Totally random historical post: Things to like about Marshal Antonescu

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?

17 thoughts on “Totally random historical post: Things to like about Marshal Antonescu

  1. I’d certainly be interested in seeing your take on the minor WW II dictators.

    Tony Zbaraschuk

  2. Horthy, admiral in a country without a navy, regent of a country with no throne. Neither sweet nor savory.

    Pilsudski didn’t live until the war, but basically shaped Poland up until the invasion. Marshal P’s coup was probably influential throughout the Baltic region. Antanas Smetona in Lithuania, authoritarian leader. Konstantin Pats in Estonia, who seems to have pulled an eccentric semi-coup in 1933. Karlis Ulmanis in Latvia; four-time prime minister, dissolved parliament shortly after his fourth election and authoritarian leader until 1940.

    The stories of the Baltic governments in exile could be interesting, too. (Estonia had five “Prime Ministers in the duties of the President of the Republic of Estonia, in Exile; the fifth handed things back to Lennart Meri in 1992.) I think it was the Estonians, too, who managed to get their gold out, and thus wound up funding all three in the 1980s. Their embassy property in Washington might also have been collateral for loans at about that time, but as the wikipedia folks say, citation needed.

  3. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Romania, Hungary, Austria: Marshal Antonescu; “Political Irrelevance”

  4. Horthy, admiral in a country without a navy, regent of a country with no throne.

    To be fair, he was admiral when Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had a coastline and a navy.

  5. By the way, there is a video clip of Antonescu and three other men being executed by firing squad. He certainly seemed to stay calm right to the end, even giving a jaunty wave of his hat.

  6. Pingback: buzz

  7. Doug (not Muir), Pilsudski’s coup definitely provided a direct model for Smetona and his followers, but less so for Päts or Ulmanis. The key difference is the Depression; the Polish and Lithuanian coups happened before it, the Estonian and Latvian ones after it.

    The one common factor between the Polish, Estonian and Latvian coups was, obviously, that they were all pre-emptive in nature. At the risk of advertising myself, a quick summary of the history of the events leading up to the Estonian coup of 1934 can be read here:

    The Baltic gold reserves; it’s a complicated story, but this would be the first time that I’ve heard of their use in the maintenance of the embassies and the governments-in-exile. Of course, it may have happened.

    However, Estonia was not the only one of the unfortunate trio that managed to get its gold out. The fact is that _all three_ republics managed to ship out most of their gold reserves before the annexation. The Latvian bullion ended up in France, the United States and Switzerland. The Lithuanian gold reserves, same thing; some of it ended up also in the United Kingdom.

    After 1940, the gold reserves were basically nobody’s property. The countries in question were no longer in existence; but on the other hand, there was no international recognition for the Soviet takeover, either.

    … but there were some practical exceptions. The Bank of England, for example, actually sold its share of the Baltic gold reserves to the USSR back in the 1960s. After 1991, the Bank apologized for the action and reimbursed the newly-independent republics by returning the originally deposited amount of gold.

    Most of the gold reserves of the Estonian Central Bank ended up in Sweden, triggering a very interesting political development. Basically, the Swedish government negotiated with the USSR a formal contract which allowed Sweden to keep the Estonian gold in compensation for the former Swedish property seized by the Soviets in Estonia.

    The treaty entailed a _de jure_ Swedish recognition of the Soviet annexation of Estonia, and consequently, Sweden became the one and the only European state outside the Soviet bloc and the Third Reich to recognize the Soviet takeover of the small Baltic Republic.

    When it comes to wartime East European leaders, I note that all the examples listed by Douglas were from the side of the Axis. The ones from the Allied side – such as Wladyslaw Sikorski – might add some colour to the list.

    Better yet, there are the truly controversial ones who shuttled between the two coalitions and thus inhabited the “gray area” in between, such as Draza Mihailovic.



  8. Careful there, Doug, with the Metaxas. You’ll wind up talking about Macedonia again…

  9. Just to add something to what Peter said about Antonescu’s executution. He actually ordered the soldiers to shoot.

  10. Peters, thanks for the video link. It’s amazing that such a recording exists.

    The more I see these executions the more I am totally against them. The executioners always seem far more inhuman than the ‘monsters’ they are meant to “eliminate.”

    The video reminded me of non-other than Saddam, who looked more human and decent than the “mob” that executed him. That was a bad, bad move by the people “above.”

  11. Looks like you fell for Ceausescu’s propaganda …

    The Antonescu you write about never existed: he was made up during the ’80s by the very same Communist Party that sent him to be shot in 1946: novels were written about the stoic general that takes responsibility during uncertain times, history books appeared where the “Basarabia” issue was not silently ignored as it was between 1950 and 1980, old WWI military songs were taught again to children, history teachers were instructed (in official teaching methodology documents) about how to make comments about how the history text books ignored this and that etc.

