“THOSE WHO FAIL TO LEARN FROM HISTORY ARE DOOMED TO REPEAT IT”
The following article is not meant to glorify war but to remind of its tragedy and to pay tribute to those who died trying to fight off the forces that pulled our country into conflict.
Almost 100 million people were killed in the two world wars, making Europe the scene of some of the bloodiest conflicts in history, in which Romania payed its own bloody tribute.
Initially neutral in both wars, Romania was eventually drawn into WW1 and WW2 by the world powers.
Unlike countries such as Germany, Russia or the US – Romania had not been preparing for war. Despite the shortcomings, situated between major European powers, the small country of Romania fought on multiple fronts to liberate its territories (Transylvania, Bassarabia and Bucovina), inhabited by Romanian majority populations but under different colonial administrations.
Although the first war brought Romanian territories back together, the second war proved itself to be most damaging as Romania not only lost, but found itself trapped into what it had feared for the last 2 decades – bolshevik communism, with the territories of Bassarabia and Bucovina incorporated into the Soviet Union.
A rare first-hand account of the 1877 War of Independence against the Ottoman empire from Regina Elisabeta of Romania herself, who personally nursed the wounded.
“Many were the heart-rending and touching scenes I witnessed during the war which were to me a revelation of the strange nature of the Roumanian people. With their superstitions, their childlike piety, they combined melancholy and fun. I have seen a devoted wife, after seeking her husband all along the shores of the Danube and in all the hospitals, finding him at last, broken down and disfigured, to greet him with a mere nod of the head before taking up her post at his bedside, there to nurse him day and night. I have heard some brave hero crying out in his agony for his mother, and covering the hands of that mother with kisses.
Once I was sent for to the town to a young man whose leg had been amputated, and who was in inconsolable despair.
Not having been present at the operation, I did not know which leg had been taken off. I sat down on the side of the bed, and remained talking to the poor fellow for a quarter of an hour, he smiling sweetly at me all the time.
When I arose, my ladies of honor discovered that I had been sitting on the stump of the lost leg. I still shudder whenever I think of my stupidity.
“You poor fellow!” I cried; “it must have hurt you terribly.”
“I would have borne it many hours for the sake of listening to your voice,” he replied.
A handsome young man had died in a tent opposite to mine, and the next morning dawned cold and dreary, for it was November. The fog shut us in like a wall, and the ground was like an oozy bog. All of a sudden a man and a woman came forth from the fog like spectres. The woman wore nothing but an old gray chemise, scarcely reaching to her knees, and about her worn old face hung the rags of what had once been a white linen wrap. She came forward on her bare feet through the deep mud, her arms clasping a bundle of linen for her son. She asked for him, and before I could get to her she fell on her knees with a heart-rending cry. A soldier with brutal haste had said to her, ” Your son died in that tent yesterday.”
The clean white shirts she had so lovingly brought for him slipped from her hands into the mud, and tearing her hair and smiting her breast, she cried again and again, “Raduu, my son! Raduu! Raduu! Raduu!” She would listen to no comfort, accept no food, no shelter, but rose at last and went away through the fog, turning back at every step to cry again the name of her lost son. Her figure assumed immense proportions in the heavy air, and her voice rang out strangely through the damp gloom; and when she was out of sight we could still hear the cry of “Raduu! Raduu!” The scene haunts me often now.
On Christmas eve, after a long severe frost, a thaw rendered the streets of Bucharest impassable. I was to go and meet the King, who was returning as a victorious hero after 5 months’ absence. I thought it would have been a delirium of joy to me. But I had suffered too much; I had lost the power of rejoicing; I did not know how to be glad. The last days before Plevna had all but destroyed all three armies at once. After a terrible snow-storm the cold had been 20 degrees below zero. The Danube was so encumbered with ice that not a loaf of bread could be sent over it. If Osman Pasha had held out 3 days longer, every soul would have perished.
And now the road between Plevna and Nicopolis was covered with famished crowds. I know not how many left Plevna, but only ten thousand arrived at Nicopolis!
The King started the next day on the same road on his way home to his capital. He had to leave his sledge, for it jolted over corpses. Horror-struck, he mounted a horse and pressed on along this pathway of death.
There were groups of the dead sitting round the last fire they had lit in some deep rut, carts overturned, driver and buffaloes alike frozen in their places, standing up stiff as statues. There were the dying, their arms upraised to heaven in a final petition before they sank back with a last sigh and expired.
