Ion Iliescu
Ion Iliescu; drawing by David Levine


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.

Yet his programs led to terrible waste: the giant oil refineries that had no oil to refine; the enormous steel mills whose useless products no one wanted to buy; the forced industrial growth; the policy of economic self-sufficiency, and the neglect of agriculture. Ceausescu put forward a plan to “systematize” urban and rural life. The first part of the project affected some forty towns where thousands of old, often historic buildings were leveled.3 The second part envisaged the destruction of thousands of villages and the transfer of the peasantry into bleak “agrocities,” where they could be more easily controlled. Not much came of this last plan, but the opening of the campaign alone was enough to terrify the peasants and to intensify the agricultural crisis. After Ceausescu decided to pay back the country’s foreign debt, living standards plummeted even further. For several winters, there was little food, almost no fuel, and no electricity. People were punished for burning a light bulb in excess of 40 watts, and ambulances no longer picked up pensioners. The police were everywhere and conversations with foreigners had to be reported to the authorities.

Because all this was done in the name of “national greatness,” it was only natural that the schools of the ethnic minorities, especially of the Hungarians, were closed down, and that Romanian women were forced to bear children. The latter measure resulted in the near-doubling of the mortality rate of mothers bearing children between 1966 and 1984, and the well-known increase in the numbers of infants abandoned in the nightmarish hospitals and maternity wards. Because medicine was lacking and doctors were both uninformed and frightened, a vast AIDS epidemic spread among these children.4 In brief, Ceausescu’s Romania was a terrible place; but not all who lived there were unhappy, nor does everybody in Romania curse its memory today.

By the late 1980s, the Romanian economy had collapsed, and in December 1989, Ceausescu was overthrown. Whether he was brought down by a spontaneous popular uprising or by a Communist clique that cleverly exploited a popular uprising, or whether the popular uprising itself had been stimulated by a group of Communists intent on seizing power, are questions debated in most of the books under discussion. Unfortunately, none can provide the answer. It is clear, however, that the fruits of the revolution have been plucked not by the country’s democratic opposition and the brave students who have taken part in it but by some of the tyrant’s former cronies.

A few months after the revolution, the Romanian people confirmed, in less than completely free elections, the new regime of Ion Iliescu, made up largely of former Communists. Among them was Prime Minister Petre Roman, whose mother was a Spanish revolutionary and whose father was a member of the International Brigade in Spain. His paternal grandfather was a Hungarian-speaking Transylvanian rabbi. His partnership and recent rivalry with Iliescu (the latter himself once a Ceausescu protegé but then in disgrace for his opposition to the dictator’s Chinese-style cultural revolution) have been central to recent Romanian politics.

Iliescu’s National Salvation Front seemed at that time to offer the best hope for law and order, full employment, a measure of prosperity in a cautiously reforming economy, and the domination of the country’s minorities by ethnic Romanians. Up to now, the Iliescu regime has been unable to deliver on the first three goals—not that any government could have done much better—but it has definitely kept its promise to promote Romanian nationalism.

Romania might become the first of the Soviet Union’s neighbors to profit territorially from the empire’s dissolution. In April 1991, in the first bilateral treaty concluded between Moscow and one of its former satellites, Romania recognized the integrity of Soviet Moldavia, implying that it renounced any ambition to annex the province. But the demise of the Soviet Union might well be interpreted as invalidating the treaty and Romania could then claim what is officially no longer the Soviet Republic of Moldavia but Moldova, a Romanian name. This province, which long went by the name of Bessarabia, was historically a part of the Romanian principality of Moldavia or Moldova, and most of its inhabitants speak Romanian.


Vlad Georgescu’s The Romanians is the only book among those under review that attempts to tell the Romanian story from the earliest of times. It is, in fact, the first overall history of the Romanian people by a single historian to appear in English since the 1934 study by the Scottish historian R.W. Seton-Watson. The jointly written histories in English that appeared under the auspices of the Communist regime, while often informative, were almost unreadable because of their nationalism, their sycophancy, and the deadly boredom of all works produced by a writers’ collective, especially those under the supervision of the police, the Party Central Committee, and Academician Dr. Elena Ceausescu.

Vlad Georgescu died in 1988 at the age of fifty-two, and never saw the English version of his book. While working in a Bucharest historical research institute he was arrested by Ceausescu’s police for writing an underground historical essay directed against the dictator. Thanks to the personal intervention of President Carter, he was then allowed to leave for the United States. Unable to find a teaching post in the US, Georgescu ended up as director of the Romanian service of Radio Free Europe in Munich. His untimely death from a brain tumor gave rise to the characteristic speculation that Ceausescu somehow had him killed by radiation.

