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Ultranationalist utopias and the realities of reconciliation (part two)

Constantin Iordachi and Ferenc Laczó discuss the aftermath of the Second World War and Romanian–Hungarian relations.

March 4, 2021 - Constantin Iordachi Ferenc Laczó - History and MemoryInterviews

The execution of Marshall Ion Antonescu, former dictator of Romania (1940-1944) at the Fort Jilava prison in a suburb of Bucharest. Source: Serviciul Roman De Informatii.

You can find the first part of the discussion here

FERENC LACZÓ: Could you tell us a bit about the post-war trials in Romania? How were these trials organised? Who found themselves accused and what were the sentences?

CONSTANTIN IORDACHI: As in the other Axis satellite countries in Central and Eastern Europe, Romania’s wartime leaders and Nazi collaborators were not sent to international military tribunals as part of the Nuremberg Trials. Instead, they were judged in domestic People’s Tribunals set up in line with the Soviet legal model and contemporary international law. After the coup d’état of August 23rd 1944 deposed Marshal Ion Antonescu, Romania switched sides and joined the war against the Axis Powers. Under Article 14 of the Armistice Agreement signed with the Allies in September 1944, the new Romanian government pledged to arrest and prosecute the wartime leaders guilty of war crimes.

The process was lengthy and rather protracted. On the one hand, Romania was experiencing a turbulent political transition that ended with the abusive establishment of a Soviet-backed communist government in March 1945. On the other hand, the country needed to pass new laws enabling the arrest of war criminals, the setting up of exceptional tribunals, the passing and execution of death sentences, and the confiscation of the perpetrators’ property. These acts were not possible under the recently reinstated 1923 Constitution. A series of laws passed in 1944-47 established two broad categories of legal violation: war crimes, which included “crimes against peace” and “against humanity”; and “responsibility for the country’s disaster”, including support for fascism (e.g. Iron Guard, Arrow Cross, and Nazism).

After intense legal-political preparations, in May and July 1945 Romania set up two ad-hoc People’s Courts to prosecute the dignitaries of the Antonescu regime (1940-44) and its collaborators. The first was set up in Bucharest, with jurisdiction over the city, the ‘Old Kingdom’, and crimes committed outside the borders of Romania on the Eastern Front. The other court was set up in Cluj and was entrusted with investigating war crimes committed in Northern Transylvania under the Hungarian administration of 1940-44. Later, the jurisdiction of the Cluj Court was extended to Southern Transylvania and the Banat.

The two courts did not organise individual trials but assembled the defendants in ‘groups’ or ‘lots’ that consisted of journalists, state dignitaries, military generals, etc. The main trial was that of Marshal Ion Antonescu and his principal collaborators in May 1946. Overall, the trial involved 24 people, the most important of whom had been kept in Soviet custody between August 1944 and April 1946. Thirteen defendants were sentenced to death but only four of them were eventually executed on June 1st 1946: Marshal Ion Antonescu, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Mihai Antonescu, General Inspector of Gendarmerie Constantin Vasiliu, and the governor of the Trans-Dniester Region, Gheorghe Alexianu. Seven former Legionary ministers, including the wartime leader of the Legion, Horia Sima, were tried in absentia.Theymanaged to escape capital punishment by emigrating from Nazi Germany to the West, with Spain as their final destination. 

According to official sources, which were summarised in the Final Report of the Wiesel Commission until their disbandment in July 1946, the two courts processed 2700 cases of suspected war criminals, pressed criminal charges against half of them and managed to convict 668 defendants. The Bucharest People’s Court convicted 187 persons, while the Cluj People’s Court sentenced 481 persons: 370 Hungarians, 83 Germans, 26 Romanians and 2 Jews. The Cluj sentences, which included 100 death sentences, 163 sentences of life imprisonment, and a total of 1204 years in prison, were harsher than the ones passed in Bucharest. It should be noted, however, that the vast majority of these sentences were never carried out since the defendants had managed to flee the country and were judged in absentia. Over the next three years, over twelve hundred additional defendants were found guilty of war crimes by the Appeal Courts in Cluj and Bucharest, which took over the jurisdiction of the defunct People’s Courts.

Overall, the number of people prosecuted for war crimes and death sentences passed was lower in Romania than in neighbouring Hungary or Bulgaria. Moreover, most capital punishments were eventually commuted to life imprisonment. The majority of those convicted for war crimes were released from prison in the 1950s or individually pardoned in the early 1960s.