    Antonescu is popular because Ceausescu and his clique wanted him popular.

    Antonescu was a damned fool.

    In 1940 he got in charge because he was kinda close to the Iron Guard , the same Iron Guard was heavily financed by the Nazis, when Caron II was sent packing.

    He was a dumb military commander (he is directly responsible for about half the losses suffered by the Rumanian army on the East front because: 1. he decided to attack straight in the center of Basarabia, which was protected by forests, hills and swamps, instead of flanking the SU troops there by the North and the South, which were more difficult to defend, and 2. during the siege of Odessa, being not pleased with the delay, he got in a car and went from battalion headquarter to battalion headquarter and ordered them to go forward … so the result was that the units went to attack sequentially and allowed the SU artillery squish each unit as it went out in the open, resulting in 60000 casualties in one single day).

    He was as corrupt as any other politicos in Rumania at that time: except he used his wife to collect, so he could claim he had not benefited from anything. His drive to “cleanse” the corruption ended in the slaughter of the enemies of the Iron Guard, in nationalizations, in property being transferred from political opponents and minorities (religious or national) to his Iron Guard pals.

    “He was the only Balkan leader who was completely unimpressed by Hitler”

    He was the only Balkan leader whose troops held enough front-line kilometers to make the Germans depend on him instead of him depending on the Germans. That’s why the Germans were paying through their nose for oil and food. Had there been less Rumanian troops on the Eastern front, the Germans would have had no qualms about raping the country the way they did in 1916-1918, or in the occupied countries during WWII.

    Fact is, that’s the only smart thing Antonescu did: giving troops for the Barbarossa thingie, he insured the immunity of the civilians behind. This was learned by him during WWI: if there is a fight coming, make sure you pick a side, otherwise you’ll get clobbered by everybody, the way it happened to Greece in WWI.

    The only good thing (the smart thing I mentioned above was not really good) he did was letting himself be arrested by King Michael … and there was no “conspiracy of democrats”. It was the king who just called his adjutants, called Antonescu, asked Antonescu to switch sides and when the guy said “no”, the king had his bodyguards lock him in the room with the stamp collection, then let the Communists and the elite of the other parties know what he did. This is the reason the move was a success. Had there been a conspiracy, there Germans would have found out and took charge of the country, the way they did in Hungary.

    “Romania was doing pretty well right up until the Red Army rolled over the border in late 1944.”

    Yeah, the Antonescus probably did very well. Rumania did well only compared with Poland.

    “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.”

    Yeah, exactly what the Communists ordered when they had Marin Preda write “Delirul”, the novel that started the Antonescuphilia. The damn fool was preparing to resist the Soviets in the South of Moldova and on the Carpathians, betting on the wonder-weapons of the Germans spread rumors about or on the Western powers joining Germany in the fight against the Soviets.

    The Antonescu you write about is believed by the kids that grew up with Marin Preda and pushed by the same fellows that invented him in the first place. The veterans of the war or the common people that survived it simply don’t talk about that time: to have a veteran that had seen the front line talk about it you need to get him real drunk, and then get ready to see a grown up man crying and trying to find himself an excuse for surviving the war.

  12. Spent a few days playing saxophone in Cork and Dublin, so this response comes in a little late.

    Let’s break down the relevant parts of the conversation:

    Douglas Muir: “Eastern European leaders of the 20th century, people! What’ve you got?”

    Me: “When it comes to wartime East European leaders, I note that all the examples listed by Douglas were from the side of the Axis.”

    Doug Muir: “Salazar was Axis?”


    Well, Douglas, as an answer to that question, I can tell you that Salazar definitely wasn’t East European by any meaningful standard, geographic or cultural.

    Yes, you mentioned Salazar, but as I said, all the examples of wartime _East European_ leaders listed in your original post were from the side of the Axis.

    Read closely; you’ve had these gaps before. And while at it, you may wish to read and think also the last message to this thread.


    J. J.

  13. Another dictator you might consider to discuss is Hoxha of Albania. He is certainly not popular, but what you often hear is “he was what the country needed at the time – he managed to keep us independent”. His number of casualties is also less than many Westerners expect. There is an exhibition in the museum at Tirana’s central square dedicated to his victims: it lists a bit over 5000 – if I remember well.

  14. Antonescu was and still is up to a point popular because he was portrayed as a patriot leader in the 1980s and 1990s. Now that Romanian passed its nationalistic moment in the 1990s more and more books are being written about the Holocaust of the Romanian and Ukrainian Jews and Antonescu’s image is being reconsider.

  15. Pingback: Pathmark Weekly Circular

Comments are closed.