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The Romanians: A History

by Vlad Georgescu, edited by Matei Calinescu, translated by Alexandra Bley-Vroman, epilogue by Matei Calinescu, by Vladimir Tismaneanu
Ohio State University Press, 356 pp., $49.50

Jagendorf’s Foundry: Memoir of the Romanian Holocaust, 1941–-1944

by Siegfried Jagendorf, introduction and commentaries by Aron Hirt-Manheimer
HarperCollins, 209 pp., $22.95

Kiss the Hand You Cannot Bite’: The Rise and Fall of the Ceausescus

by Edward Behr, foreword by Ryszard Kapuscinski
Hamish Hamilton, 255 pp., £15.99

National Ideology Under Socialism: Identity and Cultural Politics in Ceausescu’s Romania

by Katherine Verdery
University of California Press, 406 pp., $39.95

The Fall of Tyrants: The Incredible Story of One Pastor’s Witness, the People of Romania, and the Overthrow of Ceausescu

by Laszlo Tokes, with David Porter
Crossway Books, 226 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Romania: The Entangled Revolution International Studies, Praeger

by Nestor Ratesh, foreword by Edward N. Luttwak
The Washington Papers/152, published with the Center for Strategic and, 179 pp., $39.95; $12.95 (paper)


If the art of survival is—as it probably must be—central to the politics of small nations, then the Romanians may be counted among the greatest practitioners of that art. At the cost of much suffering and a good deal of social corruption, they have, over several centuries, managed to preserve both their national pride and their rich culture in a difficult and often hostile environment.

Surrounded by Slavic and Hungarian speakers, Romanians have persisted in speaking a Romance language akin to Latin, French, and Italian. Invaded by Tatars, Poles, Hungarians, Ottoman Turks, Austrians, Russians, Germans, and, finally, the Soviet Red Army, they have succeeded in absorbing or at least pacifying every occupier.

From the fifteenth century until, at least formally, 1878, the two original Romanian principalities, Moldavia and Wallachia, were subjected to Ottoman rule. Required to pay tribute to the Ottoman emperor’s Sublime Porte, they were also forced to suffer the presence of viceroys who, especially in the eighteenth century, were often no better than bandits. Yet despite Ottoman domination, the Romanians gave up neither their Eastern Christian religion nor their social and cultural institutions. During the first half of the nineteenth century (and again between 1944 and 1958), Russian soldiers occupied the country, yet in few places have the departing Russians left behind less of a tangible legacy than in Romania.

In 1859 the two Romanian principalities were united, by their own efforts as well as by those of Napoleon III. Yet because they sensed the growing importance of Bismarck’s Germany in the region, the Romanian political leaders invited a Prussian prince, Karl (or Carol I, as he came to be known) to be their ruler. The new prince, who became king in 1878, then concluded a secret alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, but when World War I came, the Romanians reneged on his commitment. Two years later, having squeezed a maximum of concessions and promises from the Entente Powers, they declared war on their former allies.

Romania was quickly defeated and largely occupied by the German and Austro-Hungarian armies, and, after Bolshevik Russia left the war in the spring of 1918, it, too, was forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty with the Central Powers. Still, nearly two weeks after the collapse of Austria-Hungary and just one day before Germany’s surrender, Romania managed officially to re-enter the war, thereby securing a place for itself on the side of the victors.

Romania’s territorial gains at the Paris peace conferences were proportionally greater than those of any other power. By acquiring Bukovina from Austria, Bessarabia from Soviet Russia, southern Dobrudja from Bulgaria, and Transylvania as well as other provinces from Hungary, the country more than doubled in size. Indeed the territory it seized from Hungary was greater than all that remained of the latter state after the peace treaty.

It is difficult, however, to see in just what way the Romanian people profited from these territorial gains, unless one counts an inflated national pride, which was to contribute to subsequent national tragedies. Flanked by embittered neighbors between the two wars, this Greater Romania had a hard time dealing with its newly acquired ethnic minorities or even with its new ethnic Romanian citizens, millions of whom had lived, for centuries, under vastly different regimes.

