Note: This article is centered mainly on the military career of the very controversial personality of marshal Antonescu. Its purpose isn't to clear him of war crimes or to go into much details about them, because they do not represent the main focus of this website. The ones that are interested in this have many published works and Internet websites, which are better documented on the subject. It is not our intention to glorify marshal Antonescu.
4 September 1940 – 23 August 1944: Prime Minister
16 September 1940: promoted to the rank of lieutenant general
5 February 1941: promoted to the rank of general
22 June – 17 July 1941: General Antonescu Army Group
6 August 1941: Knight's Cross
21 August 1941: promoted to the rank of marshal
21 August 1941: Mihai Viteazul Order 2nd and 1st classes
22 September 1941 – 23 January 1942: Minister of Defense
Ion Antonescu was born on 2 June 1882 in Pitesti in a military family. He decided to also follow the same career and joined in 1898 the School for military officers' children.. In 1902 he was admitted into the Infantry and Cavalry Officer School. He graduated in 1904, the first in his class.
The young 2nd lieutenant was assigned to the 1st Rosiori Regiment. He distinguished himself during the 1907 Peasant Revolt, when, in front of a small detachment was blocking the road into Galati peacefully convinced a large mob not to enter the city. For this deed, the Crown Prince Ferdinand, who was the General Inspector of the Cavalry, congratulated him. In 1908 he was promoted to the rank of 1st lieutenant and Prince Ferdinand wanted to take him as his aid, but because he did not have the necessary rank for the position (minimum captain) it wasn't approved.
In 1911 he was admitted into the Military Academy, which he finished in 1913, being promoted captain in the meanwhile. During the Second Balkan War he served as chief of the Operations Bureau of the 1st Cavalry Division. Then between 1 November 1914 and 1 April 1915 he was assigned to the Cavalry Officer School.
The Romanian entrance in WWI found him in the Operations Bureau of the Northern Army, commanded by lieutenant general Constantin Prezan. According to the memoirs of general Radu Rosetti, the two men formed a perfect team. The good results of the Northern Army, the only one that retreated in an organized and orderly fashion from Transylvania, led to the appointment of general Prezan as commander of the 1st Army and of the Danube Defense Group (the former 3rd Army) on 17 November 1916, major Antonescu (he had been promoted at the beginning of the month) coming with him as the chief of his Operations Bureau. Even if he lost battle of Neajlov and with it the capital, general Prezan was named Chief of the General Staff on 17 December 1916. Major Ion Antonescu became the chief of the Operations Bureau of the General Staff, replacing lt. colonel Radu Rosetti. Thus he could play an important role in the victories from the summer of 1917, the occupation of Bessarabia and the reentrance into the war in November 1918. In 1919, the Prezan-Antonescu team coordinated the defeat of the Hungarian Red Army, operation that ended with the occupation of Budapest by the Romanian troops. This action won the fresh lt. colonel Ion Antonescu the highest Romanian military award: the Mihai Viteazul Order 3rd class, on 31 December 1919.
After the war, colonel Ion Antonescu (he had been promoted again in 1920) was part of the Romanian delegation at the Peace Conference in Paris, as well as of the delegation that negotiated the alliance with Poland. He was then named commander of the Special Infantry and Cavalry School at Sibiu, where he had a riding accident, which kept him in bed for 6 months. Between 1 August and 31 December 1923 he was appointed military attaché in Paris and then, between 1 January 1924 and 14 July 1926 in London. When he returned home he was given the command of the 9th Rosiori Regiment Principesa Elena in Giurgiu and in 1927 he took over the Military Academy.
In 1931 he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. On 1 July 1933 he received the command of the 3rd Infantry Division, which had the headquarters in his hometown of Pitesti. King Carol II insisted he take the position of Chief of the General Staff and he eventually did so on 1 December 1933. At his appointment he had obtained from the King the promise to give him full liberty in the reorganization of the army, but the relations between the two deteriorated and Antonescu resigned on 11 December 1934. He returned to Pitesti to the 3rd Infantry Division, which he commanded until 1937.
He was promoted to the rank of major general on 25 December 1937 and three days later was appointed Minister of Defense. He again entered in a conflict with the King and his entourage and had to resign on 30 March 1938, falling into disgrace. Antonescu was "exiled" at the command of the 4th Territorial Corps and in 1940 he was put under house arrest in the Bistrita Monastery.
Following the territorial raptures from the summer of 1940, Carol II was in a very difficult situation. On 5 September, the King appointed general Antonescu Prime Minister and offered him full powers to run the state. The following day, Carol abdicated in favor of his son Mihai I and left the country. Ion Antonescu formed a government with the Iron Guard (aka the Legion of the Archangel Michael). Romania became "national legionary state". However he kept the key ministries for men he could trust.
In the army he retired 80 superior officers, considered men of the former regime or incompetent. Another 84 soon followed them. He also began a reorganization of the army. Lt. general Ion Antonescu (he had been promoted on 16 September) adopted an increasingly harsher attitude towards the legionnaire propaganda in the army, forbidding the officers and NCOs to get involved in politics.
