The Antonescu Paradox
Hitler’s Romanian ally led an utterly barbaric regime — that while often protecting Jews inside Romania’s borders, murdered them indiscriminately just outside those borders.
The Jewish cemetery of Jassy, in northeastern Romania, occupies one of the highest spots in the city. It is quite literally vast, crowded with graves for hundreds of yards in different directions.
This army of gravestones — wide rows and rows of them — marked the burial sites of local Jewish military heroes who died fighting for Romania in World War I. Adjacent were four long rows of massive cement slabs with Stars of David, symbolically marking the graves of the victims of the Jassy pogrom, which took place in late June 1941 and left thousands dead. As a plaque read: The victims were starved and suffocated in the “train of death” and elsewhere “butchered” by frenzied Iron Guardsmen and others: “… the moon shall be confounded, and the sun ashamed.” (Isaiah 24:23) Also nearby, amid the assemblage of mottled and weather-stained tombs of a whole Jewish civilization going back centuries here, was a monument of more recent vintage: to the 36 Jews — 15 men, nine women, and 12 children — murdered in the nearby Vulturi forest, during the same pogrom.
When I visited in late 2013, I was almost completely alone among the graves. An old woman with a dirty ball cap, who seemed a bit deranged, guarded the cemetery, helped out by a gang of dogs. It was so overgrown with weeds that, except for certain areas, it left a scandalously derelict and frightening impression. There are Jewish cemeteries, like the one in Prague, that are constantly celebrated and memorialized by virtue of them being on the international tourist circuit. Others, like the synagogues and Jewish graveyards of the Kazimierz district of Krakow in Poland, are now undergoing intensive restorations. But this towering and ruined city, at least at the time of my visit, still demanded its just recognition. With few survivors left, life in the once great Jewish magnet of Jassy had been reduced to silence.
Some basic facts about Jewish life in Jassy, as supplied by the small museum adjoining the city’s Jewish community center near downtown: Some 43,500 Jews lived in the city in 1921; 350 in 2013. Before World War II, Jassy had 137 synagogues; now there are two. In fact, though World War II was, to say the least, difficult for Jews in Romania, the end of Jewish life here came mainly during the Communist era, when the regime charged the West in hard currency to buy out the Jews who desired to go to Israel or elsewhere. And of course they wanted to go — who wouldn’t have wanted to leave the Romania of Communist tyrants Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and Nicolae Ceausescu?
“Antonescu was not as bad as Gheorghiu-Dej,” the elderly Jewish woman, who had opened the museum for me, offhandedly and flatly remarked. She was referring to Marshal Ion Antonescu, who ruled Romania from 1940 to 1944. It was an extraordinary statement on the face of it, given that Antonescu had killed hundreds of thousands of Jews during his World War II pro-Nazi dictatorship. Yet, the remark was also, in a certain sense, understandable: Antonescu was, as we shall see, among the most ambivalent central personalities of the Holocaust.
The singularity of the Holocaust can make it appear remote, even though it is barely one lifetime removed from our own — a virtual nanosecond in history. Nothing — not Bosnia, not Rwanda — equals the programmed slaughter of millions of Jews as the utopian organizing principle of an advanced industrial state. Radical Islam notwithstanding, utopian ideologies are something we think of today as unfamiliar, and which testify to the uniqueness of the 20th century.
Yet the story of the Holocaust in Romania — an important, if relatively obscure, chapter in the overall story — is different. It is one in which not utopian ideology, but realism, militarism, irredentism, authoritarianism, and national self-interest — forces all very familiar to us today, and all in this case taken to an extreme — resulted in hundreds of thousands of murders.
Antonescu was not strictly a fascist; in fact, he purged the fascist elements from his regime at the beginning of 1941. One could also argue that his crimes were more in the nature of ethnic cleansing than genocide, though the differences between those two concepts can be, as in this case, as thin as a sheet of paper. Antonescu’s crimes were mainly conducted in the context of territorial expansion. Indeed, he ended up keeping the overwhelming majority of Jews inside Romania proper away from the gas chambers. In the matter of Marshal Antonescu, self-interest often played a greater role than ideology. And yet, self-interest, combined with other factors, led to mass death. Therefore, consider his story a cautionary tale: a tale of what can happen when international and domestic politics are taken just a bit further than we think possible in so many places. For there is a bit of Slobodan Milosevic, a bit of Bashar al-Assad, a bit of Vladimir Putin in Ion Antonescu. He is closer to our time than even a nanosecond.