After World War I, Romania’s minorities, consisting—in descending order of magnitude—of Hungarians, Germans, Jews, Ruthenians and Ukrainians, Russians, Bulgarians, Gypsies, Muslim Turks and Tatars, Gagauz (Christianized Turks), Czechs and Slovaks, Poles, Greeks, Albanians, and Armenians, made up approximately 28 percent of the total population. As for ethnic Romanians, those in Transylvania tended to gather in one political camp and those in the old country, or “Regat,” in another.

Until 1938 Romania had a parliament and a multiparty system, but gradually its leaders, like so many others in the region, adjusted to the spirit of the times by resorting to coercion and political assassination. The Romanians in the Regat had inherited from the Ottoman Empire a long tradition of bureaucratic laxness and corruption, which reached record levels in those years. Its practitioners ranged all the way from King Carol II and his mistress Magda Lupescu to the humblest railway ticket collector. Undoubtedly, this system of payoffs grossly favored the rich and the well-connected, but some of the people who used it were also practicing the art of survival in a society dominated by a vast and underpaid bureaucracy. Among other things, bribery of officials helped to save thousand of Jewish lives during World War II.

By 1940, Romania had become a one-party state with all the fascist trappings under the dictatorial rule of Carol II. But the king’s neutral foreign policy did not satisfy the Führer, who now allowed his allies to seize Romanian territory. On June 27, following Stalin’s ultimatum, Romania ceded Bessarabia and northern Bukovina to the Soviet Union; on August 30, Germany and Italy ordered the transfer of northern Transylvania to Hungary, and a week later, Romania had to return southern Dobrudja to Bulgaria. On September 5, General (later, Marshal) Ion Antonescu formed a government, and on the following day, Carol II fled the country, leaving his nineteen-year-old son, Michael I, as king.

Because both France and Great Britain had utterly failed as Romania’s protectors, it is small wonder that Antonescu joined in the international race for the favor of Hitler. For a while, he governed in alliance with the Iron Guard, the leading Romanian Nazi movement, but because the Führer wanted order in Romania, and because the conservative Antonescu was more to his taste than the radical Iron Guard, he soon gave permission to the Romanian dictator to wipe out the Romanian Nazis.

Like other East European governments in the interwar years, the Romanian government, too, was suspicious of, if not outright hostile to, the national minorities and often adopted harsh measures against them. Yet the minorities, especially the Germans and the Hungarians, generally lived better than the Romanian natives. The sense of racial, social, and cultural superiority claimed by both the Germans and the Hungarians has contributed enormously to the unending trouble between them and the Romanian people. Many Romanians feel, and often act, like second-class citizens in their own country.

Romania has a long tradition of official anti-Semitism. Even in the relatively liberal pre–World War I period, the Bucharest government showed a callous disregard for its international obligation, solemnly undertaken at the 1878 Congress of Berlin, to grant equal rights to Jews. Romania was the only European country where, until 1923, native-born Jews were systematically denied citizenship. Yet perhaps nowhere else did well-to-do Jews control a greater proportion of the landed wealth through the system of lease-holds, or have a greater influence on trade and finance.

During World War II, Romania was one of only two German satellites (the other was fascist Croatia) to attempt to organize its own Final Solution, murdering between two and three hundred thousand Romanian and non-Romanian Jews. It did so on its own initiative and in parts of the country under its exclusive control. Yet in 1943, after the war had turned against the Germans, the same Romanian regime successfully protected the country’s remaining Jews, some 300,000 of them, against the German Nazis. Aside from Finland with its very small Jewish minority, Romania, alone in Nazi-controlled Europe, refused to send its Jews to the German death camps. (In Denmark, most of the Jews were saved, but a few hundred Danish Jews ended up in a German concentration camp. Bulgaria, too, protected all of its own Jews, but delivered to the Nazis almost all the Jews from the Greek and Yugoslav territories under Bulgarian military occupation.) About one half of Romanian Jews survived the war.1

In 1941 and 1942, Romania contributed the largest of all satellite military contingents to Hitler’s anti-Bolshevik campaign. Romanian troops committed many atrocities in the Soviet Union and suffered horrendous losses at Stalingrad and other sectors of the Eastern front. Yet after the Red Army had occupied the northeastern part of the country, King Michael, the government, the army, and the people made a unique volte-face. On August 23, 1944, Germany’s most devoted satellite became one of Germany’s most dedicated enemies, and Romania soon was able to send into action the fourth largest Allied military contingent (after those of the USSR, the USA, and Great Britain) for the final drive against Nazi Germany. Again, the Romanian army suffered enormous casualties, but again Romania emerged from the war in a remarkably advantageous political position. True, it did not regain Bessarabia and northern Bukovina, territories it had lost to Stalin in 1940, but at the 1946 Paris peace conference it regained all the territories it had lost to Hungary in that same year.

