Purifying the Ranks: Ethnic and Minority Policy in the Romanian Armed Forces during the Second World War


During the Second World War, the Romanian Armed Forces joined in the conflict between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. The Romanian Army’s contribution to the Axis war effort has been largely forgotten or sidelined since the war. Similarly, Romania’s minorities and their military service or restriction from military service has been overlooked. Romania’s expansion after the First World War greatly increased the number of minorities in the country and also those serving in the military. The way the Romanian Armed Forces dealt with minorities and their contribution to the Romanian war effort should not be forgotten as the true extent and depth of the war on the Eastern Front is being revealed. Romanian nationalist and ethnic policies affected the ranks as much as it shaped the rest of its wartime policy of ethnic ‘purification’.


The Romanian soldiers of 1919 wore a hodgepodge of uniforms and equipment but were united in language, culture, and religion. The majority of these soldiers came from the plains of Wallachia and hills of Moldavia, which made up the Vechiul Regat, the ‘Old Kingdom’, of Romania. Only a few divisions of local Ardeleni, Transylvanian Romanians, had been raised in time to participate in the military operations to occupy Transylvania (Mărdărescu 2009:45–46). Therefore, Romanian Army Group North was comprised primarily of men who had been united by the disasters of 1916, the reorganization of the Romanian Army in Moldavia under Russian protection, the vicious defensive battles of 1917, and stood against the Bolshevik threat of 1918 before being transferred to the west (Axworthy et al. 1995:11–12). This experienced, motivated, and unified army was used to assist in forging România Mare, ‘Greater Romania’, which almost doubled Romania’s size.

While Romania had been forced to sign an armistice, and later a peace treaty, with the Central Powers after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia deprived Romania of its most important military ally and isolated it from supply and support from the Western Powers, the Romanian Army proved crucial in assuring union with the Russian province of Bessarabia. Amid the chaos of the Russian Civil War, the Romanian Army offered protection to the new Moldovan Republic and even fought a series of border battles against a myriad of revolutionary threats (Otu 2008:225, 279). With the collapse of the Central Powers in 1919, the Romanian Army was again mobilized and war declared on the Central Powers. This last minute re-entry of Romanian arms and the prestige won by the Romanian Army in 1917 in the major battles of Mărăşti, Mărăşeşti, and Oituz – which saved Romania’s reputation after the military disaster of 1916 – earned Romania a place on the side of the victors at the Paris Peace Conference. The Romanian Army also delivered the coup de grâce to Béla Kun’s Bolshevik Hungary, defeating the Hungarian Army and occupying Budapest. While these military accomplishments failed to obtain a Romanian-Hungarian border along the Tisa River, they did convince the Council of Four in Paris that a strong Romania was integral as a part of an anti-Bolshevik cordon sanitaire in Eastern Europe (Torrey 2011:255). The French even asked for sixteen Romanian regiments to augment four French divisions to create ‘Franco-Romanian’ divisions to assist White Russian forces to defeat the Bolsheviks in Southern Russia (Otu 2008:261), although these plans came to naught. Romania’s strong military showing since 1917 convinced the Council of Four in Paris to award Romania with the lion’s share of what had been promised to Romania before its entrance into the war in 1916, even though the Western Powers believed that Romania’s armistice and peace treaty with the Central Powers had negated their pre-war territorial promises. Romania received all of the historical province of Transylvania and also significant parts of the provinces of Crişana, Maramureș, and Banat. The dreams of Romanian nationalists had been realized and the sacrifices of the Great War seemed vindicated.

However, the success of unification came with a price, presenting the Romanian Armed Forces with serious ethnic and nationalist issues within its ranks. România Mare swallowed great tracts of foreign territory in its effort to bring all Romanians into one ethnic-national state, but these territories, while containing many Romanians, also brought with them foreign peoples. In the east, the Russian province of Bessarabia brought not only the ethnic Romanian Basarabeni, but also many Russians and Ukrainians. In the northeast, the Hapsburg province of Bukovina had significant Ukrainian and German minorities. In the west, the Hapsburg province of Banat brought Swabian Germans, and the Hungarian provinces of Transylvania, Maramureș, and Crişana held a huge Hungarian minority and a significant Saxon German minority. All of these new lands contained significant urban Jewish populations far in excess to that in the Vechiul Regat. In total, the Kingdom of Romania was transformed from a near ethnically homogenous state to a multi-ethnic state with nearly one third of its population comprised of minorities: Hungarians, Germans, Jews, Ukrainians, Russians, Bulgarians, and Gypsies (Livezeanu 1995:9). This new ethnic make-up created distinct concerns for the Romanian military leadership, especially as the rise of Nazi Germany destabilized Europe and war on Romania’s borders became a very real possibility.

As early as December of 1937, Romanian fears of possible invasion began to grow; in that year, the Soviet Union began to take a hardened stance on the Romanian controlled province of Bessarabia. King Carol II of Romania’s decision to install the extreme right-wing, anti-Semitic, anti-Bolshevik Goga government after the recent elections triggered Soviet displeasure, which resulted in reported Soviet troop movements along the border. These military movements were followed by rumours of invasions spreading from the Romanian-Soviet frontier throughout Bessarabia, sending alerts through the Romanian military leadership (Midan 2008:47). Romania – surrounded not just by the Soviet Union, but also hostile Hungary and Bulgaria – had a profoundly defensive military posture in the interwar years. Perhaps because of this strategic encirclement of hostile powers, Romania turned to several different alliances: the ‘Little Entente’ including Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia along with Romania against Hungary, the Balkan Alliance including Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, and Romania aimed against Bulgaria, as well as a bilateral alliance with Poland united against the Soviet Union. However, as Hitler expanded the power of Nazi Germany, Romania lost all of its allies. In 1938, Czechoslovakia was partitioned, later completely dismembered in 1939; Poland was invaded and occupied in 1939; and in 1940, the Fall of France, as well as the continuing German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, assured that Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey became increasingly hesitant to fulfil any of their alliance agreements. Therefore, in 1940, Romania stood alone and had to rely on its armed forces to protect its borders; Romanian concerns about the reliability and loyalty of its minority populations in the ranks rose correspondingly.