The Romanians is not a simple narrative history. Its relatively brief accounts of historical events are accompanied by insightful analyses of demographic change and economic and cultural developments. Georgescu was a fine scholar, and by no means a nationalist, and his book is both enjoyable and informative. Yet even he maintains, on the basis of archaeological evidence, that there exists a demonstrable connection between modern Romanians and the ancient Dacians who lived in what is today Romania many centuries before the arrival, in the first century BC, of the Roman legions. Nor does he doubt that the Dacian prince Burebista presided over a great centralized empire at the time of Julius Caesar. By coincidence, the two great leaders were killed by rebellious nobles in the same year, 44 BC.

Most Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Russian historians do not share this optimistic view of the modern connection with the ancient Dacians but argue instead that the ancestors of today’s Romanians were relative latecomers to the region. Hungarian and Russian historians tend to deny the continuous presence of Romanized Dacians north of the Danube River while Bulgarian historians detect no such continuous presence south of the Danube—that is, in what is today Bulgaria.

Such historiographical controversies are, of course, hardly academic in a region where historical memory often determines policy. For nearly two centuries, Hungarians and Romanians have been debating the issue of Dacian-Romanian continuity in Transylvania and other eastern regions of the historic Hungarian kingdom. Not long ago, during a conference organized at Columbia University, Hungarian and Romanian émigrés nearly came to blows over the question whether a few Latin words contained in a Hungarian chronicle written around AD 1200 prove or disprove the presence of Romanians in Transylvania well before the belated arrival, in the ninth century AD, of the Hungarians.

Georgescu shows why the Romanian princes, keen on resisting pressure from Catholic Hungary, preferred Eastern to Western Christianity; how, again in part because of their running dispute with Hungary, the princes adopted the Byzantine model of absolute political rule, with all its imperial glitter and the near-identity of the religious and administrative structure; and how such a cunning prince as Mircea the Old, who ruled Wallachia between 1386 and 1418, made himself vassal, simultaneously, of the king of Poland, the king of Hungary, and the Sultan, all in order to avoid complete subjection to any of these powerful neighbors.

The historians supported by Ceausescu argued for a clear line of succession leading from heroic leaders such as Burebista, Basarab, Vlad the Devil (Dracul), Vlad the Impaler, Radu the Handsome, Stephen the Great, Michael the Brave (particularly Michael the Brave, because he, in 1600, achieved for a few months “the union of the three Romanian principalities, Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania”), all the way down to the nineteenth-century revolutionary Tudor Vladimirescu, and, finally, to Nicolae Ceausescu. By contrast, Georgescu’s Romanians move painfully from one great crisis to another. He discusses, among other things, the grossly unfair land-tenure system centering on the great estates in all the countries that, after 1918, would make up greater Romania; the desperate poverty of the Transylvanian and Moldavian peasants; and the growing discrepancy between the Westernized and increasingly prosperous urban middle classes and the backward rural population. While the cities were more than adequately provided with food both before and after World War I, and life in Bucharest could be both inexpensive and agreeable, the peasants in some regions suffered from pellagra and other illnesses caused by extreme poverty and malnutrition.

The Communist Party entered the Romanian scene in 1921, with a minuscule membership made up almost exclusively of non-Romanian, largely Jewish intellectuals who pursued, at first, a policy opposed to Greater Romania. Following the wishes of the Comintern as well as their own, these Jews (many of them Hungarian-speakers from Transylvania), along with non-Jewish Hungarians, Bulgarians, and Ukrainians, advocated the dismemberment of “bourgeois-boyar” Greater Romania. Small wonder that native Romanians, especially the young, avoided the underground Communist Party, if indeed they ever heard of it. They flocked instead into various right-wing movements.


With one exception, none of the books under review pays much attention to Corneliu Codreanu’s “Legion of the Archangel Michael,” also called the Iron Guard, except to detect signs of the Legion’s continued influence in Communist and post-Communist Romania. The Legion flourished in the interwar years, preaching Christian Orthodoxy, xenophobia, antiparliamentarism, anti-Semitism, a mystical attachment to nebulous historical glories, and above all, a worship of the peasantry. In pursuit of its sacred goals, the Legion practiced astonishing brutality. Between 1933 and 1940, its members murdered four active or former prime ministers and scores of other high functionaries. In one famous incident that took place in 1936, ten Legionaries entered the hospital bedroom of the traitor Mihail Stelescu, an Iron Guard leader who had gone over to some other anti-Semitic organization. According to an official account, the intruders fired 120 shots into him, then “chopped up the body with an axe, danced around the pieces of flesh, prayed, kissed each other and cried with joy.”5

The story of fascist Romania, dominated by the Iron Guard and the dictator Marshal Ion Antonescu, is well illustrated but not completely told in Jagendorf’s Foundry, which is in part an eyewitness account, in part a historical narrative of the Romanian massacre of Jews in World War II. In general, much more needs to be written on the years between 1938 and 1944, and for the first time it is perhaps possible to do so, now that the Bucharest government no longer pretends that the Romanian Holocaust never took place, or that Romania’s participation in World War II began with that country’s going to war, on August 23, 1944, against Nazi Germany.

