I was going to do a rather obnoxious post about the Macedonian name issue, but decided not to. You can see a draft of it in the comments section over here.
Meanwhile, here’s an idea I’ve sometimes toyed with: a series of posts on the leaders of small European countries during the Second World War. There were some fascinating characters running around then: Admiral Horthy of Hungary, Salazar of Portugal, Prince Paul of Yugoslavia and Ante Pavelic of Croatia. (Pavelic not so much fascinating as disgusting, but that’s a story for another time.)
Anyway, I don’t want to commit myself to this — I still have the series on frozen conflicts half-finished — but here’s a random post on one wartime leader: Marshal Antonescu of Romania.
When I moved to Romania a few years back, I was astonished (and, yes, a little revolted) to find that many Romanians had a high opinion of the late Marshal. This was hard to accept! Antonescu was a fairly brutal military dictator who led his country into a disastrous war. He showed no compunction about ruling with an iron fist, imprisoning or killing his enemies and shutting down any semblance of democracy or dissent. And he cold-bloodedly used Romania’s Jews as bargaining chips, alternately giving thousands to the Germans to murder or allowing a few boatloads to escape, depending on whether he wanted to curry favor with Hitler or the Allies.
So, it was hard to understand why many Romanians still admired him. In my first year or two, I made the simplistic assumption that this was because (1) modern Romanian history hasn’t produced a lot of admirable characters, so people make what heroes they can; and (2) many Romanians hated Communism a lot, and Antonescu was anti-Communist (and ended up getting killed by the Communists). So, they probably liked him just because of that.
Well… I still think most of Antonescu’s modern admirers fall into these categories. And I still think Antonescu was, at the end of the day, a brutal dictator and a willing tool of evil.
All that said, there were things to admire about him.
1) He was incorruptible. Antonescu had no interest in getting rich or in making his friends or family rich. This was a very rare thing in Romania at any time, and doubly so in the 1920s and ’30s. Antonescu seems to have been sincerely and selflessly dedicated to Romania, and he didn’t live long enough for that to degenerate into demanding worship as the embodiment of the nation.
2) He was completely fearless. Not just soldier-brave. Mussolini and Franco had that. Antonescu also had a high level of… “moral courage” is not quite what I want to say. Call it mental toughness. He was the only Balkan leader who was completely unimpressed by Hitler; he stood up to the Fuehrer more than once, winning a certain amount of grudging respect, and forcing Hitler to make concessions he really didn’t want to. And no matter what happened during the war, Antonescu never lost his nerve. In this he’s a striking contrast to, say, Hungary’s Horthy, who was terrified of Hitler and who suffered something like a nervous breakdown in the war’s final months. Or the utterly disgusting Pavelic, who escaped to South America with a suitcase full of gold pulled from Serbian and Jewish teeth, leaving most of his colleagues to torture and death at the hands of Tito’s Partisans.
One historical oddity: by negotiating hard with Hitler, Antonescu caused Romania’s standard of living to actually rise during the war years. Germany was paying almost market price for oil, and mostly on time, and then paying still more for the Romanian grain and beef that kept Army Groups Center and South more or less fed. So while the rest of Europe was slipping into starvation, Romania was doing pretty well right up until the Red Army rolled over the border in late 1944. This is why Romanians — aside from Jews and Roma, of course — don’t have horrible memories of the war years. In Romania, the war years were okay: it was the postwar years that got nightmarish.
3) He was a bad man, but those were bad times. Again, if we compare Antonescu to the leaders of other minor European powers during the war, he doesn’t look quite so bad. He was far less murderous than Pavelic — many Romanian Jews and Roma survived; very few Croatian ones did — less egotistical than Franco or Mussolini, and more effective than any of the little Balkan Kings (Zog of Albania, Paul of Yugoslavia, Carol of Romania).
If he’d been a good liberal democrat… well, he would have ended up dead. And Romania would probably have gone on to disaster regardless.
4) He did his best to play a bad hand well. Antonescu made one huge mistake: he joined Barbarossa, thinking Hitler would win. He wanted to regain the territories Stalin had stolen from Romania a year earlier while establishing Romania as Germany’s most important junior partner in the New European Order. At the time, it may have seemed like a reasonable chance to take, a major risk for a great reward.
Within a year — less — he realized that Germany couldn’t win the war. The rest of his rule was a series of increasingly grim and desperate attempts to (1) stem the tide of military disaster as much as possible, while (2) trying to negotiate a separate peace with the Allies. As it turned out, neither of these things were possible. Still, unlike Mussolini or Pavelic or Horthy, he recognized reality and made active attempts to deal with it.
(What happened? Oh, in the autumn of 1944 a conspiracy — democrats, the few surviving Communists, and the young King Michael — turned on Antonescu. The King locked him in a room with the royal stamp collection for a few key hours, and then Romania switched sides and joined the Allies. A bit later, the Communists took over and had him shot.)
Anyway. None of this is to defend Antonescu, who at the end of the day was an evil dictator and a disaster for his country. But history is complicated, and it turns out that at least some Romanians have reasons to like Antonescu beyond “He led our country! Against Communism!” So, while I’m still not sympathetic to this — at all — I no longer consider it completely contemptible and stupid.
N.B., this stands in sharp contrast to my opinion of Croats who still admire Ante Pavelic. Pavelic was utter scum. He was not just a mass murderer but a petty criminal, a traitor to his friends, his country and his movement, and a mental, moral and physical coward. There’s literally not one good thing to be said about Pavelic, and the people who admire him are, pretty much without exception, fools at best and scum themselves at worst.
But that’s a story for another post. Eastern European leaders of the 20th century, people! What’ve you got?