The Romanian Armed Forces had mobilized its forces multiple times in response to the crises occurring on its borders through 1938 to 1940: the German, Polish, and Hungarian occupation of Czechoslovakia resulting in the First Vienna Award, the German and Soviet invasions of Poland, and the far-off Battle of France, which soon had immediate repercussions at home. The force that Romania could mobilize in the summer of 1940 was not insignificant. Fully mobilized, the Romanian Armed Forces fielded four complete armies, representing 1.2 million men under arms, 280,000 horses, 45,300 carts, 3,000 motorized vehicles, in addition to a fledging air force, and a small navy (Axworthy et al. 1995:40, 239, 328). The Romanian Armed Forces was based on mass conscription. All Romanian male citizens, including minorities, had to serve two years of mandatory military service by the age of twenty-one (Emrich 2011:4). However, training was restricted by the state budget. With limited funds, many units had to do without training or sent home on ‘leave’ because of lack of proper equipment and supply. Sometimes, underpaid officers would sell off supplies to augment their salaries and cover their expenses. Often, peasant soldiers were used in peacetime to assist local farms in the cultivation and harvest of crops. The professional core of the Romanian Armed Forces was small due to budgetary restraints. Aspiring to full-time service was extremely competitive, even excluding those working to become officers. Candidates would have to be accepted to the best military academies and provide the highest marks for the envied slots, especially among the elite cadres, such as the cavalry and mountain units. Elite units would demand the highest skills in education, health, and intelligence, siphoning off the best and brightest (Scafeş et al. 1996:108). Military service was organized geographically, so that regiments were formed of men mostly all coming from the same region. Therefore, units formed from conscripts from Transylvania or Bessarabia would have a higher number of minorities serving in them then, say, a unit based near Bucharest or Iaşi in the Vechiul Regat. Since rank and privilege went to those with the highest education, the officer corps was dominated by Romanians with urban origins (Axworthy et al. 1995:59). The mass of the rank and file were of peasant origins, regardless of ethnicity, and with one third of România Mare comprised of minority populations, in 1940, roughly a similar ratio made up the rank and file.

In 1940, the minorities which most concerned the Romanian authorities and were most carefully watched, in descending order of concern, were: Germans, Hungarians, Bulgarians, and lastly Ukrainians (Midan 2008:197). This pecking order remained relatively constant throughout the war; it is a useful reference point to illustrate the concerns that the Romanian leadership had regarding its minorities in uniform, beginning with the larger army of România Mare and also concerning the smaller Romanian Army committed on the Eastern Front. While Romania’s manpower contribution to the Eastern Front fluxed, the Romanian Army maintained the greatest forces of all of Germany’s Axis allies, rivalled only temporarily by the Finnish Army, which largely demobilized in the autumn of 1941. The Romanian Armed Forces initially committed 325,685 frontline troops to Operation Barbarossa (Scafeş et al. 1996:18); during the winter of 1941–42 the number fell to only 54,357 operating in the conquest of the Crimea (Axworthy et al. 1995:73); in 1942, a recommitted Romania deployed at least 382,000 troops in support of the German summer offensive which suffered terrible casualties during the Battle of Stalingrad alongside the Germans (ibid.:75). The Romanians maintained significant forces, around 100,000 (ibid.:127), in the Kuban and Crimea through 1943 and made a huge attempts to replace the manpower losses of Stalingrad in order to defend the Romanian frontier in 1944, which finally failed. As Romania struggled to maintain significant forces on the Eastern Front, the Romanian Armed Forces had to rely on the minority populations within its shifting borders to meet those demands.

This article will explore the preliminary findings from my research in ethnic, cultural, and nationalist issues within the Royal Romanian Armed Forces during the Second World War. Each of the major minority groups will be addressed separately in order of the largest to the smallest, not necessarily in importance, as each minority group was treated with different levels of attention at key points during the war.

Hungarians and Székelys

The Hungarian minority vied for the top of the list as the most important ‘problem’ minority for the Romanian military during the Second World War. The Székely minority will be considered alongside the Hungarians because while ethnically different from Hungarians, culturally the Székely population was considered completely ‘Magyarized’ by the Romanian administration. The Hungarians made up the largest Romanian minority – 1,425,507 or 7.9% of the population (Livezeanu 1995:10); just as important, they were concentrated in one region rather than scattered throughout Romania like the ethnic German or Jewish minorities. The Székely population was concentrated in the centre of România Mare around Braşov to the discomfort of Romanian nationalists (ibid.:138) with the majority of Hungarians living in Transylvania, which during the Second World War referred to not just the province of Transylvania but also the Crişana, Maramureș, and Banat regions.

Leading up to the Great War, Romanian nationalists depicted Hungary as Romania’s millennial nemesis. As Glenn E. Torrey (1999:383), the noted historian of Romania during the Great War, put it ‘the Romanians … fervently believ[ed] that the preceding 1000 years of Romanian-Hungarian relations were essentially years of humiliation, oppression, and denationalization’. Nationalistic fervour aside, Hungary’s dismemberment, the ‘mutilated defeat’, created a very real nemesis in Hungarian irredentism. Hungarians referred to the lands under Romanian rule as ‘occupied’ and vowed to restore the old borders of the Kingdom of Hungary (Leuştean 2003:56). The decision to carry out a policy of cultural ‘Romanianization’ in a response to pre-war ‘Magyarization’ only deepened Hungarian resentment (Hitchins 1994:207).

During the interwar years, many upper- and middle-class Hungarians, most from the bureaucratic and military elite, migrated into rump Hungary to escape from Romanian rule and represented a 13.4% decrease in the Hungarian population in Romania (Cornelius 2011:43). This helped equalize the distinct social stratification of the pre-war years and foster cooperation between Hungarian peasants and the urban middle class (Case 2009:106). For these Hungarians, military service in an army dominated by Romanians was unrewarding. Those conscripted had few opportunities for advancement, given limited training, restricted from elite units, and regarded with suspicion by their Romanian comrades (ibid.:141). In 1939, when war between Hungary and Romania loomed, the loyalty of this large minority in the military was questioned. In the partial mobilizations of September 1939, military security paid special attention to the reaction of the Hungarian conscripts. In general reports demonstrated ‘the loyalty of the Magyar [Hungarian] population’, but also indicated that a relatively high level of desertions were reported among the Hungarians (Midan 2008:133).

Ironically, the dilemma of Hungarians serving in the Romanian Army was largely solved by the cessation of ‘Northern Transylvania’ to Hungary in August 1940 under German-Italian pressure in the Second Vienna Award. This last minute political manoeuvre was a masterstroke of German foreign policy. It prevented any immediate possibility of hostilities between Hungary and Romania which could have triggered Soviet intervention in Romania (Hitchins 1994:449) and also set a precedent for German arbitration in territorial revision. The promise of future revision motivated both Romania and Hungary to strengthen their ties to Germany and increase their commitments on the Eastern Front after 1941. Seemingly, a severe blow was dealt to the Romanians in terms of available manpower, requiring the disbanding of the Romanian Second Army, but the military leadership was suddenly relieved of the threat of the compact Hungarian minority within its borders and the complications of incorporating them into the Romanian Armed Forces (Axworthy et al. 1995:40).

After the Second Vienna Award, only 363,206 Hungarians remained within the borders of Romania in ‘Southern Transylvania’, according to an official census taken in 1941 (Case 2009:127). This number decreased as more Hungarians fled to the newly occupied Northern Transylvania. Those left behind were further diluted among the Romanian population as Romanians fled south. Both sides had to deal with at least 200,000 refugees crossing the border (ibid.:115). Whether the respective governments liked it or not, a de facto transfer of populations occurred across the new borders in Transylvania.