After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, there have been requests to rehabilitate various categories of people convicted of war crimes. These campaigns have focused on questioning the legitimacy of the post-1945 Soviet-style political trials. Following an exceptional appeal procedure starting in the 1990s, a number of journalists, ministers, and army generals were subject to posthumous rehabilitation. In this context, nationalist parties, most notably the Greater Romania Party led by Corneliu Vadim Tudor, demanded the retrial of Ion Antonescu and his rehabilitation as a national hero. This campaign was supported by apologetic historians such as Gheorghe Buzatu, Ioan Dan, and Larry R. Watts, to name but a few.

A legal appeal for the partial rehabilitation of members of the ‘Antonescu trial group’ was initiated in 1996 by the son of one of the defendants, Gheorghe Alexianu. This request was admitted by the Bucharest Court of Appeal in 2006. However, this step was subsequently annulled by the High Court of Cassation and Justice, so the 1946 sentences have ultimately been left unchanged. Hungarian state officials have also joined these revisionist efforts, as shown by the state-sponsored rehabilitation of Albert Wass and Nyirő József, two writers with antisemitic credentials convicted in absentia for war crimes in post-World War Two Romania. In the case of Albert Wass, the death sentence was re-confirmed by the Cluj Court of Appeal in 2008, following an appeal filed by members of his family. Generally, in Romania, Hungary, and elsewhere, the campaigns for rehabilitating war criminals go hand in hand with ongoing radical right effors to rewrite the history of World War II from a revisionist standpoint.

Let us talk a bit about questions of remembrance as well. How was Romania’s role in the Second World War remembered before 1989 and how has it been remembered since the end of Ceaușescu’s rule?

To understand patterns of remembering World War II in Romania, it would be instructive to compare the country’s foreign policy strategy to that of Poland. Unlike Poland, which decided to resist foreign aggression at all costs even while risking full occupation, state dissolution, and partition, Romanian politicians’ decided in 1940 to temporarily agree to territorial losses in order to save the existence of the state and preserve the core of the national army. It was hoped that a more favourable geopolitical context in the future may allow the state to recover the lost provinces. This approach proved successful during World War I, when, after forcefully signing an onerous Separate Peace with the Central Powers in early 1918, the remobilised Romanian army re-joined the war on November 10th 1918 and subsequently played an important military role in Central Europe.

Although Romania was traditionally part of the Entente alliance, after the 1940 defeat of France it firmly entered the Nazi German sphere of influence. In the summer of 1940 Romania was pressured to cede Northern Transylvania to Hungary, Southern Dobrudja to Bulgaria, and Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina to the Soviet Union. Yet, in September 1940, under the ‘National-Legionary State’, General Antonescu entered the Axis alliance and in June 1941 the country joined the Nazi anti-Soviet war in order to recover Bessarabia and Bukovina. The military disaster on the Eastern Front prompted young King Michael I and various opposition parties to oust Marshal Antonescu from power in August 1944. Romania subsequently joined the Allies with the aim of recovering Northern Transylvania from Hungary.

As a result of this policy, Romania ended up making substantial, long-term military contributions to both sides of the war, which led to high human casualties. The differences between these two opposing military experiences shaped the official and collective memories of World War II. During the Antonescu regime, Romania’s participation in the anti-Soviet war was declared a ‘sacred’ anti-Bolshevik ‘crusade’ for Christianity and national unification. The demonisation of Bolshevism by official propaganda and Romanian soldiers’ first-hand experience of Soviet realities shaped their attitude toward communism. This in part explains their subsequent, arduous resistance to Soviet-style collectivisation.

After the communist takeover in 1945, the anti-Soviet war was condemned as a ‘fascist-imperialist aggression’. Many of those who fought on the Eastern Front were interned in the Soviet gulag system. The personal experiences of these prisoners of war and deportees interned in the Soviet Union remained a taboo topic. The only exceptions were the “Tudor Vladimirescu” and “Horia, Cloșca and Crișan” divisions, which were showcased by the official propaganda. These were made up of Romanian prisoners of war in the Soviet Union who embraced Bolshevism, joined the Red Army, and then played an important role in the communist takeover of Romania. 

After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, the full details of the Romanian army’s participation on the Eastern Front ceased to be a censored topic. The personal experiences of Romanian soldiers received growing scholarly and journalistic attention, mostly through interviews with war veterans. More recently, official institutions and civic associations took an interest in the state of Romanian military cemeteries in the former Soviet Union and asked Bucharest to properly maintain them. Journalistic reports about these sites abounded especially during the 2018 football World Cup that was held in Russia. In addition, many unknown Romanian soldiers, some uncovered by research by the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge, were reburied with proper religious rites in new cemeteries organised by Romania. This happened in 2015 in Rossoshka in Volgograd Oblast and three years later in Apsheronsk in Krasnodar Krai. This prompted popular magazines, such as Historia, to provide retrospective reflections on Romania’s military history during the twentieth century, its successes but also its disastrous defeats, from Turtucaia in World War I to Stalingrad in World War II. 

