Behind the Iron Curtain – Chapter I (third and last part)

Before I continue posting the last part of the first chapter of George Manu’s manuscript, I would like to say that my thoughts go these days to all those who were killed or injured 22 years ago in Tiananmen Square.

3. Rumania’s foreign policy during the second World War.

Thus, at the outbreak of the second World War, Rumania was not only isolated but also suspected by her powerful neighbours. The attachment to Great Britain and France, who had guaranteed the Rumanian frontiers, was not close enough to be really efficient, as was for instance the Anglo – Turkish alliance, but was obviously enough to wake Germany’s suspicion. On the other hand, Germany and Russia had just concluded the Moscow agreement, thereby overthrowing any Continental balance of power, forbidding Rumania any political manoeuvre and putting her at their entire discretion.

The brutal ultimatum of June 27th 1940 by which Russia demanded the surrender within four days of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina (the latter had never belonged to Russia) was the test for the weakness of Rumania’s international position. The ultimatum had to be unconditionally accepted. King Carol and Prime – Minister Tatarescu gave up two old Rumanian provinces with 19,500 sq. miles and 3.800.000 inhabitants of whom 2,100,000 genuine Rumanians. The British and French guarantee proved to be inefficacious. Great Britain was rallying after the ordeal of Dunkirk, France had just collapsed and surrendered. On the other hand, Germany did not only agree with the Russian aggression but also advised Rumania in a threatening way to surrender more territories to her neighbours Hungary and Bulgaria.

The confusion and panic in Rumania were indescribable. During the months of July and August 1940, the King, the government and the people desperately looked for a solution. Russia became more and more threatening, attempting to lead to a conflict concerning the islands in the Danube Delta and revealing herself capable of a new aggression at any moment. Germany was not less menacing and with apparent Russian support[1] imposed the “Vienna Diktat” by which the northern half of Transylvania was surrendered to Hungary. Great Britain had ceased to exist on the Continent[2].

Trapped between Russia and Germany, Rumania had no other choice left but the anarchic tyranny of the East, or the organized tyranny of the West. The first was likely to suppress the very existence of Rumania exactly as few months before it had suppressed the Baltic States, and annihilate the Rumanian nation by deportation all over the boundless steppes of Asia. The second was building up a “New Europe” which was likely to deprive Rumania of some of her political and economic liberty but not likely to imperil the very existence of the nation. Rumania could do nothing but prefer the second solution. On the 6-th of September 1940, King Carol was deposed. Few days later, the Iron Guard which had gained much sympathy by its strong opposition to the King’s dictatorship and was supposed to obtain the most favourable conditions from Germany took over the power. The leader of the new regime was nevertheless a man who had the confidence of the military and financial circles, namely General Antonescu.

The role of the Iron Guard was considered over as soon as the alliance with Germany against the threatening Russian danger was concluded and thus the very existence of Rumania was temporarily assured. Besides, the nationalism of the Iron Guard, which strongly opposed the German plans of economic penetration, had soon begun to be displeasing to Germany. Consequently, by a military coup d’état accomplished in January 1941 with the open aid of the German military mission, General Antonescu defeated and outlawed the Iron Guard.

Thus, the personal dictatorship of General Antonescu started in January 1941. It was merely based upon the Army and some financial and economic circles. All the political forces of the country were against it.

In April 1941, Germany attacked Yugoslavia, defeated her within two weeks and dismembered her. Rumania was then offered a Serbian part of the Banat, in which 80,000 Rumanians were living. General Antonescu refused to partake of the dismemberment of Yugoslavia just as King Carol and his foreign minister Gafenco had refused in 1939 to partake of the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. Still more, General Antonescu opposed the Hungarian demands and assured in this manner the maintaining of Serbian sovereignty over the Banat. Thus, Rumania proved that even dictatorial regimes were unable to drive her towards imperialistic adventures.

In June 1941, Germany started her war against Russia. All the Rumanians were certainly eager to rescue Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina seized arbitrarily by Russians a year before. The necessity seemed the more imperative as the Russians had not waited long before settling there a regime of terror, deporting to inner Russia the native Rumanians at the first gesture of opposition[3]. From an unprejudiced point of view, the Rumanian anxiety might be easily understood. Small countries cannot afford to choose the means of asserting their rights against Great Powers. They have merely to seize the opportunity which arises once in a time. Consequently every Rumanian who at that time would have opposed the recovery of Bessarabia and of Bukovina, and thus the rescue of the Rumanians from there, would have been considered traitor to the country. The Antonescu regime, starting the war against Russia on the 22-nd of June 1941, had thus the full agreement of the entire Rumanian nation and succeeded in this way to secure certain but temporary popularity. Nobody in Rumania considered the war against Russia as an aggression or an imperialistic adventure. Everybody considered it as a delayed answer to the Russian aggression of June 27-th 1941[4]. Perhaps not even all the 2,500 genuine Communists who could be numbered in Rumania at that time opposed the campaign against Russia, and not even the whole Jewish minority, in spite of their natural anti – German feelings and their traditional inclination for the Soviet regime. It was only natural that experienced politicians had to think of Britain as being at war with Germany and as becoming over night allied to Russia. Public opinion, however, was not very much aware of the fact because England was far away, had been absent from the European theatre for a year, and because the real danger for the freedom of Rumania was not Germany but Russia.

