Friday, September 19, 2008

Ion Antonescu

Antonescu was born into an upper-middle class family with some military tradition. He attended military schools in Craiova and Iaşi, and graduated from the Cavalry School as top of class in 1904, then, in 1911, from the military academy.
As lieutenant, Antonescu took part in the repression of the 1907 peasants' revolt in and around the city of Galaţi.
His ruthlessness gained him the name Câinele roşu (the red dog). In 1913, he fought in the Second Balkan War against Bulgaria; the Bulgarian army was already deployed against Serbia and Greece, so Romania's entering the war led to Bulgaria suing for peace. Following the 1913 war (which brought the Cadrilater into Romania), Antonescu received Romania's highest military decoration: The Order of Michael the Brave (Romanian: Ordinul Mihai Viteazul).
During Romania's involvement in World War I (1916-1918), Antonescu acted as chief of staff for General Constantin Prezan. In August 1916, Romanian armies crossed the Carpathian Mountains, attempting to take Transylvania (then a territory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but mainly inhabited by Romanians), but their offensive was later stopped by the Austro-Hungarian armies, with German help. The disaster at Turtucaia (August 24) showed that the Romanian army was not ready for the war. With German and Bulgarian troops pushing through Dobruja and with demoralised Allied Russian troops retreating and deserting en masse in the wake of Brusilov Offensive (their orders were to defend the Danube line), the Romanian Army was forced to retreat from Transylvania and defend the Carpathian borders.
Upon enemy troops crossing the mountains into the Old Kingdom, Antonescu was ordered to design a defense plan for the Romanian capital of Bucharest.
The battle for the capital was lost, due to the capture by enemy troops of an officer carrying the battle plan. The Romanian royal court, army and administration were forced to retreat into Moldavia. Antonescu participated in the defense of Moldavia in 1917, when the Romanian Army, instructed by the French Mission, and led by General Alexandru Averescu managed to stop the advance of the German Army headed by Field Marshal Mackensen. He was both observer and coordinator for the Battle of Mărăşti-Oituz.
However, in late 1917 the Russian revolution took place. Soviet Russia soon made peace with Germany, leaving Romania the only enemy of the Central Powers on the Eastern Front. In these conditions, the Romanian government signed, and the parliament ratified the Treaty of Bucharest, 1918 with Germany and her allies. In 1918, however, Romania broke the treaty, on the grounds that the King, Ferdinand I of Romania, did not sign the treaty. Re-entering the war with a re-organized army, Romania was able to support the decisions of the National Romanian Council which ultimately result in the Union of Transylvania with Romania. Upon reaching the river Tisa, King Ferdinand took his own decoration and gave it to lieutenant-colonel Antonescu saying: "Antonescu, no one in this country knows better than the King how much they owe you."

Between 1922 and 1926 he was a military attaché of Romania in France and Great Britain. After returning to Romania, he was the commander of the "Şcoala Superioară de Război" (Higher School of War) between 1927 and 1930, Chief of the General Staff between 1933 and 1934, and Defense Minister between 1937 and 1938.
General Antonescu was appointed Prime Minister by King Carol II on September 4, 1940, after Romania was forced to surrender Bessarabia and northern Bukovina to the USSR (June 28, 1940) and the northern half of Transylvania to Hungary (August 30, 1940), and three days before the Cadrilater was transferred to Bulgaria (September 7, 1940).
On September 5, following Antonescu's demand, King Carol suspended the Constitution of 1938, dissolved Parliament, and gave Antonescu full powers. That evening, he forced King Carol to abdicate and leave the country, which he did on September 6. Carol's son, Crown Prince Michael (Mihai), was proclaimed the new King, although his powers were essentially ceremonial duties such as supreme Head of the Army. Antonescu named himself Conducător (Leader) and assumed dictatorial powers.
After the traditional, democratic, parties of Romania refused to send competent members into the Government, Antonescu approached the Nationalist Iron Guard party and offered them seats in the Government (September 15, 1940). Antonescu desired to bring the Iron Guard under his direct control, because their paramilitary activities were undermining the authority of the state. The ensuing period was known as the 'National Legionary State' (Statul naţional-legionar). Eventually, after their demands for extended powers were repeatedly turned down by Antonescu, the Iron Guard rebelled (January 21, 1941). Antonescu quickly crushed the rebellion (with the consent of Germany, whose economic and military interests demanded stability in Romania), outlawed the Iron Guard and had their top leaders imprisoned or expelled from the country.