However, not all population transfer was voluntary. Romanian conscription was actually used to encourage ‘voluntary’ population transfer. Many Hungarians simply fled to Hungarian occupied territory rather than serve in the Romanian Army because it meant having to serve in an army where they were abused by Romanian officers and soldiers, relegated to demeaning rear echelon jobs, or forced to serve in labour battalions (Case 2009:85, 119, 186). Holly Case noted that this Romanian ‘method was so effective that an entire guard battalion had to be created within the Hungarian army to accommodate Southern Transylvanian Hungarians fleeing military service in Romania’ (ibid.:84). This Romanian policy was probably influenced by the passage of a Hungarian law in 1939 that created a ‘labour service system’ as a means to deal with all ‘unreliables’ in Hungary, primarily Jews but also Romanians, Slovaks, and Serbs, recruited for military service and formed into labour battalions (Cornelius 2011:170). This resulted in extensive Romanian desertion from the Hungarian Ninth Army based in Transylvania to escape from the backbreaking work in occupied Northern Transylvania. A total of 70,000 Romanians served in Hungarian labour battalions on the Eastern Front (Axworthy et al. 1995:15). The total number of Hungarians serving in the Romanian Army has yet to be determined, but must be comparable. Yet Hungarians were not relegated to service in labour battalions. In an interview, a Romanian veteran recalled that his anti-aircraft artillery unit included a few Hungarians, as well as Germans and Gypsies (Morţun 2012). This illustrates that Hungarians were trusted with non-frontline roles, and with a German or Italian always placed between the Hungarian and Romanian armies, there was little temptation, or chance, to desert once deep in Russia. The veteran attested to the loyalty of the Hungarians in his unit who fought into Russia and back (ibid.).

Romanian-Hungarian policies towards the respective minority within their borders were based on ‘reciprocity’. For every slight or discrimination perpetrated by the other, the other side would respond in kind (Case 2009:121). This policy acted as a break against severe reprisals against each other’s minorities, and no widespread atrocities were perpetrated by either side during the war, although several isolated atrocities became highly publicized and politicized. So, while significant troops were mobilized to guard the borders, and border incidents abounded, until August 1944 it seems that both sides were more or less determined to let the status quo stand so they could mobilize their manpower for battles in the East as their German ally demanded greater sacrifices for the Axis. Neither side had decisive military or political advantage in Transylvania. Neither side relaxed their watch on the other across the new border. But neither was willing to break the German enforced peace. The Germans were keen to have the issue placed on the backburner, even though they consistently dangled further territorial revision before both parties to win greater support for the war on the Eastern Front (ibid.:16). Marshal Antonescu did all he could to direct Romanian attention to the war in the East rather than lose the war against Bolshevism because of a new Romanian-Hungarian conflict.

This research illustrates a facet of the Romanian Army that is generally overlooked by most historians of the Romanian Army during the Second World War. Hungarians were conscripted into the Romanian Armed Forces, but were relegated to labour battalions and rear-line support roles. The Hungarian experience in the Romanian military was harsh and often deadly. Similar labour battalions serving on the Eastern Front in the Hungarian Army suffered heavily at Stalingrad. Further research is needed to determine the losses suffered among labour battalions on the Eastern Front in the Romanian Army, but it is likely they met a similar fate to those ‘unreliables’ in the Hungarian Army; an example of the dangers of ‘reciprocity’ between the two states.

Ethnic Germans: SaşiŞvabiNemţi, or Volksdeutsche?

The second largest minority group in România Mare was the 782,000 ethnic Germans scattered throughout the new provinces (Scafeş et al. 1996:204). Romanian opinion and treatment of its ethnic German minority stood in stark contrast to that of its other minorities.

The term, ethnic German, obscures the complex diversity of this minority in Romania. These different populations of Germans had been invited as colonists to bolster border populations for hundreds of years and had developed distinct identities: 544,278 ‘Saxons’ and ‘Swabians’, or Saşi and Şvabi, of Transylvania and the Banat; 75,533 Hapsburg Germans of Bukovina; 77,753 Germans of Bessarabia; and 15,821 Germans in the Dobruja (Livezeanu 1995:135, 53, 91, 191). All of the latter were labelled nemţi by Romanians.

The Saşi and Şvabi in the west were the most important ethnic Germans, not only because of their number but also because of their overwhelming concentration in the urban areas of Transylvania and the Banat. Only 9.8% of the population, they made up 13.2% of the urban population in the west (Livezeanu 1995:135). German economic and cultural influence in the centres of urban population was overwhelming. Secondary schools and universities were taught in German or Hungarian and created a highly educated and literate minority, especially in comparison with the overwhelmingly rural origins of most Romanians. In Bukovina, the German population was divided roughly evenly between urban and rural. The Germans of Bessarabia and Dobruja were mainly rural farmers. These other groups received less attention from the Romanian leadership than the highly influential Saşi of Transylvania.

From the very first days of România Mare, the Saşi were treated differently from the other national minorities. Colonel Ion Antonescu, the future dictator of Romania from 1940 to 1944, ordered the advancing Romanian troops in 1919 that the Saşi were ‘an element of order and work, having peaceful sentiments’ and they should be ‘treated as Romanians’ (Torrey 1999:368). This positive opinion of the Saşi remained consistent in the following decades and during the Second World War. However, while favoured above other minority groups, the Saşi were still affected by ‘Romanianization’ policies which endeavoured to replace German with Romanian as the language of secondary and university education and chief cultural influence in the urban centres.

Many Saşi had served in the Austro-Hungarian Army, and most remained in Transylvania rather than leave their homeland. As early as February of 1919, the Romanian Army began incorporating there German officers who had served in the Austro-Hungarian Army (Torrey 2011:124). This provided the Romanian Army with experienced officers, like generals Hugo Schawab and Carol Schmidt, loyal corps commanders on the Eastern Front (Axworthy et al. 1995:144). The educated background of many Saşimeant that they were key in filling the gap in technical braches of the military created by the poor education of Romanian peasant conscripts. They were allowed, even encouraged, to participate in elite formations like the Romanian Mountain Corps, Armoured Units, and the Royal Romanian Air Force. The significant number of experienced German officers that were adopted by the Romanian military leadership left their mark on the expansion and training of the Romanian Army during the interwar years, particularly on the elite Romanian Mountain Units. These units were the most prized of Romania’s soldiers by the Wehrmacht and cooperated effectively and extensively during the Second World War, probably partly due to the interwar influence of Romanian Volksdeutsche.

