Athene Palace: Hitler's

Athene Palace: Hitler's "New Order" Comes to Rumania


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On the day that Paris fell to the Nazis, R. G. Waldeck was checking into the swankiest hotel in Bucharest, the Athene Palace. A cosmopolitan center during the war, the hotel was populated by Italian and German oilmen hoping to secure new business opportunities in Romania, international spies cloaked in fake identities, and Nazi officers whom Waldeck discovered to be intelligent but utterly bloodless. A German Jew and a reporter for Newsweek, Waldeck became a close observer of the Nazi invasion. As King Carol first tried to placate the Nazis, then abdicated the throne in favor of his son, Waldeck was dressing for dinners with diplomats and cozying up to Nazi officers to get insight and information. From her unique vantage, she watched as Romania, a country with a pro-totalitarian elite and a deep strain of anti-Semitism, suffered civil unrest, a German invasion, and an earthquake, before turning against the Nazis.
A striking combination of social intimacy and disinterest political analysis, Athene Palace evokes the elegance and excitement of the dynamic international community in Bucharest before the world had comes to grips with the horrors of war and genocide. Waldeck’s account strikingly presents the finely wrought surface of dinner parties, polite discourse, and charisma, while recognizing the undercurrents of violence and greed that ran through the denizens of Athene Palace.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226086330
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/22/2013
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 835,133
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

R. G. Waldeck (1898–1982) was a German-American journalist and author of several books, including Prelude to the Past.

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Athene Palace

Hitler's "New Order" Comes to Rumania

By R. G. Waldeck

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013 Robert D. Kaplan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-08647-7



When will it be recognized in Europe that peoples have only that degree of liberty in and among themselves which their courage wrests from their cowardice? STENDHAL

I came to the Athene Palace the day Paris fell, in the summer of 1940. The Square before the hotel was still and hot that day, the only comfortable spot it offered being the short shadow cast by the canopy over the Athene Palace entrance. There was a patch of lawn before the hotel, bordered with gigantic red gladiolas, but all around this bit of vegetation was a vast expanse of asphalt, with nothing growing on it but a beautiful bronze horse with a bronze rider, high on a red-granite base. The rider was Carol I, founder of the present Rumanian dynasty. Facing as they did, horse and rider seemed about to jump over the gate right into the present Carol's palace.

The Athene Palace lined the width of the Piazza Atheneului, Bucharest's magic square that opens on the most glamorous artery of the Near East, the Calea Victoriei. Imagine the White House, the Waldorf Astoria, Carnegie Hall, Colony Restaurant, and the Lincoln Memorial, all standing together around a smallish square blossoming out on an avenue which is a cross between Broadway and Pennsylvania and Fifth Avenues, and you understand what the Piazza Atheneului means to Rumania. Here was the heart of Bucharest topographically, artistically, intellectually, politically—and, if you like, morally.

At the left of the hotel, on the long side of the Piazza, was an ugly building designed along classical lines in a dirty yellow. This was the Athene, the concert hall that gave the Square and the hotel their name and where Georges Enesco, Rumania's beloved maestro, conducted his concerts. Next to the Athene was smart Cina's Restaurant with its lovely garden, the rendezvous of Bucharest's real and café society.

Only a stone's throw away, at the right of the hotel where the Piazza merged with the Calea Victoriei, King Carol's white palace began. One says "began" because the palace, looking very new and unfinished all the way, sprawled on and on up the Calea Victoriei, Rumania's road of destiny on which the Turkish conquerors had descended upon the city from the South and the German conquerors from the North, and which had witnessed all the passing glories and miseries of the country.

