Word Count: 2319
Well folks, it’s been an interesting week. A few simple comments about Odessa led to a lot of exploration and research, and so I thank everyone who contributed because it really gave me the impetus to learn a lot more about Romania during World War 2, a subject I had previously avoided because it was so ugly. I got some rather trenchant rebuttals from a commenter named Rodeo, and I will address those point by point below.
But first, it’s essential to explain a few phrases and terms for readers who aren’t experts on Romanian history and geography:
KOR – The Kingdom of Romania, essentially the land that is Wallachia and Romanian (Western) Moldova today. These lands are part of modern Romania today.
Transylvania – This is a region of modern Romania today, but for simplicity’s sake I am going to use the term Transylvania to also mean Maramures, Crisana, and Banat (also part of Romania today).
Moldova – In this post, Moldova refers to the western lands that once formed the Principality of Moldova, and all this territory is now part of Romania today.
Bessarabia – When I use this term, I am referring to approximately the same land that is now the Republic of Moldova (the county where I live).
Bukovina – Here I am referring to the land that is now part of Ukraine, but was historically Romanian, centered around the city of Cernauti. Technically this is northern Bukovina, as southern Bukovina (the area around Suceava) is part of Romania.
Transnistria – Today this term refers to a country that doesn’t officially exist. Historically, however it means “beyond” (Trans) the Dniester (Nistru) River, commonly called the “left bank” of the Dniester River because it runs from north to south (like the Nile River in Egypt). The boundaries of what constitutes Transnistria have fluctuated wildly throughout history, but today’s Transnistria is the smallest iteration.
Revolution to World War
Prior to WW2, all of Europe was in flux. Today, it seems like the only history worth studying is WW2, with perhaps a lesser focus on WW1, but there were several significant events in the past 150 years that shaped the continent. This is not the forum for going into these events in detail, but I’ve added a link to articles I’ve written on these subjects.
Effectively, all of continental Europe had a revolution in 1848. All of the repressed minorities (including Romanians) rose up, in one way or another, and challenged the old order. In some cases, foreign kings were replaced by local rulers. Much of the homegrown literature, orthography (Romania, for instance, switched from Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet), and poetry began flowering as a result of the events of 1848. In Romania, the future national anthem was written, and half the people on the currency (money) today were directly or indirectly related to what happened in 1848.
Further reading: Szabadság, or The Ballad of Bem Joszef.
Key results: the Kingdom of Transylvania remained a separate entity from the Kingdom of Hungary, and the Russians and Romanians become strong allies. Szeklers got even crazier.
The Crimean War, essentially a proxy struggle between Russia and the Turkish Ottoman Empire, leads to a key treaty (The Treaty of Paris), with various continental powers pledging eternal allegiance and mutual defense. Russia captures and fortifies the Crimean Peninsula as a key naval stronghold. Romania is not a combatant.
Further reading: The Battle of Tiraspol.
Key results: Thanks to Turkey becoming weakened, Wallachia and Moldova emerge from being vassal Ottoman states to de facto independent countries.
One of Romania’s smartest leaders ever, Alexandru Ioan “AI” Cuza, becomes leader of Moldova, and then manages to convince the nobles in Wallachia to also choose him, uniting the two in 1862 to form the “United Principalities of Moldova and Wallachia”, effectively the first iteration of Romania as a united country.
Cuza is sacked and Carol I is proclaimed the first king of Romania.
The Russian and Ottoman Empires slug it out again, this time directly. Whereas Russia “lost” the Crimean War, this time Russia scores significant wins and is vastly strengthened in the region. KOR troops fight on the side of Russia during the war.
Key results: KOR is formally recognized as independent country. Romania signs agreement to give Bessarabia to Russia in exchange for southern Dobruja (Dobrogea).
After an assassination in Sarajevo, all of Europe is plunged into war. KOR is allied with the Russians until the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Various new alliances are pledged, broken, and forged.
Further reading: Die Stadt Bukarest ist von meinen Truppen besetzt (Romania during the war, and how a forgotten Russian general and American diplomat saved the country) and The Curious Case of the 100 Thousand (what actually happened on December 1, 1918).
Key Results: KOR is nearly wiped out, and only survives because the war ends on the Western Front with a German defeat. KOR then becomes resurgent, declaring union with Bukovina, and Transylvania. Romania effectively forces* Bessarabian parliament to vote to join KOR, which severely angers new Soviet government.