At the battle of Grivita sixteen thousand men had fallen; one battalion of cavalry had lost one-half its numbers; and for three days the enemy’s fire made it impossible to pause for a moment for food or to bury the dead in the trenches.”
The following photos and stories depict Romanian soldiers in both the first and the second world war. Some photos are taken from Budesarchiv and Médiathèque de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine.
In the First World War when Transylvania was under the administration of Austro-Hungarian empire and Bassarabia under Tsarist Russia, over 500.000 Romanians from the two separate regions were obliged to join the armies of their respective monarchies.
In a twist of faith, troops made up of ethnic Romanians found themselves fighting against each other on multiple occasions, as recalled by Octavian Tăslăuanu in his memoirs: “We cursed the destiny that pushed us to fight brother against brother”.
Born in Transylvania, Tăslăuanu was enrolled in the Austro-Hungarian Army but later deserted and joined the Romanian Army. He created the Volunteer Corps unit, made up of thousands of Romanian soldiers – deserters from the Austro-Hungarian army who joined the Romanian Army in their fight to liberate Transylvania.
Ioan Doican memoirs from First World War, published by Cornel Lupea in “Racovita monografia unei stravechi asezari sibiene”. Ioan Doican was an ethnic Romanian from Transylvania enrolled in the Austro-Hungarian army
15 august 1915 – “Although I was hungry, after seeing so many dead bodies, I didnt need any food anymore. I made a cross for Jon Calin, a good friend of mine. Nicula Simion helped me and with tears in the eyes, we put it to his head saying “May God rest him in peace“
We did a cross for soldier Paler too. But there were so many dead, it was impossible to bury them all. How many bullets were shot on that field […] how many young men crushed in the prime of life. How many widows are left only on this day 14 to August 15! And how many children deprived of their dear father …
… And its said that we now live in the age of culture …”
31 august 1915 – “We entered a forest which was filled with civilians, chariots and whole families. The Russians couldnt take them anymore. The poor people – especially children, how they were crying …
I saw two carriages pulled by men and women, their horse had died from exhaustion. They were pulling the wagon filled with luggage, and the poor children were walking barefoot behind the carts. It hurt my heart to see the misery they had ended up in …”
29 septembrie 1915 – “In Pruszany, I wanted to buy bacon from the canteen which belonged to the Germans. But they didnt want to take my money, they took only German money. And our money are worthless. … Upon seeing this, I hurt deeply knowing that the Germans were fighting with us, but our money were not good enough. We – the 31st regiment – fought to liberate this city. We pushed out the Russians and we lost so many boys during the fight… “
German occupation 1916-1917
In 1916-1917, southern Romania and the capital city Bucharest fell under German occupation (with help of Bulgarian allies). Romanian troops retreated in Moldova, which was not occupied.
During the brief occupation, the Germans extracted over 1 million tons of romanian oil from Ploiesti oil fields (source). The captured Romanian soldiers were sent to labor camps, where they registered one of the highest mortality rates. Businesses, village peasants and Bucharest inhabitants were pillaged of virtually all their belongings. Germans gathered over 2 million tons of cereals (source).
In august 1917, the Germans were eventually defeated by Romanian troops in Marasesti battle. One of the main organizers of the battle was general Antonescu, who lead the army in WW2.
Communist threat rises
After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire at end of WW1, the communists lead by Bela Kun (who had relations with the Bolsheviks) took advantage of post-war chaos and installed a communist regime, giving birth to Soviet Hungary. It then invaded and occupied Slovakia, which became the Slovak Soviet Republic.
After threatening to install a communist regime in Romania (with whom it had started a military conflict), the Romanian army invaded the capital city Budapest and removed the Soviet regime, which was replaced by its opposition, the Social Democrats. The Kingdom of Hungary was restored.
In 1920, bomb attacks by Max Goldstein and 2 other pro-communist Jewish militants targeted anti-communist leaders at the time. Three Romanian senators were killed, but the perpetrators were captured and imprisoned, and the anarchy attempt failed. Germany was also puled in the whirlwind with the Bavarian Soviet Republic, lead by Eugen Leviné, however the puppet state was quickly dismantled.
Two decades later, all eastern European states and part of Germany eventually fell victim to communism when they were placed under Soviet control by the Allies.
The years between the two world wars were represented by stability and economic productivity in Romania (see more Competition for Romanian Oil in the Interwar period).
After the end of the war, pro-communist movements continued to catch shape in Romania, Poland, Finland, Germany, France and others. USSR registered industrial progress but the other economic reforms met little success. The Soviets murdered up to 10 million citizens who had resisted the new reforms (source). There was no outcry about these events in the West, for whom Nazi Germany became the only target.
