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Purifying the Nation: Population Exchange and Ethnic Cleansing in Nazi-Allied Romania , by Vladimir Solonari. Washington DC/Baltimore: Woodrow Wilson Center Press/Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. 451 pp. $65.00.
This thoroughly researched and well executed study contends that Romanian ethnic purification efforts during World War II were not only the product of a preoccupation with such matters at the highest levels of the Romanian wartime regime—that is, Ion Antonescu and his (mostly military) henchmen—but were also the result of three developments in pre-war Romanian culture: the emergence in the 1930s of a radical racialist consensus in Romanian nationalist circles (Chapter 1); abetted by the success of the Romanian eugenics movement (Chapter 4); and implemented by the statist, social engineering proclivities of Romanian social scientists, particularly sociologists and demographers (Chapter 5). Both eugenics and social engineering, ironically, reflected mainstream trends in modernity, modern “science,” and management. At the same time, Solonari is careful to relate these developments, policies, and actors to international, regional, and internal contexts, showing how this affected the apparent tergiversations of Romanian policy makers. The book combines both intentionalist and functionalist approaches; in the end, however, the author gives full weight to individual behaviors and motivations, explaining but not excusing the actions and/or inaction of people at all levels of society in the face of crimes against humanity such as ethnic cleansing.
In 1918, Transylvania, Bucovina, and Basarabia had been unified with the pre-war Romanian kingdom, fulfilling the dream of nineteenth-century nationalists. However, achievement of the national ideal had created a myriad of problems, especially in a supposedly national unitary state that was only 72 percent ethnic Romanian by 1930. The story starts with the Romanian attempt to assimilate their newly-acquired territories by reversing the Magyarization, Germanization and Ruthenization, and Russification carried out prior to 1918. The state was seen as the principal agency in this process, as it was in most other aspects of Romanian life. This was based on the nearly universal Romanian acceptance of the equation “nation=the ethnos=the state.” The reality was that “[d]efending the superior interests of the Romanian nation” trumped everything else and explains the ease with which Romanian policy makers could “adjust” to whatever the circumstances were. Thus, “[i]n a world dominated by democracies, tolerance was in order . . . in a world under Nazi domination, discipline, ruthlessness, and narrow-minded nationalism were signs of ‘vitality’ and commanded respect” (p. 336).
The Romanian eugenics movement and the advocates of social engineering were bureaucracy-based and were able to gain traction with proposals for “solving” what had come to be seen as a vexing national problem, despite the oddity of a Romanian racism without an actual Romanian race. They shaped an environment that made extremist policies viable in the 1940s and many leading eugenicists and population planners were on the whole enthusiastic contributors to a regime that carried out crimes against humanity in the name of national affirmation and defense. They were also partly responsible for the indifference to the victims of these crimes shown by both the general Romanian population and the Romanian elite (there were honorable exceptions), even when they were not adherents of racialist views.
In 1940, Romanian policy was reoriented to an alliance with Nazi Germany (which of course further radicalized Romanian racialist views and modeled even more extreme “solutions”). Until 1942, Ion Antonescu and his collaborators believed that Romania had arrived at a “historic moment” in which scores could be settled and ethnic purification could be achieved vis-à-vis Jews, Gypsies, and other minorities. However, this new dream “was dashed by the realities of the changing international situation, military developments, and the imperatives of the national economy.” When the war appeared lost, the policies were moderated or suspended, but as the author shows by detailing monstrous population exchange and resettlement schemes put forth in 1942–1944, the eugenicist/social engineering convictions of Romania's leaders and elite remained constant. The “vision itself was never discarded and its basic premises never questioned” (pp. 333–334).
One of the merits of this book is to follow these tangled multiple realities, demonstrating the logic of Romania’s apparently inconsistent policies in relationship to circumstances. Along the way, he discusses other population transfer and colonization episodes in the Romanian past (Chapters 2, 6), Antonescu’s weltanschauung (Chapter 7), the use of Bucovina and Basarabia for appalling social experiments in racial purification (Chapters 7–12), and the staggering human costs of the racialist utopia (Chapter 11). “The uncertainties and changing fortunes of the war prevented the Romanian leaders from implementing their initial design in its totality, but the small part that they managed to carry out is enough to horrify us. And the more we know about their vision of Romania in postwar Europe dominated by the Nazis, the fewer reasons we have to regret that they failed to make it true” (p. 342).
A case can be made that the World War I settlement created the basis for the horrific events of World War II. Romania had been “defined . . . according to ethnographic data, [and] ethnic demography was at the very foundation of the state. Greater Romania was the embodiment of an ethnic nation, an irrefutable proof of its existence and paramount importance.” Once the national state was given primacy over everything else, the way was open to “a descent into the moral quagmire” (p. 338). By degrees, Solonari argues, Romanians went from “Is it not the duty of every good Romanian, including myself, to defend the country’s borders” to “why should I not accept compulsory population exchange as a way to avoid war” to “can I/should I/must I really protest if some members of those dangerous minorities die in the process? Is it not my duty as a good Romanian to think of my nation’s interests first?” (pp. 338–339).
In an 1862 essay on “Nationality,” Lord Acton had argued, “The greatest adversary of the rights of nationality is the modern theory of nationality. By making the State and the nation commensurate with each other in theory, it reduces practically to a subject condition all other nationalities that may be within the boundary. . . . The settlement at which it aims is impossible.” This is what Solonari’s book demonstrates with shocking precision: “The presence of any other ethnic group in the country’s territory was deemed an anomaly resulting from the machinations of hostile external forces bent on keeping Romanians backward and subdued. Consequently, Romanian nationalists reasoned that in order to create preconditions necessary for the nation’s development . .. all ethnic minorities had to be removed” (p. 333).
This scholarly and well-written book is highly recommended for readers with an interest in the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing during World War II, and the horrific developments in what Timothy Snyder has called “the Bloodlands of Europe.”
Paul E. Michelson