Jagendorf’s Foundry is the memoirs of a Jewish engineer from Bukovina, Siegfried Jagendorf, who persuaded the Romanian gendarmes and military, in the midst of the worst massacres of Jews in 1941, to let him set up a foundry run by Jewish workers and engineers. Even if only half of what Jagendorf tells in his memoirs (written in the United States) is true, there can be no doubt that he brilliantly exploited the snobbishness, stupidity, greed, and—occasionally—the goodness of Romanian commanders, thus saving hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of lives.

The Romanian Holocaust began after the abdication, in September 1940, of King Carol II, and the proclamation of a National Legionary State under the joint command of the conservative nationalist Marshal Antonescu and Horia Sima, the head of the Iron Guard. In January 1941, the Iron Guard attempted, or was at least later accused of attempting, to seize complete control in Bucharest. During these events the Legionaries butchered hundreds of Jews. Antonescu had many members of the Iron Guard killed, but then proceeded on his own to fulfill the Iron Guard program of “purifying Romania” of Jews. In the Moldavian capital of Iasi alone between six thousand and ten thousand people were killed.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer, in his useful explanatory comments on Jagendorf’s memoirs, quotes from the eyewitness account, Kaputt, of the Italian war correspondent Curzio Malaparte:

Hordes of Jews pursued by soldiers and maddened civilians armed with knives and crowbars fled along the streets…. Squads of soldiers hurled hand grenades…into the cellars where many people had vainly sought safety…. Where the slaughter had been heaviest, the feet slipped in blood.

Jews who escaped the initial onslaught were packed into sealed trains that rolled through the countryside with no purpose other than to exterminate its human freight. Malaparte describes what happened when the trains stopped from time to time:

The soldiers climbed into the car and began throwing out the corpses one by one…. A crowd of peasants and gypsies who had gathered from all over were stripping the corpses….men and women dripping with perspiration, screaming and cursing, were doggedly trying to raise stubborn arms, bend stiff elbows and knees, in order to draw off the jackets, trousers and underclothing.

Curiously, Antonescu never succeeded in carrying out his extermination program in the principal Romanian provinces. After the initial killings, the Jews in Moldavia, Wallachia, and southern Transylvania were spared. This was not so in Bukovina, which also formed a part of post-1918 Romania but from which thousands were deported eastward into Bessarabia (until recently, Soviet Moldavia), following Romania’s entry into the war in the summer of 1941.

The Romanian authorities justified their actions by referring to the alleged Communist sentiments and pro-Soviet collaborationist attitudes of the Jews in territories occupied by the Red Army between 1940 and 1941. But the overwhelming majority of the Jews, generally pious and Orthodox in that region, did not and would not have collaborated with the godless Communists. Moreover, southern Bukovina and the northernmost part of Moldavia had never been occupied by the Soviet army, yet Jews were now being deported from those regions as well. These deportees, together with the 200,000 Romanian Jews native to Bessarabia, were then either killed or driven east into “Transnistria,” now a part of Ukraine but at that time freshly incorporated into Greater Romania.

Not even in Transnistria were the Jews given any rest. Joined by more than 200,000 Jews native to that province, the refugees were forced to move back and forth across the land, often ending up at the demarcation line between the German and Romanian occupation forces. The Germans were outraged at the sight of such disorder and pushed the deportees back into Romanian territory until, at last, most died of hunger and exposure. Others were finished off by Romanian and German soldiers. In Odessa alone 25,000 were killed on Antonescu’s orders.

While all this was going on, the Jewish engineer Jagendorf, who was himself deported to the Ukrainian city of Moghilev-Podolski, made an agreement with the Romanian gendarmerie to set up his foundry there. He established his family in a comfortable house, occupied an office shielded by secretaries and a padded door, wore kid gloves and polished boots, and smoked cigarettes in an eight-inch holder. Later, he was even allowed to drive a car. Maybe it was his German engineering diploma that impressed the Romanians, or maybe the fact that he had once served as an officer in the army of Francis Joseph. In any case, his scheme worked. While thousands wasted away in the camps around the city or in the streets of Moghilev-Podolski itself, Jagendorf’s employees were paid decent wages and had enough to eat. Among the most important commissions of his Jewish foundry was a monumental crucifix erected in memory of the fallen Romanian and German soldiers.

