Bukovina Under Romanian Rule

From:The History of Bukovina, PART III: BUKOVINA UNDER ROMANIAN RULE (1919-1944),
by Sophie A. Welisch, PhD

Posted with permission of the author, March 2002
Revised 16 March 2017

For almost 150 years a crown land of Habsburg Austria, Bukovina had attracted a multinational immigration from all parts of Europe. Its population, based on the last Austrian census of 1910, confirmed the Romanians as holding a plurality, followed by the Ukrainians, Jews and Germans in that order. Bukovina’s ethnic groups lived in peace with one another while at the same time maintaining their cultural and linguistic differences.

With the outbreak of World War I in August of 1914 Bukovina was in the first line of attack. As a borderland in the Austro-Russian military conflict, it was immediately under siege and overrun by the tsarist armies. Czernowitz fell within a month, was briefly retaken under Colonel Eduard Fischer, then recaptured by the Russians under General Selivanov on November 20, 1914. Fischer’s memoirs, Krieg ohne Heer (War without an Army), published in 1935, depict Austria’s inadequate preparations to defend Bukovina.

By early January of 1915 almost all of Bukovina lay in enemy hands. While the front vacillated during the next three years, Russian forces did not completely withdraw until the Russian Revolution and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918). The years of foreign occupation wrought havoc on the population, whose schools and governmental agencies closed for the duration. The occupying forces lived off the land, plundered at will, and quartered with the local inhabitants, who now became servants in their own homes.

While the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between Russia and the Central Powers took Russia out of the war, the struggle over sovereignty of Austria’s former crown land was just beginning. The defeat of the Central Powers in November of 1918 brought about the repudiation of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the dismemberment of Austria-Hungary. But the victors could not agree on the division of the spoils. Once again Bukovina became a battlefield, this time with Ukrainians challenging Romanians for control of the area. The military and diplomatic chips fell in favor of Romania, one of the Allied and Associated Powers in the war, and against a fledgling Ukrainian state attempting to assert independence. Romania annexed Bukovina as well as Transylvania and the Banat at the expense of Austria-Hungary; southern Dobruja from Bulgaria, and Bessarabia from the Soviet Union rounded out its territorial acquisitions.

Doubling its size and population, Romania now faced the problem of integrating provinces governed by other laws and winning over peoples swayed by other loyalties. Despite its formal acceptance of the Minorities’ Protection Treaty on December 9, 1919, the state did little to safeguard the ethnic identity and institutions of its non-Romanian citizens, who constituted about 28 percent of the total population.

A minority in Bukovina since the Habsburg period, the Germans developed numerous organizations, including the Deutsche Kulturverein für die Bukowina (German Cultural Association for Bukovina), through which they intensified their efforts to foster and maintain their heritage. They also established regional councils (Volksräte) in the various provinces which, under the umbrella group, the Verband der Deutschen in Rumänien (Alliance of the Germans in Romania), attempted to coordinate their policies in the interests of all their co-nationals throughout the kingdom. By electing a number of their candidates to parliament and by supporting others who furthered minority rights, they worked to forestall or ameliorate some of Bucharest’s Romanianization measures.

The Romanian era brought with it the concept of the national state and the concomitant Romanianization of public life and institutions throughout the kingdom. During the interwar period one after another of the German cultural institutions succumbed to various degrees of Romanianization, including the university and the provincial theater in Bukovina’s capital of Czernowitz, as well as the bureaucracy, the press and the public school system. Despite its overwhelmingly German majority, Jakobeny’s three German schools were closed in the 1922-23 academic year with instruction offered only in the new state language of Romanian. The German Cultural Association for Bukovina sponsored private German language courses, but these could hardly compensate for the lack of instruction during the school day. Moreover, after 1918 no German could be nominated as village mayor nor was representation on the village council based on ethnic proportionality. As a result, German influence in local affairs was virtually extinguished with the Germans systematically removed from positions in the civil service and in education.

As the Transylvanian example demonstrated, the churches were the only institutions immune from state interference. Accordingly, two private German high schools were opened, one in Radautz and the other in Czernowitz, both with church affiliation. Although the state in 1932 accredited the high school in Radautz, the girls’ high school in Czernowitz was not so fortunate and had to be closed. Finances prohibited the establishment by the minorities of their own elementary schools.

Through language courses, libraries supported by the Kulturverein, the establishment of orphanages and youth organizations, Romanianization was ameliorated. German periodicals and journals such as Bukowiner Bote, Deutscher Kalender and the Catholic German Volkskalender reached a wide readership. German newspapers including the Czernowitzer Allgemeine Zeitung, Morgenblatt and Vorwärts focused on international issues, taking little notice of local conditions and needs. With the publication of Czernowitzer deutsche Tagespost German concerns in Bukovina found an organ of expression.

Administrative reforms in 1925 resulted in the centralization of government under Bucharest in which Bukovina was divided into five administrative districts: Cernauti, Campulung, Radauti, Storojinet, and Suceava. With this stroke of the pen the very name “Bukovina” became a geographic expression and expunged from the map. A prefect represented the central government in each of these districts. Holdover civil servants from the Austrian period had two years in which to pass written and oral examinations in Romanian language, history and geography. Failure meant dismissal. In some cases, candidates who passed the examinations were transferred to other localities in Romania.

