On this date in 1941, “the Romanian Einstein” Francisc Panet was shot with his wife Lili and three other Communists at a forest near Jilava.
A chemical engineer by training, Panet or Paneth (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) was fascinated by the theoretical research then revolutionizing physics.
While studying in Czechoslovakia, his work on elementary particles brought him to Einstein’s attention, and the two met in 1932 and corresponded thereafter. Panet’s advocates claim that Einstein foresaw for him a brilliant future.
But back in a Romania dominated by fascism, his scientific gifts would be required for more urgent and less exalted purposes: cooking homemade explosives in his bathroom for Communist saboteurs.
Eventually the secret police traced the munitions back to Panet, and he and his wife were arrested in a Halloween raid. Condemned to death in a two-hour court martial on November 5, they allegedly went before the fascists’ guns with the Internationale on their lips.
An army officer who worked his way up to the brass via his exploits in the Second Balkan War and then in World War I, Antonescu emerged as a major nationalist politician in the interwar period. He was the elite political figure who allied with Corneliu Codreanu‘s Iron Guard movement.
Antonescu became the Defence Minister in a a far-right government, was temporarily shouldered out of the state by King Carol II‘s coup, and then re-emerged as the leading alternative when Carol’s government was undone by the tectonic political crises in the run-up to World War II. After territorial concessions wrung by Romania’s neighbors triggered protests against the king in Bucharest, Antonescu on September 5, 1940, forced Carol to transfer dictatorial power to him — and shortly thereafter, he forced Carol to abdicate altogether.*
That left Carol’s son Michael the figurehead of state, and Ion Antonescu the actual strongman — at least, once he tamed the Iron Guard.
For Germany, it was an important alliance: Romania’s oil fields were essential to powering the Reich’s mechanized army. And Romania ultimately fielded the largest Axis army other than Germany and Italy themselves with well over one million men under arms by the summer of 1944. For Romania, well, opportunism is as opportunism does: as Antonescu put it, echoing an ancient argument, “in today’s circumstances a small country which is under threat, such as ours, does not do what it wishes, but what it can.”
The Romanian “General Antonescu Army Group” joined the fateful invasion of the Soviet Union. Romanian divisions were prominent at Stalingrad where some 150,000 were lost as casualties or prisoners.
The turn of the war’s tide put Romania in a grievous dilemma whose parameters ran something like this:
Maintain Antonescu’s personal grip on power
Maintain the territorial expansion Romania had achieved early in the war
Exit the war without going down in Germany’s Gotterdammerung
Antonescu might perhaps have negotiated without the desperation due his position,† and dilated with his decreasingly patient enemies while the Germans flattered him with the dream that he could still retain conquered Bessarabia (present-day Moldova). Only with the Soviet army on his doorstep was Antonescu finally disabused of the statesman’s dream and office both — when King Michael ousted Antonescu and immediately switched Romania to the Allied side.‡ This move accepted the Soviet occupation that was about to become a fait accompli, and put Romanian soldiers into the field for the last months of the war fighting against their former German allies.
It also put Antonescu into Soviet custody. He rode out the war under guard in Moscow, then was shipped back to postwar Romania where he would serve as the feature attraction of the People’s Tribunals.
One hundred eighty-seven people answered war crimes charges to these bodies; there were 13 death sentences, but only four were actually executed.§ All four — Transnistria governor Gheorghe Alexianu, Interior Minister Constantin Vasiliu, and Foreign Minister Mihai Antonescu (no relation — were shot on this date at Jilava. The executions were filmed.
* Carol went into exile, never to see his native soil again. He died in Portugal in 1953.
** “Of all the allies of Nazi Germany, Romania bears responsibility for the deaths of more Jews than any country other than Germany itself,” according to a 2003-2004 commission. “Efforts to rehabilitate the perpetrators of these crimes are particularly abhorrent and worrisome. Nowhere else in Europe has a mass murderer like Ion Antonescu, Hitler’s faithful ally until the very end, been publicly honored as a national hero.” (The full report is available here; the quoted lines come from its executive summary.)
† Berlin was keeping an eye on Romania’s separate-peace feelers, too, and had prepared a plan to occupy Romania should it attempt to desert the Axis. This is precisely the fate that befell Nazi-allied Hungary … but in Romania’s case, Germany never had the moment to implement the plan.
‡ Michael was, like his father, forced into exile in 1947; he did not return to Romania until after the collapse of Communism. Now in his nineties, King Michael is still alive as of this posting and remains the claimant should Romania ever re-establish its monarchy.