By the winter of 1943–1944 the leaders of the Antonescu regime were making plans to survive in the face of the coming Allied victory. The main beneficiaries of this tentative move toward the Allies were the Jewish survivors of the Romanian Holocaust. There was to be one more tragedy, however, this time in Hungarian-occupied northern Transylvania from which nearly all the Jews, perhaps 150,000 in all, were sent to Auschwitz in the early summer of 1944. Few of them survived the war. The Hungarian authorities not only lent Eichmann a helping hand in this operation, but actually initiated it, thereby demonstrating a self-destructive madness not displayed by the Romanians. No group in Transylvania, aside from the non-Jewish ethnic Hungarians themselves, had been more patriotically Hungarian and more proud to speak Hungarian under Romanian rule than the Jews of that province.

Romania’s post-1944 trials of Nazi collaborators were considerably milder than in other countries. Only a few were executed, and, interestingly, those tried for collaboration included a number of Jews. There was even an unsuccessful move to charge Jagendorf.


During World War II, as Georgescu shows, the underground Communist Party had perhaps one thousand members. By March 1945, its numbers had increased to 35,800 and by December 1947, to 804,000. This was only natural in view of the presence of the Red Army and the fact that, in March 1945, Stalin had forced the resignation of the non-Communist government and engineered the appointment of Petru Groza, a fellow-traveler, as prime minister. Thereafter, no one with ambition could fail to see where his interests lay. Moreover, Romania had even less of a chance to resist communism than some other Eastern European countries. Among other things, the Soviets had returned northern Transylvania to Romania only after the Groza government was installed; clearly, many Romanians felt, both personal and national interest dictated obedience to Soviet orders.

In Romania, the ancien régime disappeared almost without a trace. True, King Michael did his best to restore the family prestige so badly damaged by his father, Carol II.6 Once he even went on strike, refusing to sign laws dictated by the Party, but when he was ordered to leave the country, he went quietly. Much of the old social elite was imprisoned; others lived in great poverty. The pre-World War II political parties had been discredited; the few surviving old-regime politicians were either in prison or had sold out to the Communists, and the Western Allies had long given away Romania to Stalin. Finally, members of the ethnic minorities tended to fear the Communists less than their former Romanian rulers. In fact, the ethnic minorities continued to make up a large part of the Communist Party leadership.

The story of Communist Romania makes dreadful reading even when told by such an accomplished raconteur as Edward Behr, whose book is more serious than its unhappy title, ‘Kiss the Hand You Cannot Bite.’ Behr, a journalist and war correspondent, who is known, among other things, for his biography of Pu Yi, the “last emperor,” has some devastating things to say about the Romanian past, both as distorted by the Ceausescu historians and as it really happened. Unfortunately, Behr’s historical facts are sometimes wrong, and he tends to be a bit flippant as when he compares the tastes of the royal family to that of the Ceausescus’. Castle Peles, the summer residence of kings, with its mixture of pseudo-folkloric, neo-Gothic, neo-Renaissance, and neo-Byzantine style, was no more vulgar than, for instance, the castles and lodges built on the orders of Empress Elizabeth (Sisi) of Austria, the subject of many admiring biographies. On the other hand, the Ceausescus’ residences, especially the mammoth People’s Palace in Bucharest, are so grotesque that they hardly bear description. Behr is certainly right, however, when he attacks such Western opportunists as the late Robert Maxwell, who glorified the Ceausescus in his newspapers and whose Pergamon Press published an adulatory biography of the dictator.

Behr’s book starts with a description of the peasant youth of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu and the former’s fascinating rise to power. We learn of his personal courage when tried as a revolutionary in the royal courts; his unconditional subservience to Party leaders while with them in jail, and how, after World War II, he played up his peasant past against the suspect Communist intellectuals and became the perfect Party apparatchik. Both Behr and Georgescu divide Communist rule into two periods. During the first, lasting roughly until 1956, the Romanian CP was a tool of the Soviet Party. It played up the role of Slavs in Romanian history while underrating the Roman and Latin contributions; it slavicized Romanian orthography, and it adopted a national anthem that glorified Lenin and the Soviet Union.

The second period began with Romania’s unwillingness to engage in even a token de-Stalinization at the time of Khrushchev, and it continued with a campaign by the Party, under the leadership of Gheorghiu-Dej, to reassert such allegedly “Romanian values” as military valor, thirst for freedom, cultured behavior, and longing for social justice. Gheorghiu-Dej wanted to replace the theory of class struggle with that of historical struggle of all Romanians for national unification.