The Antonescu regime had nevertheless declared war on Russia with a condemnable thoughtlessness. No treaty and no agreement established either the aims of the war or the mutual obligations of Germany and Rumania, nor was Rumania’s role strictly limited to carry on the war against Russia alone. No solution was given to the question of Transylvania, which was just as dear to any Rumanian as that of Bessarabia. The contrary affirmations in this matter of the recently appointed Marshal Antonescu and of his Vice Premier Mihai Antonescu were not confirmed by the facts. The mutual obligations and relations between Rumania and Germany were established between Hitler and Marshal Antonescu during secret meetings at Hitler’s head-quarters, and the decisions remained unknown to the Rumanian ministers themselves until the moment when they were to be enforced.

Still more, Marshal Antonescu’s ambitious monomania induced him to have Rumanian troops sent beyond the Dniester where in fact Rumanian interests ceased to exist, have them take part in the sieges of Odessa and Sebastopol and at last have them adventured as far as the Volga and lost in the disaster of Stalingrad. Thus, his scant popularity at the beginning of the war vanished and very soon he became odious.

Finally, pursuing his series of mistakes, Marshal Antonescu declared war on the United States after Pearl Harbour, while the United States had waited till their patience was worn out. Great Britain in her turn declared war on Rumania at the same time.

As early as the end of 1941 and ever since then, King Michael as well as the leaders of the historical parties had repeatedly drawn the Marshal’s attention to the fatal consequences of his adventurer’s policy. Their attempts had failed one after another. Then M. Iuliu Maniu, the leader of the National – Peasant Party, took with the approval of King Michael the first steps for the withdrawal of Rumania from the war. The Liberal Party under M. Ion Bratianu immediately joined this action. The extreme left wing parties, i.e. the Social – Democrats and the Communists, joined later. Prince Stirbey and M. Visoianu were sent with secret messages to Cairo in March and May 1944 and got in touch with the representatives of the Allies, who acquainted them with the conditions of a possible armistice – and made it clear to them that Rumania would have to surrender to Soviet Russia. After having secured the cooperation of the Army, the coup d’état was carried out on August 23, 1944, and was a full success owing to the effect of surprise. In this way Rumania had ceased to be allied to Germany and became allied to the United Nations but at the same time had to submit to a new Russian occupation, the eleventh in 250 years.

The military consequences of the reversal of Rumania’s alliances had a decisive influence upon the operations of war in South-Eastern Europe. Within less than two months the Russians troops ruled over Bulgaria and the greatest part of Hungary, obliging these two countries to surrender. English troops landed in Greece and “Marshal” Tito, after having made a junction with the Russian troops on the Danube, succeeded in turning out the German troops and became chief of a recognized government.

After a last and hopeless resistance in Budapest and the Slovakian mountains, the German troops were finally obliged to withdraw beside the borders of the Reich before the end of 1944. The solution of all these events demonstrated in a strictly experimental way, clearer than any argument, that a Great Power master over Rumanian territory is ipso facto master over the whole of South-Eastern Europe, from Trieste, Vienna and Prague to the Bosphorus and Ukraine, from Crete to Silesia and Galicia.

[1] The Rumanian delegates had been called to Vienna and asked to sign the award on August 30th 1940. The same day, Molotov, Foreign Comissar of the Soviet Union, handed to the Rumanian Minister in Moscow, Gafenco a menacing note about supposed frontier incidents. A simple coincidence seems improbable. (See: Grégoire Gafenco, “Préliminaires de la guerre à l’Est”, Fribourg, Egloff, 1944).

[2] In Western Europe, the Rumanian government was often blamed for having renounced the guarantee of Great Britain. The guarantee of Britain did not reveal itself in any way whatever, not even by a platonic statement, at the moment Bessarabia was brutally annexed by Russia. There is no hostility in renouncing a guarantee that cannot assert itself at the hour of need, the fact is that England was unable to fulfill her promise.

[3] During their campaign in Russia, Rumanian troops found as far as the Caucasus thousands of Rumanians from Bessarabia and Bukovina deported there by the Russians.

[4] Finland was in a similar situation and had to rescue the province of Viipuri, annexed by Russia after an aggression war during the winter of 1939 – 1940. It should be remembered that, in this very question, the League of Nations had excluded Russia as being an aggressor and that the exclusion had been demanded by Great Britain.

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