However, serving in the Romanian Armed Forces for Saşi could be one of semi-isolation among the foreign tongue and culture of their Romanian comrades. While their almost privileged treatment in the Romanian Armed Forces was far above that of other minorities, Wehrmacht commanders remained highly critical of their situation. Erich von Manstein (2004:207) complained that ‘Rumanian national prejudice tended to impede any advancement [for ethnic Germans]. Neither were such outmoded practices as flogging likely to improve the quality of the rank and file.’ Nazi Germany did more than cluck disapprovingly at Romania’s treatment of the German minority. It soon offered an alternative to service in the Romanian Armed Forces which the Saşi and especially the Şvabi of the Banat region found very attractive: serving as Volksdeutsche in the Wehrmacht.

The idea of being part of a larger pan-German nation was very popular among the ethnic Germans of Transylvania, the Banat, and Bukovina who had so recently lost their favoured position in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Adopting the Volksdeutsche identity offered Romanian ethnic Germans a powerful ally in their attempts to reassert their traditional position of importance. Even before the Invasion of Russia in 1941, the Romanian Volksdeutsche issue began to take on increasing importance. The Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle (VoMi), the Main Welfare Office for Ethnic Germans which was tasked by the Nazi regime to watch over and protect the populations of ethnic Germans outside of Germany’s borders, pressured Romania to give more local autonomy to those Romanian ethnic Germans who remained after population transfers in the fall of 1940 (Bloxham 2009:177).

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact promised the Soviets Bessarabia as part of its secret clauses. When Romania was forced to surrender this territory and part of adjoining Bukovina, Germany stepped in to assure its interest in the local German population; 93,500 Bessarabian and 42,000 Bukovinan Germans were ‘repatriated’ to Germany (Solonari 2010:256). Soviet-Nazi authorities cooperated in a massive transfer of Bessarabian Germans into the German Reich in 1940. Shortly thereafter, Bulgarian revisionist demands on Southern Dobruja were also granted. While the Romanians and Bulgarians worked out a population exchange to settle the ethnic issues between them in the region, Germany stepped in and moved 76,500 Dobruja Germans to the Reich as well (ibid.:111). Losing these ethnic Germans, mostly uneducated farmers, was hardly considered a loss to the Romanian leadership, and was even seen as a step towards ‘purifying’ Romania to become a true ethnic state. The concurrent Hungarian occupation of Northern Transylvania was much less welcome to military leaders. It deprived the Romanian military of a significant number of valuable, well-educated Transylvanian Saşi from its manpower reserves. After the loss of this territory, and the population transfers in Bessarabia and Dobruja, the number of ethnic Germans in Romania fell to approximately 542,000 (Scafeş et al. 1996:204).

No further population transfers of Volksdeutsche were carried out by the VoMi. The relatively small number of Volksdeutsche removed from Romania proved to be complicated and costly. No further attempts at ‘repatriation’ to the Reich were attempted until after the war (Scafeş et al. 1996:182). Additionally, few Saşi or Şvabi wanted to leave their homeland, but rather hoped to gain local autonomy. By November 1940, the Volksdeutche of Southern Transylvania and the Banat had become virtually semi-autonomous with the N.S.D.A.P. der Deutschen Volkgruppe in Rumänien political party, which exerted a powerful influence in Romanian domestic affairs (ibid.:204). The Volksdeutschemovement was further strengthened in Romania with the arrival of German troops in Romania.

In the hopes of winning support from Germany and needing its protection from the Soviet Union, General Antonescu allowed a German Military Mission to come to Romania (Hitchins 1994:458). Soon, not only were Wehrmacht troops stationed in Romania for long-term training and defensive purposes (Axworthy et al. 1995:41), but hundreds of thousands of German troops criss-crossed the country traveling from fronts in Yugoslavia, Greece, and, eventually, the Soviet Union.

This sudden German presence had several important effects on Romanian conscription of its remaining ethnic German population. First, it exacerbated the Volksdeutsche movement and latent hostilities of Saşi and Şvabi. In the hopes of winning autonomy from Romania, the Saşi and Şvabicarried out a grassroots anti-Romanian propaganda campaign among the traveling Wehrmachtsoldiers.1 Secondly, the close proximity of Wehrmacht units gave Saşi and Şvabi a chance to act on their Volksdeutsche inclinations when they received their draft notice from the Romanian Armed Forces. Rather than serving in the Romanian Army, some ethnic Germans preferred to desert to the Wehrmacht (Manstein 2004:206). This tendency was exacerbated by active recruitment among the Danubian Swabians by the Waffen-SS across both sides of the Yugoslav-Romanian border in the Banat.

As early as October 1939, a company of the elite Brandenburg Battalion was formed from Romanian Volksdeutsche and used to safeguard deliveries of Romanian oil to Germany (Axworthy et al. 1995:19). German recruiting became bolder after the rise of General Antonescu and the new fascist Legionary Government in Romania. During the winter of 1940–41, the Waffen-SS carried out the 1,000 Mann Aktion, an operation which succeeded in recruiting one thousand Romanian Volksdeutsche who were incorporated into the SS Division Das Reich. However, on 23 January 1941, SS recruitment efforts were dealt a serious blow when General Antonescu put down an attempted Legionary Coup in Bucureşti (Hitchins 1994:468). The Legionary leaders had been the most pro-German of the Romanians and enjoyed the support of the SS. The less servile and very nationalistic Antonescu was supported by the more conservative German Foreign Office. Freed of the Legionaries and assured of Hitler’s support, Antonescu restricted further recruitment of Romanian Volksdeutsche for reasons of both national sovereignty and legitimate military concern of losing this important reserve of manpower.

As the war dragged on and the Eastern Front stretched Germany’s manpower reserves, the Waffen-SSincreased pressure on the Antonescu regime to recruit directly within Romania. Antonescu remained firm, but the Germans found a way to lure Volksdeutsche, especially the Şvabi of the Banat, to their colours. Across the Romanian border in the west, German troops occupied the Serbian part of the Banat, which also contained Swabian Germans. Prompted by the local Şvabi leaders, the Germans organized a special SS unit, the 7th SS Mountain Division Prinz Eugen, to be exclusively made up of Şvabi, to assist in occupation duties in Serbia (Scafeş et al. 1996:206). This became a particularly attractive option, not just for Serbian Şvabi, but also for Romanian Şvabi who could easily cross the border to escape from serving in the Romanian Army. Certain Romanian Volksdeutsche leaders, like Artur Phelps, a Saxon Austro-Hungarian veteran of the First World War and former general in the Romanian Mountain Corps, encouraged Saşi to choose this option as well. The Prinz Eugen division also helped alleviate problems of discrimination against Volksdeutsche within the SS because of the German belief that they were ‘tainted’ by centuries of cohabitation among ‘inferior’ peoples (Axworthy et al. 1995:144).

