THE SECOND WORLD WAR
Following the outbreak of World War II on 1 September 1939, the Kingdom of Romania under King Carol II officially adopted a position of neutrality. However, the rapidly changing situation in Europe during 1940, as well as domestic political upheaval, undermined this stance. Fascist political forces such as the Iron Guard rose in popularity and power, urging an alliance with Nazi Germany and its allies. As the military fortunes of Romania’s two main guarantors of territorial integrity—France and Britain—crumbled in the Fall of France, the government of Romania turned to Germany in hopes of a similar guarantee, unaware that the then dominant European power had already granted its consent to Soviet territorial claims in a secret protocol of 1939’s Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.
In summer 1940 a series of territorial disputes were diplomatically resolved unfavorably to Romania, resulting in the loss of most of the territory gained in the wake of World War I. This caused the popularity of Romania’s government to plummet, further reinforcing the fascist and military factions, who eventually staged a coup that turned the country into a dictatorship under Mareșal Ion Antonescu. The new regime firmly set the country on a course towards the Axis camp, officially joining the Axis powers on 23 November 1940. As a member of the Axis, Romania joined the invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, providing equipment and oil to Nazi Germany as well as committing more troops to the Eastern Front than all the other allies of Germany combined. Romanian forces played a large role during fighting in Ukraine, Bessarabia, Stalingrad and elsewhere. Romanian troops were responsible for the persecution and massacre of up to 260,000 Jews in Romanian-controlled territories, though most Jews living within Romania survived the harsh conditions.
According to historian and author Mark Axworthy, the second Axis army in Europe, arguably, belonged to Romania, though, this is disputed since many would agree that this position goes to the Italian army.
After the tide of war turned against the Axis, Romania was bombed by the Allies from 1943 onwards and invaded by advancing Soviet armies in 1944. With popular support for Romania’s participation in the war faltering and German-Romanian fronts collapsing under the Soviet onslaught, King Michael of Romania led a coup d’état that deposed the Antonescu regime and put Romania on the side of the Allies for the remainder of the war; Antonescu was executed in June 1946. Despite this late association with the winning side, Greater Romania was not restored, however the country was able to regain Northern Transylvania from Hungary.
In the aftermath of World War I, Romania, which fought with the Entente against the Central Powers, had greatly expanded its territory, incorporating the regions of Transylvania, Bessarabia, and Bukovina, largely as a result of the vacuum created by the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. This led to the achievement of the long-standing nationalist goal of creating a Greater Romania, a national state that would incorporate all ethnic Romanians. However, the newly gained territories also included significant Hungarian, German, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, and Russian minorities, which put Romania at odds with several of her neighbours. This occasionally led to violent conflict, as exemplified by the Hungarian–Romanian War and the Tatarbunary Uprising. To contain Hungarian irredentism, Romania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia established the Little Entente in 1921.
That same year Romania and Poland concluded a defensive alliance against the emergent Soviet Union, and in 1934 the Balkan Entente was formed with Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey, which were suspicious of Bulgaria.
Since the late 19th century onwards Romania had been a relatively democratic constitutional monarchy with a pro-Western outlook, but the country faced increasing turmoil in the 1930s as a result of the Great Depression in Romania and the rise of fascist and other far-right movements such as the Iron Guard, which advocated revolutionary terrorism against the state. Under the pretext of stabilizing the country, the increasingly autocratic King Carol II proclaimed a ‘royal dictatorship’ in 1938. The new regime featured corporatist policies that often resembled those of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. In parallel with these internal developments, economic pressures and a weak Franco-British response to Hitler’s aggressive foreign policy caused Romania to start drifting away from the Western Allies and closer to the Axis.