I had written about Antonescu’s role in the Holocaust in my book Balkan Ghosts, published in early 1993. But that was still in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, some time before scholars could completely grapple with the archival material on the subject that became available with the downfall of Communism in both Romania and the Soviet Union. Those archives and their excavation add more precision, perspective, further documentation, and telling detail to my earlier account, as well as correcting my occasional mistakes. Of particular note are British academic Dennis Deletant’s Hitler’s Forgotten Ally: Ion Antonescu and His Regime, Romania 1940-1944, published in 2006 by Palgrave Macmillan; Radu Ioanid’s The Holocaust in Romania: The Destruction of Jews and Gypsies Under the Antonescu Regime, 1940-1944, published in 2000 by Ivan R. Dee; and Vladimir Solonari’s Purifying the Nation: Population Exchange and Ethnic Cleansing in Nazi-Allied Romania, published in 2010 by the Woodrow Wilson Center Press. These are unjustifiably obscure books, brought out by relatively small publishers, and I hope my summary of Deletant’s work — as well as that of Ioanid’s and others on the subject — gives these academic texts, founded on original sources, a far wider readership than they presently enjoy. What these trailblazing scholars have uncovered deserves to be part of the general wisdom in the foreign-policy community. Indeed, Antonescu continues to be — in the popular mind, at least — an undeservedly dim figure of the Holocaust, perhaps because his role, however spectacular, was somewhat contradictory and therefore has bedeviled an absolutely clear moral reckoning. Nevertheless, a moral reckoning is possible.
Marshal Ion Antonescu’s Romania was Adolf Hitler’s second-most important Axis ally after Benito Mussolini’s Italy (and one might easily consider Antonescu more formidable and useful from Hitler’s point of view than Mussolini was). Antonescu contributed 585,000 Romanian troops to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union from June to October 1941. At Stalingrad, in late 1942 and early 1943, Romanian troops fought alongside the Germans and against the Soviets with a particular ferocity. Romania, rich in natural resources and lying on the southern path of the invasion route of Operation Barbarossa, supplied Hitler’s war machine with critical stores of oil from the Ploiesti fields as well as other raw materials. Antonescu met with Hitler no less than 10 times, mainly in Austria and East Prussia, between the fall of 1940 and the summer of 1944, from soon after the Romanian dictator assumed power until a few weeks before his overthrow in a coup. As Deletant notes, “far from being overawed by the Fuhrer,” Antonescu often contradicted him to his face — perhaps the only person ever allowed to do so — speaking his mind fully about Romania’s territorial interests for hours on end, so that Hitler came to respect him from the beginning of their relationship.
Antonescu directly orchestrated, writes Deletant, through deliberate starvation and “horrific acts of mass butchery,” the deaths of up to 300,000 Jews in northern Bukovina, Bessarabia, and Transnistria: the areas to the east and north of Romania with large ethnic Romanian populations (in the cases of Bukovina and Bessarabia) that Romanian troops captured from Joseph Stalin’s forces in the first weeks of the Nazi-led invasion in 1941. But in Romania proper — Moldavia, Wallachia, and southern Transylvania — Antonescu kept up to 375,000 Jews from local slaughter and transport to death camps in German-occupied Poland. This was something that would likely not have happened had the fascist Iron Guard remained as part of his government in Bucharest; these Legionnaires comprised a paramilitary force that combined extreme anti-Semitism with a radicalized and overtly mystical version of Orthodox Christianity.
But in January 1941, after tolerating the Iron Guard inside his government for the first five months of his rule, Antonescu decimated the guard and hunted down these fascists. The survival rate of the Jewish population under his direct civil, administrative, and military control — within the legal borders of Romania, that is — “was greater than that of any other Axis ally, protectorate or occupied area aside from Finland,” writes independent scholar and Romania specialist Larry L. Watts in a monograph. If you were a Jew within Antonescu’s Romania proper, you were more likely to survive World War II than if you had been living virtually anywhere else in Axis-occupied Europe. But, on the other hand, if you were a Jew in the areas that Antonescu’s troops recaptured from the Soviet Union, there were few places worse.