Built in 1910 and styled originally after the fashionable Paris hotels, the Meurice and the Ritz, the Athene Palace had two years ago been scraped clean of its caryatides and turrets and its façade streamlined into white smoothness with all the shutters painted a brilliant blue. The entrance hall, too, with its modernistic desk and gleaming showcases of glass and aluminum, had the same forcibly functional look. Even in the mirrored green salon with its low sofas and tables, a modern decorator had tried his hand; but for the rest you did not find much streamlining inside the hotel. You were apt to live in a pseudo-Louis XV room hung with blue brocades, and the restaurant was red and gold and white in the manner of the French restaurants of the second Empire. In the large darkish lobby where you spent most of your days, rows of yellow marble pillars formed three naves as in a church.

When the revolving door first discharged me into the cool entrance hall of the Athene Palace, I felt little beyond the traveling journalist's curiosity for the most famous hostelry of the Balkans. Landing in Naples in May, I had travelled leisurely through an Italy more poignantly beautiful than ever on the eve of her disastrous folly. I had spent a fortnight in Jugoslavia, where the abandon with which every racial group and political- and court- faction was busy hating every other racial group and political- and court-faction was bewildering in view of the pressing danger from outside. Rumania was meant to be merely the next short stage on a long journey around the war. Such at least had been the plan with which I had set out from America for Europe, and I could not know that here at this odd, elegant Grand Hotel I would get the perfect close-up of the Nazis' conquest and colonization of Europe; a close-up which, though it covered only a slab of Europe, lost nothing of its significance by its size—a blood test is taken from only a drop of blood.

When I came to the Athene Palace on that hot June afternoon in 1940, I was an American who had felt, and still did feel against my will, that Hitler might not only win the war but could win the peace and organize Europe if he did. When I left the Athene Palace on an icy morning at the end of January 1941, I was convinced that under no circumstances could Hitler win the peace or organize Europe.

Hitler's recent military victories had little to do with my earlier conviction that he could win the war and the peace. It went farther back than that, back to a night in March 1936, in Berlin. Hitler's troops had just marched into the Rhineland and I saw high German officials tremble in their boots for fear of the consequences. One of them confided to me that each German troop commander who marched carried a sealed order telling him to retreat from the Rhineland area—the second the French and English made a warlike move, Hitler would have given the sign to open that order. This was, I felt, the last moment when a strong stand on the part of France and England could have blown away the nightmare of Hitlerism. It would not even have been necessary to fight. But the democracies let the moment pass.

From then on everything I saw on my travels across the European continent seemed to confirm this conviction. The statesmen of the democracies, vacillating, weak, petty, betrayed the principles they were supposedly living by; failed in every effort to present a united front to dictatorship; ignored every opportunity of finding generous and imaginative solutions for the emergencies created by the cruelty of totalitarian revolution; failed especially to provide a program which appealed to the European peoples.

These European peoples themselves had become increasingly indifferent to democracy, which was advertised to them in intellectual terms of freedom of thought and freedom of speech, but which in terms of their daily experience meant chiefly freedom to starve. I saw that not more than ten percent of the people on the European continent cared for individual freedom or were vitally enough interested in it to fight for its preservation. As to the remaining ninety percent, they were partly unaware of the real nature of Hitler's menacing shadow, partly indifferent to it, and partly ready to take a chance on the Führer.

Facing this torn-up, stagnant world was the German nation powerfully united in the one purpose of conquest, a purpose which appealed to the people's most intimate dreams. Added to this was the amazing phenomenon of the German leaders, who deceived and lied all the time but who could afford to be cruelly sincere when it was a question of the sacrifices they demanded from the people and of the necessity to fight; leaders frightfully imaginative and bold in planning and organizing, so much so that the rest of the world still pooh-poohed the feasibility of their plans when they were already carried out. Hitler's revolution, it seemed to me, was the answer to what Ortega y Gasset called "the formidable cry rising like the howling of innumerable dogs asking someone or something to take command, to impose an occupation, a duty." Hitler, I felt, could take Europe from the democracies like candy from a baby.