During the war, Hungary and Romania were official allies; their armies fought shoulder to shoulder against the Red Army. But the Hungarian and Romanian leaders’ hatred of Bolshevism paled in comparison to their hatred of each other. In 1940, Hungary regained northern Transylvania with the help of Hitler and Stalin. In these reannexed lands, the Hungarian authorities often mistreated the Romanian minority population.2 In June 1941, Hungary and Romania, both currying favor with the Nazi government, joined Germany in the war against the Soviet Union. In late 1944, the Romanian militia entering northern Transylvania behind the Red Army took triumphant revenge for the atrocities committed by the Hungarians a few years earlier. This pattern of mutually ruinous rivalry and unrelenting hatred, hidden behind the mask of ideological and political affinity, has marked Hungarian-Romanian relations to this day. As if in unison, the two countries have moved during the last century and a half from feudalism to liberal politics to conservative authoritarianism to fascism to communism and finally to post-Communist experiments with democracy, all the while eyeing each other with the utmost suspicion.

Bolshevism was imposed on Romania even before the end of the war; Stalinists were running the country while it was still formally a constitutional monarchy. Moreover, Romanian Stalinism outlasted most others in Eastern Europe, allowing the country’s dictators to perpetuate a criminal system. The Association of Former Political Prisoners in Romania has claimed recently—probably with some exaggeration—that more than 300,000 Romanians perished in the Communist forced-labor camps between the late 1940s and 1964. But Romanian Stalinism also allowed the country’s dictators to rid themselves of the Soviet military presence and to shift the country’s foreign trade and even some of its cultural life toward the West. In 1968, Nicolae Ceausescu, who had recently taken over as national leader from Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, went so far as to refuse to participate in the Soviet bloc’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. This and other acts of defiance followed from his and his predecessor’s unwillingness to accept Romania’s assigned role as the Soviet bloc’s bread basket.

But Ceausescu went too far. His genuine concern for improving conditions in Romania gradually gave way to a mad ambition for his country, his family, and himself. Romania was to be a great industrial power and a major actor on the international scene. For a while he even seemed successful. The man who set up one of the more megalomaniacal personality cults in European history became the darling of the Western nations. He was eulogized and decorated as a champion of liberty and the wise leader of plucky little Romania by, among others, the Queen of England, the King of Sweden, and President Carter.

  1. 1

    Because of repeated territorial changes during and immediately after the World War II, all statistical data on the number of Romanian Jews killed are inevitably misleading. Consider that thousands of the Romanians’ Jewish victims were Soviet citizens before World War II; yet they were killed in what during the war was officially Romanian territory. Others were Romanian citizens before the war but were annihilated four years after their homeland had been reincorporated into Hungary in 1940. Consequently, thousands of Romanian Jewish victims figure in the statistics on Soviet and Hungarian Jewish victims or vice versa. In contrast, many survivors remain unaccounted for because, rather than returning to their place of origin after the war, they went to another place or left Europe altogether.

    Jean Ancel writes in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (edited by Israel Gutman, four volumes, Macmillan, 1990), pp. 1,292–1,300, that the Jewish population in Romania numbered 760,000 in 1930, amounting to 4.2 percent of the total population. “Some 420,000 Jews who were living on Romanian soil in 1939 were estimated to have perished in the Holocaust. This figure includes the Jews killed in Bessarabia and Bukovina in July and August 1941; the Jews who died during deportation to Transnistria or after their arrival there; the victims of the pogroms in Iasi and other places in Romania; and the Jews of northern Transylvania who were deported to Auschwitz and killed there. Not included are the Jews who had been living in the Soviet territory that Romania occupied during the war and who also perished in the Holocaust.”

  2. 2

    Actually, after 1918 Hungary had to cede much more than merely the historic principality of Transylvania to Romania. Consequently, in 1940, when Hungary regained the northern part of the territory it had lost to Romania after World War I, it received back much more than merely the northern half of the principality. There is, however, little chance that Western history texts would take cognizance of such refinements.

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