The purge of non-Romanians from the Party became all the more severe when Ceausescu became general secretary of the Party in 1965. His triumphant visits to China and particularly North Korea helped to shape Romania’s peculiar version of Stalinism in the 1970s. The two Ceausescus then put into effect their own version of China’s Cultural Revolution, destroying the intellectuals, less physically than morally (there were surprisingly few political prisoners under Ceausescu), and they fatally reinforced the xenophobic, isolationist, anti-intellectual, and anti-technocratic tendencies within Romanian communism. As Georgescu points out, under Ceausescu the country was led by one of the smallest nomenklaturas in Romanian history. It was also the most provincial and the least educated.

This last observation of Georgescu sums up the entire Romanian Communist story. As the mostly non-Romanian intellectuals were being eliminated from the Party, the sons of Romanian peasants took over. Ceausescu may have economically ruined the country, including its agriculture, and caused it to fall behind the rest of Eastern Europe, but he achieved something for which many Romanians, especially the peasants, were grateful. He greatly hastened and nearly completed a process that had undoubtedly begun earlier, namely the elimination of the hold of the traditional Romanian social elite on political power and the influence of German, Hungarian, and Jewish minorities on Romania’s economy, cities, and culture. The peasants flooding into the Party offices, the factories, and the monstrous urban housing developments were conquering a country.

The example of Sibiu (in German, Hermannstadt; in Hungarian, Nagyszeben) in Transylvania should serve to illustrate this remarkable ethnic and class transformation. An ancient Saxon-German city, Hermannstadt was 98 percent German and 2 percent Romanian, with practically no Hungarians in 1720, when Transylvania was governed directly from Vienna. In 1867, the province was reunited with Hungary, and by 1910 the German population of the city had declined to 56 percent, while the proportion of Romanians had increased to 21 percent, and that of Hungarians to 19 percent. In 1918, Transylvania was annexed by Romania; by 1956, the proportion of Romanians in Sibiu had increased to 65 percent, whereas Germans had declined to 31 percent, and Hungarians to 4 percent. Today, the city is almost exclusively Romanian, with its immigrant population consisting mainly of poor rural folk recruited in Moldavia and Wallachia.


Katherine Verdery’s National Ideology Under Socialism analyzes the intellectual origins of the revolution. Verdery, an American anthropologist, lived for years in a Transylvanian village, about which she wrote a superb study,7 and she speaks Romanian nearly like a native. Her new book argues that nationalism was not—as elsewhere—merely a political tool in the hands of Party leaders, but, by becoming the main concern of the Party and the intellectuals, was a major element in discrediting Marxism and destroying the Party’s legitimacy. In an attempt to gain a monopoly over the definition of national ideology—whatever that meant—academicians, historians, philosophers, and literary critics battled for a greater share of official patronage, and prostrated themselves before the terrible Elena Ceausescu.

Like Behr and others, Verdery describes the shift from the “internationalist” phase of the Romanian Party, when even the name of the country was changed from România with its latinate “â” to Romînia, with its Russian-derived “î,” to the Party’s refusal in 1964 to subordinate national needs to the dictates of Moscow. But while such an open refusal sounded laudable and was duly appreciated in the West, it led directly to the astonishing excesses of the later Ceausescu regime. Among other things, the Party completely reorganized cultural life, ordering the intellectuals to develop the “correct national ideology.” The practical interpretation of the phrase is hard to understand, even from Verdery’s highly learned work. There is no doubt, however, that it basically referred to theories proving the superiority of Romanians over both Slavs and Hungarians.

Verdery sees the revolution of 1989 as originating from the protest of older Party leaders against Ceausescu’s attempt to detach Romania from the West, to which these old Bolsheviks were still emotionally attached. As Silviu Brucan and other former Stalinist ideologues explained in their March 1989 letter of protest to Ceausescu: “Romania is and remains a European country…. You have begun to change the geography of the rural areas, but you cannot move Romania into Africa.”

The revolution of 1989 itself, writes Verdery, expressed a popular yearning for the country’s return, at last, to Europe. But, as she warns, other Romanians hold contrary views, arguing instead that “the road to our values does not pass through the West.” How many feel that way remains an open question. The Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, for instance, observes in his foreword to Behr’s book that in December 1989 the people abolished the dictatorship not so that they could turn to the building of democracy, but so that they could open up the borders, pack up, and leave for the West. This, too, seems to be true, but then Kapuscinski and Behr’s popular masses are not identical with Verdery’s political leaders and nationalist intellectuals.