Not that any of this afforded me pleasure! I had nothing to gain and everything to lose from the victory of an order of which antisemitism was an integral part. Besides, it was hard for an intellectual, vitally interested in freedom of thought and speech, to find that so few people in Europe were similarly interested. I viewed my diagnosis of Europe with the agonized fascination that a doctor turns on the X-ray plate of his own deadly cancer, always hoping that the diagnosis will prove wrong, yet in a detached, scientific way interested in the progress of the illness as such. I never found, in these years studded with surrender and defeat, anything that seemed to disprove my diagnosis—until I came to the Athene Palace. Then, at close quarters, I saw the Nazis conquer and impose their new European order.

Rumania in 1940 was both an easy conquest and a fertile place to establish a new order. Here the Nazis found a bloodstained corrupt regime, despised by everyone except the few people who profited by it. Here the Germans found an upper class indifferent or pro-Nazi. Here they found a deep-seated popular antisemitism. Here they found a fascist movement which, decimated though it was, had the halo of martyrdom. Here they found four-fifths of the people, eleven million out of fourteen—peasants, humble, starving, inarticulate, abjectly poor—who had never enjoyed any of the privileges of democracy. It would seem that, if the Nazis could establish their new order anywhere in Europe, Rumania was the place of places. Yet even under such ideal circumstances, the Germans succeeded only partially in establishing their order, and then only because they were able to enforce it at any moment by military might.

All this I watched during my seven months at the Athene Palace. And that is why I became convinced that Hitler, even if he should win Europe, would not be able to win the peace and establish his New Order.

Toward evening of the day I came to the Athene Palace a light breeze relieved the glaring heat. The sinking sun put a rose sheen on the whiteness of King Carol's palace, and brought life to the bronze Carol I in the Square. Cars began to come out then, and people. At one point in the Square each car hit a bump in the asphalt, jumped high, then wobbled amusingly as it settled down.

This was the hour of the "Korso," the slow nightly stroll up and down the Calea Victoriei which was dear to the hearts of Bucharestians. It was the bourgeoisie of Bucharest which made the Korso, looking as the bourgeoisie looks in most Southeastern capitals of Europe. The women were mostly hatless, with dark curls swept up over highly made-up, strong-featured, large-eyed faces. Voluptuous bodies balanced gingerly on the exaggerated cothurns of cork which served as shoes. These were Western women, but about them hung the flavor of the harem. They were an attractive mixture beside whom their men were disappointing. Rumanian men pride themselves that they descend from the bastards whom dashing Roman conquerors begot with the native Dacian ladies. But since the Roman colonization under Emperor Trajan torrents of barbaric populations successively descended upon Rumania: Goths and Ostrogoths, Sarmates and Huns, Tartars and Bulgars, Finno-Hungarians and Mongols, and finally the Turks had conquered the country, one after the other. All left their mark on the Rumanian men, flattening out their hard tribune's profiles and grafting all kinds of un-Latin features upon them. I knew that there were handsome Rumanians, but the average product as it appeared that night on the Square was pasty-faced and paunchy.

Collectively these people seemed a pleasant crowd, but as I watched them from my window on the first floor of the Athene Palace—couple by couple, person by person—I saw that they were tense and did not smile. For this day had given them a bolt from the blue, sudden, unexpected, devastating. Yesterday ten out of their twelve daily newspapers—the remaining two were said to be paid by Dr. Goebbels—had expressed the confidence of the past year: pro-Ally bulletins, pro-Ally editorials, and articles by Allied military experts were prominent and, as for the last nine months, all of them scoffed at the ability of an ill-fed, ill-trained German horde to attack mighty France. German victories in Poland, Norway, Holland, and Belgium were called military stupidity on the part of these small countries, and the work of treasonable fifth columns.... But the French! They would just have to say "Assez" and the Nazis would be licked.

Then today, under the pressure of hard facts, the Rumanian press had for the first time told the truth; all regular editions and one-page extras gave information of a new sort. It could not be said any longer that papers predicting French defeat were supported by Goebbels. Goebbels was not everywhere; Goebbels could not have planted in every paper the story that Hitler had demanded the surrender of Paris to save it from destruction. Or that the French had declared Paris an open city. Nor could the radio be guilty of deception when it carried Reynaud's appeal to America....

