Modern history



A FEW DAYS before the Peace Conference officially opened, a rumor reached Rumania that only Belgium and Serbia among the smaller powers would be invited to participate. Ion Brătianu, the Rumanian prime minister, in the grip of “violent emotion,” summoned the Allied ambassadors and complained. “Rumania is treated like a poor wretch deserving pity,” he said, “and not like an Ally who has a right to justice.” He instructed them to tell their governments that Rumania had always been a loyal ally (a dubious statement); he obliquely criticized Serbia for entering the war only because it was attacked; he muttered darkly about people who had lost touch with their own countries (his political enemies, some of whom had made their way to Paris); he warned that if the Allies were not careful, they would lose all influence in Rumania; and he threatened to withdraw (from what, it was not clear). The Allied ambassadors passed on this curious statement to their governments with a warning of their own: it would not do to alienate Rumania, because it was a useful buffer against Russia and Russian Bolshevism. 1 Since the Great Powers fully intended that Rumania should be represented, both performance and warning were unnecessary.

The Rumanians had a high opinion of their own importance; they also had large expectations of the Peace Conference. Early on January 8, Harold Nicolson, from the British delegation, had a brief meeting with two Rumanian delegates: “They say they are ‘too ashamed to speak of internal questions.’ On external questions, however, they show no shame at all, demanding most of Hungary.”2 Rumania also wanted a slice of Russia, Bessarabia, which it was already occupying, and the Bukovina from Austria in the north. Its demands were exorbitant, but it was particularly well placed to achieve them. There was no Russian force capable of stopping it, and Hungary and Austria were humbled. Rumania moved to occupy Hungarian Transylvania and the Bukovina pending a final decision in Paris. That had to wait until the Austrian and Hungarian treaties were drawn up.

Rumania faced a more difficult task with its claim to the Banat—also on Yugoslavia’s list. Sloping westward down from the foothills of the Transylvanian Alps to the southern end of the Hungarian plain, this bucolic backwater caused much controversy in 1919. It was a rich prize: its 11,000 square miles, with their industrious farmers, rich black soil and abundant rivers and streams poured out corn and wheat. Herds of longhaired cows grazed on its pastures, and fat chickens and pigs scratched in its farmyards. The Banat had almost no industry to speak of, no towns of over 100,000, and few great monuments. It was picturesque rather than grand.

On January 31, 1919, Rumanian and Yugoslav representatives came before the Supreme Council. The Chinese, Czechs and Poles had appeared earlier in the week to present their respective cases, a precedent that worried Lloyd George—and he was by no means alone. The day before, he had asked whether there should be a firmer agenda. “He thought the discussion on Czecho-Slovakia and Poland the other day was absolutely wrong. He would not use the term ‘a waste of time’ because that was a very provocative one, and he could already see the glare in the President’s eye! At the same time he thought it was not quite the best method of dealing with the business.” If they were starting to deal with territorial issues, Lloyd George argued, they should get on with it and actually make some decisions. After an inconclusive discussion, the council accepted Balfour’s suggestion that they might as well hear the Rumanians and Serbs out because it would make them happier.3 Like many of Balfour’s solutions, it was more elegant than practical.

As the light faded on that cold afternoon, Brătianu presented Rumania’s case. Rich and polished to the point of absurdity, Brătianu had a profound sense of his own importance. He had been educated in the Hautes Ecoles in Paris, and never let anyone forget it; he loved to be discovered lying on a sofa with a book of French verse in a languid hand. Nicolson, who met him at a lunch early on in the conference, was not impressed: “Bratianu is a bearded woman, a forceful humbug, a Bucharest intellectual, a most unpleasing man. Handsome and exuberant, he flings his fine head sideways, catching his own profile in the glass. He makes elaborate verbal jokes, imagining them to be Parisian.” Women rather liked him. “The eyes of a gazelle and the jaw of a tiger,” said one. Queen Marie of Rumania, who knew all about seductions, demurely recalled an evening when the full moon had made him “sentimental.” In a less charitable mood, she told Wilson that he was “a tiresome, sticky and tedious individual.” 4

