Romania in WWII: An Important Part of the Eastern Front

Romania played a significant part in the Second World War, especially on the Eastern Front, where they fought alongside their German allies.

Mar 16, 2024By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
romania wwii eastern front


Often thought of as being one of the minor Axis powers, if acknowledged at all, Romania’s part in the Second World War was not insignificant. With a dreaded fear of a Soviet invasion, Romania turned to Germany to help secure its borders.


Aiding Germany in its invasion of the Soviet Union, Romanian troops took part in the fighting in Ukraine, Bessarabia, and Stalingrad.


The end results were devastating for Romania, which had precious few choices over its destiny. For the Romanians, all roads would lead to hardships and suffering.


Romania’s Path to the Second World War

romanian troops ww1
Romanian troops during the First World War. Source: Wikimedia Commons


During the First World War, Romania had fought on the side of the Entente and had gained considerable lands at the expense of her neighbors. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires left a power vacuum that Romania could fill, making territorial gains at the expense of both countries.


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This success sparked a nationalist movement to increase the size of Romania to encompass areas in which Romanian speakers lived. A dream of a “Greater Romania” was born.


Despite their loss in the First World War, Hungary remained a threat and was intent on reforming its empire. This put it at odds with many of its neighbors, and Romania, feeling threatened, formed alliances with Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, forming the “Little Entente” in 1921.


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The flag of the Iron Guard. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Soviet Union also posed a threat to countries in Eastern Europe, and Romania signed a defensive pact with Poland in order to deal with the threat.


During the 1920s, Romania remained relatively stable, and with a democratic constitutional monarchy in place, the country leaned somewhat towards the Western sphere of influence. In 1928, the National Peasant Party, a centrist organization led by a great proponent of democracy, Iuliu Maniu, won a landslide victory in what is considered the high point of Romanian democracy. This massive shift towards democracy would be very short-lived.


The Great Depression of the early 1930s would throw the country’s economy into turmoil, and nationalist elements began to emerge in the same vein as the Fascist movement in Italy and the Nazi movement in Germany, both of which were proving to be extremely effective forms of governance. These movements would be further influenced by King Carol II, who acceded to the throne and had a dislike for democracy. With these factors, Romania found itself under the influence of a growing tide of right-wing sentiment.


The biggest political representative of these right-wing sentiments was the Iron Guard, also known as the Legionary Movement, which was religious, nationalist, and anti-semitic.


carol ii 1931
King Carol II with Prime Minister Nicole Iorga in 1931. Source: Wikimedia Commons


In 1938, Carol II took complete control of the government, declaring himself dictator and dissolving all political parties. Despite this, the United Kingdom and France both guaranteed Romania’s independence. Romania’s new political outlook and the proximity of a powerful, irredentist Germany influenced the government to seek protection through good relations with Germany.


Political and territorial disaster would soon follow, however. In August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact, and the invasion of Poland followed soon after. Romania remained neutral at this time despite having a defensive pact with Poland.


Ion Antonescu in 1941. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Soviet Union was retaking the territories it had lost after pulling out of the First World War, and Romania was virtually powerless to stop the Soviets from retaking Bessarabia and northern Bukovina in 1940. The Hungarians took back Northern Transylvania, which they had lost after the First World War, and Bulgaria took southern Dobruja. The latter two deals were done with the mediation of Germany and Italy.


This massive loss of territory was also a disaster for the monarchy, and King Carol II was forced to abdicate. The Iron Guard took control of the country, and Ion Antonescu became the honorary head of the party and head of the government. This arrangement was imperfect, and conflict between Antonescu and the Iron Guard sparked violence in Bucharest.


Under the new regime, Romania joined the Axis powers on November 23, 1940, and began preparing its armies for war. Several days later, the Iron Guard executed 64 former government officials awaiting trial. On January 20 of the following year, the Iron Guard attempted a coup and, in the process, ran through the streets of the capital, murdering Jews. Within a few days, Antonescu had suppressed the rebellion, and the Iron Guard was forced out of government. Most of its top officials fled the country, with many fleeing to Germany, where Heinrich Himmler and the SS had tacitly supported the Iron Guard against Antonescu.


By this point, hundreds of thousands of German soldiers had already crossed the border and were preparing for an invasion of the Soviet Union.


The Invasion of the Soviet Union

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Romanian soldier at Stalingrad. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Antonescu’s original promise to Hitler was that Romania would go so far as to liberate the former Romanian territories of Bessarabia and Bucovina, which had been annexed by the Soviet Union. However, Romania’s dispute with Hungary was a significant factor in urging Antonescu to continue the advance beyond Bessarabia.


Hungary was another Axis power, and Antonescu did not want to alienate Germany as the power that could arbitrate over the matter of Transylvania in Hungary’s favor. It was also argued that if the Soviets were not crushed beyond Bessarabia, they could reform their armies and invade Romania.


