Sunday, February 14, 2016


Last Sunday was a glorious winter day in Northern California and the Tule Elk grazed peacefully on the Tomales peninsula, soaking up the warmth of the sun undisturbed by wind or fog.  With enough refraction we could have seen to Japan, looking west, or to New York, looking east.
Bobbi Nikles, Tomales Bay, and Tule Elk

As we walked with our friends and tour guides Dinah and Noah I heard Noah's immigration story. Like me, he arrived in North America as a 12 year old. I landed in Prince George, British Columbia from Switzerland, he (or rather his family) arrived in Los Angeles from Romania, via Ecuador and Peru.

His parents were born in Romania into Jewish families from Bucharest. There his father completed his medical studies to become a doctor shortly before the outbreak of World War II.  "How did they make it through the war?" I asked. I was thinking of the "Eastern Front" and the fact that of the 70 million killed in World War II, 30 million died on the Eastern Front. Well, it turns out that except for heavy bombing late in the war, Bucharest was not in the main killing zone. Significantly Romania refused to turn over its Jews living in the center to the Nazi program of extermination, even as it committed horrible pogroms of Jews and Roma along its periphery, in the city of Iasi, and the northeastern regions of Moldova and Bessarabia.

Romania at War: Swinging in the Wind with the Strong

Since the late 19th century "Romania had been a relatively democratic constitutional monarchy with a pro-Western outlook." Wiki. The country fought with France and Britain in World War I and was rewarded with added territory ("Greater Romania").  During the interwar period, Romania was an important exporter of raw materials: grains, corn, oil and timber. Its oil exports to Europe were second only to the USSR. Overall, Romania was the sixth largest exporter of oil in the world. Germany and Britain invested heavily during the interwar period in the build-up of the Romanian oil industry. By 1938 Germany was Romania's most important trading partner.

Nevertheless, on the eve of World War II, Britain and France were the official guarantors of Romania's territorial integrity. Hence at the outbreak of war in 1939 Romania's King Carol II adopted a neutral stance. But the country also had strong fascist elements and when the fortunes of France and Britain faltered early in the war, the government of Romania turned to Germany for protection. Unbeknownst to King Carol, however, the Nazi's had already agreed to cede portions of Romania to the Soviets in their non-agression agreement--the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact of August 23, 1939.

In June 1940 the Soviet Union delivered an ultimatum to Romania to give up Northern Bukovina and Bessarabia [Moldova], two areas that had been acquired by Romania in the wake of World War I. In August 1940, the Nazis further awarded a portion of Transylvania  to Hungary pursuant to the Second Vienna Award, and in September, under further pressure from Germany, southern Dobruja was ceded to Bulgaria.

In the wake of these territorial losses in June-September 1940, the pro-German anti-Bolshevik general and prime minister Ion Antunesco staged a coup and brought into government the far right, fascist Iron Guard. As part of the deal with the army, the constitution was suspended, government dissolved, and the Iron Guard was the only party represented in government. King Carol II and his mistress were sent to exile--leaving his 18 year old handsome son Michael to serve as King. In October 1940 German troops began to enter Romania, soon numbering 500,000, and on November 23, 1940 Romania formally joined the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, Japan).

The Iron Guard swiftly passed oppressive anti-semitic and anti-minority legislation. Anti-Semitism has had a long history in Romania. On January 20, 1941 it attempted a coup against Antonescu. This coincided with a pogrom against the Jewish minority in Bucharest. The coup failed.  Within four days Antonescu prevailed against the Iron Guard, removed them from government and assumed sole dictatorial power.