In 1939, Germany signed a secret pact with USSR ceasing control over regions in Europe (including Bassarabia and Bucovina from Romania). USSR invaded the 2 regions and systematic deportations of Romanians began. Later, Germany later broke the pact by waging war against the Soviet Union.
Under pressure from Germany, King Carol II of Romania ceased north Transylvania as well. Public outrage forced the king to abdicate and he was replaced with general Antonescu. In a desperate move to recover lost territories from USSR and prevent the threat of communism, Romania allied itself with Germany which, unknown at that time, was the country that had divided Romanian territory (the secret Hitler-Stalin pact became public only in 1989). For Hitler, Romania represented an ally against bolshevik communism, but also a valuable oil resource. See secret recordings where Hitler talks about it. The oil was payed with German gold, the fact that it was Germany itself who had allowed annexation of territory becoming known only decades later.
The WW2 facilitated the installment of communism in Romania and eastern Europe. In 1947, Ana Pauker became foreign minister in the new communist regime.
The first fallen romanian soldier of World War II
Captain Ioan Boroș from the 16th Regiment was killed on June 29 1940, at 4 am, in Herta (northern Romania). On June 28 1940, northern Bucovina and Bassarabia were occupied by the Soviet Army.
Herta did not find itself within the official boundaries of northern Bucovina. When Soviet tanks entered Herta on the night of June 29, captain Ioan Boros tried to mediate with the Russian army but he was shot on the spot. One year later, Herta was liberated.
Iosif Crişan, 92 Infantry Regiment, Orastie (source)
Winter of 1941, Berdyansk – “With tears in my eyes I’ll tell you that I dont wish upon my greatest enemy what me and my comrades experienced there. It was inhuman. We sat in pits covered only by a sheet tent. It was minus 41 degrees. I had to assure changing sentinels. I was going to every soldier on every post. Once I went to oversee the exchange and I found a soldier ‘who didnt respond to the call. I yell at him and … nothing. He was frozen like stone. He was lying down, with the rifle between his legs and his head leaning on one side. He was dead! Totally frozen, poor thing. I started to cry a little, me and the other soldier I was with – I cant remember his name. Then I told to the next soldier whom I left there “Dont do like him!Dont sit down no matter what happens! Patrol Continuously, walk ten feet all around, you understand?!“. I didnt have time to cry too much back then, I’m crying now, excuse me please”
“After the Christmas of 1941we receive some packages from home. There wasnt much in them … we had a few pieces of meat, and a few of cake … Me and a comrade we go down into my pit to eat. How must couldve that last? About 20-30 minutes. My comrade died eating the cake his mother had sent. He died right in front of me, from the cold. He had only stopped long enough to eat the package from home “.
Summer of 1942, Sevastopol – “We were working to strengthen a position on a grassland hill. One time I see a female coming towards us. I greet her in Russian, she answer in Romanian. She asks what we’re there and she says, “my husband and I invite you to our home.” After that she tells me that she arrived in Crimea immediately after it the first World War. She had a Russian lover, got pregnant, had already 12 brothers at home. When her father learnt, he beat her up and she had to leave home. Oh Lord, how much poverty those people endured in that to house! She already two dead sons in the Russian army. Poor people were eating only corn. I gave them whatever food we had every single day for a whole month, for as long as I occupied that position. “
“I walked with these legs 5,000 kilometers through Russia. I dont know how I was able to do it. When we got to Stalingrad, it was already late. The Russians started to push us towards the Don river (its estimated 150.000 Romanian soldiers died here – source). The river was frozen so what do you do?! Many fell straight in the icey water and died, the ice broke with them. When I saw that, I ordered my men: “Everyone on the ground, crawl after me. Stand 5 meters from each other. Understand?!“. This is how we crossed the river. Thirty years later in Deva, I ran into a former comrade who stopped me on the the street to thank me for helping him cross the Don. He cried, I cried … Six weeks later we got to Dniester river, we ate only corn on the way there. We found corn and and we split it. Each one had 10 corns. I’d take three grains, then bend and pick up some snow to help me stop the thirst as well“.