Recruiting among Germans in Transylvania or deserting across the border were not the only ways that Germans within the Romanian Army could join the Wehrmacht. Once in Russia, Romanian units were in close contact with German units. While the respective armies had their own zones of responsibility and length of front to defend, German units would reinforce Romanian units and vice versa. Being within walking distance of Wehrmacht units, many Saşi decided to simply walk over and desert to the Wehrmacht and serve instead in the German Army. The same veteran who recalled the loyalty of the Hungarians in his anti-aircraft artillery unit also remembered the frustration when the Germans in his unit would come back dressed in Wehrmacht uniforms and glibly inform his former Romanian commander that they served in German Army (Morţun 2012). Even some generals preferred to leave the Romanian Army. General Carol Schmidt decided to desert to the Wehrmacht, but others remained. Some Saşi continued to see military service in the Romanian Army as their duty to their country and loyally served in the ranks. General Hugo Schwab remained loyal to the Romanian Armed Forces and fulfilled his duties until Romania finally turned its arms on its former ally and joined the Soviet advance; it was then that Schwab committed suicide rather than fight alongside his former foe and against his German ‘brothers-in-arms’.

It was not until after the disaster at Stalingrad that the Germans were finally able to force the Antonescu regime to allow recruitment. The Romanian 3rd and 4th Armies had almost been completely destroyed in the debacle. Along with the sheer size of the experienced manpower lost, those who survived had lost almost all of their equipment (Axworthy et al. 1995:124). The Romanian Army was completely dependent on the Germans for deliveries of modern equipment to make up the material losses and to hold the line on the Eastern Front while most Romanian units were withdrawn from the frontline to refit and reorganize. In this weakened position, Antonescu was no longer able to resist German demands for Romanian Volksdeutsche to help fill-out devastated Wehrmacht units. Therefore, on 13 April 1943 during a visit to Berlin, Antonescu authorized the recruitment of Volksdeutsche from Romania, but with key exceptions. All officers and sub-officers in the Romanian Army were exempted, along with all ‘military specialists’: telephone operators, telegraph operators, artillery observers, snipers, mortar operators, all those serving in Romanian armoured units, machine gunners, bombardiers, and all sailors in the Royal Romanian Navy (Scafeş et al. 1996:207).

While more than 60,000 ethnic Germans eventually served in Waffen-SS divisions, at least an equal amount preferred to serve in the Romanian Armed Forces and, as the lengthy list above illustrates, fulfilled many important roles. In 1943, the number of ethnic Germans serving in the Romanian Armed Forces rose to approximately 40,000, but this number isn’t the total amount of ethnic Germans which served in the Romanian Armed Forces after 1941, only the high for that year (Scafeş et al. 1996:207). The Saşi were spread throughout the Romanian forces in all branches of the military with higher proportion in certain elite units. Informally, they often served to facilitate communication between Romanian and German foot soldiers on the battlefield. More importantly for Romanian soldiers, the Saşi acted as valuable sources of information and gossip gleaned from German sources passed on to their Romanian comrades. Multiple journals and memoirs of Romanian soldiers remember this key function that their Saşi comrades fulfilled on the Eastern Front (Ionescu 2005:54, 88). Romanian soldiers saw the Saşi as much more approachable, familiar, and less arrogant than their German ‘brethren’ in the Wehrmacht. Many Saşi actually came from similar rural village farming backgrounds as most Romanians (Emrich 2011:3). The Romanian nickname for Saşi was Ţiganii Germanilor, or the ‘Gypsies of the Germans’ (Mătuşa 2010). This illustrates that they understood the unequal relationship between the two German groups and identified with the Saşi in being treated as inferiors by the Wehrmacht.

The Saşi thus occupied by far the most important role in the wartime army of any of Romania’s ethnic minorities. However, in the end, they gained little from their participation in the fighting on the Eastern Front. When Romanian turned its arms against the Wehrmacht in 1944, these soldiers became a liability. Those that had not already been captured were demobilized, but this did not save them from further punishment. The Soviet Union deported 75,000 ethnic Germans – men, women, and children – from Romania in January 1945 to work camps in the Soviet Union before the war even ended.

The ‘Jewish Question’ and Military Service

Romanian Jews had a long history of military service in the Romanian Armed Forces. Jews made up the largest minority in the Vechiul Regat, about 3.3% of the population (Livezeanu 1995:194). Jews had fought during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 in which the Romanian Army played a significant role, especially in the famous siege of Plevna. Romanian Jews also fought alongside their Romanian brethren in the First World War. This tradition of Jewish frontline service in the Romanian Army meant that a small number of Jewish officers and non-commissioned officers were serving in 1940 and that Jewish men were conscripted alongside ethnic Romanians as well in response to the crises of that year.

The Jewish minority in România Mare, 722,000 in the 1930 census and perhaps 800,000 in 1940 (Hitchins 1994:483), was nearly as large as that of the ethnic German minority. It was likewise scattered across the Romania, often in the same areas as the Germans. Outside of the Vechiul Regat the Jews had adopted the culture of the former ruling elite. The largely assimilated Jews of Transylvania spoke Hungarian and German, in the Banat and Bukovina they spoke German, and in Bessarabia they spoke Yiddish, Russian, and German. Only a minority of Jews in România Mare was ‘Romanianized’; these 70,000 were concentrated in Bucureşti while the Jews of Moldavia remained largely Yiddish in language and Hasidic in culture (Ioanid 2000:13–14). The enlarged number of non-‘Romanianized’ Jews after the First World War reinforced Romanian anti-Semitism which already saw Jews as untrustworthy foreigners who took advantage of Romanians economically. With most Romanian Jews now of non-Romanian background, the ‘Jewish Question’ was further infused with nationalistic fever as they were seen even more as an obstacle to the ‘national ideal’.

The Jewish community in Romania had received some protection from the intervention of the Great Powers in minority politics, specifically the ‘Minorities Treaty’ forced on Romania after the First World War which guaranteed the rights of minorities in România Mare. However, all this changed in 1940 after the fall of France, when the Romanian Armed Forces decided to relegate Romanian Jews called up for service to serving in labour battalions. Romanian Jews would not be allowed to fight on the front lines for their country. The journal of Mihai Sebastian, a Jewish resident of Bucureşti, conveys the miserable conditions of serving in one of these labour battalions. His military service began normally in 1939. He shared in the multiple call ups for mobilization which affected all Romanians (Sebastian 2000:203). On 9 January 1940, Sebastian discovered that a call up on 15 January for the Second Corps would be just for 1,500 Jews (ibid.:266). This was a step towards forming completely Jewish labour battalions instead of having them mixed in with regular units. Sebastian was shuffled around from unit to unit until the fall of France. In August 1940, the Jews in his unit were formed into an independent detachment, which was assigned to unload timber wagons and was constantly beaten by the Romanian guards. Eventually Sebastian was assigned to an ‘agricultural work detachment’ (ibid.:302).

In August 1940, the Soviet Union occupied Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina the anti-Semitic press painted the local Jewish population as traitors and abusers of the withdrawing Romanian Army (Solonari 2010:161). The further territorial losses to Hungary and Bulgaria meant that the number of Jews in Romania had been reduced to about 375,000 in 1940 (Hitchins 1994:483). On 6 September 1940, the Legionary government official excluded all Jews from employment in government agencies; on 5 December 1940, the government followed this up by decreeing that Jews were ineligible for frontline military service and were obligated to work for the public interest under direct military supervision (Ioanid 2000:26). All Jewish officers and non-commissioned officers still on active service were also forced into retirement with reduced pensions (ibid.:27). Eighty years of loyal Jewish military service in the modern Romanian Army was dismissed because of Romanian national prejudice.