Ion Antonescu
On 22 June 1941 Romania joined the German invasion of the Soviet Union. They supplied equipment oil and troops for Operation Barbarossa. Here is Robert Kaplan in a recent article in Foreign Policy Magazine:
Antonescu contributed 585,000 Romanian troops to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union from June to October 1941. At Stalingrad, in late 1942 and early 1943, Romanian troops fought alongside the Germans and against the Soviets with a particular ferocity. Romania, rich in natural resources and lying on the southern path of the invasion route of Operation Barbarossa, supplied Hitler’s war machine with critical stores of oil from the Ploiesti fields as well as other raw materials. Antonescu met with Hitler no less than 10 times, mainly in Austria and East Prussia, between the fall of 1940 and the summer of 1944, from soon after the Romanian dictator assumed power until a few weeks before his overthrow in a coup. As Deletant notes, “far from being overawed by the Fuhrer,” Antonescu often contradicted him to his face — perhaps the only person ever allowed to do so — speaking his mind fully about Romania’s territorial interests for hours on end, so that Hitler came to respect him from the beginning of their relationship.
Hitler's respect provided some latitude to Antonescu to protect the Jews in Bucharest.
The survival rate of the Jewish population under [Antonescu's] direct civil, administrative, and military control — within the legal borders of Romania, that is — “was greater than that of any other Axis ally, protectorate or occupied area aside from Finland,” writes independent scholar and Romania specialist Larry L. Watts in a monograph. If you were a Jew within Antonescu’s Romania proper, you were more likely to survive World War II than if you had been living virtually anywhere else in Axis-occupied Europe. But, on the other hand, if you were a Jew in the areas that Antonescu’s troops recaptured from the Soviet Union, there were few places worse.
Kaplan gave a shout out to three books of note about this period:  British academic Dennis Deletant’s Hitler’s Forgotten Ally: Ion Antonescu and His Regime, Romania 1940-1944, published in 2006 by Palgrave Macmillan; Radu Ioanid’s The Holocaust in Romania: The Destruction of Jews and Gypsies Under the Antonescu Regime, 1940-1944, published in 2000 by Ivan R. Dee; and Vladimir Solonari’s Purifying the Nation: Population Exchange and Ethnic Cleansing in Nazi-Allied Romania, published in 2010 by the Woodrow Wilson Center Press.

After the German defeat at Stalingrad in January 1943, and the Soviet Union's steady advances against German forces, a Soviet invasion of Romania was imminent by late summer 1944. On August 23, 1944 King Michael joined pro-Allied politicians, a number of army officers, and armed communist militias in a coup against Antonescu. On September 1, 1944 the King ordered a ceasefire, announced an acceptance of the armistice offered by Britain, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and declared war on Germany. It was too late, of course. The Soviet Union captured and imprisoned about 130,000 Romanian soldiers... many of whom perished in prison camps... and occupied the country.

Post War

With the end of the war Romania's flirtations and connections with France, Britain, Germany, and --linguistically and culturally--with Italy, came to an abrupt end. Whereas Antonescu had declared "When it's a question of action against the Slavs, you can always count on Romania" on the eve of Operation Barbarossa--for the next 44 years Romania would be under the thumb of the Slavs. 

Romanian is a Romance language island adrift in a sea of Slavs.  It is an eastern romance language, based on latin. The language derives back to the Roman Empire (province of Dacia--"the noblest and most just of the Tracian tribes," said Herodotus) and is very similar to Italian. Romanians watch and understand Italian television. 


In March 1945 King Michael was forced to appoint a pro-Soviet government and two years later, on December 30, 1947, he was forced to abdicate at gun point, surrounded by a pro-Soviet unit of the armed forces. The next day the communist government announced the permanent abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a communist People's Republic.

Major portions of the economy were turned over to so called SovRom companies which exploited Romanian industries for Soviet purposes.  Affected industries included oil, gas, iron ore, uranium mining, banking, insurance, wood processing, transportation, shipbuilding, and film. One egregious example is Sovromcuart, which used Romanian prison labor to mine uranium ore for the Soviet nuclear weapons program.  After most of 15,000 workers died from radiation poisoning, the company turned to local farm labor who did not know what they were mining.  17,288 tons of uranium ore were delivered to the Soviets between 1952 and 1960. 

