Romanian entrepreneur Gheorghe Stefanescu was shot at Jilava Prison on this date in 1981. He was at the center of one of the largest corruption scandals of the Communist period.
A Bucharest liquor-store administrator, Stefanescu built a vast network that sold unlicensed and adulterated wine throughout the 1970s. When arrested in 1978 — after a Securitate officer noticed that the wine he’d ordered for a wedding decayed into sludge when the festivity was delayed — Stefanescu had accumulated a villa, two cars, 18 kg in gold jewelry, and millions in lei. More than 200 other people, ranging from distributors to officials corrupted by bribes, were arrested when the operation was rolled up.
The way it worked was, a vineyards administrator would fraudulently declare part of his product a loss to natural disaster, and squirrel it away illicitly. This contraband was then multiplied in volume and profitability by diluting the highest-quality wine with cheap plonk. Stefanescu and friends moved some 400,000 liters of this stuff from 1971 to 1978, costing the Romanian government several million dollars in lost revenue — a laughably pinprick injury compared to Romania’s post-Ceausescu sea of corruption but as they say, a prophet is never welcome in his own country.
Bring your Romanian proficiency to enjoy the 1984 film about the affair, Secretul lui Bachus (Secrets of Bacchus).
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 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.
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.
An authoritarian right-wing dictatorship by any standard, but like any polity it had its own internal conflicts. Of moment for this date: the detention of people whom the Legions considered implicated in the execution of fascist martyr Corneliu Zelea Codreanu two years before, as well as miscellaneous other undesirables who had prospered under the abdicated King Carol II.
Antonescu, who had a thing about rectitude, proposed to ornament these men’s inevitable deaths with the formalities of investigation and trial. Long story short, Sima and the Legionaries didn’t trust Antonescu; when Antonescu ordered some of the prisoners transfered to a different prison, the Guard refused — and when replacement jailers were consequently slated for the Guard, the Guard took matters into its own hands by slaughtering its charges this night.
Antonescu was furious.
the handful of reprobates who have committed this crime will be punished in an exemplary manner. I will not allow that the country and the future of the nation be compromised by the action of a band of terrorists … I was reserving the punishment of those held at Jilava for the justice system of the country. But the street decreed otherwise, proceeding to implement justice itself
By the following January, the conflict between the National Legionary State factions came to a head. With the support of the Third Reich, Antonescu mastered the Iron Guard, took control of the state, and sent Sima into exile.
And he did indeed punish — up to and including execution — several of the Guard members involved in this date’s massacre.
On the other hand, as a prize for serving as wartime Prime Minister of an Axis-aligned state, Antonescu himself was shot for war crimes not far from Jilava Prison in 1946. Sima, on the other hand, had a few in absentia death sentences, but checked out comfortably in Madrid at the age of 85.