Throwing open his briefcase with what Nicolson described as “histrionic detachment,” he claimed the whole of the Banat. “He is evidently convinced that he is a greater statesman than any present. A smile of irony and self-consciousness recurs from time to time. He flings his fine head in profile. He makes a dreadful impression.”5 His arguments ran from the strictly legalistic (Rumania had been promised the Banat in the secret clauses of the Treaty of Bucharest of 1916 with which the Allies had enticed Rumania into the war) to the Wilsonian (Rumanians ought to be in one nation). In the course of his peroration he called in ethnology, history, geography and Rumania’s wartime sacrifices. He also hinted that the Serbians had tilted toward Austria-Hungary in the past. (The Serbians were to make the same accusation about the Rumanians.)

Vesnić and Trumbić replied. They pointed out that Serbia was asking for only the western part of the Banat. While they could not call on secret treaties, they could otherwise use the same sorts of arguments as the Rumanians. “Since the Middle Ages,” said Vesnić, “the portion of the Banat claimed by Serbia had always been closely connected with the Serbian people.” Historically, he went on, “as the Isle of France was to France, and Tuscany to Italy, so was the Banat to Serbia.” It had given birth to the Serb Renaissance and later Serbian nationalism. And when the Serbian royal family had been exiled, it had naturally taken refuge there. (To this Brătianu replied, reasonably enough, that the vagaries of Serbian politics had occasionally driven its rulers into Rumania proper, but this was scarcely reason for Serbia to claim that as well. 6)

In the discussion Wilson noted, with some surprise, that the delegates from the Balkan nations did not “represent their facts in the same way, and there would always be something that was not quite clear.” The United States was always ready, he said, to approve a settlement based on facts. Balfour, who had been half asleep, intervened to ask an apparently simple question: Were there any figures as to the ethnic mix of the Banat? Yes, said the Yugoslavs; the western part, which they were claiming, was predominantly Serb and, moreover, so were monasteries and convents all over the Banat. There were, of course, large numbers of Germans and Hungarians, but they would much rather be part of Serbia than Rumania. No, said Brătianu, Rumanians were in the majority if you took the Banat as a unit (for political and historical reasons the only thing to do); monasteries were neither here nor there because everyone knew the Serbs, like all Slavs, tended to be religious; and, as for the Germans and Hungarians, the Serbs would have trouble managing such large minorities.7

On February 1, Brătianu produced the full list of Rumania’s demands: the Banat, Transylvania, Bessarabia on the Russian border, and the Bukovina in the north, all of which he claimed were historically and ethnically part of Rumania. The Allies acquiesced on Bessarabia and the Bukovina; they had little enthusiasm for handing the one back to a Bolshevik Russia and the other over to what looked then like a Bolshevik Hungary. Transylvania was a much larger piece of land and a more complicated issue. The Allies assumed that they would deal with that at their leisure when they got around to doing the Hungarian treaty.

Brătianu warned that the Great Powers must settle Rumania’s claims before matters got out of hand and “serious developments” took place. “Roumania was in need of the moral support of the Allies, if she was to remain what she had been hitherto—a rallying point for Europe against Bolshevism.”8 This, of course, was a popular argument in Paris, but in the case of Rumania, which lay between the new Bolshevik Russia and revolutionary Hungary, a powerful one. Geography helped Rumania in another way: it was too far away for the Allies to enforce their will. Rumania had been an ally during the war, although a notoriously unreliable one, and promises, as awkward now as those to Italy, had been made by Britain and France.

The Rumania that Paris knew was the cultivated and worldly one of Princess Marthe Bibesco, whose salon was famous in Paris before the war, or of her beautiful young cousin, who married into an ancient French aristocratic family and as Anna de Noailles became one of the most famous poets of her generation. The Rumanian upper classes loved France: they bought educations in Paris for their children, and clothes and furniture for themselves. And the French reciprocated in their own offhand way; Rumania, it was said, was a fellow Latin country, the Rumanians descendants of Roman legionaries and Rumanian a Latin language. In the nineteenth century, France had supported the cause of Rumanian independence from the Ottomans; in 1919, the French government envisaged a strong Rumania as both a counterbalance against Germany and as a crucial link in the cordon sanitaire against Russian Bolshevism. The Rumanians themselves made much of their Western connections: they were the heirs of the Roman empire, part of Western civilization. Conveniently for the peace negotiations, they could argue that all the old Roman province of Dacia including part of Transylvania, which belonged to Hungary, should be restored to them.

