on Wallachia and Moldavia, the major extraction from the region is not resources but paid tribute, and later, when they are more fully incorporated into the empire, and during the "Phanariot" period in the 18th century, through direct taxation, make serious and important contributions to the Ottoman war machine. Beyond tributes, the Ottomans extracted other resources, especially grain, cattle, lumber, and saltpeter. [1:77]

Mining doesn't come up that often though, and in 18th century, some efforts to take advantage of copper, mercury and gold mining are abandoned and mining "usually limited to salt" [1:82]

After the establishment of an independent Romania in mid-19th century, however, it grows again to be an important bread basket and by 1913 is the 4th largest wheat exporter in the world [1:125] and in the interwar period up to 1940 becomes the 5th largest agricultural exporter in the world. [1:198]

Overall, the early importance in mining for the Romans, and the importance in grain supplies for both Romans and later rulers were likely a draw, but, as with any territory invaded, the extraction of surpluses in the form of taxation would have been significant, but it would require a much more detailed comparison with other states to determine the relative attractiveness of these territories.

Of course, besides the obvious tribute/taxation and resources, the region is also probably invaded as much as it was, because it happened to be on the way to something more important, especially in the context of the major Habsburg vs. Ottoman and Russia vs. Ottoman conflicts. In fact, Moldavia and Wallachia both actively tried to pursue their own autonomy by portraying themselves, in diplomatic communications to various neighbors, as useful buffer states in 1774, 1783, 1787, 1791, 1807, and 1829. [1:76]

The Historical Narrative

The portrayal of a Romania that is a frequently invaded territory is common to many, but not all nationalist historiographies but the "natural resources" argument may have something to do with preemptively foreclosing other explanations and passing on the idea of stable set of territory which "naturally" belongs to the Romanian nation. Since Romanian nationalism predominantly is based on an ethno-linguistic conception of a language and ethnic group with a common origin (except for some occasional "greater Romania" narratives that pop up over the past 150 years) this means that legitimate claim on territory is predominantly based on a people, language, religion, etc. wherever they are. Perhaps the most interesting recent thing I have seen written on this is:

Holly Case, Between States: The Transylvanian Question and the European Idea During World War II

Which looks at the way the "lost" territory of Transylvania plays between Hungarian and Romanian nationalism in the context of two allies of Germany in WWII. There is a fascinating "battle of the maps," for example, where the predominant map feature is not resources or historical claims, but colorful depictions of demographics. By focusing on claims of where the Romanian people are and how that is to be defined, the claims to territory move beyond historical legitimacy to claims or some other measure, which is true for a lot of 20th century struggles over territorial control, especially around or immediately after WWI. Since Hungary etc. can't justify, your teacher might argue, the argument on the basis on people (though they indeed did, as Case's book shows), they must have just been after the natural resources of the mountainous territories of Transylvania - for example.

Lucian Boia suggests another hint, but it depends on when your teacher was telling you this. Pre-1989? Or after? Boia suggests that around 1993, with publication of The Plot Against Romania (focusing on 1940-1947) and Dan Zamfirescu's War Against the Romanian People there is an increasing theme in historiography to describe "plots" against Romania throughout its history where Romania's neighbors were, Poland-partition style, trying to tear the nation apart and gobble up its various parts. [2:175-178] Perhaps your teacher, if we are talking 1990s here, was influenced by this trend.

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I believe Romania's chief misfortune during the Middle Ages was to be right next to Eurasian Steppe, in an era when settled communities really had no military answer to the expert horse archers that steppe country naturally incubated.

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Another view (for as long as the link lasts) enter image description here

To make matters worse, right on the other side of Romania is the Hungarian Plain (or Alföld), which was also perfect territory for those same pastoralists. One can imagine that in the middle in their way was not a fun place to be.

So in a way, yes Romania did contain valuable "resources", if you count good pasture land as a resource where militarily potent pastoralists are concerned.

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  • While that is very true up until about 1300, after that the area was dominated by powers big enough to keep in check the steppe invaders (Hungarian and Polish kingdoms, the Ottomans, Russia), and bring the stability which was a necessary condition for the very creation of the Romanian states. I think I'll post an answer to this old question.
    – cipricus
    Sep 14 at 6:44
  • @cipricus - Yeah, post-gunpowder, as CMcE put it, the power gradient on the Steppe swung the other way.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 14 at 13:28
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The statement that the Romanian area was "invaded" many times is hard to contradict. All territories have been more or less "invaded", but taking a look at this area of Europe we cannot avoid the impression that here we are dealing with a higher scale of the phenomenon.

The general impression comes from the reasons stated in another answer which brings forth the fact that the Eurasian Steppe that starts east of Romania was a highway for invasions by migratory peoples since antiquity. It's not that Romanian polities were attacked by armies coming from that highway of invasions, but that they couldn't even exist before that highway was cut off by modern medieval powers.