§ Six of the 13 death sentences were delivered in absentia. Notable among those fled souls was the Hungarian writer Albert Wass: Wass had escaped to the United States, which refused repeated appeals by Communist Romania to deport him. There is a running struggle in both Hungary and Romania over whether to rehabilitate Wass or posthumously rescind his death sentences. (Postwar Hungary condemned him, too.)
On this date in 1601, Serbian-Romanian hajdukStarina Novak was slow-roasted in Cluj with two of his captains.
The hajduk in the Balkans was a romantic figure who mixed traits of the “social bandit” outlaw with those of anti-Ottoman guerrilla. Colorful characters answering the archetype persisted into the 20th century.
Novak, who was around 70 by the time of his death, is still celebrated for his feats of arms on the soldiering side of the ledger in a running conflict with the Ottomans. Most of the sites about Starina Novak are in Serbian, like this one.
He emerges as a commander of Serbian and Bulgarian auxiliaries fighting with Michael the Brave in the 1590s to carve out of the Ottoman realm a kingdom of Wallachia, Transylvania, and Moldavia — roughly, present-day Romania plus Moldova. The enterprise was as glorious as its destiny was tragic.
By 1601 an Italian officer aptly christened Giorgio Basta had had enough of his erstwhile allies and double-crossed hajduk and upstart king alike.
The former he shopped as a traitor to Michael’s Hungarian allies, who put him to the stake in Cluj and made sure to throw water on the burning partisan throughout in order to prolong the ordeal. (The charred corpses of Novak and his associates were then impaled.) A few months later, Basta had Michael the Brave assassinated, and placed himself at the head of Michael’s hard-won kingdom.
A statue of Starina Novak keeps vigil in the city where he died. (cc) image from Bogdan Pop.
Being a national hero means your prior career in brigandage gets a little Robin Hood elbow grease.
In the Serbian epic “Starina Novak and Knez Bogosava” — translated here by polyglot friend of the site Sonechka — Novak attributes his turn to banditry to the impositions of his rulers, specifically (and ahistorically) blaming the 15th century despot’s wife Jerina for overtaxing him.
Novak and Radivoj are imbibing wine
By the brisk waters of Bosna,
At a certain Prince Bogosav’s.
And having sated themselves with wine,
Prince Bogosav began to talk:
“Brother, Old Novak,
Tell me straight, as if confessing,
Why did you, brother, become a hajduk?
What compels you
To break your neck, to wander the forest
As a brigand, pursuing your ignoble employ,
Unto your senescence, when your time has passed?”
Replies Old Novak:
“Brother, Prince Bogosav,
When you ask, I answer in earnest —
It was truly not my wish.
If you could recollect
The time when Jerina was building Smederevo
And ordered me to toil.
I labored for three years,
I pulled the trees and carried stones,
All on my own cart and oxen.
And in three years term,
I gained not a dinar,
Not even opanci to put on my feet.
But that, brother, I would have forgiven!
Having built Smederevo,
She began to mount towers,
To engild the gates and windows,
And imposed the duty on the vilayet,
For each house – three measures of gold,
Which is three hundred ducats, brother!
Those who had, gave her the treasure;
Those who gave, stayed.
I was a pauper,
With nothing to give,
I took my pickax, which I toiled with,
And with this pickax I turned to banditry,
No longer could I linger anywhere
In the domain of cursed Jerina,
But ran away to the icy Drina,
Then reached stony Bosnia.
And when I neared Romania,
I met a Turkish wedding party –
Escorting a noble girl,
All passed in peace,
Save for the Turkish groom.
On the great dark brown steed,
He did not want to pass in peace.
He pulls his three-tail whip
(encumbered with three bolts of weight)
And lashes me across my shoulders.
I begged him thrice in the God’s name:
‘I beg you, Turk,
So blessed you with fortune and heroism,
And happy joviality,
Go on, proceed along your way with peace —
Do you see that I am a poor man!’
Withal the Turk would not budge.
And ache had grasped me,
And the anger grew,
I pulled my pickax from my shoulder
And struck the Turk, mounting on his brown steed.
The blow was so light
That it threw him off his horse,
I came upon him,
Hit him twice, and then again three times
While rending him asunder.
I rummaged through his pockets,
And found there three bags of treasure;
I stashed them in my bosom;
Untied his sword,
Having untied it from his belt, I have attached it to my own;
In place I left the pickax,
So that the Turks will have a tool with which to bury,
And thenceforth I mounted his brown steed,
And headed straight to the Romanian forest.
