Sunday, 21 January 2018

The Romanian "Night of the Long Knives" - Ion Antonescu and the Overthrow of the Iron Guard

Adolf Hitler, far from being an "extreme radical," as he is often portrayed, quite frequently sided with Conservative and establishment elements at key points in his career. This goes back to his sidelining of the more radical Strasser faction in the National Socialist Party in 1930, as well as his famous Night of the Long Knives purge in 1934, when he reined in the power of the Brownshirts and other populist elements in his party, in order to win the favour of the German ruling elites. 

Another example of Hitler's inherent conservatism was the position he took during the revolt launched by the Romanian Iron Guard on this day -- January 21st -- in 1941, when the German Fuhrer sided with the relatively "moderate" Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu.

Nowadays Antonescu is himself routinely presented as a rabid fascist and bloodsoaked anti-Semitic extremist, but in the context of Romanian politics in the inter-war period, he was actually something of a moderate nationalist, with relatively "soft" anti-Semitic views. This was true at least until the war with the Soviet Union began in June 1941, when the chaos of war unleashed more terrible forces.

Before that event, Antonescu served as a moderating influence on the strong anti-Semitic attitudes that dominated Romanian politics in his day. In fact, he was regarded as so soft on the JQ that he was accused by his opponents of being a defender of the Jews and blamed for having Jewish family connections (his stepmother and ex-wife were both ethnic Jews).

The key event for understanding Antonescu and Hitler's relatively moderate outlook was the revolt of the Legionnaires, as members of Roumania's Iron Guard movement was called. The Iron Guard was a Christo-fascist group, characterised by strong anti-Semitic sentiment, that was founded by Corneliu Codreanu, a charismatic leader who was later killed by the Monarcho-fascist government of King Carol II in 1938, who saw the Iron Guard as too extreme for a regime that wished to align itself with France.

But, following the fall of France in June 1940, Romanian politics started to change, with the country forced to rely on Germany for support and losing territory as a consequence. 

Romania 1940, three-time loser
In June 1940, while the Germans were engaged in the West, the Soviets demanded the provinces of Bukovina and Bessarabia. With Hitler unwilling to antagonise his new ally Stalin, Roumania was forced to concede. Next, Germany sided with Hungary and Bulgaria as they asserted territorial claims on parts of Roumania inhabited by Hungarians and Bulgarians. This greatly reduced Roumania's territory and discredited the regime of King Carol. 

Forced to step down, Carol II then appointed Antonescu as his successor, because he was supported by a wide group of right-wing forces, including fascists, nationalists, Christians, and conservatives, and also had German backing. Essentially he was seen as a representative of the old elite, who would be able to work with, and control, the new populist forces in Romanian politics, especially the Iron Guard, with whom he had close ties, having strongly supported their former leader Corneliu Codreanu, when on trial for treason in 1938. 

Once in power, Antonescu more or less followed this script and worked to contain the Iron Guard with whom he shared power. One of the policies of the new government was the Romanianization of property, which essentially meant taking it away from the extremely rich and powerful Jewish minority. This was a policy not dissimilar to the attempts made by African states like Zimbabwe and South Africa in more recent times to boost Black control of the economy. 

The Iron Guard militia enthusiastically used their new power to dispossess Jews, often using brutal and violent methods to achieve this, rather than working within a legalistic framework. Antonescu felt that this was a problem because it was disrupting the Romanian economy, which could ill afford it, as King Carol had stolen most of the national reserves when he went into exile. 

Uneasy alliance: Antonescu and
Iron Guard leader Horia Sima.
As a group that was formerly persecuted under the regime of King Carol, the Iron Guard were also keen to revenge themselves on their political opponents. This led Antonescu and the Germans to come to the conclusion that the Iron Guard was acting irresponsibly and were therefore a problem. With Hitler envisaging a future conflict with the Soviet Union involving Romanian participation, this meant that he saw the Iron Guard increasingly as a liability.

Meanwhile the Iron Guard felt that Antonescu was opposing them and obstructing their nationalist revolution. When the Guard's magazine "Buna Vestire" publicly accused him of leniency, he forced the editorial board to resign. Then, in November 1940, after details of the death of Corneliu Codreanu were released, the Iron Guard ordered retaliation against political figures they blamed for their former leader's death, leading to assassinations and other acts of violence. This forced Antonescu to order the army onto the streets of Bucharest to restore order. 

Because of this difference in approach, the Iron Guards, led by Horia Sima, started to take an increasingly paranoid view of Antonescu, seeing him as a tool of the Jews and the Freemasons and as someone who must be removed. But unfortunately for them he had Hitler's ear, and, following a meeting on the 14th of January 1941, also an assurance from Hitler of support against the Legion. 

On the 19th of January, Antonescu made his move to reduce the power of the Iron Guard, sacking several Legionnaires from their jobs as Romanization Commissars. He also axed prominent Legionnaires from ministerial and security positions on the basis of involvement in violent and lawless acts. These included the Minister of the Interior, Constantin Petrovicescu, and various police officials, who were all replaced by loyal military offices.

On the 20th, the Legion responded by disobeying the new appointees, then on the 21st they seized the Ministry of the Interior, police stations, and other government buildings in Bucharest. This led to a tense stand off with the Romanian army for the next two days. 

Initially the Legion had a lot of public support and goodwill, but proceeded to throw this away by creating an anarchic atmosphere of violence and needless cruelty. Much of the violence was directed at Jews, who were subjected to a pogrom, in which shops and synagogues were vandalised and around 130 killed. In a particular case of "bad optics," dozens of Jews were taken to a slaughterhouse and hung from meat hooks in a grim parody of kosher butcher methods. As the US Minister to Roumania reported: 
"Sixty Jewish corpses were discovered on the hooks used for carcasses. They were all skinned . . . and the quantity of blood about was evidence that they had been skinned alive."
One of the victims was a five-year-old girl.

But the violence was not just directed at Jews. Soldiers loyal to Antonescu and others seen as opponents to the Legion were also subjected to violence. This killed much of sympathy among ordinary soldier for the Legion.

Antonescu avoided directly confronting the uprising until he had built up his forces in the capital by bringing in additional military units, including tanks. Then, on the 23rd of January, sensing that the time was right, he ordered the army to strike with overwhelming force. By now the Legionnaires had become complacent and focused on looting. They were driven from the streets, with hundreds killed. In the next few days, thousands more were arrested and imprisoned, while others, like their leader, Horia Sima fled into exile. 

This was the end of the Legion's days in power, but Romania remained on its ill-fated course as a Nazi satellite, with Romanian troops playing their part in the disastrous defeat at Stalingrad in November 1942, when their military collapse allowed the Soviet forces to surround the German army and change the course of the war. Antonescu was deposed in 1944, captured by the Soviets, and executed in 1946. Whether rightly or wrongly, many people in Romania continue to regard him as a hero and as a man who tried to do his best for the country in extremely difficult times.

Antonescu being prepared for execution


  1. I always found it absurd and ironic, the dictionary definition of Fascism just as easily described the Soviet Union and The People's Republic of China, as it does either Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany.

  2. Fascism was and is the answer to totalitarian communism.