* – This is a contentious issue that I haven’t written about yet, but is worthy of a full article in the future. To say that Bessarabia willingly joined KOR is an extreme understatement.
The victorious allies carve up Europe like a pie with a series of treaties written in fancy palaces (apparently this was not done ironically).
Further reading: The Secret History of Advertising.
Key Results: Thanks to hiring the right PR firm, KOR is now double in size, and officially includes Transylvania, Bukovina, and Bessarabia. KOR is at the largest size that it will ever be.
World War 2 and Odessa
At long last, we’re now caught up on the more recent past of what exactly happened in Romania, and Odessa, during World War 2. Besides all of the usual sources (encyclopedias, history books, etc), I also got a lot of information from a book (English translation) written by Raoul V. Bossy, a Romanian diplomat from 1918 to 1969. And for every last solitary detail concerning Odessa, I must recommend this outstanding history (PDF in Romanian language) of the Romanian occupation of Odessa.
To help understand what happened, let’s review a little timeline to help keep things straight:
December 28, 1925 – King Carol II of Romania renounces throne in favor of his son Mihai after the scandal of Carol taking a Jewish lover becomes widespread knowledge.
June 7, 1930 – Carol II “undoes” his renunciation, and reclaims the throne after a coup d’etat executed with much help from Iuliu Maniu (currently a national hero in Romania).
February 10, 1938 – King Carol II declares martial law and forms “royal dictatorship”.
August 23, 1939 – Soviet Union and Germany sign non-aggression pact with secret protocols awarding Bessarabia to the Soviets.
September 1, 1939 – Germany invades (western) Poland.
September 3, 1939 – Britain and France declare war against Germany.
September 17, 1939 – Soviet Union invades (eastern) Poland.
September 21, 1939 – Soviet Union and Germany sign agreement coordinating the division of Poland.
September 28, 1939 – Soviet Union and Germany sign Friendship Treaty, further demarcating zones of influence in Eastern Europe.
September 5, 1940 – King Carol II transfers most his dictatorial powers to “Marshal” Ion Antonescu, the fascist Prime Minister of Romania.
June 21, 1940 – All political parties besides fascist Iron Guard are banned in Romania.
June 22, 1940 – France quits fighting Germany and becomes a vassal state.
June 26, 1940 – Soviet Union demands Bessarabia and Bukovina from Romania.
June 27, 1940 – Soviet Union gives Romania four days to evacuate from Bessarabia and Bukovina.
June 28, 1940 – Romania cedes to Soviet demands for Bessarabia and Bukovina. Soviet troops immediately move into the area and meet no resistance.
August 2, 1940 – Bessarabia is declared Moldovan SSR.
August 30, 1940 – Germany and Italy give Northern Transylvania to Hungary. Remaining areas of Romania now effectively under German command and control.
September 6, 1940 – King Carol abdicates, and Ion Antonescu becomes undisputed supreme ruler. Mihai becomes King of Romania (again).
September 7, 1940 – Romania cedes southern Dobruja to Bulgaria.
November 23, 1940 – Romanian officially joins Germany as member of Axis powers.
June 22, 1941 – Germany invades Soviet Union with help from Romanian troops.
July 1941 – Romanian troops (with German support) capture Bessarabia.
July 27, 1941 – Antonescu orders Romanian Army to continue to Odessa.
August 30, 1941 – Hitler sends Antonescu a letter stating that Bassarabia (from Dniester to Bug Rivers) will be administered by Romania.
October 16, 1941 – Odessa is captured by Romanian troops with German support. Romania suffers 106,561 casualties in the taking of Odessa.
October 17, 1941 – Antonescu issues a decree to establish the government of Transnistria (under Romanian control). Odessa is declared to be the capital of the Transnistrian Governorate. Gheorghe Alexianu is named governor of the area.
October 22-24, 1941 – Romanian troops massacre more than 20,000 civilians in Odessa.
November 25, 1941 – Romanian deputy PM Antonescu meets Hitler in Germany. Hitler “alludes” to territories in the east to be annexed to Romania in compensation for the loss of Transylvania.
March 1942 – Soviet Union pushes out Romanian troops from Odessa, Bessarabia, and Bukovina.
February 2, 1943 – Majority of Romanian forces wiped out at conclusion of the Battle of Stalingrad.
August 23, 1944 – King Mihal leads a coup and ousts Iron Guard. Romania switches sides, joins Soviet Union and Allied Powers. Soviet Union later (July 6, 1945) awards King Mihai with the Grand Order of Victory medal for the coup. As of 2015, Mihai is last surviving individual to have been awarded the medal.
