Ion Antonescu, both murderer and savior of Jews: Review of Hitler’s Forgotten Ally: Ion Antonescu and His Regime, Romania 1940-1944 by Dennis Deletant
Ion Antonescu is probably the most controversial political figure in recent Romanian history. He was Romania’s authoritarian military ruler from September 1940 to August 1944. He was also Adolf Hitler’s unwavering ally—and friend—during WWII. Described by many as one of the biggest mass murderers of the Holocaust and hailed by others as a national hero, it is difficult to reach consensus regarding Ion Antonescu. Dennis Deletant’s well-documented and marvelously written political history, Hitler’s Forgotten Ally: Ion Antonescu and His Regime, Romania 1940-1944, sheds light upon the darkest period of Romania’s past by focusing upon the views and policies of this mystifying political figure.
First and foremost, Deletant establishes the historical facts. Ion Antonescu was responsible for the death of “between 250,000 and 290,000 Jews and between 10,000 and 20,000 Romas” in the Romanian-occupied regions of Bukovina and Bessarabia. Because the Soviet Communist army took over these regions between June 28 and July 1940, their inhabitants—particularly the Jews in the area–were regarded by Romanians with suspicion. The Antonescu regime considered them to be disloyal to Romania and sympathetic to “the Bolsheviks” (whether or not they actually were Communist sympathizers). Antonescu’s racial policies, closely allied to those of the Nazi regime, caused unbelievable suffering and the death of tens of thousands of innocent people living in Bessarabia and Bukovina, who perished in death trains or in forced marches; were shot by German Einsatzgruppen (Task Forces) and Romanian troops; died of starvation, cold and diseases once deported to concentration and refugee camps in Transnistria (the strip of land between the river Dniester and the Eastern Moldavian border with Ukraine), which lacked sufficient food, clothing, potable water or sanitary living conditions.
At the same time as Romania under the Antonescu regime distinguished itself as the country with one of the most devastating Holocausts in Europe, it also distinguished itself as the country with the greatest number of Jewish survivors in Nazi-dominated Europe. According to Deletant, “up to 375,000 Romanian Jews” living in what is called “Regat” or “Old Kingdom” Romania (Wallachia, Moldavia and Southern Transylvania) were saved from deportation to concentration camps in Poland—which the Germans, including Adolf Eichmann, repeatedly demanded–by Antonescu’s ambivalent ethnic policies. Deletant’s riveting book explores this seeming paradox by analyzing the complex and contradictory figure of Ion Antonescu and his policies.
One thing is pretty clear, however (and one of the main reasons why, despite his murderous ethnic policies, many Romanians continue to see Ion Antonescu as a national hero): the Marshal’s pragmatic policies were always primarily guided by prioritizing Romania’s national and territorial interests and national security. His decisions changed with changing political and military circumstances. Antonescu sided with Hitler once he saw that remaining allied with France and England could not guarantee Romania’s security. As Deletant explains, this became particularly obvious to the Romanian leader after the Anglo-French capitulation to Hitler over Czechoslovakia in September 1938.
Although closely allied with Nazi Germany, Antonescu was no Hitler. Deletant plausibly describes the Romanian Fascist regime as an authoritarian military dictatorship rather than a totalitarian state. Antonescu allowed some degree of “democratic opposition”, debate and even critique of his policies (70). More remarkably, he corresponded and even had several meetings with Wilhelm Filderman, the President of the Federation of the Union of Jewish Communities in Romania, a courageous and dedicated man who fought relentlessly for Jewish civil rights in his country. After several exchanges with Filderman, Antonescu even relented on not enforcing many of the Nuremberg-inspired racial laws: something that would have been inconceivable for Hitler or any of the Nazi leaders.
In a much-cited note to Filderman (particularly by those who want to exonerate Antonescu), the Marshal promises the Jewish leader that he will not harm the Jews if they, in turn, do not sabotage his regime. In September 1940, Antonescu writes: “I assure Mr. Filderman of this and I also assure him that if his co-religionists neither sabotage the regime openly nor behind the scene, nor politically, nor economically, the Jewish population will have nothing to suffer” (104).