20 August 1944, Romania – “92 Infantry Regiment was already destroyed. They sent me to another regiment, I cant remember which one. We arrived somewhere near Iasi, Romania on August 20th. The Russians hit us with that cannon truck Katyusha. Out of 10 men, only I survived. Can you imagine that? All the others died. Some killed on spot, others died from serious wounds. “
The old man begins to cry again. This time it takes a little longer to recover. He wipes away the tears and confesses: “You know why I think I escaped? When I left home, my father came to me crying and hugged me. He fought in the First World War. He told me: “Kid, dont aim at anyone. If you dont do it, no one will aim at you either “. And thats how it happened. Once, when we were under attack, the Russians pushed us back into the ditch. My colleague was hit directly in the head. I felt something warm under my chin. the bullet that killed him had wiped my chin. Other times I was shot near my arms, legs, but it only went through my clothes. Then Joseph Christmas lies on the Eastern Front: “
We brought reinforcements. We receive an Oltenian (from south-west Romania) in the platoon. It is night. In the morning I see a Russian prisoner who escapes from the trench and runs away. I cry out to the olteanian: “Dont shoot him he has children await him at home!“. He shoots him. The Russian falls down. After 2-3 days, he asks to go to the neighboring platoon where he can see the shore. After an hour or two, the Sergent from the shore tells me to go get my man. When I go there, he was dead. Shot by a Russian. Poor guy took a bullet straight in the head, although he was in the trenches “.
White Squadron – the ladies of the air
White Squadron (Escadrila Alba) was a Romanian medical unit composed of planes flown exclusively by non-combatant women pilots. The female unit was created at the initiative of princess Marina Stirbey, a licensed pilot herself.
Designed for generic medical emergencies, the unit became vital at the beginning of the war. Four female pilots were tragically killed in July 1940, after which they were replaced.
The squadron planes were painted in white, with a visible red cross on the fuselage and wings. Despite these markings, the planes were still targeted by the enemy. Later on, the planes were painted with camouflage patterns. The unit used (among others) Polish RWD–13 planes, which had been evacuated into Romania after the invasion of Poland.
At the end of the war, the women’s goods were confiscated by the new communist regime, while they were arrested and/ or imprisoned. Others fled to foreign countries to escape the regime. In best case, they were eliminated from the aviation (despite their experience) and had to resort to mediocre jobs to survive. Smaranda Braescu (who was also first female parachutist) was condemned to 2 years in prison and died in 1948.
Above is a 2013 book on the White Squadron, with a unique view into desecretized files from Securitate (Romanian equivalent of KGB). Despite lack of evidence, the accused were charged with “crimes again humanity” (ex. accusation of transporting Soviet goods to Romania). Note: any act of hostility towards the Soviet regime was classified as “crime against humanity”
A presentation on the White Squadron
Top pilots of World War Two
Tighina cemetery contained over 300 graves of Romanian soldiers, also a few graves of Russian, German and French soldiers. After the fall of USSR, eastern Moldova was occupied by the Russian army. The defacto state of Trasnistria (Transdniester) was created, whose sovereignty is not recognized on international level. Tighina is located within its borders.
In 2007, the crosses were removed by the authorities. The local officials responded by stating that it was restoration work. In 2010, the Russian media advertised it as a Russian Army cemetery, with only a few Romanian tombs and no trace of the German graves (Dniester report).
Romanian cities, including its capital city, were heavily bombarded by the Allies from April until July 1944, during which civilian targets were repeatedly attacked to “demoralize the population”. A coup d’etat organized by the Communist with the help of King Michael brought down the anti-communist government in August 1944. The Allies and the King urged the population to accept the Soviet troops on Romanian territory, guarantying a free future if they collaborate. Terrorized and exhausted by the bombings, the civilian population didnt oppose this new political move. The population and the army were cheated with a supposed signed armistice which didnt exist. While the army was retreating, the soldiers were taken prisoners to Siberia. The entire army was dismantled – the naval fleet, tanks, planes etc were stolen or destroyed, leaving the country vulnerable to the new Communist takeover. Most prisoners of war perished.
“Many soldiers fells in my hands, and the ones who were getting better would tell me “Dear sister, thank you for helping me!”. Others died, this was war, you didnt have what to do. When we had to amputate a leg, I’d hold the hand of the soldier and the doctor would cut. He’d give an injection with anesthetic, two soldiers would grab the soldier and hold him tight, while the doctor cut the leg with the saw. When the soldiers woke up, they had no leg anymore… how much the poor soldiers were crying…”
Prisoners of war
Towards the end of World War Two, King Michael of Romania (guided by communist conspirators) removed the pro-Axis government and signed a pact with the Soviet Union. Despite this, Romanian soldiers were not spared and many ended up in prisoner camps or Soviet gulags. The new communist regime, as a Soviet collaborator, did not preoccupy itself with the faith of the Romanian prisoners, and their faith remained unclear until the collapse of the Soviet Union when official records were finally released.