However, even labour service was better than deportation and death. The ‘Romanianized’ Jews of Bucureşti were spared deportation to the concentration camps in the east, although they feared it constantly. Additionally, the Jews of ‘Southern Transylvania’ were protected on the basis of the policy of ‘reciprocity’ with Hungary which still protected ‘Magyarized’ Jews in their conflict over Transylvania (Case 2009:185). The Jews of ‘Northern Transylvania’ were spared by the Hungarians, excepting those conscripted into Hungarian labour battalions, until 1944 and the mass deportation of some 135,000 Transylvanian Jews to death camps in Poland (Ioanid 2000:xxi).

In contrast, when Romanian troops ‘liberated’ Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina in 1941 after their occupation by the Soviets in 1940 the Bessarabian Jews, largely Russian in culture and language, were targeted by the Antonescu regime and deported to camps on the Bug River where tens of thousands died from exposure, disease, and starvation. Thousands were also killed by ad hoc echipe de execuţii, execution teams, organized by Romanian Army units (Solonari 2010:171). The more ‘Germanized’ Jews of Bukovina received some reprieve from the actions of the mayor of Cernăuţi, Traian Popovici, who helped save around 17,900 Jews with the justification that they were needed as skilled labourers in the work force (Solonari 2010:211–13). The fate of the ‘Russified’ Jews of Bessarabia, and those of Romanian occupied territory of Transnistria, stands in stark contrast to the survival of ‘Romanianized’, ‘Magyarized’, and ‘Germanized’ Jews of the rest of Romania. Around 300,000 Jews died in the eastern provinces of Romania and Ukraine, while approximately 375,000 survived in the rest of Romania (Ioanid 2000:xxii).

Surviving under the Antonescu regime was a tough experience in itself. An estimated 40,000 Jews of military age, and their families, were interned by the Romanian military in June 1941 (Ioanid 2000:111). The Antonescu regime decided that to alleviate the costs and make up the deficiencies in equipment of the Romanian Armed Forces in the field by requiring the Jews to pay a ‘military tax’ and ‘donate’ supplies under the threat of deportation and further call ups of Jewish men to serve in labour battalions. Sebastian recorded that ‘in the army, when something was needed (office supplies, plates and dishes, gaps in the storehouse, etc.), the solution was quite simple: let the Jews come up with it!’ (Sebastian 2000:404) The Antonescu regime believed that if Jews were not dying on the Eastern Front than that they had to contribute in other ways, even if the military itself was barring the Jews from frontline service.

Most Jews, some having been demobilized after the crises of 1940, were desperate to escape military service and its brutal conditions (Ioanid 2000:113). The comment of one Romanian officer illustrates of how little value the Jews were considered by many in the military establishment: ‘I suppose … in time of war. You can form special units of Jews and send them to be mowed down at the front’ (Sebastian 2000:266). While this never became policy, it shows how poorly the Jews in labour battalions were viewed and could expect to be treated. A Romanian General Staff order of 27 June 1942 specifically allowed ‘corporal punishment’ for ‘minor infractions’ and even ‘deportation to Transnistria … with family’ for Jewish men in labour battalions who ‘worked carelessly, evaded work through fraud or bribery, were absent at roll calls, or suspended work without permission; failed to advise the recruitment circle of changes in residence; or cultivated close relations with Romanians’ (Ioanid 2000:26).

The Romanian Army General Staff continued to oversee the conscription of Jews for labour service. In 1943, of the 101,334 Jewish males between eighteen and fifty registered, some 44,235 served in labour battalions organized by the military (Hitchins 1994:485). As the war turned against the Axis, the burdened placed on the Jewish minority in Romania lessened as the Antonescu regime sought to win Allied favour. The toppling of Antonescu by the Royal Coup of August 1944 and the new alliance with the Red Army finally ended forced conscription of Jewish labour by the Romanian Armed Forces.

Ukrainians, Russians, and Bulgarians: Romania’s Slavic Minorities

The First World War brought significant Slavic minorities into the borders of Romania that presented new challenges for the Romanian Armed Forces. Fortunately for the Romanian military leadership, the events leading up to Romania’s entrance into the war as a belligerent against the Soviet Union largely removed these Slavic elements from the Romanian Army after impromptu population exchange and subsequent exclusionary policies.

Descending north to south on the eastern border of România Mare, the Ukrainian minority of 594,571 was centred in the province of Bukovina, the Russian minority of 409,150 was concentrated in Bessarabia, and finally the Bulgarian minority of 366,384 was found in the province of Dobruja (Livezeanu 1995:10). I have yet to discover any significant number of Tsarist officers deciding to join the Romanian Army during the interwar period. The Red Army offered the chance for advancement that unsatisfied tsarist non-commissioned officers and junior officers alike sought and ‘White’ Armies drew away the rest. The majority of all these Slavic minorities were peasants living in rural areas. None of them were trusted by the Romanian military leadership. During the interwar years, any recruitment from among these minorities must have been very limited as ethnic Romanians were favoured with training and equipment. Similar ideas of using these ‘Slavic hordes’ as simple cannon fodder in case of a major war, as expressed earlier about Jews, were probably considered. However, by the time Romania entered the war, there were very few left to conscript.

Most of these minorities were called up during the summer crisis, but were placed in labour battalions and tasked with attempting to hurriedly build defences against the Soviet threat. Of sixty-three labour battalions, fifty-five worked along the eastern border with the Soviet Union, three on the southern border with Bulgaria, and three in the west (Midan 2008:194). Given the geographic nature of the Romanian Army mobilization and conscription, it can be assumed that the majority of the labour battalions in the East were made up of Ukrainians, Russians, and Bulgarians, the dominant minorities of the region. The Soviet Ultimatum in August 1940 and the subsequent occupation of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina removed almost all of the Ukrainian and Russian minority population from Romanian control. Any of the Ukrainians or Russians who may have been called up would have gone home. In one instance, the failure of a Romanian regiment to escape from being disarmed by Soviet units occupying Bessarabia was blamed on the mass desertion of these minorities from their labour battalions, who then proceeded to arm their fellow villagers against the Romanians (ibid.:283). Later, once the Soviets had established their rule, most of the Ukrainians and Russians of Bessarabia would have been absorbed into the Red Army. In the meantime, the question of the Bulgarian minority was solved further south.