This all was witnessed by the wedding party
That dared not pursue me.
They wanted not or dared not.
It happened forty years back.
I grew more fond of my Romanian forest
Than, brother, of a palace;
Because I guard the mountenous road,
I wait for young Sarajevans
And take their gold, and silver,
And finer cloth, and satin;
I dress myself and the gang;
So I can come and flee,
And stay in horrid places —
I fear nothing but God.”
For Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian speakers with a lot of time on their hands, here’s a reading of the original:
On this date in 1954, Eugen Turcanu and 16 other Romanian political prisoners were executed at Jilava prison.
Turcanu et al were noted as the truncheon arm of one of 20th century’s more blood-chilling torture programs, the Pitesti experiment. (Named for the facility where it began, Pitesti prison.)
As if taking Orwell’s 1984 as a paragon instead of a grim dystopian warning, the Pitesti experiment subjected several thousand political and religious dissidents to a savage course of ideological re-engineering. The object was to beat and brainwash undesirables into model Communists.
“Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation,” Orwell’s torturer-apparatchik O’Brien remarks in the novel. “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”
Turcanu knew from the inside just what that sort of transformation entailed. He was by all appearances a proper Communist and a member of the right clubs thereto when, on the cusp of his 23rd birthday in 1948, he was arrested for a youthful prewar affiliation with the fascist Legionary movement.
He caught a harsh seven-year sentence but found his (short) life’s work in prison. His wheedling convinced wardens of his ideological suitability, and his Herculean physique suggested tasks that could only be entrusted to a co-founder of the Organization of Convinced Communist Detainees.
From late 1949 into 1952, Turcanu and a team of fellow goons were employed dishing out near-lethal thrashings on a wholesale scale to wrongthinkers. One thousand to five thousand souls are thought to have passed through the hands of Turcanu’s team; Soviet gulag survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called Pitesti “the most terrible act of barbarism in the contemporary world.”
As is customary with torturers, the ordeals extended far beyond brute force to invasive ritual debasement: people forced to eat shit, sexually humiliated, and manipulated into themselves turning torturer on their fellow prisoners and former friends. There’s a video documentary about this program (forcusing especially on its religious persecutions) embedded in its entirety here.
Obviously such practices, enacted on a nigh-industrial scale, were not the freelance initiatives of a few bad apples in the prison system. But no reader of the 21st century will be surprised that it was only the kapos like Turcanu who were punished for it once Stalin’s death relaxed the oppressive ideological terror in eastern Europe. While 22 prisoners were condemned (and 17 ultimately shot), the officers of Romania’s state police who had overseen them “suffered” things like reprimands and amnestied misdemeanor convictions.
Three centuries ago today, Wallachian prince Constantine Brancoveanu was beheaded in Istanbul with his four sons.
Brancoveanu (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) had fallen foul of the Sublime Porte, which dominated Wallachia, by dallying with the Ottomans’ European rivals, the Habsburgs and the Russians.
During the then-current installment the oft-renewed Russo-Turkish War derby, he actually massed armies for a potential swing all the way to the anti-Ottoman team. Breaking those up and returning Peter the Great’s gifts after the Russian clock got cleaned did not a tribute of loyalty make in the eyes of Turkey.
Not only Contantine but his entirely family — wife, four sons, and six daughters — were carried thereafter to Istanbul prisons. On the Feast Day of the Blessed Virgin, in the presence of the Sultan himself and of Christian diplomats who would be sure to put the word out, his four sons Constantine, Stefan, Radu and Matei were beheaded in his presence, as was the Wallachian treasurer Enache Vacarescu. The 60-year-old prince exhorted them as they endured their martyrdoms to remain steadfast, until at last he too lost his head. (Istanbul Christians managed to give the bodies honorable burials after fishing them out of the Bosphorus. The remains were later translated to Bucharest.*)
Most of the web sites about Branacoveanu and family are in Romanian; he was in his quarter-century reign a great cultural patron. The first Romanian Bible was completed in his time, and he undertook a great building program whose distinctive architectural stile still bears his name — Brancovenesc.
The Romanian Orthodox church conferred upon the martyred family the laurels of sainthood in 1992, a fine time to honor Romanian independence from foreign domination although of course by that time the Ottomans were yesteryear’s news and the outside heavy in question was the Russians.
Constantine also has a full panoply of secular miscellany in his honor: roads, statues, ballads, a metro station named after him, and so forth.