Night was falling on the Square with a suddenness which was reminiscent of the Orient. The bold outlines of the bronze rider faded into the dusk. Though the people were blotted out by the night and I could not see their faces or hear their voices, I knew that they were talking of France—loved, admired France—now beaten and crushed. Paris deserted, open to the victorious Germans. Roads to the south crammed with millions of peoples following the government in senseless flight. No other people in Europe had had such a passion for France as the Rumanians; France was tied up with every great hour of Rumania's short independence. The Rumanian horizon had always been filled with France; there had been no place in it for anyone else, not even for England.

The bond began when the Moldavian and Walachian Principalities, under the belated influence of the liberal ideas of the French Revolution, shook off the yoke of their Turkish masters and the Greek phanariotes and turned to what they called Europe—but which really was France. From then on, sons of Rumanian princes and boyards were sent off to Paris to learn the ways of the great world and young Walachian liberals were sent to the same place to learn the means of revolution. And when they returned to Bucharest the former continued to make love, and the latter to make politics, like the French. Malicious Bucharestians called these young dandies "Bonjouristes," for they spoke French rather than Rumanian and were always yearning for Paris. Yet it was from their passion for France that was born the real independence of Rumania.

There is one story which the Rumanians like to tell caricaturing their newness on the European scene. It is about Jon Bratianu, who fled to Paris after the revolution of 1848 failed in the Principalities. Jon Bratianu went around Paris trying to interest the Paris liberals in his idea of "the miracle of a Danubian France, as astounding as the miracle of the Canadian France in the middle of foreign oppressors." But willing as the Paris liberals were to get enthusiastic, they were hazy about these remote regions. Monsieur Bastide, then French foreign minister, receiving the young Bratianu in audience, cut into his eloquent exposition of his political program by asking: "Pardon, monsieur, what is the capital of your country?"

"Bucharest, Excellency."

"Ah, Buchara? Buchara, you say? Please, monsieur, go on!"

Nobody guessed then that this handsome, somber refugee would become the first statesman of the new Rumania and the progenitor of a line of prime ministers, the most spectacular of whom would bring Rumania into the first world war on the side of France. Jon Bratianu went back to Bucharest in 1856. There, with the support of the French Consul in Yassy against complicated Russian intrigues, he created the Union of the Danubian Principalities. The new Rumania, though nominally still under the rule of the Sublime Porte, embarked on her existence as a European nation armed with the Code Napoleon, a French Group Theatre, and the novels of Dumas père.

France had even been responsible for Rumania's Hohenzollern dynasty. When Jon Bratianu found that no Rumanian Prince had enough authority to rule the country (there were always so many other princes who were jealous of him and wanted his job), he went to Napoleon III for advice, and Napoleon III made Bratianu offer the Rumanian throne to Carol I, the profoundly Teutonic Hohenzollern whose grandmother was Stephanie Beauharnais, adopted daughter of Napoleon I. Napoleon III had given shrewd advice. The beak-nosed spartan, who used to keep an eye on his watch when he paid his rare visits to the room of his erratic poetess-queen Carmen Sylva, made an excellent ruler for Rumania. His long reign brought the country final independence from the Turks in 1877 and international recognition as a kingdom in 1881. From then on the foreign minister of France was well aware that it was not Buchara but Bucharest.


Excerpted from Athene Palace by R. G. Waldeck. Copyright © 2013 Robert D. Kaplan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Robert D. Kaplan
1          Rumanian Scene
2          Athene Palace
3          The Germans
4          Fifth Column
5          Bessarabia
6          Transylvania
7          The King
8          Abdication
9          Regina Mama
10        Bloodless Revolution
11        Military Mission
12        The Hohe Tier
13        November in Bucharest
14        German Order
15        Rumanian Finale
16        Epilogue

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