Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Romania, Role in War

Title: Ion Antonescu and Wilhelm Keitel
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Romania played an important role in World War II. A major producer of both oil and grain, it had the third-largest military establishment of the European Axis powers, and after it switched sides in August 1944, it became the fourth-largest Allied military presence. Romania entered the war for nationalistic reasons—to maintain its independence and reclaim territories lost in 1940.

Following the Balkan Wars and World War I, Romania (also spelled Rumania and, archaically, Roumania) secured territories from Hungary and Russia that united most Romanian peoples into a single country for the first time in centuries, a source of great national pride. In the acquisition of Transylvania from Hungary, it also secured a restive Hungarian population. Hungary was bent on the return of that territory. The Soviet Union also sought the return of Bessarabia. To shore up his southern flank, Adolf Hitler put heavy pressure on Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria to join the Axis powers. On 29 May 1940, the Romanian government announced its acceptance of Hitler's plan for "a new European order." Bereft of French and British support, it had no alternative. Under the terms of the German-Soviet Non-aggression Pact of 23 August 1939, the Soviet Union had been awarded Bessarabia. In the wake of the defeat of France, Soviet leader Josef Stalin cashed in his remaining chips. Both Germany and Italy pressured Romania to accede to the Soviet demands of 28 June 1940 to give the Soviet Union Bessarabia and also northern Bukovina, which had not been Soviet territory before.

Hungary also secured German and Italian support for the return of territory lost to Romania following World War I. Under terms of the Second Vienna Award of 30 August 1940, dictated by Germany and Italy to stabilize the political situation between Romania and Hungary, Romania ceded to Hungary north-central Transylvania and other Romanian territory north of Oradea. Also under German pressure, Romania ceded to Bulgaria the southern Dobruja in the 7 September 1940 Treaty of Craiova, thereby restoring the pre–World War I boundary between those two states. Almost overnight, Romania had lost half of its territory and population, greatly reducing its ability to defend itself.

Romania's King Carol II never had popular support. Married to a Greek princess, he flaunted his longtime love affair with his mistress, Elena "Magda" Lupescu. His government was further destabilized by frequent cabinet turnovers and widespread corruption. National outrage over the loss of Romanian territories to the Soviet Union, Hungary, and Bulgaria allowed the pro-Fascist, anti-Semitic Iron Guard to force Carol's abdication on 6 September 1940. He fled Bucharest with his mistress and nine train cars loaded with royal booty.

Carol's 19-year old son, Michael (Mihai), replaced him but was an impotent figurehead. Real power rested in the recently appointed prime minister and World War I military hero General Ion Antonescu, who proclaimed himself conductãtor (leader). Intensely nationalistic, Antonescu managed to maintain significant independence within the Nazi sphere. In October 1940, the first of 500,000 German "advisers" arrived in Romania, ostensibly to protect Ploesti (Ploiesti), the site of Europe's second-largest oil fields. Romania proved an important source of natural (nonsynthetic) oil for Germany; it also supplied virtually all of Fascist Italy's oil during the war.

On 23 November, Romania officially joined the Axis powers. Antonescu declined to participate in the subjugation of Yugoslavia in April 1941, but he readily assisted with the invasion of the Soviet Union in order to reclaim Romania's lost territories to the east. When the invasion began on 22 June 1941, he called for a "holy war" against Bolshevism. On 2–3 July, Army Group Antonescu, composed of Romanian and German troops, crossed the Prut River. By midmonth, Romania again owned Bessarabia and northern Bukovina. Most Romanians, including frontline troops, believed their war was over.

It was not to be. Antonescu agreed to send Romanian troops to capture the Soviet Black Sea port of Odessa. In return, Hitler granted Romania all the territory between Bessarabia and the Black Sea, including Odessa, the "Russian Marseille." After taking Odessa at horrendous cost, increasingly demoralized Romanian soldiers fought in the Crimea, the Caucasus, and the southern USSR; their country furnished more troops to the war against the Soviet Union than all other German satellites combined. Antonescu vainly hoped this effort would be rewarded with the return of Transylvania, since Hungary provided far less support for Hitler's war. On 12 June 1942, American bombers based in North Africa struck Ploesti. Over the next two years, no single raid did exceptional damage, but the cumulative effect significantly diminished the flow of oil to Germany.

The wartime anti-Semitic government sanctioned the killing of Jews. More than 40,000 Soviet Jews reportedly were killed near Odessa alone, yet about half of Romania's Jews survived the war. Antonescu protected many to utilize their experience in industrial and economic management. Additionally, a long-standing tradition of corruption among Romanian officials made buying fake identity papers and passports relatively simple.

Throughout 1942, Antonescu was under considerable pressure from other Romanian political leaders to withdraw the nation's troops from the Soviet Union, but he refused to do so. He pointed out that the army was more than 900 miles deep inside Soviet territory and that the Germans controlled the lines of communication and would surely wreak vengeance on Romania and occupy the country. As the military situation deteriorated in 1943 following the Soviet victory in the Battle of Stalingrad, Antonescu authorized peace feelers, but these foundered on the Anglo-American insistence on unconditional surrender. On 23 August 1944, with Soviet forces having crossed the eastern border, young King Michael ordered the arrest of Antonescu and announced that Romania was withdrawing from the Axis alliance. Even Romanians were caught by surprise. Antonescu was later tried by the Soviets and was executed in June 1945.

Romania turned on its former allies in hopes of securing cobelligerent status, as Italy had been accorded, and maintaining its independence after the war. But such hopes proved illusory. On 9 October 1944, British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin agreed that the USSR would have 90 percent "predominance" in postwar Romania.

In February 1945, surrounded by Soviet tanks, King Michael had little choice but to create an essentially Communist government. That government forced him to abdicate in December 1947, although Stalin and U.S. President Harry S Truman both decorated him for personal courage in overthrowing Antonescu. Trapped between major powers, Romania had tried to hold on to its land, people, and independence by allying itself first with one side and then with the other. Instead, it became a Communist puppet state. Of all its lost territories, only Transylvania was returned to Romania after the war.

Gerald D. Swick


Further Reading
Axworthy, Mark. Third Axis, Fourth Ally: Romanian Armed Forces in the European War, 1841–1945. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1995.; Butler, Rupert. Hitler's Jackals. Barnsley, UK: Leo Cooper, 1998.; Ceausescu, Ilie, Florin Constantiniu, and Mihail E. Ionescu. A Turning Point in World War II: 23 August 1944 in Romania. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.; Goralski, Robert, and Russell W. Freeburg. Oil & War: How the Deadly Struggle for Fuel in WWII Meant Victory or Defeat. New York: William Morrow, 1987.; Hazard, Elizabeth W. Cold War Crucible: United States Foreign Policy and the Conflict in Romania, 1943–1953. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.; Ioanid, Radu. Holocaust in Romania: The Destruction of Jews and Gypsies under the Antonescu Regime, 1940–1944. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000.; Tarnstrom, Ronald. L. Balkan Battles. Lindsborg, KS: Trogen Books, 1998.
 

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