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Romania during World War II

 This article is part of the
History of Romania series.
 Romania in the Middle Ages
 National awakening of Romania
 Kingdom of Romania
 Romania during World War II
 Communist Romania
 Romania since 1989

After a brief period of nominal neutrality, Romania joined the Axis Powers in June 1941, under the government of Ion Antonescu. An August 1944 coup led by King Michael deposed the Antonescu dictatorship and put Romania on the side of the Allies for the remainder of the war. Despite this association with the winning side "Greater Romania was not to survive the war, losing territory to both Bulgaria and the Soviet Union.

Table of contents
1 The pre-war years
2 The war begins
3 Antonescu comes to power
4 Romania and the Holocaust
5 The royal coup
6 After the war

The pre-war years

As the 1930s progressed, Romania's already shaky democracy slowly deteriorated toward fascist dictatorship. Until 1938, Romania's governments maintained the form, if not always the substance, of a liberal constitutional monarchy. The constititution of 1923 gave the king free reign to dissolve parliament and call elections at will; as a result, Romania was to experience over 25 governments in a decade.

Increasingly, these governments were dominated by any of a number of anti-Semitic, ultra-nationalist, and mostly at least quasi-fascistic parties. The National Liberal Party steadily became more nationalistic than liberal, and, in any case, lost the dominance it had had over Romanian politics in the years immediately following World War I. Increasingly it was eclipsed by parties like the (relatively moderate) National Peasant Party and its more radical Romanian Front offshoot, the League of National-Christian Defense (LANC) - which in 1935 fused with the National Agrarian Party to form the National Christian Party (NCP) - and, most notably, the quasi-mystical fascist Iron Guard, an earlier LANC offshoot that, even more than these other parties, exploited nationalism, fear of communism, and resentment of alleged foreign and Jewish domination of the economy.

Throughout this period, these nationalist parties had a mutually distrustful relationship with King Carol II. Upon the death in 1927 of his brother Ferdinand, Carol was prevented from taking the throne because of Carol's well-known Jewish mistress, Magda Lupescu. After serving 3 years as regent over his young son Michael, Carol publicly renounced his mistress and ascended to the throne in his own right; it rapidly became clear that his renunciation was a sham.

Nonetheless, in December 1937, the king appointed LANC leader (and poet) Octavian Goga as prime minister. Around this time, Carol met with Adolf Hitler, who expressed his wish to see a Romanian government headed by the Iron Guard. Instead, on February 10, 1938 King Carol II used the occasion of a public insult by Goga to toward Lupescu as a reason to dismiss the government and institute a short-lived royal dictatorship, sanctioned seventeen days later by a new constitution under which the king named not only the prime minister but all ministers.

Over the next two years, under several short-lived governments, the already violent conflict between the Iron Guard and other political groupings approached the level of a civil war. Already, the Iron Guard had embraced the politics of assassination and various governments had reacted more or less in king. On December 10, 1933, Liberal prime minister Ion Duca "dissolved" the Iron Guard, arresting thousands; 19 days later he is assassinated by Iron Guard legionnaires.

Nonetheless, the stakes on both sides were raised at the time of the royal dictatorship. In April 1938, Carol had Iron Guard leader Corneliu Zelea Codreanu arrested and imprisoned; on the night of November 29-30, 1938, presumably in retaliation for a series of assassinations by Iron Guard commandos, Codreanu and several other legionnaires were killed while purportedly attempting to escape from prison. It is generally agreed that there was no such escape attempt.

The royal dictatorship was brief. On March 7, 1939 a new government was formed with Armand Călinescu as prime minister; on September 21, 1939, three weeks after the start of World War II, Călinescu, in turn, was assassinated by legionnaires avenging Codreanu.

The war begins

On August 23, 1939 Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which stipulated, among other things, the Soviet "interest" in Bessarabia. Eight days later, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Romania officially remained neutral, but leaned heavily toward the Axis Powers, allowing the Nazi German troops to pass through on their way into Poland.

Ion Gigurtu’s government, formed July 4, 1940 was the first to include an Iron Guardist minister: Horia Sima, a particularly virulent anti-Semite who had become the nominal leader of the movement after Codreanu's death, was one of the few prominent legionnaires to survive the carnage of the preceding years.

In 1940, Romania lost territory in both east and west: In June 1940 the Soviet Union took Bessarabia and Bukovina; two thirds of Bessarabia were collated to a small part of USSR to form the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. The rest was apportioned to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Shortly thereafter, on August 30, 1940, under the Diktat of Vienna, the Axis powers forced Romania to "give back," half of Transylvania to Hungary; this arguably historically Hungarian area was henceforward known as "Northern Transylvania," as against "Southern Transylvania," which remained Romanian. On September 7, 1940, under the Treaty of Craiova, the Kadrilater or "Quadrilateral" (the southern part of Dobrudja) was ceded to Bulgaria.