The majority of Bulgarians resided in the southern part of the Dobruja region. The northern part of Dobruja had become part of Romania after the Crimean War, the southern part was annexed after the Second Balkan War in 1913, lost from 1916–18, but regained at the end of the First World War. After the Soviet Union annexed Romanian territory in the north the Bulgarians demanded territory in the south. Unlike with Hungary, Romania was able to come to an agreement with Bulgaria over territorial revision and population exchange without German intervention, although the agreement was not finalized until after the Second Vienna Award in hopes of not encouraging Hungary in its designs on Romanian territory.

Romania retroceded Southern Dobruja and its 360,000 inhabitants, the majority of which were Bulgarian, to Bulgaria (Hitchins 1994:448). Along with this the two governments agreed to a population exchange which would further empty the respective borders of each country of the other’s offending minority. Approximately 104,000 Romanians left Bulgaria and 60,000 Bulgarians left Romania (Solonari 2010:106). This population exchanged effectively eliminated the Bulgarian minority in Romania and very few Bulgarians served in the Romanian Armed Forces. In hopes of avoiding antagonizing Bulgaria, to keep Romania’s southern border secure, and with little to fear from the few Bulgarians remaining, it remains to be determined if any Bulgarians were conscripted into labour battalions. It is clear that Romanian nationalist sentiments did not dwell on the ‘Bulgarian Question’ after the population exchanges finished. The situation with the Ukrainian and Russian minorities could not be any more different.

The Ukrainian nationalist movement had been a threat to Romanian nationalist aspirations since the First World War. When the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed in 1918, a strong Ukrainian nationalist movement developed. From 6 to 11 November 1918, soldiers sent by the newly independent Ukrainian state occupied Bukovina (Livezeanu 1995:58). The Romanian National Council in Bukovina called on Bucureşti for help and the Romanian Army soon pushed the Ukrainians out. Shortly thereafter, the Ukrainians of the Hapsburg Empire, known as Ruthenians, attempted to create a separate Ruthenian national movement. A Ruthenian National Council was established to discuss the options presented the Ruthenians: joining Czechoslovakia, remaining with Hungary, joining with the new independent Ukrainian state, or Ruthenian independence (Heimann 2009:42). A Ruthenian Republic was set up in Jasina in Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia with hopes of being awarded part of Bukovina. As the Romanian Army advanced westwards in they disarmed any Ruthenian militias they encountered, regarding them as a threat to the realization of România Mare, and suppressed the local Ukrainian/Ruthenian nationalists (Torrey 1999:369). In May 1919, they invaded Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia and triggered the collapse of the Ruthenian ‘state’ (Heimann 2009:44). Romania and Czechoslovakia divided the Ruthenian territories between them while Poland and the Soviet Union fought over control for the rest of Ukraine. French interests in a creating a cordon sanitaire against the threat of Bolshevism ended any chance of a Ruthenian state and the Red Army quashed the hopes of the rest of the Ukrainians who desired an independent state.

Even though the independent Ukrainian state formed after the Treaty of Brest was soon crushed between the Red Army and the Polish Army (Bloxham 2009:84), a strong Ukrainian nationalist movement continued to prosper into the interwar years. Soviet collectivization, ‘war against the kulaks’, and the devastating famine of the 1930s continued to flame the embers of Ukrainian nationalism. Polish and Czechoslovakian national polices also alienated their Ukrainian minorities. In România Mare‘Romanianization’ was resented by the Ukrainian minority. The Romanian government transformed Ukrainian schools into Romanian ones and suppressed the use of Ukrainian in any cultural or instructional use (Livezeanu 1995:65). The German military secretly supported the Ukrainian nationalists in their hopes for an independent Ukraine in order to use the movement to support Germany’s aspirations in the East (Bloxham 2009:126). These pressures created a strong and well organized Ukrainian nationalist movement under the leadership of the ‘Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists’, or OUN (Solonari 2010:177).

By 1941 the OUN had become more radical, especially the younger generation of ethnic Ukrainians in Bukovina. When the Soviets occupied Northern Bukovina in August 1940 the Ukrainian nationalists were seen as a threat and targeted for liquidation. The Soviets presented their alternative to Ukrainian nationalism, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. For Bukovinan Ukrainians Soviet rule was hardly preferable to Romanian rule. The start of Operation Barbarossa seemed to offer the Ukrainians the chance they needed to finally realize their goal of an independent Ukraine. The Ukrainian National Committee in Lublin acted quickly to organized Ukrainian Guard detachments and seized control of Northern Bukovina before the arrival of Romanian troops (Solonari 2010:178). The Romanians feared the highly organized OUN, their claims on Bukovina, and their German support. Romanian gendarmes arrested and even shot ‘politically active Ukrainians’ (ibid.:182).

Plans to deport the Ukrainians of Bukovina into the German-controlled Generalgouvernment or Reichskomissariat Ukraine were blocked by the Germans. Many of those eligible for military service had already been conscripted by the Red Army or forced to evacuate eastwards thus minimizing the pool of Ukrainians suited for military service. The formation of Ukrainian national units for the Wehrmachtacross the border in Galicia attracted youths from Bukovina, similar to the Volksdeutche who crossed into German occupied Banat. Unlike the Romanian ethnic Germans, the Ukrainians were allowed to cross the border unmolested and then stripped of their citizenship and not allowed to return (Solonari 2010:332). The same applied to any Ukrainians attempting to return to Bukovina if they had been forced to evacuate by the Soviets, but then been overtaken by the Axis forces. In all likelihood, any Ukrainians who remained that were suitable for military service were either arrested or forced to serve in labour battalions.

The Russian minority in Bessarabia faced similar challenges of ‘Romanianization’ during the interwar years, but they lacked a developed nationalist movement like the OUN. The Russian elite looked down upon the Romanians as an ‘inferior’ culture and the Russian peasants resented Romanian rule and were sympathetic to Bolshevik ideals. When the Red Army advanced into Bessarabia many Russians, along with other minorities, welcomed them, thus ‘proving’ their disloyalty to Romania. When the Axis forces began fighting their way into Bessarabia, many Russians retreated along with the Red Army. As with the Ukrainians, those who left were viewed with suspicion by the Romanians and not allowed to cross back into Romanian territory. Again, as with the Ukrainians, those men of viable military age who had remained were probably kept under close surveillance. In July 1943, Antonescu approved a German request to recruit, on a voluntary basis, from among Russians in Romania for service in the Wehrmacht. The order applied to 20,000–25,000 Russian ‘refugees’ brought in 1940 to Bessarabia from the Soviet Union and left behind in 1941, the original Russian minority in Bessarabia, and especially officers and soldiers of the former Imperial Russian Army and ‘White’ Russian Forces who were believed to be in Romanian-occupied Transnistria.2 The Romanian government was willing to let the Germans rid them of their Russian minority while also placating German demands for manpower.

Finally, the confusion of the occupations, battles, and evacuations left Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina in complete disarray. The last reliable census had been taken a decade earlier and the population was scattered. This confusion meant that military service was almost voluntary for ethnic minorities. The Romanian military had little idea who was where and had an even smaller desire to go searching for minorities who did not report at recruitment offices, especially because they did not want them serving in the ranks anyway. Of course this meant that labour service or punishment for desertion was a possibility, but if care was taken these were not major threats.

