Grant T. Harward
“Bessarabia is Romania!” This slogan, and variations of it, is spray-painted and plastered across Romania. Bessarabia was the name given to territory annexed from Moldavia by Russia in 1812. Romania (created by the union of Moldavia and Wallachia in 1859) regained Bessarabia during the chaos of the Russian Revolution, and seized Bukovina and Transylvania from collapsing Austro-Hungary, in 1918. The Soviet Union did not reconcile itself to the loss and occupied Bessarabia (and northern Bukovina) first temporarily in 1940 and then permanently in 1944, carving up part of the territory into the Moldovan SSR – today the Republic of Moldova. When I have asked about “Bessarabia [is] Romanian land!” graffiti, Romanians were quick to blame a few cranks, but there is evidence that the loss of Bessarabia remains an open wound for many Romanians and Moldovans. “Dorul Basarabiei” (The Sorrow of Bessarabia) by Ion Paladi and the “Lăutari” Orchestra was released with a music video on 1 December 2012 for Romania’s national day celebrating the creation of “Greater Romania” after the First World War. As fiddles and cimbalom play, a romance unfolds between a young couple, each from opposite banks of the Prut River marking the border between Romania and Bessarabia. Soviet occupation and deportation of ethnic Romanians separates the two lovers until a reunion late in life. “We are brothers and nobody/ Will ever break us apart/ Neither the wavy Prut River/ Nor enemies with harsh words,” Paladi (a native of Moldova) warbles. The music video – the most expensive ever for a Romanian folk song – has over 7.5 million views. Since communism fell in 1989, the Romanian far right has not ceased calls to reannex Bessarabia to restore Greater Romania because the cause continues to resonate in Romania and Moldova.
Image by author. "Bessarabia is Romania" and a poster of Corneliu Codreanu the leader of the fascist Legion of the Archangel Michael on a lamppost in Bucharest.
A similar desire to see Greater Romania redeemed 80 years ago resulted in bloody battles and ethnic cleansing of Jews in Bessarabia and northern Bukovina as well as farther east in the Soviet Union. As I argue in my new book Romania’s Holy War: Soldiers, Motivation, and the Holocaust, Romanian soldiers were highly motivated by ideology to fight the Red Army and to commit atrocities against Jews during the Second World War. Nationalism, religion, antisemitism, and anticommunism shaped the worldview of most Romanians who would fight on the eastern front. A conservative country of peasants and large landowners with a small middle class and a tiny working class, Romania viewed the USSR as an existential threat. Over a century of nationalist activism, traditional Christian belief, modern antisemitic rhetoric, and recent skirmishes with communism created fertile ground for the growth of fascism in interwar Romania. The Legion of the Archangel Michael radicalized politics pushing society ever farther to the right, even though it never seized power. Consequently, when General Ion Antonescu became dictator of Romania, he was able to rally the country in support his alliance with Nazi Germany. This contradicts the existing consensus that depicts Romania as a reluctant member of the Axis lacking ideological motivation to fight beyond its interwar borders.
Romania’s “holy war” officially began on 22 June 1941 when it joined Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. While the Nazis planned to fight a “race war” to annihilate both Slavs and Jews, the Romanians saw Ukrainians and Russians as Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters waiting for deliverance from godless Jewish communists. Nevertheless, Romania’s holy war complemented Nazi Germany’s race war. Romanian troops reconquered northern Bukovina and Bessarabia and then continued into Ukraine, but wherever they advanced they also assaulted, raped, and murdered Jews. An estimated 64,000 Jews were murdered by Romanian troops during the initial advance. Later, under orders from the Antonescu regime to “cleanse the terrain,” tens of thousands of Romanian Jews were deported to Transnistria (Romanian-occupied Ukraine) by gendarmes where they joined Soviet Jews in ghettos and concentration camps. A total of 300,000 Jews perished in the Holocaust in Romania and Transnistria. Fear of Jewish-communist reprisals helped motivate the Romanian Army to keep fighting even after the war turned against the Axis. When the Red Army broke through the German-Romanian defenses in Romania, King Mihai I carried out a coup and abandoned the Axis on 23 August 1944. The USSR carved up Bessarabia, creating the Moldavian SSR and giving the rest to the Ukrainian SSR (which also took northern Bukovina). Romania regained northern Transylvania. The Romanian Communist Party avoided making territorial claims on Bessarabia for the next four decades.
The dream of restoring Greater Romania revived after the USSR’s collapse. The aptly named Greater Romania Party was formed in 1991 with almost the sole purpose of regaining Bessarabia and northern Bukovina. That same year a law was passed allowing ethnic Romanians in Moldova and Ukraine to obtain Romanian citizenship. Somewhat contradictorily, the Greater Romania Party celebrated both Antonescu and Nicolae Ceauşescu (the communist dictator of Romania) as nationalist heroes. It also denied Romania’s part in the Holocaust. The Greater Romanian Party participated in government from 1993 to 1995. The Greater Romania Party lost relevance after 2004. However, other parties took up the cause of Bessarabia to score quick political points, such as when Romania’s president pushed to allow more ethnic Romanians from Moldova to obtain Romanian citizenship in 2009. For nationalistic and economic reasons, nearly a quarter of Moldovans now hold a Romanian passport.
Image by author. A photo of the Galati branch of the Greater Romania Party.
Today the Alianță pentru Unirea Românilor (Alliance for the Union of Romanians) has taken up the cause of recreating Greater Romania. The right-wing, populist AUR was founded three years ago and attracted 9 percent of the vote in 2020, making it the fourth largest party in Romania. It is now active in both Romania and Moldova. Among other goals guided by the watchwords of “family,” “nation,” “Christian faith,” and “liberty,” the AUR wants to annex Moldova and other territories with ethnic Romanian populations (meaning parts of Ukraine). It downplays Romania’s part in the Holocaust. Recently, in response to a landmark law requiring Jewish history be taught in schools beginning in 2023, the AUR called the Holocaust, and sex education, “minor issues” that would “undermine the quality of education in Romania.” Even if the AUR collapsed tomorrow, I doubt that calls to reannex Bessarabia would end because the dream of restoring Greater Romania remains widespread in Romania and Moldova. Romania’s holy war continues to echo through time on this former periphery of the Soviet Union.
Image by author. A pole in Bucharest covered with stickers showing both Romania with all of Bessarabia and Romania with Moldova added.
Note: The views and information presented are those of the author and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army, U.S. Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.
Grant T. Harward works as a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History. He is a
former Fulbright Scholar and a former Research Fellow at the Mandel Center of the United
States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He is the co-convenor of the Holocaust and the Second
World War Working Group run by the Society for Romanian Studies and PLURAL Forum.
Follow Dr. Harward on Twitter @GHarward.