Romania after WWII. Lost teritories are marked with yellow.

Antonescu comes to power

In the immediate wake of the loss of Northern Transylvania, on September 4, 1940, the Iron Guard (led by Sima) and General (later Marshal) Ion Antonescu united to form a "National Legionary State" government, which forced the abdication of Carol II in favor of his 19-year-old son Mihai. Carol (and Lupescu) went into exile and Romania (despite the recent betrayal over Transylvania) leaned even more strongly toward the Axis.

In power, the Iron Guard stiffened already harsh anti-Semitic legislation (as well as enacting legislation directed against Armenian and Greek businessmen) and wreaked vengeance upon its enemies. More than 60 former dignitaries or officials were executed in Jilava prison on November 27, 1940 while awaiting trial; historian and former prime minister Nicolae Iorga and economist Virgil Madgearu, also a former government minister, were assassinated without even the pretense of an arrest.

The cohabitation between the Iron Guard and Antonescu was never an easy one. On January 20, 1941 the Iron Guard attempted a coup, combined with a pogrom against the Jews of Bucharest. Within four days, Antonescu had successfully suppressed the coup. The Iron Guard was forced out of the government. Sima and many other legionnaires took refuge in Germany; others were imprisoned.

On June 22, 1941, Nazi German armies with Romanian support attacked the Soviet Union. After recovering Bessarabia and Bukovina, Romanian units fought side by side with the Nazi Germans onward to Odessa, Sevastopol, and Stalingrad. The Romanian contribution of troops was enormous, second only to Nazi Germany itself and exceeding that of all of Nazi Germany's other allies combined. Romania annexed Soviet lands immediately east of the Dnister, including the city of Odessa.

Throughout the Antonescu years, Romania supplied Nazi Germany and the Axis armies with oil, grain, and industrial products, mostly without monetary compensation. Consequently, by 1943 Romania became a target of Allied bombardment, notably the August 1, 1943 attack on the oil fields of Ploeşti.

Despite both Hungary and Romania being allied to Nazi Germany, Antonescu's regime continued a diplomatic hostility toward Hungary over the status of Transylvania.

Romania and the Holocaust

Even after the fall of the Iron Guard, the Antonescu regime, allied with Nazi Germany, continued the policy of oppression and massacre of Jews (and, secondarily, Gypsies), albeit mainly in the eastern territories. Pogroms and transports were the order of the day in Moldavia, Bukovina and Bessarabia. The number of deaths is in dispute, but even the lowest respectable estimates run to about 250,000 Jews (and 25,000 gypsies) in these eastern regions, while 120,000 of Transylvania's 150,000 Jews died at the hands of the Hungarians.

Nonetheless, in stark contrast to most of Eastern and Central Europe, the majority of Romanian Jews survived the war. Antonescu's government made plans for mass deportations from Wallachia, Southern Transylvania, and southern and western Moldova, but never carried them out. Historians disagree as to whether the continued pleas of Antonescu's Jewish former classmate Wilhelm Filderman had a major role in this, whether Antonescu calculated that western Romania was not sufficiently anti-Semitic to make deportation practical, whether he was unwilling to sacrifice the Jewish contribution to the Romanian economy, or whether he was simply hedging his bets. (It is also worth noting that, despite his overt anti-Semitism, Antonescu had a Jewish step-mother and a French-Jewish first wife.)

The royal coup

In February 1943 with the Soviet counteroffensive at Stalingrad, the tide of the war had turned against the Axis Powers. By 1944, the Romanian economy was in tatters due to the expenses of the war, and resentment of the heavy hand of Nazi Germany was growing even among those who had once enthusiastically supported the war. King Mihai, who initially had been largely a figurehead, led a successful August 23, 1944 coup with support from opposition politicians and the army, deposed the Antonescu dictatorship and put Romania's battered armies on the side of the Allies. Romania incurred additional heavy casualties fighting the Nazi Germans in Transylvania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.

After the war

Under the 1947 Treaty of Paris, the Allies refused co-belligerent status to Romania. Northern Transylvania was, once again, recognised as an integral part of Romania, but the USSR was allowed to annex Bessarabia and Northern Bucovina; renamed the "Moldavian SSR", they became independent only in 1991, under the name of Moldova.

Soviet occupation following World War II led to the formation of a communist Peoples Republic in 1947 and the abdication of the king.