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.)