* At least, the alleged remains; it is well not to turn a forensic lens on saintly relics, and when Brancoveanu’s tomb was opened at the bicentennial of his death the skeleton therein appeared by the state of its teeth to be that of a man half Brancoveanu’s age. (Source)
On this date in 1954, Lucretiu Patrascanu was shot in Jilava Prison outside Bucharest.
The widow’s-peaked longtime pol was one of the first inductees of the Romanian Communist Party (PCR) after its 1921 founding. Patrascanu (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) was 21 years old then: the spirited politicking within the Communist movement would define the whole of his adult life.
By the 1930s, he held a position of national leadership. Patrascanu served in the Romanian legislature, and became a party representative to the Comintern.
It might have been at a Comintern road trip to Moscow in the 1930s that Patrascanu’s disillusionment with Stalin began. If so, it was beside the point: leftists in Romania (like everywhere else) had the more immediate threat of fascism to contend with.
After spending most of the war years under arrest, Patrascanu re-emerged as a state minister. He personally helped to author the August 23, 1944 coup that flipped Romania out of the Axis camp. But by the very next year he was under police surveillance.
He fell in the Soviet-driven late 1940s purge of Eastern European Titoists, for having such insufficiently internationalist notions as “before we are Communists, we are Romanians.” His time in prison was long enough for authorities to model his show trial on the 1952 Czechoslovakian Slansky trial, though Patrascanu himself disdained to denounce himself, or even to dignify the proceedings with a defense.
I have nothing to say, except [that I] spit on the charges brought against me.
Before the day was out, six of members of the hit squad were lined up and machine-gunned on the very same spot.
Calinescu was a conservative politician trying to fight off the rising fascist movement in his country — that aforesaid Iron Guard — and preferred to keep Romania in politic neutrality and friendly with England and France rather than hitching its fate to Nazi Germany.
This entailed an increasingly acrimonious struggle throughout the 1930s against the fascists. Calinescu once called the Guard “an association of assassins,” and the prospect of taking a bullet from them can’t have been far from his mind. Calinescu’s fingerprints were all over press closures, pre-emptive arrests, and still worse offenses to outrage the far right. After years in the cabinet working hand-in-glove with the hated-by-fascists King Carol II, Calinescu finally became Prime Minister in March of 1939. Carol hoped he could be the bulwark against a Legionary takeover.
If by his enemies ye may know a man, know that Calinescu was taken seriously enough for a multilateral meeting between representatives of the Iron Guard, fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany in order to make the arrangements for his murder. But Calinescu would probably have just as soon have preferred his life to this tribute of his foes.
Upon news of the assassination, Calinescu’s place was immediately filled by Gen. Gheorghe Argesanu, whose one week as head of government was distinguished by a ruthless crackdown on his country’s homegrown terrorists.* The very next day’s British papers, in the same stories reporting the assassination, carried news “of an exemplary punishment” delivered within hours: “Last night, under the glare of powerful arc lamps, the murderers were publicly executed by machine-gun on the spot where the crime had been committed.” (London Times, September 22, 1939)
Nor was that the last exemplar.
The Times reported on September 25th that the ensuing days had seen “more than 300 former Iron Guards were shot” all around the country, including many “in the open street as a public example, on the pattern of the machine-gun executions in public at the scene of the crime.”
The “example” did not have the intended effect: in the span of another year, a fascist-aligned government had control of Bucharest and King Carol had hightailed it to Mexico, never to return.
* The Iron Guard would pay back Argesanu a year later by killing him during the Jilava massacre of its political prisoners.
On this date in 1917, Romanian Lieutenant Emil Rebreanu was hanged for attempted desertion by the Austro-Hungarian army.
Here’s Rebreanu’s entry at the Enciclopedia Romaniei, which says in brief that he was one of 14 (!) brothers born in the part of present-day Romania that was then attached to the Kingdom of Hungary.
Upon the outbreak of World War I, Rebreanu was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian forces and fought on several fronts. But his removal to the lines to fight against the independent Romanian state was a front too far: he attempted to cross the lines to the Romanians on the night of May 10-11, but was captured, court-martialed, and sentenced to hang.
However, tragedy for the sizable Rebreanu family was a boon to world literature.
One of Emil’s many brothers was author Liviu Rebreanu, one of the greats of Romanian letters.