Romanian soldiers in southern Russia during the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1942. Source: German Federal Archives wikimedia.org

What characterises the social and political memory of what happened in Transylvania during WW2, more specifically? How has the division of Transylvania been remembered in Romania in more recent decades? 

Romanians and Hungarians share a common history in Central Europe, consisting of moments of collaboration and conflict. World War II is probably one of the most disputed chapters in bilateral relations. Although Romania and Hungary were officially allies within the Axis camp, they continued to be divided by a long-standing territorial dispute. The annexation of Northern Transylvania by Hungary in 1940 and the return of the Romanian administration in that region in 1944 were accompanied by violent demographic change and antagonistic policies of nationalisation and de-nationalisation. These violent policies led to calls for retroactive justice in the immediate post-1944 period.

In the long run, these events have also given rise to conflicting memories of the war among Romanians and Hungarians, just as among the surviving Jews, Germans, Romani and other communities living in Transylvania. Once the post-war trials were over by early 1950, the communist authorities tried hard to suppress these conflicting wartime memories. Yet, in the 1980s, when tensions between reform communism in Kádár’s Hungary and neo-Stalinism in Ceaușescu’s Romania reached a peak, Bucharest made renewed references to the ‘Horthyist regime of terror’ in Northern Transylvania, recallingthe extermination of Jews and anti-Romanian massacres, such as in Ip and Treznea. As Maria Bucur and other researchers have shown, the official memorialisation of these massacres in the 1980s (mostly through new commemorative monuments and ceremonies) differed from local memories kept alive by oral traditions. The gap between official practices of commemoration and local memories diminished in the post-communist period but was never fully eliminated.

Generally, as shown by Rogers Brubaker and his co-authors, among others, Transylvanian Romanians and Hungarians found ways of living together in daily life, based on common remembering but also forgetting, or, in some instances, on a tacit agreement to disagree and uphold different narratives of contested events and cherish different symbols.

Nevertheless, the recent, 2019 conflict over the Heroes’ Cemetery of Valea Uzului, which concerned the status of the Romanian and Hungarian soldiers who fell in the two world wars, proves, once again, that conflict regarding these sensitive issues is still possible when they are not handled with civic care and reciprocal respect by all actors. It is not by chance that Gheorghe Simion, the co-leader of the Alliance for the Unity of the Romanians (AUR), Romania’s new parliamentary nationalist party, gained notoriety by muddying the waters in this conflict. 

Valea Uzului/Uzvolgye, WWI cemetery of Austro-Hungarian soldiers. Photo: Kun Kipcsak wikimedia.org

Last but not least, would you mind sharing your views on the evolution of Romanian–Hungarian relations since 1989 and how you assess the current situation?

I have always been, in my scholarly approach but also through my personal biography, an advocate of Romanian–Hungarian reconciliation and strategic partnership. I have recently co-edited a massive collective volume in the spirit of such cooperation. As a teenager in the 1980s, I witnessed a major crisis in inter-state relations between Romania and Hungary regarding the status of ethnic Hungarians in Romania. The official propaganda of the Romanian communist regime championed nationalism and often scapegoated the Hungarian community in Transylvania as ‘anti-national’. Moreover, as political tensions mounted, Romania and Hungary started to regard each other as a key security threat, despite the fact that the two countries were ‘fraternal’ communist regimes.

I also witnessed the impact of the annus mirabilis of 1989 and how the Romanian Revolution completely transformed the dynamics of inter-ethnic relations between Romanians and Hungarians, as well as the inter-state relations between Romania and Hungary. The ideals of the Revolution united Romanians and Hungarians in the common cause to build a fair and prosperous democratic society. At the interstate level, Romania and Hungary signed a treaty of friendship in 1996 and have built a special military and political partnership that is generally regarded as a model for Central Europe. The two countries have promoted cooperation rather than separation in their bilateral relations. Interdependence is now viewed as a source of stability rather than a source of vulnerability and conflict. It is not an overstatement to say that the Romanian-Hungarian conflict has been resolved within this new post-Cold War framework of interstate reconciliation, strategic partnership within NATO, and European integration.