Land reform was a hot button topic in all the successor states, envisioned as a means of redressing perceived wrongs and as a source of patronage. Carried out in the Romanian era under the laws of 1918 and 1921, land reform did little to ameliorate the agrarian problem. The land acquired by those who benefited by the reform averaged 0.6 hectares. In the 1930s we find that 80.7 percent of Bukovina’s German families engaging in agriculture owned under 2.5 hectares of land while at the other end of the spectrum 0.4 percent had holdings of twenty hectares or more. In that it was virtually impossible to live by agriculture alone, many of necessity turned to a trade as a side profession or to emigration.

In addition, a population explosion, begun in the late nineteenth century and continuing into the first decades of the twentieth, threatened to proletarianize the peasantry and reduce them to grinding poverty. Families with fewer than a half dozen children were the exception. Unable to assure the livelihood of their many offspring by further subdivision of their already meager land holdings, parents urged their more adventurous progeny to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Emigration to the New World had already begun before World War I. It is estimated that between 1898 and 1914 at least half the population of the village of Molodia emigrated to Canada. The United States and Brazil also absorbed an influx of immigrants from Bukovina.

In oil-rich, agricultural Romania the average citizen could barely afford kerosene for his lamp or food for his table. A faltering economy struggling with the effects of the Great Depression and a high tariff system forcing producers to rely on a small domestic market promoted general discontent with the politics of the state. In addition, political corruption permeated the system. Without baksheesh (bribery), a carryover from the Ottoman period, little could be accomplished.

In foreign policy Romania committed itself to the status quo of the 1919 peace settlements and further bound itself by treaties to the Little Entente, the Balkan Entente and France. In that the country did not have a contiguous border with either Germany or Austria, territorial questions with these nations never became an issue. The Germans in Romania did not serve as an irredentist group but rather wished to lead as full a national life as did the majority people. This implied Bucharest’s recognition of the multinational rather than the purely national character of the state. Two decades of legal maneuvering with Bucharest, however, failed to safeguard minority interests.

Not until King Carol’s visit to Berchtesgaden on November 24, 1938 and the conclusion of a German-Romanian economic agreement the following March did Romania begin to pursue a more favorable policy toward Germany and its German minority. With the Anschluss of Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938 and the Reich’s Blitzkrieg in Poland in 1939, the Ministry of Education showed a greater willingness to compromise and began negotiations with the Volksräte about reopening the German schools in the 1940-41 academic year. A protocol signed in conjunction with the Second Vienna Award in August of 1940 committed Bucharest to treating the members of the German ethnic group in Romania equally in every way with its Romanian nationals and to continuing to improve their status. The Soviet seizure of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina on June 29, 1940 tipped Romania entirely into the Axis camp, culminating on November 23 with its adherence to the Tripartite Pact (Germany, Italy, Japan).

The Soviet annexation of northern Bukovina (to the Sereth River) brought a flood of refugees and panic to southern Bukovina. Foreign radio broadcasts and local authorities had already prepared the residents of northern Bukovina for the eventualities of Soviet expansion. Its German population, despite strong ties to the land their ancestors had colonized some five generations earlier, opted almost to a person for the opportunity to transfer to Germany when the opportunity presented itself.

The Soviet authorities closed shops, factories and indeed all entrepreneurial establishments, which they later reopened as state-owned enterprises. Food shortages and long lines became commonplace. Nor did the conduct of the occupying forces endear itself to the local population. Eye witnesses still relate anecdotes about the behavior of the rank-and-file Soviet recruits who, unaccustomed to the refinements of the West, drank perfume, ate scented soap, washed potatoes in toilet bowls, and loaded confiscated radios onto trucks with cranes.

Transfer of northern Bukovina’s German population to the Reich proceeded according to an agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union. An individual wishing to emigrate to Germany had to present himself personally to a joint German-Soviet commission, be at least eighteen years of age or accompanied by a parent or guardian, and show evidence of at least one German grandparent. Over 43, 000 Bukovina Germans left by train for camps in Germany in the fall of 1940.

A similar agreement between Germany and Romania resulted in the voluntary transfer of southern Bukovina’s Germans. While not threatened with communism, their decision to emigrate resulted more from the uncomfortably close frontier, reports of refugees, chaos created by the withdrawal of the Romanian armed forces, continuous requisitions, military maneuvers, quartering of troops and last but not least, the suspicion that this only augured worse to come.

It was not so much Bucharest’ s anti-minority measures but the partition of Bukovina and the loss of Czernowitz which triggered the exodus from the south. As the capital and intellectual center, Cernowitz had served as a focal point for German cultural life, with its German-language publishers, sports and choral societies, private high schools and collegiate fraternities all located there. The Germans of the south felt a cultural affinity for Czernowitz, and its loss threatened to rend the fabric of their national life. Over 51,000 Germans left hearth and home in southern Bukovina in the fall of 1940 for an uncertain destiny in a Europe plunged in war. An estimated 7000 Germans declined transfer and remained in their homeland.

With the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 northern Bukovina was again occupied by Romania only to revert to the Soviet Union by conquest and then legitimized by treaty on September 12, 1944. The boundaries of June 29, 1940 were restored: northern Bukovina was incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic while southern Bukovina remained under Romanian administration. With the exodus of the Germans, the decimation of the Jews through the Holocaust, and the voluntary emigration of many of its Hungarian citizens, Bukovina’s ethnic composition moved closer to homogeneity.