Antonescu’s crimes against humanity are beyond adequate description. Deletant breaks down the figures based on the latest evidence: between 12,000 and 20,000 Jews shot by Romanian and German soldiers in northern Bukovina in July and August 1941; 15,000 to 20,000 Jews murdered in Odessa in a similar manner by Romanian troops in October 1941; the deaths of at least 90,000 Jews from typhus and starvation in the course of deportation organized by Romanian troops eastward from Bukovina and Bessarabia into Transnistria between 1941 and 1943; and the deaths of as many as 170,000 local Ukrainian Jews inside Transnistria itself during the same period of Romanian occupation. (There are, too, the thousands of Jews killed within Romania’s legal borders: for example, the Jassy pogrom.) “These figures,” Deletant writes, “give the Antonescu regime the sinister distinction of being responsible for the largest number of deaths of Jews after Hitler’s Germany.” (Keep in mind that the deportation of a half-million Jews from Hungary and northern Transylvania to death camps in Poland occurred after the March 1944 German occupation of those territories. Romania was never occupied by Nazi Germany; it was an ally.)
Typhus, starvation, and shootings on the bleak and freezing steppe of eastern Romania Mare (“Greater Romania”) and its shadow zones in Bessarabia and Transnistria — these facts do not begin to capture what the Jews actually experienced at the hands of Antonescu’s troops. The victims’ valuables were confiscated and in many cases transferred to the Romanian national bank. The victims were forcedly marched; brutally bullied into trenches and ghettos filled with armies of rats and mice; beaten mercilessly and left to die of their wounds; doused with gasoline and burnt. Old men, women, and children were numerous among those who suffered the worst atrocities. Young girls were regularly raped. The Romanian soldiers killed vast numbers of Jews “from infants in swaddling bands to old men with white beards,” writes Vladimir Solonari in his 2010 book, Purifying the Nation: Population Exchange and Ethnic Cleansing in Nazi-Allied Romania. On one occasion in the Bessarabian capital of Chisinau in July 1941, after 551 Jews had been rounded up, “[w]omen and children were shot first, followed by the men who were forced to push the dead bodies into the ditch,” Solonari goes on. In a 1996 memoir, Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld calls Romania Mare and beyond, from Bukovina to Transnistria, “the great cemetery of the Jews,” where, in 1941, mass death “was not yet industrialized and any means of killing was used.”
To wit, the American-Romanian scholar Radu Ioanid’s study of this geographic sector of the Holocaust is more than a book, but a document from Hell: a dry, factual, nausea-inducing account of the most bestial and intimate atrocities, committed in one village and town after another against the elderly and the smallest children by Romanian soldiers and civilians, with Antonescu’s bureaucratic fingerprints everywhere apparent. Ioanid notes how Antonescu once confided to his Council of Ministers on April 15, 1941, after sporadic atrocities in Romania proper, and on the eve of the invasion of Bessarabia and Transnistria: “I give the mob complete license to slaughter them [the Jews]. I withdraw to my fortress, and after the slaughter I restore order.”
The roots of Romanian anti-Semitism date to the westward migration of Ashkenazi Jews in the 19th century and are inextricable from the agriculture-based, blood-and-soil Romanian worldview — the upshot of a vast peasantry — that helped characterize both local political and intellectual circles since the beginning of the modern era. Jews simply did not fit in, even as they were ever present. They constituted the only significant minority in 19th-century Romania and, as a middleman trading and commercial minority in particular, were antipathetic to Romania’s racially based nationalism, anchored as it was in rural traditions. As the anti-Semitic historian, P. P. Panaitescu complained in 1940: “The Romanians … did not have a national bourgeoisie at any point in their history. Our bourgeoisie has always been a foreign one.”