Antonescu formed an alliance with Nazi Germany, thereby ensuring stability and strategic material, such as the extensive Romanian oil reserves, could be used by the Axis Powers. Further, Antonescu was delighted with the prospect of war against the USSR , and hoped this would guarantee the reconquest of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina. Also, by participating in the war on the Eastern front, Antonescu hoped to persuade Hitler to give back the northern half of Transylvania to Romania after the hostilities were over. He was informed by Hitler himself about Operation Barbarossa ten days before its launch.
Romanian troops joined the German Wehrmacht in their attack against the Soviet Union (June 22, 1941) and reoccupied the lost territories of Bessarabia . For retaking these territories, he was later made Mareşal. The province of Transnistria also came under Romanian administration. Soon after the capture of the city of Odessa, the Romanian headquarters were blown up, supposedly by communists hiding amongst the civilian population. Antonescu ordered retaliation, which culminated in the Odessa Massacre.
After the recapture of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina, Antonescu took the Romanian army deeper into Soviet territory, determined to follow the German troops until the complete destruction of the Soviet army. As he stated during his trial:
When a country is in a war, the army of this country must go to the end of the earth to win the war. It's one of the basic principles of war, that has been applied from the time of the Romans to this very day. Search into the history of wars, any nation, any century, and you will see that no one stops with the army at the borders, but goes farther, aiming to destroy the enemy army. So did Scipio Africanus who took his army to the destruction of Carthage, so did Napoleon , who went to the center of Russia, so did Alexander of Russia , who went all the way to Paris.
This decision was met with disapproval both by Romanian politicians (of the traditional parties) and by the Allied powers. Although Antonescu devoted most of his time to military affairs he failed to prepare the Romanian army for the protracted campaign. To satisfy Hitler, Antonescu sent to the front entire divisions with limited weaponry; Germans armed them only prior to combat. After German and Romanian armies suffered huge losses in the Battle of Stalingrad and the Soviets started to regain their territory, Antonescu's popularity declined sharply.

In 1943, representatives of Antonescu (members of the traditional parties) twice approached representatives of the United States and Great Britain (in Cairo and Istanbul) asking for separate peace, but the Allies demanded that Antonescu make peace with the Soviets first.Antonescu refused unconditional surrender to the Soviets, but continued negotiating with them through his representatives in Stockholm. In August 1944, when the Soviets had already entered Romanian territory, Antonescu received an armistice proposal from Alexandra Kollontai (Stalin's agent in Stockholm).
This armistice proposed that German armies had 15 days to leave the country, the Soviets would only pass through the north of the country (the south and the capital were to remain Soviet-free), and offered recognition of Romanian claims to Hungarian-occupied Northern Transylvania.
Considering the overwhelming superiority of the Soviet forces, this seemingly generous offer was interpreted as either allowing the Soviet troops to maintain its push against the German army or as a bluff.
On August 22, 1944 Soviet armies attacked the Iaşi-Chişinău-Cetatea Albă line, determined to occupy the Romanian capital before any armistice could be signed. Antonescu had prepared 9 elite divisions at the Focşani-Nămoloasa-Galaţi line which he hoped could hold out against the Soviets for several weeks until the treaty's approval by both parties. The telegram from Stockholm arrived on August 22, but was intercepted by opposition leader Iuliu Maniu, who was plotting together with King Michael, other opposition members from the historical parties, and even the Romanian Communist Party, to overthrow Antonescu's regime.
On August 23, 1944 , Michael invited Antonescu to his Royal Palace. After Antonescu had explained the situation on the warfront, the king asked him if he would sign unconditional surrender to the Russians. Antonescu told the young king about the armistice he was about to sign, although he had no proof (such as the telegram). He also stated that "signing unconditional surrender to the Russians is like jumping out of a plane without a parachute". The King dismissed Antonescu and his cabinet. At the same time, soldiers rushed in and arrested Ion Antonescu and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mihai Antonescu, then locked them up in the Palace safe. Later, they were taken by a group of communists, led by Emil Bodnăraş, who took them to a safe house, before handing them over to the Soviets.
At the same time, King Mihai declared a ceasefire on the Romanian side. In absence of an armistice, the Soviet continued to consider Romanians as enemies. The Soviets broke the frontline and took prisoner 114,000 Romanian soldiers. The Germans did not recognize the authority of the new Sănătescu Government and attacked the capital. The Romanian army however managed to hold on to it. A few days later, the Soviets entered Bucharest. The armistice was signed only on September 12, 1944.

After returning from the Soviet Union on April 9, 1946, Antonescu was interrogated the following month by the Bucharest People's Tribunal and found guilty of betraying the Romanian people for the benefits of Nazi Germany, the economic and political subjugation of Romania to Germany, cooperation with the Iron Guard, the murder of his political opponents, the mass murder of civilians and crimes against peace, and for participation in the German invasion of the USSR. He was sentenced to death and executed by firing squad on June 1 at Jilava prison. He asked to be shot by a military firing squad, but instead he was executed by prison guards.