By 1960 the Romanian communist party gained a measure of independence from Moscow, but power was consolidated under the hardline dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was party general secretary 1965-1989. 
After a brief period of relatively moderate rule, Ceaușescu's regime became increasingly brutal and repressive. By some accounts, his rule was the most rigidly Stalinist in the Soviet bloc.  He maintained controls over speech and the media that were very strict even by Soviet-bloc standards, and internal dissent was not tolerated. His secret police, the Securitate, was one of the most ubiquitous and brutal secret police forces in the world. In 1982, with the goal of paying off Romania's large foreign debt, Ceaușescu ordered the export of much of the country’s agricultural and industrial production. The resulting extreme shortages of food, fuel, energy, medicines, and other basic necessities drastically lowered living standards and intensified unrest. Ceaușescu's regime was also marked by an extensive and ubiquitous cult of personality, nationalism, a continuing deterioration in foreign relations even with the Soviet Union, and nepotism.
Romanians may have been spared the worst of the ravages of the Eastern Front in World War II, but their 20th century was no picnic. 

Rejoining Europe

The Romanian communist party disappeared without a trace almost overnight on December 22, 1989. Ceausescu lost control of a rally in Bucharest, revolt spread to all urban centers, large portions of the army turned against the regime. Ceausescu and his wife fled in a helicopter but were captured. On order of the new interim government, the National Salvation Front, the Ceausescus were tried on Christmas Day for charges including the illegal gathering of wealth and genocide. The proceeding lasted an hour at the end of which they were taken out to the courtyard and shot. 

On December 27, 1989 the NSF declared the end of one party rule in Romania. Elections were held in 1990 and 1992... a new constitution was drafted and adopted by popular referendum. 

In 2007 Romania joined the European Union along with its neighbor to the south, Bulgaria. As of January 2014 Romanians are free to work in any EU country without the requirement for a 
work permit. However, Romania's entry to the Schengen Area (common outside border--which also includes some non-EU countries, e.g. Switzerland) has recently been withdrawn. Notably Germany, the Netherlands, and Finland have contended that both Romania and Bulgaria have serious corruption issues that should make them ineligible to join the borderless Schengen area. 

The future of the entire European project, of course, lies in the balance. But with its resources, rich agricultural lands, abundant water, temperate climate, the long term prospects for Romania should be bright. Romania still suffers from a poor education system, and its economy is still recovering from the communist era. Here is the World Factbook's (CIA) Assessment: 
Romania... began the transition from Communism in 1989 with a largely obsolete industrial base and a pattern of output unsuited to the country's needs. Romania's macroeconomic gains have only recently started to spur creation of a middle class and to address Romania's widespread poverty. Corruption and red tape continue to permeate the business environment. 
In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Romania signed on to a $26 billion emergency assistance package from the IMF, the EU, and other international lenders, but GDP contracted until 2011. In March 2011, Romania and the IMF/EU/World Bank signed a 24-month precautionary stand-by agreement, worth $6.6 billion, to promote fiscal discipline, encourage progress on structural reforms, and strengthen financial sector stability. In September 2013, Romanian authorities and the IMF/EU agreed to a follow-on stand-by agreement, worth $5.4 billion, to continue with reforms, but this agreement expired in September 2015, and no funds were drawn. Progress on structural reforms has been uneven, and the economy still is vulnerable to external shocks. 
Economic growth rebounded in 2013-15, driven by strong industrial exports and excellent agricultural harvests, and the current account deficit was reduced substantially. Industry outperformed other sectors of the economy in 2015. Exports remained the engine of economic growth, led by trade with the EU, which accounts for roughly 70% of Romania trade. 
In 2015, the Government of Romania succeeded in meeting its annual target for the budget deficit, the external deficit remained low, and inflation - -0.8% - was the lowest since 1989, allowing a gradual loosening of the monetary policy throughout the year. 
An ageing population, weak domestic demand, tax evasion, and insufficient health-care represent the economy's top vulnerabilities.
International agribusinesses are buying up assets in Romania, which is creating tensions and opportunities.  There is a land rush underway with large Agribusinesses consolidating land in Romania. And integration with Europe is moving apace. My Swiss cousin is thinking about purchasing property in the Southern Carpathian Mountains and reproducing his place in Switzerland for himself and his new love, a lovely young Romanian woman.

It looks beautiful, unspoiled, and full of promise.

View of So. Carpathian Mts, Romania/Schenk

Romania... a place to keep your eye on. 

Romania today

No comments:

Post a Comment