Jewish immigration into the Romanian lands from Russia and Austria-Hungary in the second half of the 19th century had dramatically increased their numbers, so that Jews constituted 14.6 percent of all urban dwellers. In Moldavia, they were almost a third of the urban population and in Jassy itself, more than 40 percent. This also fed the anti-Semitism of the illiterate masses, “a crude kind of class hatred” against a minority “which busied itself with money,” in the words of British historian Hugh Seton-Watson. His father, R. W. Seton-Watson, also an historian, had once quoted a Romanian politician as saying, “Work, civilize yourselves, and you will rid yourselves of the Jews.” Bessarabian Romanians in particular were prone to such attitudes, helped by the fact that nearly half the urban population between the Prut and the Dniester rivers was Jewish. Such was the demographic, economic, and historical background noise to the Jassy pogrom.
The Jewish minority was seen by many local elites as a mass of hostile Bolshevik sympathizers. The Jews, to them, represented the evils of capitalism and communism at the same time: This was during a period when Romania was in the process of losing the historic territories of northern Bukovina and Bessarabia to Soviet Russia. The political system, meanwhile, partly as a result of the impossibility of defending national borders against such powerful and traditional adversaries, was in the late 1930s descending into quasi-anarchy. In the midst of such chaos, blaming the Jews became the default emotion. After all, anti-Semitism, as the memoirist Gregor von Rezzori wrote about the interbellum period, was a Romanian tic, something the majority of the population easily internalized. King Carol II (despite his half-Jewish mistress), prominent politicians and intellectuals such as Octavian Goga, Nicolae Iorga, Nae Ionescu, and A. C. Cuza, and, of course, Antonescu himself were all publicly committed anti-Semites.
The Jassy pogrom was the signature event in which territorial loss, war, imminent territorial recapture, nationalist rage, and anti-Semitism all coalesced. Deletant says that “at least [his italics] 4,000” Jews were killed during the few days the pogrom lasted, but such was the confusion and sheer blood-rage that figures as high as 12,000 “have also been advanced.” If they were not deliberately rounded up and shot en masse, thousands of other Jews of Jassy died in sealed death trains, where they were packed without water, food, or air in the midst of the summer heat, and driven around the Moldavian countryside for days until most expired. Again, women and children were numerous among the victims. And this was in addition to other smaller pogroms occurring around Moldavia at the time that Ioanid painstakingly documents (complete with the names of the individual victims). The context for such aggression had come from Antonescu, whose government was not shy about making overtly anti-Semitic statements, even as the marshal himself publicly deplored the mob actions that characterized the events.
Who was Antonescu, really? A French assessment of him in 1922, when Antonescu was 40 and a military attaché to Paris, stated: “A well-tried intelligence, brutal, duplicitous, very vain, a ferocious will to succeed … an extreme xenophobia, [these are] the striking characteristics of this strange figure.” Deletant, Keith Hitchins, and other historians describe a man who was a realist, militarist, nationalist, and authoritarian, who had no use for parliamentary democracy. But neither was he strictly fascist: He purged the fascists from his regime early on and had a disdain for pageants and parades. He believed in order — but not as a prerequisite to freedom, only as an end in itself. His support for Hitler was heavily determined by the calamitous, quasi-anarchic internal situation he inherited from King Carol II, combined with Romania’s tragic position on the map between expanding Nazi and Stalinist empires. Antonescu made the cold calculation that an alliance with Germany was simply the best option for regaining territories that Romania had lost to the Soviet Union. As he reportedly told journalists a few days after Pearl Harbor: “I am the ally of the Reich against Russia; I am neutral between Great Britain and Germany; and I am for the Americans against the Japanese.” But at the same time, Antonescu could also say that “Europe has to be liberated once and for all from the domination of Freemasons and Jews.”
If not a proponent of the Final Solution itself, Antonescu was among the 20th century’s great ethnic cleansers. He spoke about the need to “purify” and “homogenize” the Romanian population and rid it of “Yids,” “Slavs,” and “Roma.” (Antonescu’s deportation of the Roma people to Transnistria — where some 20,000 died of disease, starvation, and cold — was not a result of German pressure, but something he initiated on his own.) One of Antonescu’s ministers stated that the circumstances of German military successes provided Romania with a unique opportunity for a “complete ethnic unshackling.” Antonescu himself saw the Jews as a “disease” and as “parasites,” in Deletant’s language, “to be cleansed from the body of Romania.” The deportation of Jews from the quasi-historical Romanian lands of Bukovina and Bessarabia to Transnistria, a region where Romania had few historical claims, should be seen in this light.