There was another Rumania, though, with a more complicated history: the Rumania that had been invaded and settled over the centuries by peoples from the east; that had been divided up among the kingdoms that had come and gone in the center of Europe, and that, as Moldavia and Wallachia, had been under the sway of the Ottoman empire since the early sixteenth century. The Rumanian aristocrats who spoke such beautiful French and who came to Paris to buy their clothes had portraits of their grandparents in caftans and turbans.

Their society was deeply marked by the years under corrupt Ottoman rule. Rumanians had a saying: “The fish grows rotten from the head.” In Rumania almost everything was for sale: offices, licenses, passports. Indeed, a foreign journalist who once tried to change money legally instead of on the black market was thrown into jail by police who thought he must be involved in a particularly clever swindle. Every government contract produced its share of graft. Although Rumania was a wealthy country, rich in farmland and, by 1918, with a flourishing oil industry, it lacked roads, bridges and railways because the money allocated by government had been siphoned off into the hands of families such as Brătianu’s own. Rumanians tended to see intrigues everywhere. In Paris they hinted darkly that the Supreme Council had fallen under the sway of Bolshevism or, alternatively, that it had been bribed by sinister capitalist forces.9

Visitors to Rumania from Western Europe were struck by its exotic, even Oriental, flavor, from the onion domes of the Orthodox churches to which most of the inhabitants belonged, to the cabdrivers who wore blue velvet caftans and came from a sect where men were castrated after they had produced two children. Before the war Bucharest, the capital, was charming but backward. Most of its buildings were low and rambling, its unpaved streets busy with street vendors selling live birds, fruit, pastries or carpets. Dark-eyed Gypsy girls hawked their flowers; in the nightclubs their men played Gypsy music or the popular “Tu sais que tu es jolie.” Well-to-do families lived with their own livestock in compounds guarded by Albanians.10

Rumania, for all its claims to an ancient past, was a relatively new country. Moldavia and Wallachia had gained a limited independence from the Ottomans by the mid-nineteenth century and complete independence by 1880. Together they formed a reverse L, with the richer, more developed province of Wallachia running east–west along the south side of the Transylvanian Alps, and Moldavia to the east of the Carpathians. In 1866 they had gained their own German prince, later King Carol, who had dodged the Austrian attempts to stop him by taking a Danube steamer disguised as a traveling salesman. His wife was a famous mystic who wrote poetry and romances under the pen name Carmen Sylva.

The Rumanians themselves were the Neapolitans of central Europe. Both sexes loved strong scents. Among the upper classes, women made up heavily, and men rather more discreetly, but even so the military authorities had to restrict the use of cosmetics to officers above a certain rank. Even after Rumania entered the war, foreign observers were scandalized to see officers strolling about “with painted faces, soliciting prostitutes or one another.” Noisy, effusive, melodramatic, fond of quarreling, Rumanians of all ranks threw themselves into their pastimes with passionate enthusiasm. “Along with local politics, love and love-making are the great occupation and preoccupation of all classes of society,” said a great Rumanian lady, adding: “Morality has never been a strong point with my compatriots, but they can boast of charm and beauty, wit, fun, and intelligence.” Even the Rumanian Orthodox Church took a relaxed view of adultery; it allowed up to three divorces per individual on the grounds of mutual consent alone.11

Before Brătianu arrived in Paris, Rumania’s spokesman had been the distinguished and charming Take Ionescu. Cheerful, dapper and well fed, he had studied law at the Sorbonne and spoke excellent French. His equally cheerful English wife, Bessie, was the daughter of a boardinghouse keeper in Brighton. Ionescu had been pro-Ally since the start of the war and played a considerable part in bringing Rumania in on the Allied side. On Rumania’s claims, he was more moderate than his prime minister. “His attitude,” reported an American delegate, “is very friendly towards the Serbs: the Bulgars, he says, have behaved very badly; of the 28,000 Rumanian prisoners taken by the Bulgarians only 10,000 survived captivity.” On the Banat, Ionescu was for doing a deal: “they must be friends with Serbia and he does not want to hog the whole Banat, but will give them the southwestern portion.”12