Gypsies: Frontline Service and Deportation

The situation of the Gypsies serving in the Romanian Army was probably the most contradictory of any of the minorities. Gypsies of military age in Romania were indiscriminately conscripted into the ranks and served in frontline combat units, but at the same time they were threatened with arrest and deportation even when in uniform (Ioanid 2000:226).

The Gypsies of România Mare were probably one of the most ‘Romanianized’ of all the minority groups. The Romanian liberal politician Constantin I.C. Brătianu recognized that Romania’s Gypsies were ‘Orthodox, just like Romanians, and they play an important economic role in our country because they are skilled artisans … small shopkeepers, small business owners … [and] as good Romanians thy shed their blood when fighting for our nation’ (Ioanid 2000:229). However, in general Romanians took great offense when foreigners had a difficult time discerning the difference between Romanians and Gypsies (Solonari 2010:266). Yet Gypsies were so integrated into the Romanian culture that when the Antonescu regime decided to take measures against ‘dangerous Gypsies’, those entrusted with the task often had a difficult time telling the difference between Gypsies and Romanians (ibid.:280). By the Second World War, most Gypsies were sedentary and living in ethnic districts in the cities and towns of România Mare. Two thirds of Gypsies considered Romanian, Hungarian, or whatever the local dominate language their native tongue, rather than the Romany language. While the 1930 census determined that about 240,000 Gypsies lived in România Mare (Livezeanu 1995:10), the true number of Gypsies must be larger as many ethnic Gypsies identified themselves as Romanian or saw more to gain by claiming to be Romanian. Some estimates of the time are double the 1930 census number (Solonari 2010:269).

Gypsies had an impact on the identity of the Romanian Armed Forces out of proportion to their actual percentage of the population. Foreigners saw the Romanian military as an inferior and backwards ‘Gypsy Army’ (Solonari 2010:163). This offensive epithet was not only used by foreigners, but even by Romanian soldiers to describe themselves. In the journal of one veteran, the writer identified the signs left behind by advancing Romanian troops as those of ‘Antonescu’s Gypsies’ (Cârlan 2007:110). In a recent interview, a veteran related that although no ethnic Gypsies served in his unit, a fellow comrade with a darker completion was nicknamed Ţiganul, or ‘The Gypsy’ (Dochiţa 2011). Romanian soldiers could identify with their Gypsy comrades who shared their Orthodox faith, language, and lower class status better than with the other minorities serving in the Romanian Armed Forces. The number of ethnic Germans serving in the Romanian Armed Forces almost certainly was larger than that of Gypsies, but the Germans were concentrated in specialist roles and in elite units and were often high ranking officers. Gypsies, on the other hand, lacking education and from simple backgrounds, served mostly in infantry units like the bulk of Romania’s peasant soldiers and shared in their deprivations. Gypsies also often seem to have been used by Romanian officers as personal servants on the front.

In May 1942, the Antonescu regime decided to deport ‘dangerous Gypsies’, eventually some 26,000, to Transnistria (Bloxham 2009:116). This number would have been much higher if not for the intervention of the First Territorial Army Corps when it requested a clarification of Gypsies and their service in the Romanian Armed Forces. On July 22, it was determined that Gypsies that were ‘drafted or draftable as well as their parents, wives and children’ were not to be considered ‘dangerous’ and excluded from deportation (Solonari 2010:276). Nomadic Gypsies were especially targeted by the Antonescu regime, but ‘Romanianized Gypsies’ remained under threat. Women and children of interracial marriages were deported by Romanian gendarmes (Ioanid 2000:233). Even the exemptions given to military eligible Gypsies were considered only temporary by those organizing the deportation (Solonari 2010:277). Gypsy soldiers on the front often discovered that their families back home were being registered for deportation or had even already been deported. After the deportations ‘many Gypsies in uniform came … [in 1943] from Romania, from the front, or from hospitals-disabled veterans and even soldiers injured during the current war, missing a leg or hand, in search of their wives, children, and parents’ (Ioanid 2000:232). Despite their obvious military credentials these veterans were not assured of securing the release of their family, if they could find them in the first place.

Military demands for manpower spared the majority of Gypsies suitable for military service, if not always their families, from deportation. Gypsies were deemed ‘Romanian’ enough, thus loyal enough, for frontline service, but not enough to escape continued discrimination and even deportation. Their loyal service in the ranks of the Romanian Armed Forces was not reciprocated by the Antonescu regime or recognized by the Romanian public at large. Only political and military developments in late 1942 and 1943 prevented the deportation of a number of Gypsies from the front to Transnistria (Solonari 2010:283). Individual cases of deportation continued; at times sparing ‘draftable’ Gypsies and their families, while the other times condemning them. While field commanders regularly intervened to support the attempts of their Gypsy soldiers to save their families, the Romanian General Staff blocked these efforts in an order of 31 October 1943 that released all deported Gypsies from military service, effectively stranding them in deadly circumstances in Transnistria (ibid.:286). Only in the spring of 1944 were Gypsies allowed to begin returning to Romania.

At least half, most likely more, of the Gypsies sent to Transnistria did not survive (Solonari 2010:288). Even more were killed, wounded, or captured in the maelstrom of the battles on the Eastern Front. A reliable estimate of the number of Gypsies which served in the Romanian Armed Forces during the war requires more research by the author, but they were the only minority group, excepting Romania’s ethnic Germans, to serve in any significant numbers in frontline units.


Vladimir Solonari entitled his book on Romanian ethnic policies during the Second World War ‘Purifying the Nation’. This article is entitled ‘Purifying the Ranks’ to illustrate that similar policies and ideas of ‘purifying’ the Romanian state of its minorities were carried out in the Romanian Armed Forces in order to create the national military needed to prosecute a successful war in the east and carry out the ethnic policies of the state, unhindered by minority interference.

While outside events may seem to suggest that the ‘Romanianization’ of the Romanian Armed Forces was happenstance, the true reality was that the military leadership took advantage of the wartime conditions to rid the military of its minorities any chance they had. Pre-war exclusionary policies were expanded, the use of labour battalions assisted in population transfer and de facto interning of ‘unreliable’ minorities not trusted by the regime, and pragmatic use of other minorities strengthened the Romanian Armed Forces with a future goal of eventually not being reliant on them. ‘Purifying’ the Romanian Armed Forces was one of the most important goals of Romanian nationalists because without a national army, the goal of a ‘purified’ national state was impossible to realize.


  1. 1National State Archives (NSA) Bucharest, Ministry of War – Office of the Minister: Dosar 56 bis, 127.
  2. 2National State Archives (NSA) Bucharest, Presidency of the Council of Ministers – Military Office, 1940–1944: Dosar 107/1943, 93.
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