Nowadays, state borders have become irrelevant in many fields, as people and goods move freely between the two countries. Hundreds of thousands of dual, Romanian-Hungarian citizens participate in the political processes of both countries, while the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania is routinely part of governing coalitions in Romania. According to official data, there are over 12,000 Hungarian commercial associations in Romania, and over 6000 companies of mixed, Hungarian–Romanian ownership in Hungary. At the grassroots level, examples of integration in daily life are now at an unprecedented level. According to recent press reports, numerous Romanian citizens from Arad have bought houses in nearby Hungarian villages, commuting daily to work across the border. At the same time, in emergency situations, the inhabitants of small border towns call firefighters from the other country if they happen to be closer to the scene. In addition, numerous companies have established factories in border regions in order to hire Romanian and Hungarian personnel who work side by side in such transnational enterprises. 

However, this model of reconciliation and partnership, greatly facilitated by the legal-institutional framework of the European Union, can fully function only in democratic political systems. In contrast, the rise of authoritarianism and ethnic nationalism casts shadows over this model. The most recent example is the campaign of ‘victimhood nationalism’, with occasional revisionist overtones, conducted by the Hungarian authorities around the centenary of the Treaty of Trianon. Romania responded to this campaign in November 2020, by adopting—after much debate—a new law that declared June 4th to be an official “Day of the Trianon Treaty”. This law marks a major shift in Romania’s official historical discourse, which was traditionally focused on the Resolution for Union of the Great National Assembly in Alba Iulia on December 1st 1918. The 1920 Trianon Treaty has always been rather marginal in the Romanian narrative of the Great War and its aftermath, being traditionally viewed as an expected, post-factum international consecration of the 1918 ‘Great Union.’

I personally see Romania’s new law on memorializing the Trianon Treaty as unnecessary and counterproductive with regards to inter-ethnic and inter-state relations. However, its adoption shows that nationalist discourses in Hungary trigger similar responses in Romania. It is telling that those deputies who initiated Romania’s 2020 law invoked Hungary’s 2010 law on the memorialisation of the Trianon Treaty. Of course, such negative dynamics work the other way around too, as we saw in the 1990s with reactions to Cluj Mayor Gheorghe Funar’s anti-Hungarian rhetoric.

There is a growing danger that, instead of deepening their interstate reconciliation and cooperation, Romania and Hungary would return to the rhetoric of mutual hostility if they yet again start to cultivate antagonistic symbols. Post-communist Hungary was for decades a champion of liberal democracy and a model of success in the transition to democracy and the market economy in Central Europe. Likewise, the Hungarian community in post-communist Romania was a key actor in the process of political democratisation and one of the driving forces behind Romania’s EU integration. Yet, in the last decade, Hungarian authorities have built an illiberal political regime and have promoted it as a model to be emulated in the entire region. Geopolitically, Hungary adopts an ‘anti-Brussels’ rhetoric, and aligns itself with authoritarian powers, such as Russia. The weakening or demise of democracy in Central Europe might destabilize the entire region. It would be a great tragedy if Central Europe returned to the interwar era of authoritarian dictatorships, territorial conflicts, militarism, and aggressive foreign policies that lead to recurrent conflict. I believe that, as a country with large kin populations abroad, Hungary has a direct, strategic interest in the perpetuation and consolidation of democracy in Central Europe. As historical examples show, the rise of authoritarianism and nationalism in Hungary and across the region might also put into question the status of ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring countries, as we saw earlier in debates over dual citizenship. Democratic regimes are the best safeguard for the rights of ethnic Hungarians across Central Europe—and of all minority and majority groups, for that matter—and the best guarantee of interstate cooperation in the region. Surely, conflicts may also occur among democratic societies, as well, but they are likely to be solved through dialogue and negotiations.

This discussion, consisting of two parts, first appeared on the Hungarian language platform Mérce.

Constantin Iordachi is professor at the Department of History, Central European University, Vienna, co-editor of the journal East Central Europe (Brill), and president of the International Association for Comparative Fascist Studies. He also serves as a member of the Academic Committee of the House of European History, Brussels. Iordachi is the author of A Vasgárda: Karizma, politika, és erőszak Romániában, 1927-1941 (Budapest: L’Harmattan, 2017, 2018), Charisma, Politics and Violence: The Legion of “Archangel Michael” in Inter-War Romania (Trondheim: 2004), and Liberalism, Constitutional Nationalism and Minorities: The Making of Romanian Citizenship, c. 1750-1918 (Leiden: Brill, 2019). He has edited and co-edited over a dozen volumes.

Ferenc Laczó is assistant professor with tenure in European history at Maastricht University and, most recently, co-editor (with Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič) of The Legacy of Division. East and West after 1989 (CEU Press-Eurozine, 2020) and (with Włodzimierz Borodziej and Joachim von Puttkamer) The Routledge History Handbook of Central and Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century Volume 3: Intellectual Horizons (Routledge, 2020).

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