And in fact a deal had been made in October 1918. Ionescu had met with the Yugoslavs and hammered out an agreement, actually close to the one that was reached months later, giving Rumania the largest part of the Banat and Serbia the rest. The deal had been attacked in the Rumanian press as a betrayal of the Rumanian nation and was finally scuppered by Brătianu, partly at least because he hated Ionescu. When Rumania’s delegation was chosen for the Peace Conference, Brătianu made sure that Ionescu was omitted. 13

The Rumanian claim to the Banat stressed, inevitably, ethnic factors. It also laid heavy emphasis on Rumania’s record in the war. This was not perhaps the wisest choice. Rumania, sensibly, had stood aside when the war started. Brătianu, who was then prime minister, told his colleagues that they must wait for the most favorable bid. Less sensibly, the Brătianu government had made this too obvious, behaving, said a French diplomat, “like a peddler in an oriental bazaar.” When the Allies appeared to be gaining the upper hand in the summer of 1916, Rumania finally decided to enter the war, extracting as its price a promise that it would get the whole of the Banat, Transylvania and most of the Bukovina. Privately the Russians and the French agreed that they would review the whole package when peace came.14

Rumania’s timing was bad; by the time its troops were ready to move, the Central Powers had rallied. By the end of 1916 over half the country was occupied by Germans and Austrians; during that winter, 300,000 Rumanians out of a total of six million died from disease and starvation. Its allies, unfairly perhaps, blamed Rumania itself for the disaster. Under a new Treaty of Bucharest with the Central Powers in May 1918, Rumania dropped out of the war, an understandable move but one that had implications for its territorial claims. Since in the earlier Treaty of Bucharest in 1916, Rumania had promised not to make a separate peace, the Allies now considered themselves no longer bound by their promises. Clemenceau never forgave Brătianu for his treachery. Brătianu dealt with the awkwardness by resigning and letting his successors (whom he had chosen) take responsibility. He managed to delay ratification of the new treaty in parliament and on November 10, 1918, declared war again on Germany. This, he announced cheerfully, meant that the deal with the Allies still stood. Rumania had made peace only in order to conserve its strength for war: “neither legally, practically, nor morally, were the Rumanians ever really at peace with the enemy.” Just in case, though, he quietly arranged with the Italians, themselves anxious to limit Serbia’s gains, that their two countries would stand together on the need to adhere to wartime treaties.15

The Supreme Council found Rumania’s demands excessive and the wrangling with Yugoslavia over the Banat tedious. (Brătianu complained that some of them had slept during his presentation.) It was with obvious relief that the peacemakers adopted Lloyd George’s recommendation to refer Rumania’s claims, including those to the Banat, to a subcommittee of experts for a just settlement. When it had studied the matter, he added optimistically, and teased out the truth, only a few issues would have to come back before the council. Wilson agreed, with the reservation that the experts should not look at the political side of the problem. (What was “political” was never defined.) Clemenceau, perhaps as a result of Wilson’s intervention, remained virtually speechless and Orlando made an ineffectual plea to settle the borders then and there. And so the future of the Banat, along with other prize pieces of territory in south-central Europe, was shipped off to a special territorial commission, the first of many, which was to have no more success in bringing the different sides together. In time, the Commission on Rumanian and Yugoslav Affairs dealt with all of Yugoslavia’s boundaries, except the ones with Italy which, on Italian insistence, were reserved for the Supreme Council.16

Although the experts on the territorial commissions (eventually there were six in all) could not know it, almost all their recommendations were to go into the various peace treaties unchanged because their leaders simply did not have the time to consider them in detail. The Rumanian commission eventually broadened its scope until its experts determined the future shapes of Yugoslavia, Rumania, Greece and Bulgaria and the future balance of power in the Balkans, between Hungary and its neighbors and between Soviet Russia and south-central Europe. “How fallible one feels here!” Nicolson, one of the British experts, wrote. “A map—a pencil— tracing paper. Yet my courage fails at the thought of the people whom our errant lines enclose or exclude, the happiness of several thousands of people.” 17