The latter’s 1922 novel Forest of the Hanged clearly draws upon his brother’s fate: in Forest, a Romanian officer uneasily serving in the Habsburg army first condemns a Czech deserter to death as part of a tribunal, then attempts himself to desert to Romania.
On this date* in 1799, Constantine Hangerli was deposed from his post as Prince of Wallachia by a Moorish executioner.
A veritable watchword for bad times, Hangerli was one of a clutch of disposable puppet rulers situated on the Wallachian throne by the Ottomans around the turn of the 19th century.
As had often before been the case, Wallachia was sorely pressed at this time by the cumulative exactions of its native boyars, the Ottoman Porte, and the plunder taken by the expeditions of rising Bosnian warlord Osman Pasvan Oglu.
Our man is famous, in particular, for the “Hangerli winter” of 1798, just after his elevation — when a confiscatory tax regime seized most of the countryside’s lifestock. Hangerli had a message for the generally currency-poor common man who objected to the much-despised per-head duty on cattle.
Pay the taxes, and you won’t be killed.
Hangerli’s real problem this year wasn’t the unmourned misery of his overtaxed serfs, but the Ottoman commander sent to rein in the Bosnians. Pasvan Oglu whipped that expedition, and its general Hussein Kucuk turned up at Hangerli’s doorstep late in 1798.**
Since it was dangerous for Ottoman generals to lose, Kucuk evidently arrived intending to put some blame on Hangerli — or at least, Hangerli thought that was the case. Secret dispatches from both parties to Istanbul ensued.
Whoever it was who schemed first, Kucuk schemed best. Selim III (later to die of palace scheming himself) decreed Hangerli’s immediate execution and dispatched a kapucu, one of the frightening envoy-executioners (two different men, in this case) who carried such decrees to their victims.
* I believe this may be per the Old Style/Julian date still in use in the Orthodox world.
“In place of the weak and beaten man who bends with every breeze, a man who is all too common in politics and other fields, we must create for this nation a man who does not bend, who is inflexible.”
On this date in 1938, 14 political prisoners of the Romanian Legionary movement were extrajudicially executed — including Corneliu Codreanu, one of the Romanian right’s leading spirits.
The son of a Bukovina schoolteacher in what was then Austria-Hungary, Codreanu came to political maturity in the interwar heyday of Greater Romania. It was a moment of national aspiration — the Romanian state had never before grown so large — but it was abutted by the great threats of Germany and Russia, and haunted by nationalism, economic crisis, shaken political authority, and all the other spooks conjured by the first World War.
For Codreanu as for many at that time it was the stage for a blood-and-soil death struggle against Communist agitators and sinister Jewish financiers.
But his vision was an intensely positive one as well: a valiant new Romania founded by a courageous new man, honorable and true to the virtues of the nation’s noble peasant stock. “We shall create,” Codreanu declared, “a spiritual atmosphere, a moral atmosphere, in which the heroic man may be born and on which he can thrive.”
Codreanu’s vehicle for stamping out these heroic countrymen was the Legion of the Archangel Michael* which our principal founded in 1927. Named for God’s ass-kickingest enforcer, this movement/militia was not above creating its spiritual atmosphere with political assassinations by adherents widely noted for a willingness to die for the cause.
Later known as the Iron Guard, the Legion, in the view of German historian Ernst Nolte, “plainly appears to be the most interesting and the most complex fascist movement, because like geological formations of superimposed layers it presents at once both prefascist and radically fascist characteristics.” (Qutoed here.)
As his Legion’s name suggested, Codreanu was intently religious — virtually a mystic, and a messianic Romanian Orthodox Christianity was essential to his new Romania. His movement took root in a peasant society, not an industrial state with a revolutionary working class to crush or co-opt. Rather, it organized in opposition to a mediocre king and a feckless, heavily non-Romanian oligarchy which maintained its enervating grip on the nation with “endless appeals to the Fatherland which it does not love, to God in whom it does not believe, to the Church where it never sets foot, to the Army which it sends to war with empty hands.”*
And also to the police, which clapped Codreanu and his confederates in prison after the revolutionaries declined the elite incumbents’ offer of political collaboration.
In 1938, Codreanu was hit with a long prison sentence for sedition. Uncowed, the Legion grew ever more overtly aggressive when Nazi Germany successfully dismembered Czechoslovakia; Berlin made the Legions plainly aware that it saw their movement as Romania’s future, German-allied government. Futilely maneuvering for his own scope of action, Carol attempted to decapitate the Iron Guard by having its imprisoned leadership “shot while trying to escape” on this date.