This piece is the foreword to ATHENE PALACE: Hitler’s “New Order” Comes to Rumania by R. G. Waldeck, published by University of Chicago Press
In August 1984, I was in Bucharest reporting on the most repressive state in Communist Europe. Nicolae Ceausescu’s totalitarian regime had turned Romania into a grainy, black-and-white prison yard where the sense of paranoia was so overpowering, so intimidating, that it seemed the country had no past and no future. It wasn’t true that the satellite states of the Soviet bloc were all of a kind. Traveling by rail from Budapest, Hungary to Bucharest in those years, the quality of the houses and other construction immediately deteriorated and the lights went dim as the train car passed into Romania. The toilet paper in the rest room disappeared at the first stop when Romanian officials boarded the train to stamp passports and register typewriters—so controlling was the regime. Romania in the 1980s, as I can attest from several trips there during that decade, was a European country where Stalinism lived on, unbowed.
In the Romania of 1984, the Second World War seemed not decades but centuries removed. After all, the Cold War, which in Eastern Europe had been a fact-of-life for four decades already, appeared likely to go on for many more decades. But so it was that on that, my fifth visit to Romania since 1973, I met an American diplomat and area specialist, Ernest H. Latham Jr., who had made it his passion to collect the memoirs and other writings of visitors to Romania prior to the onslaught of the Communist ice age. Latham told me that I absolutely had to read Athene Palace by R. G. Waldeck, published in 1942, an account of the Nazi takeover of Romania as seen from the vantage point of one magazine correspondent staying at the Athene Palace Hotel in Bucharest from June 1940 to January 1941. It would open my eyes to “another Romania,” he said: one with a pre-Communist past, and, therefore, with a post-Communist future.
At the time, when one thought of a book on World War II Romania, it was the British author Olivia Manning’s 1960 work, Balkan Trilogy, which came to mind. But Latham counseled me that while Manning’s treatment of Romania was on the scale of an epic, Waldeck’s Athene Palace was something even better: an obscure and sparkling little jewel that within the confines of one hotel and the streets around it provided an intimate study of Romanian manners.
Waldeck’s story seems so much more recent today in the second decade of the 21st century than it did when I first read it in 1984. Then the pre-Communist past did not seem quite real. Now, her descriptions of the Romanians, with their intrigues and subterfuges and sensual elegance appear almost contemporary, mirroring as they do the corruption and in-fighting that mark Romanian politics in 2013; as well as all the new and elegant cafes, coffee shops, and other aesthetic paraphernalia that today help to define Bucharest, a city now almost a quarter-century removed from the demise of Ceausescu’s Communism.
Waldeck suggests a people fated by geography to live amidst clashing empires—Austrian and Turkish, German and Russian—a people who have, thus, cultivated survival nearly as an art-form. The Romanians of Waldeck’s narrative, ingratiating themselves in certain instances with the Nazis, were acting according to an historical pattern. For here was yet another advancing empire, more powerful than they, and so the trick was how to both benefit from and endure under the new order.
Thus did Waldeck partly reveal for me the logic of Ceausescu’s rule. Under Ceausescu, the secret police, the Securitatae, was so overwhelming in its influence on the society that it was said that “one half of the country spied on the other half.” This, of course, was apocryphal, even as it captured a reality that few disputed: a significant portion of the country had found a way to survive by working with the regime. And while Ceausescu may have made himself convenient to the West with his so-called maverick foreign policy, his police state was, ultimately, a product of Soviet—make that Russian—imperialism. As a correspondent during the Cold War, I was witnessing but another chapter in Romanian endurance.
What made the country so hard to write about for me was this: precisely because of the freeze-frame, Communist-induced poverty, even urban Romanians had been reduced to a veritable, back-breakingly poor peasantry, and so were robbed of their individuality. One saw them en masse, in other words, dehumanized. But Waldeck’s account, which I read during the darkest period of Ceausescu’s rule, illuminated for me their individuality, allowing me to see Romania and its people slightly differently on my subsequent visits.
Waldeck paints glittering characters in rapid brushstrokes. Even the worst of these Romanians for the most part are not inherently evil people, and some are quite brave. It is easy to condemn ordinary, non-heroic individuals as cowardly in extraordinary historical circumstances that call for equally extraordinary forms of personal and communal resistance. But keep in mind the period that she writes about: the arrival of Nazi power following the West’s essential abandonment of Central and Eastern Europe, as symbolized by the 1938 Munich Pact. She arrived at the grand hotel across the plaza from the King Carol’s palace on the very day the German army marched unopposed into Paris. During Waldeck’s six months in Bucharest, the Holocaust still lay in the future as something few could have imagined, even while the West was already a lost hope. Indeed, it would be another year before the United States entered the war.
As for Waldeck herself, she was born in 1898 as a Jew in Germany, becoming a naturalized American in 1939. She was, thus, one of those multilingual cosmopolitan journalists from an exotic background (by the professional standards of her era), which so enrich the journalistic community of our own day. Just as today we have native Arab speakers employed by American news organizations in order to report on extremist groups in the Middle East, there was American correspondent Rosie Waldeck, whose first language was German, interviewing Nazi officers at the Athene Palace Hotel in Bucharest. It was an extraordinary situation in its own way. Bucharest in the second half of 1940 was perhaps the only other city in Europe aside from Lisbon where Nazis, American newspaper correspondents, and diplomats and spies from the West, the Axis Powers, and the Soviet Union could all sit at the same bar and restaurant tables and take each other’s measure.
Soon, as Waldeck intimates, the whole canvas would go dark. Hitler’s new order descended on Romania in full force, leaving no breathing space for observers like her from the outside. Waldeck, therefore, captures a precious interregnum, when the Germans were infiltrating Romania but before they held all the levers of power. She captures the moment, not as dry history, but as a delicious cocktail of intrigues inside an extraordinary hotel. The book reads almost like a screenplay dashed off by a very knowing mind: that is, by a socially sophisticated woman who is nobody’s fool. Here is a dark nightmare suffused with humanism because of its very concentration on individual characters. A short book, yet a feast.
Robert D. Kaplan is chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm, and the author of fourteen books on foreign affairs and travel translated into many languages, including most recently The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflicts and the Battle against Fate (Random House). He has been a foreign correspondent for The Atlantic for more than a quarter-century.