Romania’s revolution began in Timisoara, a city in what was once southeast Hungary and is now the far-western part of Romania. As with so many other cities in the region, this one, too, once served as a home to hard-working German burghers and the Habsburg military; often it was referred to as “Vienna in the East.” This city underwent the usual ethnic transformation from being predominantly German to more Hungarian and now predominantly Romanian. However, it is still a multi-ethnic place, proud of its Western outlook. Thus a miracle could happen whereby, in mid-December 1989, some citizens of Timisoara (Hungarians, Romanians, and Germans alike), rallied to protect a Hungarian Reformed minister, László Tokés, from being evicted from his house by the police. The police acted upon the request of Tokés’s superior, a bishop, who had dismissed him from his post.

One had to meet this bishop, as I once did, to realize how far the Communist police could go in infiltrating, indeed creating, ecclesiastical hierarchies, whether they were Eastern Christian, Protestant, or Jewish. Ceausescu could not have wished for a more devoted servant than this Hungarian Reformed bishop. László Tokés, however, was a brave man; he had put up with continual harassment in the past, and now he refused to budge. Hundreds of local people came to protect him, leading to a mass demonstration, and in turn to a military attack on the demonstrators. Some were killed, but far fewer than was widely believed at that time. Thereafter, the demonstrations spread to other cities.

The unworthy bishop is out of a job, and László Tokés is the new bishop. In The Fall of Tyrants Tokés is at his best when describing his youth and education in a pious and dour Protestant family struggling to survive in the alien and hostile milieu of Communist Transylvania. The book’s greatest weakness is that it was written with a professional writer: the pastor’s own words, no matter how clumsy, would have sounded more authentic. Some nagging questions also remain. How was it that the authorities did not notice the growing movement to prevent the eviction of Pastor Tokés and his family? Previously, a few intimidating telephone calls would have stopped the efforts to protect them; or he would have been attacked by plain-clothesmen disguised as outraged Romanian patriots. Could it be that the eviction of Pastor Tokés was deliberately bungled so as to start a long chain of political events?


Andrei Codrescu is a Romanian émigré and American journalist, novelist, and poet of growing reputation. The Hole in the Flag tells of his return to Romania immediately after the December revolution on an assignment from National Public Radio. His account, which includes some remarks on Romanian history (with a few errors) and frequent flashbacks to a youth spent in Transylvania in the 1950s and 1960s, is engaging, sad, and amusing. But Codrescu, who had taken back to Romania his experiences as a half-Romanian, half-Hungarian-Jewish youth in Transylvania and his sophistication and cynicism as a veteran Western radio reporter, is unable to untangle the mysterious events. He arrived in a country apparently full of revolutionary enthusiasm, yet, as he quickly discovered, no one was able or willing to tell him what had really happened. Almost everybody had some conspiratorial theory and almost everybody was telling lies: the staff of the Bucharest Hotel Intercontinental, the politicians he interviewed, even his former classmates who were now solidly lined up behind Iliescu’s National Salvation Front.

“Did you fire on the students?” Codrescu asked a smartly dressed Securitate major standing guard on New Year’s Eve in battle-torn Bucharest. “No,” the major said, “none of us did. We are on the side of the people.” “Well, just who did?” Codrescu asked him. “The terrorists,” the major said.

Codrescu, like many others, believes he can detect the shadow of the Soviet KGB in the planning and execution of the Romanian revolution. Possibly so, but there is no proof of this. Whoever was responsible for the uprising against Ceausescu, it seems to me that most of the bloodshed was unplanned and unnecessary. A young Romanian librarian described to me how, on December 21, 1989, the last famous compulsory pro-Ceausescu demonstration on Bucharest’s Palace Square turned into a counter-demonstration. At first there were only the ritual chants of “Ceausescu and the People,” but then suddenly, next to her, an inconspicuous-looking little man began to yell, “Ceausescu the Dictator!” There was immediate pandemonium. People shrieked with fear and struggled away from the man, creating a large empty circle. Yet he went on undisturbed, and when it became clear that the police were not budging, others, too, took up the chant, at first hesitatingly and then ever louder. Ceausescu turned on his heels and was never again seen in public. Maybe the man had been planted there by the plotters and maybe the police, too, were in on the plot. What counts, however, was that those who accepted the risk of joining in the chorus were making their own personal revolution.

On December 22, Iliescu and his friends walked into the TV studio and announced that they were now the government. The army was allegedly always with the people; most if not all of the Securitate forces had gone over to the revolution, unless the Securitate itself was the “revolution” and had been leading the people by the nose throughout those December days. Who and where were the terrorists the Romanian major was talking about? No one has ever seen Ceausescu’s dreaded “killer commandos,” or the Libyan and other Arab sharpshooters he was said to employ. Instead, poorly trained soldiers and terrified policemen were firing in every direction. The more they fired, the more others returned the fire at an unseen enemy, until at least one thousand people were killed. Finally, the combatants were exhausted, and the revolution was declared successful.