The Supreme Council did not explain what made a just settlement. Did it mean providing defensible borders? Railway networks? Trade routes? In the end the experts agreed only that they would try to draw boundaries along lines of nationality. The Banat, the piece of land that triggered the process, also gave warning as to its difficulties. It held a rich mix of Serbs, Hungarians, Germans, Russians, Slovaks, Gypsies, Jews, even some scattered French and Italians. And there was always the problem of how to count heads in an area where the whole notion of national identity was as slippery as the Danube eels. In the gilt and tapestries of the banqueting room at the Quai d’Orsay, the Rumanian commission got out the maps, read the submissions, heard the witnesses and tried to impose a rational order on an irrational world.18

They also, in the case of the Europeans, kept their own national interests in mind. The French, looking for allies in central Europe, wanted both Rumania and Yugoslavia to be strong and friendly. The Italians split hairs and quibbled over procedure, all with the aim of blocking Yugoslav demands, and then appalled the Americans by hinting that they might agree to some of them in return for Italy’s own claims in the Adriatic being accepted. Even where they could have made a magnanimous, and better still a cost-free, gesture in accepting Yugoslavia’s claim on the Klagenfurt area of Austria, they would not. “Poor diplomacy,” in the opinion of Charles Seymour, a young historian from Yale University. A French colleague was blunter: “He did not mind the Italian’s crookedness, but he did object to the gaucherie.” The Americans tried valiantly to pin down the elusive just settlement, and the British tried to reconcile the Americans and the French. “There was a good deal of jockeying to begin with,” reported Seymour, “and a good deal of rather dirty work in maneuvering for position, so to speak. The British stood firm with us in killing this and in getting down to honest work.”19

Brătianu made a poor impression, refusing to compromise, showing his temper and sulking when questioned too closely. He made the curious argument that granting the whole of the Banat to Rumania would actually improve relations with Yugoslavia, like “a tooth which has to be extracted.” He also made threats: if he did not get the Banat, he would resign and let the Bolsheviks take over in Rumania. He tried to appeal over the experts’ heads to Wilson, who sent him along to see House, who had to endure a drunken harangue about how Rumania had been betrayed by its allies. Brătianu also accused Hoover of holding up loans and food supplies until American interests, Jewish ones at that, got concessions to Rumania’s oil. The news coming in from Central Europe did not help his case. Rumania was advancing beyond the armistice lines into Hungary and Bulgaria; its troops were massing on the northern edge of the Banat; it was making wild accusations that Serbs were murdering Rumanian civilians. The Yugoslavs by comparison appeared reasonable. 20

At the beginning of March the Rumanian delegation received a reinforcement when Queen Marie, accompanied by three plump daughters, arrived on the royal train. Colette described her for Le Matin: “The morning was grey, but Queen Marie carried light within her. The glitter of her golden hair, the clarity of her pink and white complexion, the glow in her imperious yet soft eyes—such an apparition renders one speechless.” The queen spoke charmingly of her longing to help her country; she called attention to her war work. “I simply went, My God!, I simply went wherever they called for me, and they needed me everywhere.” She was, she said modestly, “a sort of banner raised for my country.”21

She was indeed. It was fortunate that the heir to the Rumanian throne had married the one grandchild of Queen Victoria who had no difficulty in shaking off her English upbringing and adopting the ways of her new country. Ferdinand was deadly dull, shy and stupid; she was lovely, vivacious and adulterous. Her new subjects found this endearing. Her lovers included Joe Boyle, the dashing Canadian millionaire miner from the Klondike, and Brătianu’s brother-in-law, who fathered, it was said, all of her children except the disastrous one who became King Carol. She was also very extravagant. Her trip to Paris was as much about shopping for herself as about her country. “Rumania,” she cried, “has to have Transylvania, Bessarabia too. And what if for the lack of a gown, a concession should be lost?” She talked constantly of “my” ministers, country and army. Her husband, the king, she ignored; she claimed that a letter of advice he sent to Paris was “almost impossible to read but as the first sentence began that he had complete confidence in her she never attempted to read any of the rest.”22

