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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Old Ghosts Haunt the New Romania

Nothing is ever quite what it seems in Romania. Historical anniversaries are a case in point.

Tuesday was the 50th anniversary of the day that Romania's World War II dictator, Marshal Ion Antonescu, was overthrown in a coup. As a consequence, Romania ended its wartime alliance with Nazi Germany, and a period of particularly unpleasant domestic political repression was brought to a halt. This, you might think, is an anniversary for Romanians to celebrate.

Not so. Since the fall of Communism in 1989, Antonescu's reputation has soared. Pro-government and opposition publications alike have hailed him as a patriotic hero. In 1991, the Romanian parliament stood in silence for one minute on the eve of the 45th anniversary of his execution as a war criminal. A bust dedicated to Antonescu went up last year in the southern town of Slobozia, and at least eight other towns have named streets after him. One such town, Botosani, is known to historians as the place from which Antonescu deported large numbers of Jews for extermination.

It is as if Norway were to rehabilitate Vidkun Quisling, Hitler's puppet prime minister in Oslo, or as if Italy were suddenly to declare Benito Mussolini one of this century's greatest geniuses. Come to think of it, when Mussolini was recently praised in exactly those terms by a leader of Italy's neo-fascist movement, which is represented in the new Italian government, there was an international outcry. But the reaction to Romania's rehabilitation of Antonescu has been deafening silence.

One reason, perhaps, is that the events of August 23, 1944, have a direct bearing on present-day Romanian politics. For the man who organized the coup against Antonescu and broke Romania's humiliating relationship with Nazi Germany was King Michael, who up until that day had been merely a figurehead monarch.

Now in his 70s, the king was forced by the Communists to abdicate at gunpoint in 1947. But he has not entirely given up hope of regaining his throne.

Romania's post-Communist rulers, many of whom have a career background in the political structures of the Ceausescu dictatorship, cannot abide King Michael. They scorn him as a historical relic and do their best to keep him out of the country. But if he is really so unimportant, it is hard to see why they waste so much energy attacking him.

Of course, it is precisely under these rulers that Antonescu, the man whom King Michael overthrew, has been restored to official favor. In their efforts to disguise their Communist past, Romania's rulers have portrayed Antonescu as the embodiment of a "pure" anti-Communist Romanian past. Thus the paradox arises that Romania's neo-Communist authorities are the most vigorous defenders of a man who was executed by the Communists.

In fact, Antonescu's rehabilitation was slowly taking shape even before Ceausescu's fall in December 1989. It is noteworthy that Ceausescu called himself the "conductor," the same term Antonescu used in the 1940s. Ceausescu, seeking to present himself as a hero who would resist Moscow's bullying, found it useful to highlight Antonescu's record as an anti-Soviet patriot in the same mold.

In the end, though, the effect is equally unwholesome. Romanians are being taught to revere a man who dishonored his country and was guilty of appalling treatment of Romanian Jews. Europe should mark down Antonescu's rehabilitation as a bad sign for Romania's fragile democracy.