Nestor Ratesh’s Romania: The Entangled Revolution is perhaps the best brief account of contemporary Romanian events. A relatively recent Romanian émigré, and, for a time—like Vlad Georgescu, to whose memory he has dedicated the book—the head of Radio Free Europe’s Romania Broadcasting Department, Ratesh is now RFE’s senior correspondent in Washington, DC.8

In a short introductory chapter, Ratesh deals briefly with the Ceausescu years, characterized by such subtitles as “From Food Basket to Basket Case,” and “The Ethiopia of Europe.” He then plunges into the Timisoara events, which he sees as decisive. Although there were “only” ninety-seven dead, not the tens of thousands reported in the Western press, power in Timisoara passed into the hands of the people within a few days. Ceausescu’s ruthless order to “shoot to kill” turned at least some of the army commanders against him, and when—defying all reason—he kept to his prearranged schedule and left for a state visit to Iran, the Party leadership fell apart in his absence.

On December 20, the dictator returned from Teheran; on the 21st he convoked the famous mass meeting on Palace Square in Bucharest, whose miraculous developments Ratesh’s informants describe somewhat differently from the young librarian I have mentioned, although the essence of it—the sudden shift of the crowd’s mood from celebration to furious hostility and the toleration of that shift by the Securitate—remains the same. On the next day, the Ceausescus fled.

There had been periodic protests against Ceausescu’s misrule before: in 1977 among the miners in the Jiu Valley, and in 1987, in Brasov, an important industrial center in Transylvania. There had also been some cautious moves against Ceausescu within the Party, as I have earlier mentioned. But in the crucial days of the uprising, both Party and Securitate turned against the Ceausescus in an atmosphere of deep confusion and intrigue, with much talk—which Ratesh finds unfounded—of “Soviet involvement.” He is convinced that the December revolution was spontaneous; that it was fundamentally anti-Communist, and that the people triumphed, if only momentarily. They were, however, cheated out of victory by the anti-Ceausescu Communist conspirators.

As Ratesh points out, no one was tried in Iliescu’s Romania for the atrocious crimes committed before the revolution. The Ceausescus and a few others were absurdly charged and convicted of “genocide” committed during the December revolution. However, in early December a Romanian court convicted and sentenced to long prison terms eight officials and members of the secret police for the Timisoara massacres; and in this case the original charge of genocide was dropped in favor of the lesser charges of murder and complicity in murder.

Like the other authors under review, Ratesh comments on the pervasive presence of the Securitate in today’s Romania, even in alleged attempts on the lives of some Iliescu opponents abroad. Maybe so, but again there is no proof. Whatever the real situation, for much of the public the “Securitate” is replacing the “Party” as the cause of all that is incomprehensible in the land, and, admittedly, much is incomprehensible there.


Most of the writers under review try to give some sense of Romania after the revolution. Matei Calinescu and Vladimir Tismoneanu in their epilogue to Georgescu’s The Romanians, for instance, do not hide their disapointment that, during the revolutionary events, power was seized by Ion Iliescu, an old-time Communist who, when talking to student leaders after the revolution, described political pluralism as “an obsolete ideology of the nineteenth century.” Calinescu and Tismoneanu observe that anti-Semitism has become worse since the revolution. They offer as a consolation the fact that the demands for genuine democracy are heard from the Romanian university students. When one considers that, in the 1930s, students formed the vanguard of fascism in Romania, this is indeed a large consolation.

In June 1990 coal miners came to Bucharest from the Jiu Valley to defend the Iliescu regime. Shouting “Death to the Intellectuals!” they beat up hundreds of anti-Communist demonstrators, among them Marian Munteanu, the hero of the anti-Communist students. Last September the miners returned, wielding the usual iron bars—this time, however, not to defend but to attack the Iliescu regime. They were welcomed on University Square by the same Marian Munteanu, whom a year earlier they had nearly beaten to death. On both occasions, the miners were led by the same man, Miron Cosma. On the second occasion, however, Munteanu wore a miner’s helmet and called Cosma his “brother.”

Although last September the miners shouted anti-Iliescu slogans, some observers maintain that this latest invasion, too, was organized by Iliescu, who wished to rid himself of Prime Minister Roman. They believe that Iliescu had no use for Roman’s economic program, which included some experiments with a free market. Others maintain that it was Roman who organized the Securitate-supported invasion to rid himself of Iliescu. If so, Roman’s plan must have failed, for Iliescu is still president, whereas Roman has resigned. But then, some say, Roman has made only a tactical retreat. He remains the head of the National Salvation Front but, in December, fifty-six senators denounced Roman and his closest allies, accusing them, among other things, of attempting to take over the party.