Antonescu and his government were directly responsible for the killing of between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews and over 10,000 Roma in Romania and the Soviet territories it occupied. Romania's share in the Holocaust, i.e. its contribution as an independent, not occupied country, is thus the second biggest after that of Nazi Germany (see Deletant, p. 127). Despite ample evidence, for a long time these genocidal crimes and Antonescu's responsibility were denied not only by revisionist historians, but also at an official level. However, in 2004 the Romanian government under Ion Iliescu officially acknowledged the Romanian and Antonescu's responsibility, as outlined in a report produced by an expert commission appointed by Iliescu and led by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. A Holocaust Memorial Day was installed.
Immediately after coming into office, Antonescu expanded the anti-Jewish laws passed by Octavian Goga and Ion Gigurtu.
During 1941 and 1942, 80 anti-Jewish regulations were passed. Starting at the end of October, 1940, the Iron Guard began a massive anti-Semitic campaign, torturing and beating Jews and looting their shops, culminating in the failed coup and a pogrom in Bucharest in which 120 Jews were massacred. Aided by German troops, Antonescu suppressed the rebellion, and thus, indirectly, the violence against the Jews.
In the course of 1941 Antonescu's own violence against the Jewish population was to take a more systematic course, reaching its peak when Romania entered the "holy war" against the Soviet Union, a war that he considered, like Hitler, to have a metaphysical and apocalyptic character; the Jews were considered the demonic driving force behind the greatest enemy Romania ever faced - Bolshevism. This connection between the Jews, Bolshevism and the attack on the Soviet Union is apparent in declarations he made in summer 1941:
The Satan is the Jew. It is a battle of life and death. Either we win and the world will be purified, either they win (the Jews) and we will become their slaves" (to the Council of the Ministers). "I confirm that I will pursue operations in the east to the end against that great enemy of civilization, of Europe, and of my country: Russian bolshevism [...] I will not be swayed by anyone not to extend this military cooperation into new territory.' (Deletant, p. 85)
This ideology explains the subsequent atrocities ordered by Antonescu, of which the Iaşi pogrom was the first. Here, over 10,000 Jews were killed in July 1941. In the same year, following the advancing Romanian Army and reports of alleged attacks by Jewish "Resistance groups", Antonescu ordered the deportation to Transnistria of Jews from Bessarabia and Bukovina (between 80,000 and 150,000) who were considered, falsely, "Communist agents" by the Romanian administration. These deportations took place by means of so-called "trains of death", which were specifically designed to let as few survivors as possible reach their destinations - labor camps set up in Transnistria where many more Jews were to die under appalling circumstances. Further killings perpetrated by Antonescu's soldiers targeted the Jewish population that the Romanian army managed to round up during the occupation of Transnistria. Over 100,000 of these were killed in massacres perpetrated in Odessa, Bogdanovka and Akmecetka in 1941 and 1942. Some of this killing operations were seconded by SS units of the Einsatzgruppe D.
Despite German pressure, in 1943 Antonescu halted deportations to Transnistria and cancelled plans to deport the entire Jewish population from the remaining parts of the country to the death camps in German occupied Poland. This is not evidence that he recanted his anti-Semitism, but only that he began to realise that the war is lost and that he needed to find means to reconcile with the Allies. At the same time he levied heavy taxes and forced labor on the remaining Jewish communities. In fact, Antonescu never gave up his ultra-nationalist policy of ethnic cleansing. As he himself put it, his aim was a:
policy of purification of the Romanian race, and I will not give way before any obstacle in achieving this historical goal of our nation. If we do not take advantage of the situation which presents itself today ... we shall miss the last chance that history offers to us. And I do not wish to miss it, because if I do so further generations will blame me (Deletant, p. 155)
With the turn of the war, he only changed the method of implementation, offering the Allies the emigration of the Romanian Jews in return for currency.
This policy of ethnic cleansing also explains why about 25,000 Roma (approximately 11,500 nomadic and 13,000 non-nomadic Romas) were deported to Transnistria where an estimated 11,000 perished. These deportations were presented as a "solution" to maintain safety in the country while most of the men were at the frontline.
Antonescu's stepmother, Frida Cuperman, was Jewish, as was his first wife, Raşela Mendel, whom he married as a military attaché in London in the 1930s

2007 Court decision and 2008 nullification
On December 5, 2006, the Bucharest Court of Appeals overturned Antonescu's conviction for certain crimes against peace, on the grounds that the objective conditions of 1940 justified a preventive war against the Soviet Union, so that article 3 of the 1933 Convention defining aggression does not apply to his case. This decision was however overturned by the Romanian supreme court in May 2008.
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