And yet it cannot be forgotten that Antonescu kept, by some statistical reckonings, the largest number of Jews away from the Final Solution in Axis-dominated Europe. He did so in large measure because of “opportunism,” writes Deletant, and extreme nervousness as to his own fate, as the Soviets and the Western Allies began to tighten the noose on Hitler’s war machine. The end to deportation and mass murder in Transnistria and the decision not to send Romanian Jews from inside the country to death camps in Poland were all actions taken after the Nazi defeat at Stalingrad, when Antonescu began to realize that Hitler might not, after all, win the war. Ioanid referred to this as opportunistic mercy.
Antonescu was more of a realist than a fanatical fascist, and so he was always sensitive to shifting geopolitical winds. There was also Antonescu’s own proud and autocratic character. The idea of the Fuhrer ordering him from abroad to give up his Jews did not sit well. As someone in direct contact with Antonescu at the time observed, the marshal “did not like receiving orders; he liked giving them.” There was also pressure brought to bear upon Antonescu from Romanian intellectuals, from Romania’s Queen Mother, Helen, and from the National Peasant Party leader Iuliu Maniu to save Romanian Jewry. Again, this all must be seen in the context of Soviet and American victories on the battlefront.
Antonescu was toppled in a palace coup on Aug. 23, 1944, just as the Red Army was already marching triumphantly into Romania. He was tried for treason and war crimes by pro-Soviet Romanian authorities, duly convicted, and executed in 1946 by a firing squad at Jilava Prison near Bucharest. Again, Antonescu was a mass murderer without strictly being a fascist. The fact that he kept such an astonishingly large number of Jews from death cannot erase the fact that he killed an astonishing number — in indescribable suffering. There is no moral ambiguity in that. Georgetown University professor Charles King, an expert in these matters, remarked that the best thing which can be said about Antonescu is that he was a conservative anti-Semite, not a millenarian one like Adolf Eichmann or Alfred Rosenberg.
Upon Antonescu’s removal from power, the Romanians switched sides in the war. For the remainder of the war, Romania contributed more troops — 538,000 — to the Allied cause than any country except for the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States. Romanian casualties against the Nazis in 1944-1945 were some 25 times greater than those of Italy, another country that fought first for the Axis and then against it. Of course, Romania’s change of heart was a consequence of its need to regain all of Transylvania from Nazi-occupied Hungary. Self-interest dominates foreign-policy thinking most of the time, in most places. Yet, rarely has national self-interest been applied so nakedly as by Romanian regimes during World War II, descending as it did to the level of sheer opportunism. It also bears repeating that the shamelessness Romania evinced during that war was, in turn, partly a function of its impossible geographical position, especially after Munich, when Neville Chamberlain abandoned Central Europe to Germany. As the late Silviu Brucan, the grand old man of Romanian Communism, had once told me, the West deserted Central and Eastern Europe at Munich — long before Yalta.
Antonescu’s alliance with Hitler did have an air of cold-blooded geopolitics to it. But what makes his behavior all the more understandable — and thus, all the more frightening — is that however exaggerated, it was not particularly original, given the cold-blooded geopolitics that many countries have practiced in a desultory manner throughout history. It was just that Romania’s position between an advancing Nazi Germany and an advancing Soviet Union under Stalin constituted an altogether extreme situation that, when combined with racial and religious xenophobia, led to the most extreme measures.
It doesn’t take a millenarian worldview to lead to systematic slaughter, in other words; Milosevic was no millenarian, nor was Saddam Hussein on the matter of the Kurdish civilians he slaughtered en masse, and neither is Assad.
In a world where there is no Leviathan to keep the peace, and no Night Watchman to protect states from each other, even liberal democracies must engage in the struggle of geopolitics or leave such competition completely in the hands of our nondemocratic adversaries — and that means periodically making tragic choices regarding when to intervene and when not to intervene, and who to support and who not to support. But we should always keep Antonescu in mind as we do so — for evil is always closer than we think.
This article has been adapted from In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond.
Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild via Getty Images