Who was Antonescu, really?
A French assessment of him in 1922, when Antonescu was forty 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.” To read Deletant, Hitchins, and others, we can say that Antonescu 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 international situation he inherited from Carol II and Romania’s tragic position on the map between 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 Antonescu reportedly told journalists a few days after Pearl Harbor: “I am an 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 Free-Masons and Jews.”
If not a proponent of the Final Solution itself, Antonescu was among the twentieth 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 Transdniestria—where some 20,000 died of disease, starvation, and cold—was not a result of German pressure, but something he had 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 quasi-historical Romanian lands of Bukovina and Bessarabia to Transdniestria, 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 reckoning, the largest number of Jews away from the Final Solution in Axis-dominated Europe. He did so in large measure because of “opportunism” and extreme nervousness as to his own fate, as the Soviets and Western Allies began to tighten the noose on Hitler’s war machine. The end to deportation and mass murder in Transdniestria 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. Radu Ioanid might refer 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 Führer ordering him from abroad to give up his Jews did not sit well with him. 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 the 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 August 23, 1944, just as the Red Army was already marching triumphantly into Romania. He was tried by pro-Soviet Romanian authorities, duly convicted, and executed in 1946 by a firing squad at Jilava Prison near Bucharest. Antonescu was a mass murderer without strictly being a fascist. The fact that he kept an astonishingly larger 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 other country except for the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States. Romanian casualties against the Nazis in 1944–45 were some twenty-five 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 of Romania evinced during the war was, in turn, partly a function of its impossible geographical position, especially after Munich, when Chamberlain abandoned Central Europe to Germany.