In late 2013, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a book “Prizonieri de război români în Uniunea Sovietică. Documente 1946 – 1951” (Romanian prisoners of war in the Soviet Union. 1946 – 1951 documents), written with the help of official reports released by Russia’s State Military Archives in 2006.
Extract from the book – Guardian Fiodor Socikov from prisoner camp no. 93 from Tiumen reported:
“I noticed that prisoner of war Eftilei Cauneac picked up some grass from the side of the road and began to eat it. I warned him loudly to stop eating it, but he continued. I ordered him to come to the shore, and when he reached it, I noticed there was foam around his mouth, he was fainting and then started having convulsions. He was taken to the medical room for medical assistance.”
Below is the story of Petru Trif, enrolled in the 7th Heavy Artillery Regiment of Sibiu – WW2 veteran and prisoner camp survivor (source)
“We found ourselves surrounded and disarmed. I started to tear away my stripes. I knew Russians were killing everyone from the higher ranks, I was already a sergeant. They took away all our food. I had the emergency food: a tin can of 100 grams of beef and a loaf of bread. I couldnt hide the bread, I hid the tin can, wrapped it in my clothes. When the Russian did the frisk search, I took clothes and said I only have my shirts here. That 100 grams tin can saved me life “.
“They put us in a cattle wagon. We traveled for two weeks. We were not given any water on the first days. Some of the men drank their urine, I tried but I couldnt do it. I sat next to the door. Outside it was cold. The car was warm because it was full, we were all crammed in there. There was condensation at the door. In the morning I’d lick the door edge to calm my thirst. Along the way, many died in the wagon. Every day – two, three, four men died. Every night night I’d eat a spoon from my tin can. If I didnt have it, I would’ve died right there in that cattle wagon “.
After a few days with no food, no water, the door opened suddenly in a train station. The Red Army soldiers yelled out at the prisoners to make room near the door. The soldiers put a bucket of water in the wagon. One prisoner could contain himself anymore and he threw himself on it to drink directly from the bucket. A few moments later, the others jumped to pick him up. The prisoner had drowned in the bucket.
After two weeks of torment in those wagons, we ended up somewhere in the Ural mountains. I first worked in camp number 185. After that we moved to Camp 165. We ate two salted fish and 200 grams of bread a day. They made us walk from the train to the camps. Many men couldnt stand up anymore. They couldnt walk anymore after those two weeks during which, when the train would stop and we‘d cry for water, the soldiers beat us up with sticks“.
The fall of 1943 – Petru is taken from the camp in the Urals and sent to the former USSR border with Finland. The Russians built silos for food, half buried in the cold ground. The locals didnt like to perform that kind of work. In order to receive the full portions of food, as small as it was, the Romanian prisoners were forced to do the work and reach the full norm. The locals began to create all sorts of problems for them, from being camp informers to making bad jokes. “When the food trucks were passing along, the women in the trucks used to throw each of us one cold potato. We’d burn it and eat it with the peel. It was so good when could catch it. But the kids of the Russian military constantly put out the fires we made“.
Classical Romanian WW1 army song “Romanian Battalions, cross the Carpathians”
The end of WW2 in Romania meant the communist takeover of economy, politics and social life in Romania and eastern Europe. Northern Bucovina was assimilated into Soviet Ukraine. Bessarabia (eastern Moldova) was incorporated into the Soviet Union, becoming the state of Moldova, and after deportations and political executions, a process of russification began in the two territories.
In Romania, the infamous SovRom (Soviet-Romanian) companies were created in 1945, a system meant to assimilate all revenues from Romania to the Soviet Union. The payments continued up to mid-1970’s.
Related article from energy-center.ro Let’s Not Forget Sovromgaz – the Russian Way Of Exploiting Romanian Gas
In the decade that followed after the war, numerous intellectuals, generals, politicians, lawyers, priests, ministers, writers were arrested, jailed, executed and/ or forced to hard labor. After making use of King Michael to help them remove the government, the communists forced him to abdicate and expelled him from the country in 1947.
All properties were confiscated. The agricultural land (which constitutes a significant part of Romania’s territory) was also confiscated and a collectivization process began. Those who opposed it were arrested. New reforms were applied in all fields, and history books were modified to fit the new pro-soviet agenda.
The new leader who came to power in 1967, Nicolae Ceausescu, though still a communist, followed a separate national policy from the Soviet Union.