The original "Indo-Europeans" came on the same route probably, followed by Sarmatians, Scythians, then Huns, Goths and all the other "invaders" of the post-Roman and early medieval Europe.

We know of the Dacian kingdom and of its "invasion" by the Roman empire, which plays a big role in the Romanian narrative discussed in the question above. But that narrative largely ignores the fact that Dacia was mostly an unstable area, only exceptionally and for short periods unified or pacified. It was permanently under pressure from the east, and most of the time the origin of invasions into the Roman empire by multiple peoples more or less "migratory" and more or less allied or mixed with the "Dacians". Stopping those invasions was one of the main reasons why the Romans invaded Dacia.

Interestingly for our topic, one of the other main reasons of the Roman conquest of Dacia (meaning mainly Transylvania) was indeed natural resources, especially the gold of the Transylvanian mountains.

The other main reason was the power of the Dacian state (the only independent kingdom in Europe other than the Romans at that time). But that power depended on the cooperation with the peoples of the steppe and on the integration of those peoples (and of those peoples' cultural and especially military structures) within the Dacian power-structure. This is characteristic for the eastern European states: like the Goths in western Europe, some migratory peoples have created powerful kingdoms in eastern Europe. And of these some have become a bulwark against new invasions from the east, like Bulgarians and Hungarians.

It is the Hungarian kingdom that decisively put a stop to the Mongol threat from the east, and thus stabilized the region enough that the first Romanian larger polities emerged in the 14th century. (That's something which the patriotic narrative is happy to ignore. Instead it puts forward the fact that in this process the Hungarians had themselves "invaded" those very territories - beside the fact that they were "invaders" in the first place etc...)

The peoples of the steppe do not count for much in the invasions of Romanian lands after 1300, and the power-struggle between larger adversaries that crossed their interests on that area becomes the main factor of instability and "invasion": since their political beginnings (and up until the present, given that Moldavia is still separated between two states across spheres of influence, and that part of its territory is occupied by Russian troupes) Wallachia and Moldavia found themselves at the frontiers of conflict between much more powerful states which periodically invaded the territory: first Hungary and the Mongol (until c 1400), then Hungary, Poland and the Ottomans (until Mohacs, 1526), then Russia, Austria, and the Ottoman (until the Crimean War that pushed those war frontiers to the east and led to Romanian independence in the 19th century).


How much resources counted in all this? Not decisively, anyway, but they counted of course, as they always do.

Hungarian king's occupation of Transylvania had something to do with the same gold that the Romans coveted, but the political reasons were far more important (not to mention the fact that Transylvania was not "Romanian" when the Hungarians invaded it). The Ottoman exploited the two principalities as much as they could, but there was not much to exploit in the first place and the ottoman capacity to exploit economically was limited: here too, the reason for repeated military interventions were political - part of an expansionist logic and the resulting wars with the other powers -, not economical.

Once the Romanian states became vassal the Ottoman became interested in stability, but that was hard to get for the aforementioned motives. Interestingly enough - and contrary to the patriotic narrative - Ottoman political and economic pressure forced centralization of the state (especially) in Wallachia and the development of fiscal and economical institutions which weren't there before (as Marian Coman shows) and would serve exploitation of resources. Later they became a sort of "fiscal farms" which the Ottoman were trying to develop and stabilize. But the exploitation was an effect, not a cause of the initial "invasion".

Romania was invaded again during WW1 and WW2, but it must be noted that in WW1 it attacked and "invaded" Transylvania first, before being overwhelmed and occupied by Germany, while in WW2 it went east along with the invading Germans up to Stalingrad, before being occupied by the USSR.

It has to be emphasized though that Romanian alliance with Hitler's Germany was the result of a political and territorial "invasion" through the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, which resulted in the brutal bullying of Romania into the Nazi camp. A main purpose of Nazi policy concerning Romania was access to Romanian oil - and against that access were directed the US and UK raids against Romania.


As a summary answer to the question "Were natural resources a primary reason for invading Romania":

Mostly NO.

No, or not especially, because although invasion and occupation is bound to involve exploitation of resources, in most cases that was not the primary reason in the case of Romanian area, excepting the case of migratory invaders from the steppe who moved and "invaded" as a matter of course for cultural as well as economic reasons (they lacked many resources which they were used to steal from others). But those powerful warriors have bothered more the Dacians and Romans than Romanians because they were mostly neutralized before the Romanian principalities could emerge.

YES, partially, in two cases:

  • the Roman invasion of Dacia had gold as one of the main reasons, although the ancient techniques allowed exploitation only up until 215. (But Dacia is not "Romania".)

  • Hitler's "expansion" towards Romania (the territorial loss suffered by Romania through the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact) was related to access to Romanian oil. But that was not really an invasion, the oil was paid, and Romania was supposed to get territorial compensation to the east.

Even in these two cases exploitation of natural resources is subordinated to other causes. Geopolitical reasons of war actions on Romanian lands far outmatch the economic ones.

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