The decision was made to follow the German forces beyond the former boundaries of Romania and into the storm of the Eastern Front.


With the element of surprise and the power of the German forces working in their favor, the Romanians quickly liberated Bessarabia and Bucovina. Hungary marched with the Germans further, looking to ingratiate themselves with the Germans in the same Transylvanian territorial dispute. Thus, the competition was on to earn German favor, and Romania marched further eastwards.


The Romanians spent the end of 1941 besieging Odesa and fighting the Soviets in Crimea, but when Germany attacked Stalingrad, the need arose to protect the German 6th Army’s flanks, and Germany’s allies were called upon. Hungary, Italy, and Romania joined the fighting at Stalingrad, a battle that would become the deadliest in human history.


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Romanians during the Second World War. Source: Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons


When the Soviets launched the counter-offensive (Operation Uranus) on November 19, the Romanians on the flanks were directly in the path of the oncoming Soviets. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Romanians put up stiff resistance, but the defenses were eventually pierced by Soviet armor and an intense desire to liberate the motherland from the fascists.


Caught in a massive pincer movement, the fate of over a quarter of a million Axis soldiers was sealed. As the Romanians were tasked with protecting the flanks, the Germans shifted blame to their underequipped allies, but it was clear the failure was a result of German arrogance, especially on the part of Hitler, who insisted on carrying out operations against the advice of his generals.


Stalingrad represented a turning point in the war, which was solidified by the German failure at Kursk a few months later. By the end of 1943, the Romanians, along with the Germans and their Axis allies, were giving ground at a rapid pace.


By this time, the economy of Romania was in dire straits. Much of the wartime goods that were being produced were being sent to Germany without compensation, and Romania was suffering from constant Allied bombing.


The Battle of Romania

captured romanian soldiers 1944
Captured Romanian soldiers in 1944. Source: Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow / Moscow House of Photography


In March 1944, the Soviets were at Romania’s doorstep. The main thrust of the Soviet forces aimed at cutting the country off from Axis support in the north. Initial German defensive lines held, and amid poor Soviet performance, the first offensive was called off. This did little, however, to stem the tide of the Soviet advance, and another, more powerful offensive was inevitable.


This arrived on August 20, and within days, the Axis defenses crumbled along with Romania’s army. By August 29, the offensive had achieved its goal.


On August 23, the Romanian king, Michael, launched a coup against Ion Antonescu and removed him from power. The new Romanian government promptly surrendered to the Allies and declared war on the Axis.



Romania on the Side of the Allies

romanian soldiers 1944
Romanian soldiers August/September 1944. Photo by Yevgeny Khaldei. Source: Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow / Moscow House of Photography via Russia Beyond


Immediately after surrendering to the Soviets, the Romanians joined the war effort against the Axis and, in early September, invaded their former territory of Northern Transylvania. The Hungarians were eventually defeated there, and the Romanians spent the rest of the war fighting alongside the Soviets, taking part in many actions. These included the Siege of Budapest, the Bratislava–Brno Offensive in Slovakia, and the Prague Offensive, which lasted until May 11, three days after Germany had surrendered.


After the war, Transylvania was recognized as part of Romania, but the Soviets demanded $300 million in reparations. Romania would also end up completely in the sphere of Soviet influence, and a communist government was installed. Romania would later become one of the members of the Warsaw Pact.


Romania’s Role in the Holocaust

holocaust memorial bucharest
A Holocaust memorial in Bucharest. Source: Wikimedia Commons


After Ion Antonescu took control of the Romanian government, attacks against Jewish people increased significantly. Iron Guard thugs routinely assaulted Jewish people in the street and smashed the windows of Jewish-owned shops. In the following years, these attacks turned into brutal pogroms.


Romanian Jews were executed en masse or deported to ghettos and concentration camps established by the Romanian authorities. Many were subjected to forced labor, and the conditions were horrific. Thousands died due to starvation, disease, and exposure.


Between 1941 and 1944, 220,000 to 250,000 Romanian Jews were killed. This figure includes the 90,000 who were deported to Auschwitz from Transylvania under Hungarian control. Many thousands of Roma shared the same fate.


For his crimes, Ion Antonescu was tried and convicted of war crimes and was executed.


flag of romania
The Romanian flag. Source: Wikimedia Commons


While it is true that Romania’s position was a difficult one in the lead-up to the Second World War, considering its geographic location and the threats on its borders, there remains a clear indication that the government, supported by large elements within Romanian society, was guilty of the same actions that led Germany towards committing genocide.


Romania’s role in the war, however, was one of reluctance. Beyond the former borders of Romania, the Romanians had little interest in conquest, and their decision to join the Germans in the invasion of the Soviet Union beyond Bessarabia would result in disaster for the right-wing elements in Romania.


Romania’s role in the war was complex and fraught with difficult decisions. As a result, the country suffered over half a million deaths, a broken economy, and a traumatized population.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.