Romania today is a bewildering place. Anyone who enters the country through Otopeni airport near Bucharest will be subjected to the same lengthy scrutiny by the same stony-faced guards as under the dictator. The airport building is crumbling, as is nearly everything else in the city and the country. Most of old Bucharest was systematically demolished by the Ceausescus and the horrible apartment buildings and palaces they erected in their stead will remain unfinished for a long, long time. In my five-star hotel, the rack fell out of the wall when I reached for the towel, and there were still no plugs in the sink and the bathtub. There are signs of grinding poverty everywhere.

At a conference I attended on the Romanian ethnic minorities, academicians who were appointed by Ceausescu presided, and other historians from the Ceausescu era gave the major papers. All condemned Ceausescu, but when Katherine Verdery and Gail Kligman, an anthropologist at Berkeley, criticized the Romanian authorities’ mistreatment of the Gypsies, there was an uproar with barely toned-down versions of the old slogan: “Romania for the Romanians.” 9 A significant part of the Romanian press is anti-Semitic and fiercely anti-Hungarian. In April 1991 the chamber of deputies rose in a minute of silence to honor the memory of Marshal Ion Antonescu. Because television and radio are controlled by the government, they rarely if ever report on human rights violations, of which there have always been plenty. They include, to mention only a few, the pseudo-trials of the Ceausescus during the revolution; the prosecution of seven Gypsies selected as scapegoats after the clash between Hungarians and Romanians at Tîrgu Mures in March 1990; the mistreatment of people arrested after the demonstrations in Bucharest; and the more recent violent attacks, apparently tolerated by the police, on Gypsy communities. Some Romanian officials talk like the Ceausescu bureaucrats they are, except that their voices are now often more strident. Most disquieting at the conference was the rude intolerance and xenophobia of some younger scholars. Since the Revolution, issued by Helsinki Watch, sums up the central problem:

Repression in Romania was so severe under Ceausescu that a civil society had no opportunity to develop. There was no human rights movement, no samizdat press. No groundwork had been laid for the development of democratic institutions. Thus, despite some progress, Romania is still experiencing significant human rights abuses.

There is, however, another side to the coin. Because the Iliescu regime is not really in control, one can also point to evidence that contradicts much of what I have said. At the conference on national minorities, some Romanian scholars spoke freely and critically. The second largest party in parliament is that of the Hungarian minority. The several national and local elections as well as the popular referendums scheduled for 1992 are less likely to suffer from government interference than from the apathy so typical of voters throughout East Central Europe today. The rivalry between the Iliescu and Roman factions within the National Salvation Front might improve the prospects for pluralism. If the ruling party splits, which now seems most likely, this would strengthen the position of the somewhat more democratic Liberals and Peasants, who are now in the opposition. Having started from such a low point in December 1989, Romania may well be moving toward more freedom, whereas in some other East European countries the initial high expectations and the “velvet” smoothness of the original transition have been followed by disenchantments which may endanger the new democratic institutions.

Romanian citizens are now free to travel whenever and wherever they wish, provided that they can get hold of hard currency. Abortion has been made legal, but there is still a shortage of contraceptive devices. College students and many intellectuals seem to be very free in spirit, and the walls of Bucharest University are covered with antigovernment slogans. The press is uncensored and at least one Bucharest daily is excellent. Book publishers and the film industry are also uncensored, but because of the lack of money they now print fewer books and make fewer films than under Ceausescu. The ethnic minorities are also free to publish, but because they, too, lack money, far less appears in Hungarian or German today than in the oppressive but still heavily subsidized Ceausescu era.

The Romanians are an old people, but their independence is of recent vintage. To make up for that lateness, Romanian politicians and intellectuals have created a series of national myths: of Romania having always been the last bastion of Christianity against the infidel; of Romanian bravery and virtues having been ignored by an ungrateful West; of Romania being the subject of much slander; and of the Romanians being alone in the world. One only has to listen to Croatian or Serbian politicians today to realize that such emotions are not unique. Nor have they ever been unique in East Central Europe where all peoples tend to feel unrecognized, unrewarded, and unloved. Yet it does little good to remind the Romanians that their grievances are shared by others. As a former Hungarian, I would like to add that the grumblings of the East Central Europeans about a callous, uncaring, and ungrateful West are, in fact, not wholly unwarranted.

This Issue

March 5, 1992