Filderman responds by thanking Antonescu on behalf of his co-religionists for his reassurances and assuring him of the loyalty of Jewish Romanians. He states: “Moved by the most sincere sentiments towards the throne and the country, the Jewish population of Romania wishes you a fruitful and peaceful rule and assures you that it will fulfill its duties faithfully and loyally” (59). Filderman’s response is also sometimes cited by those who want to prove that the Jewish community was grateful for Antonescu’s rule. Those who want to protect Antonescu’s image, of course, omit their fruitless exchanges regarding the mass deportation, shootings and internment in concentration camps of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Bukovina and Bessarabia, among many other human rights violations. Although Filderman tried to persuade Antonescu not to enact these murderous racial policies, he didn’t succeed. “Under Antonescu,” Deletant goes on to state, “Transnistria was the graveyard of an estimated figure of 220,000-260,000 Jews, and up to 20,000 Romas. Most of these deaths resulted from inhumane treatment and a callous disregard for live rather than industrialized killing… The toll increased dramatically with the murder by shooting of thousands of Jews in Transnistria in December 1941 and January 1942 on the orders of the Romanian authorities there” (171).
So what led Antonescu-the-killer-of-Jews to become Antonescu-the-savior- of-Jews by the end of the war? And why did the Romanian Fascist leader refuse to give in to Nazi pressure to deport all Romanian Jews to concentration camps in Poland, where most would have perished? Although the Marshal’s reversal of policy cannot be fully understood, Deletant explores several factors: 1) the tide of the war changing, after the battle of Stalingrad (August 1942-February 1943), in favor of the Allies; 2) pressure from the U.S. on behalf of the Romanian Jews; 3) the fact that Antonescu regarded Jews from mainland Romania as more assimilated and thus more “authentically Romanian” than the Jews in the regions of Bukovina and Bessarabia; 4) the warranted fear that Romania would be conquered by the Soviet Union and turned into a Communist satellite; 5) Filderman’s repeated interventions on behalf of Romanian Jews; 6) the argument (applicable up to the Spring of 1944) that the Hungarian Jews hadn’t been deported and that Romanian Jews shouldn’t be treated any worse than them; 7) the need to make independent, autonomous decisions as well as 8) the humanitarian pleas of the exiled Queen Helen of Romania on behalf of the Jewish community in her country. Ultimately, what the Marshal feared most came true anyway. Following a coup d’état, Antonescu was tried and executed on June 1, 1946 (along with several top members of his regime) by a new Soviet-led Communist leadership, which many Romanians detest far more than they do the nationalist Antonescu dictatorship. This too plays a role in the perception of those who want to “rehabilitate” the ambivalent figure of Antonescu as a national hero.
So what is Deletant’s historical verdict about Ion Antonescu? Judged by nationalist standards, there’s no question that he attempted to defend and even increase Romania’s boundaries and uphold its perceived best interests. Judged by moral standards, however, Antonescu is both a murderer and a savior of Jews. Without a doubt, the Marshal’s earlier policies caused the suffering and deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews and Romas in Bessarabia and Bukovina. But the virulently anti-Semitic leaders of the Iron Guard would have been far worse than him. So, from a consequentialist ethical perspective, there’s no doubt that Antonescu’s ethnic policies also saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews from “Old Kingdom” Romania. Moreover, Antonescu’s friendship with Hitler—and Hitler’s trust in him– ironically contributed to saving Romanian Jews at a time (in the spring and summer of 1944) when nearly 500,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to die in concentration camps in Poland once the Nazis invaded Hungary. In fact, I probably wouldn’t be writing this book review–because my family wouldn’t have survived the Holocaust in Romania–if it weren’t for the contradictory historical role played by Ion Antonescu, the murderer and the savior of Jews.
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon