A classic on Romania is “Athene Palace” (1942), written by the German-American journalist R.G.Waldeck (alias of Rosa Goldschmidt). Ms Waldeck describes from her hotel – the still-existing Athene Palace – the pre-war intrigues of representatives of all powers, except Russia, who meet and still easily mix in Bucharest during the last half of 1940. An excellent, and very well informed account of how Romania increasingly lost territory, to Russia and then to Hungary and Bulgaria, and how this forced the then-king, Carol II, to abdicate, whilst Romania slipped into the embrace of Nazi-Germany.
The topics range from historical analysis of how Romania became the country it was, at the beginning of the Second World War, of how Carol II quite successfully manipulated the Romanian elite, but then overplayed his hand in trying to manipulate the international powers to be, Germany and Russia, and of the months after Carol’s abdication, and the rivalry between the facist Iron Guardists (also called The Legion of the Archangel Michael) and the military leaning towards a dictatorship, which in the end is completely overshadowed by the increasing German influence, and physical presence, in Romania. In the process Ms Waldeck, herself of German-Jewish descent although this never affects her writing, sketches quite convincingly a rather anti-Semitic people who nevertheless would be prepared to reject Nazi overtures because the loss of territory – and especially Transylvania, at the instructions of Hitler – more traumatizes them than the potential of linking up with fellow anti-Semites. At the same time she paints a German diplomatic offensive – an offensive that it is never going to lose -, that is focused on the economic importance of Romania for the German war machine, with as side issue the care for ethnic Germans in Transylvania, and Soviet-occupied Bessarabia (present-day Republic of Moldova), without ever paying the slightest attention to the sensitivities of Romanians, anti-Semitic or not. The story culminates with the self-destruction of the Iron Guards, who initiate an unbelievably cruel pogrom in January 1941, and thereby completely overplay their hand in local politics. Shortly afterwards, Ms Waldeck leaves Bucharest, which is now firmly German-dominated, and no longer the town where the powers mingle.
Besides the general message, the book contains several fabulous descriptions, for instance of the Old Excellencies, Romanians who once had some form of power as minister of diplomat, and now comment on the clientele of the Athene Palace: “That every lady had a price was a foregone conclusion (…), but only from 20,000 leis upwards did they consider her a lady. It was the same with the politicians; they also had a price, and if they were expensive enough they could be considered statesmen”. The same men also conclude that “things written on paper (…) had a shorter life in Romania than anywhere else. After a few weeks the best laws were forgotten (…) because everybody had learned to get around them”, something I heard several times from Romanians myself during my recent visit to Romania. And Ms Waldeck finds a French historian who concludes that “the friendship of Russia has been more unfortunate to the Romanians than the enmity of all other peoples combined”. With hindsight, what a foresight that has been!
For those interested in Romanian history from a non-Romanian point of view, and those interested in the dynamics in Eastern Europe in the early years of WWII, read it!