Note: in a supreme act of irony, after the November 2015 fire that led to the resignation of PM Victor Ponta, ex-king Mihai published an open letter effectively congratulating himself for being a champion of democracy because he ousted the Iron Guard back in 1944. Fucking surreal.
Whew! Now we can finally address the comments on the blog about Odessa. I’m roughly paraphrasing for simplicity’s sake:
Romania had nothing to do with the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement of 1939
Literally, yes this is true. I implied otherwise for simplicity’s sake, but I really did simplify things too much. As you can see above, Nazi Germany and Stalin (Soviet Union) came to a kind of “gentleman’s agreement” on Bessarabia (Bukovina wasn’t even mentioned), which was a secret at the time. The Russians clearly wanted Bessarabia back, and the Germans didn’t care so Hitler effectively said, “You want it? You can have it!”.
The real question is what, if anything, the Romanians knew about this at the time. Despite all my reading and research, I can’t find anything about it. The Romanians and Russians had been on the outs since 1920, so I doubt anyone from Stalin’s side leaked anything to the Romanians. And, although fascist Romania was rapidly aligning itself with fascist Germany in this period, there is plenty of evidence that the Germans disdained and largely ignored Romania, so it’s probably fair to say that I misrepresented the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement. In other words, Romania had no ***king clue what Germany and the Soviet Union had in mind for Bessarabia on August 23, 1939.
Romania never had territorial designs on Odessa, and to think so is childish!
Thanks for the insult, but no. Taking Odessa was definitely not the original plan. As Raoul Bossy’s book makes abundantly clear, the Romanian government during the early years of WW2 was in a real bind. On one hand, they were definitely anti-Soviet and pro-fascist Germany. But it was their allies (Germany and Italy) who had given all of Transylvania back to the Hungarians. Germany, in effect, became the “parent” of two quarreling “children”, giving Transylvania to Hungary to appease that side, and then kept pushing an eastward expansion in Bessarabia as a kind of “compensation” to Romania for losing Transylvania.
Let me be clear – nobody in the Romanian government originally wanted to push past the boundaries of Bessarabia, as Odessa and the area towards the Bug River were not, and had never been, majority ethnic Romanian/Moldovan lands. What the Romanian government really wanted was Transylvania back. But, given the way the war went, Romania went ahead and took over Odessa (and the region) anyway, making Odessa the capital of Transnistria, which was ruled by a Romanian governor. It’s true that Romania never formally annexed Transnistria, but it looks to me (and several prominent historians) like it would’ve eventually happened had not the vast majority of the Romanian Army been called up to invade the Soviet Union.
So, as I wrote in my piece Fury Unleashed, Romania fucked up literally everything in World War 2. They lost Transylvania to their allies. The Romanian government hated Jews, tried to exterminate them, but then realized that their economy couldn’t survive without them. The Romanian government was pro-Germany even though Germany mistreated Romania badly (causing widespread inflation and deficits due to the German policy of not paying for Romanian goods during the war). They were foolishly anti-Russian due to 20 years of stupidity and greed over wanting Bessarabia. And then Romanian troops got used as cannon fodder in the Battle of Stalingrad, losing more men than all of the other German allies combined.
And then the “savior” king Mihai ended up being a Soviet pawn until domestic Communists took over. Meanwhile even more Romanian troops died as the Soviets used them as cannon fodder to mop up resistance in Hungary and onwards westward to Germany. At the end of the war, Romania was devastated, the economy in ruins, hundreds of thousands of people killed for nothing, and (southern) Dobruja and Bessarabia were lost forever.
And, as a final insult, the Soviet Union also snatched away (southern) Bukovina, which had never been a Russian area of interest and was, on the contrary, a majority-Romanian area. It wasn’t even mentioned in the original Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement. So why did the Soviets suddenly decide they wanted Cernauti halfway through the war?
The answer lies with a very cunning Communist leader in Ukraine, a man by the name of Nikita Kruschev. It was Kruschev who convinced Stalin that Cernauti had historically been part of Ukraine (not true). And it was in 1954, when Kruschev was the leader of the Soviet Union, that he transferred Crimea to Ukraine, a move that led to disastrous consequences in early 2014.
Today, Odessa remains a Jew-free barely Ukrainian city run by Georgian criminals with nary a Moldovan or Romanian in sight, but a beautiful town for tourists to visit :)
AND NOW YOU KNOW!