From her suite at the Ritz Hotel, she set out to conquer the powerful. She entreated Foch, with some success, to send weapons to Rumania, ostensibly for its fight against Bolshevism. She flattered House, who found her “one of the most delightful personalities of all the royal women I have met in the West.” The British ambassador in Paris dined with her: “She really is a most amusing woman and if she was not so simple you would think she was very conceited.” She asked Balfour prettily whether she should talk about her recent purchases or the League of Nations with Wilson. “Begin with the League of Nations,” he advised, “and finish up with the pink chemise. If you were talking to Mr. Lloyd George, you could begin with the pink chemise!” Lloyd George found her “very naughty, but a very clever woman.” Clemenceau was amused by her. He spoke to her frankly, though, about his displeasure with Rumania for having made a separate peace with the enemy, and about his dislike of Brătianu. When he accused Rumania of wanting the lion’s share of the Banat, Marie answered archly, “that is just why I came to see his first cousin, the Tiger.” Clemenceau shot back, “A tiger never had a child by a lioness.” 23

Her great failure was Wilson. She shocked him at their first meeting by talking about love. Grayson, Wilson’s doctor, agreed: “I have never heard a lady talk about such things. I honestly did not know where to look I was so embarrassed.” Marie then invited herself to lunch, “with one or two of my gentlemen.” She arrived half an hour late with an entourage of ten people. “Every moment we waited,” another guest noticed, “I could see from the cut of the president’s jaw that a slice of Rumania was being lopped off.” The queen thought the lunch went off very well; indeed, she felt that her time in Paris had done much to help her people. “I had pleaded, explained, had broken endless lances in their defense. I had given my country a living face.”24

She might have been better advised to spend more time on the subordinates of the great men. On March 18, the Rumanian commission divided up the prize of the Banat, with the western third going to Yugoslavia and most of the rest to Rumania. It also gave Yugoslavia about a quarter of the Baranya and well over half the Backa on the western end of the Banat. The American experts, concerned as always with ethnic fairness, insisted on a predominantly Hungarian area near the city of Szeged remaining with Hungary. On June 21, in spite of passionate protests from the Rumanians, the Supreme Council accepted the recommendations. The Yugoslavs briefly caused problems by refusing to evacuate an island in the Danube that had been awarded to Rumania, and in the autumn of 1919 there was tension between Rumania and Yugoslavia in the Banat. It was not until 1923 that the two countries grudgingly agreed to respect the award.

Yet the new line on the map could not tidy up the population. Almost 60,000 Serbs were left in Rumania, while 74,000 Rumanians and almost 400,000 Hungarians remained in Yugoslavia. In the new world of ethnic states which had triumphed in the center of Europe, the situation of such minorities was uneasy; they were too often treated as interlopers, even though they had been there for centuries. Rumania and Yugoslavia both pursued policies of assimilation. Yugoslavia eventually grouped its gains from Hungary together as the Vojvodina; Belgrade ruled, as it does today, with a heavy hand. Serbian was decreed the language of business; shop signs had to be in the Cyrillic alphabet, although the Latin script might be used as long as it came underneath; concerts had to include a stated number of Serb pieces; newspapers and school textbooks were strictly censored. In the 1930s, a foreign observer noticed that even Serbs in the Vojvodina were singing a sad little song:

I gave four horses
To bring the Serbs here—
I would give eight
To take them away.25

During the Second World War, Hitler’s Germany and Hungary divided up the area; it then became a battleground between the occupiers and the resistance. Szeged, the town that the Americans had insisted on giving to Hungary, became the site of the camp where Jews from the Vojvodina, and indeed from all over that part of Europe, were killed. Today there are few Jews or Gypsies left in the Vojvodina, but the population is still mixed. Only half is Serb, and almost a quarter is Hungarian. Belgrade has fallen back on the familiar techniques of intimidation and repression to keep it under control. It is difficult to see a peaceful future.

Of all the victors at the Peace Conference, Rumania made by far the greatest gains, doubling in population and in size. Moreover, it has, unusually, managed to hang on to most of its gains. Bessarabia, it is true, went back to the Soviet Union after the Second World War. The Soviets also took about half of the Bukovina in the north, and the Bulgarians took back part of the disputed Dobrudja in the south. But Rumania still holds its greatest gain: Transylvania.

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