The general continued the open pro-German politic initiated by Carol II in May 1940. He renewed the invitation for a German Military Mission, which started to arrive on 12 October. This was the first step made towards the alliance with Nazi Germany, Romania adhering to the Tripartite Pact on 23 November.
The cohabitation between Antonescu and the Iron Guard proved to be short lived. With the army's support and Hitler's tacit approval he took advantage of the Legionnaire Rebellion on 21 – 23 January 1941 and removed them from power, liquidating the movement.
He made a new government, which consisted mainly of officers, he militarized the big factories, the railroad, the airfields and the ports and slowly began to mobilize the army, guessing a future confrontation with the Soviet Union. On 6 June 1941, general Antonescu had a new meeting with Hitler and he was announced about the Barbarossa Plan. The general offered the support of the Romanian army and expressed his wish to retake Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina. It was decided to create the General Antonescu Army Group in Moldavia, which was made up of the 3rd and 4th Romanian and 11th German Armies. The group was going to be disbanded once its troops had reached the River Dnestr.
The decision to invade the Soviet Union was taken by general Ion Antonescu, without consulting anyone. King Mihai I, for example, found out about it only on 22 June. However, he had the support of the public opinion and of the majority of the former political parties, with the exception of the tiny Romanian Communist Party. After Northern Bukovina and Bessarabia were retaken, on 17 July 1941, the 11th German and 3rd Romanian Armies forced the Dnestr and the Army Group was disbanded. He was left only with the 4th Army and the 2nd Corps under his direct command, with which he finished the clean up of Southern Bessarabia by 26 July.
For recuperating the territories lost the previous year to the USSR he was promoted to the rank of marshal and was awarded the Mihai Viteazul Order 2nd and 1st classes and the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. He was at the height of his glory. But the continuation of the war beyond the 1940 borders was not very well received by the public opinion and the former political parties. His justification was that the war must be carried out until the enemy is defeated. In fact the same thing was accomplished by the Romanian Army after 23 August 1944, but against Germany. In the same time, the atrocities committed by some elements of the army inside the reoccupied territories, cast a dark shadow over his achievement.
He had under his command only the 4th Army, which was engaged in the siege of Odessa and he got involved directly in the operations and replaced several commanders, who he thought proved incompetent. He entered, together with general Ioanitiu, the Chief of the General Staff, in a conflict with lt. general Nicolae Ciuperca, the CO of 4th Army, on the strategy over the final assault on the city. He eventually replaced and retired him. It was his first conflict with an important general of the Romanian army. After the fall of Odessa, he brought home the majority of the 4th Army and, taking advantage of the raise in the morale of the population with this occasion, he organized a referendum, which he won.
He accepted to take over the administration of the territory between the Dnestr and the Bug, generically named Trans-Dnestra, mentioning, however, to Hitler that the he refused any compensation in the East for North-Western Transylvania. In fact the subject of Transylvania was a usual subject in his discussions with the German Chancellor, Antonescu not hiding his desire to recuperate this territory. He had even ordered the creation of plans for a future invasion, code-named Hypothesis U.
From the autumn of 1941 he began the deportation of the remaining Jewish population from Bessarabia and Bukovina, which had escaped the massacres of the German and Romanian troops or did not take refuge together with the Red Army. Over 110,033 people were forcedly taken East of the Dnestr. Because of the poor conditions in which they were transported and then settled there or of the executions, 59,392 of them died until 1943. The Jews in Odessa were also evacuated and, following the explosion of the Romanian headquarters in the city, Antonescu ordered very harsh reprisals, the victims being in their vast majority Jews. In 1942 he deported 24,617 Gypsies to Trans-Dnestra, of which only about half survived and managed to return to Romania in 1944.
Towards the Jews from the Old Kingdom he did not take such harsh measures. He did not approve their deportation to the extermination camps in Poland. The decision was taken in September 1942, two months before the Soviet offensive at Stalingrad and of the disaster that followed. It seems that the intervention of the Queen Mother, of members of the clergy and of some important leaders of the former political parties, as well as the warning of the United States on the treatment of Jews, convinced him not to take this regrettable decision.
In January 1942, however, there was another conflict with an important Romanian general: Iosif Iacobici, the Chief of the General Staff. He opposed the marshal's intention to send as many divisions as possible on the front, wishing to limit their number according to the possibility to properly equip them. He was also replaced and retired.
After the disaster at Stalingrad, marshal Antonescu protested against the abuses of the German command during the battle, threatening to retreat the Romanian troops from the front. Romania then started to receive much more modern armament from Germany, which was necessary to reequip the divisions in the Kuban and the Crimea and to reorganize those who were brought back home. The economic relations with the Reich were generally characterized by a rigid attitude from his part, as he tried as much as possible to defend the Romanian interests. Hitler even reproached him several times the Romanian "avarice" and "bargaining".
In 1943 he began to think about quitting the war and allowed the Foreign Minister Mihai Antonescu to establish contacts with the Allies representatives in Bern, Istanbul, Madrid and, finally, in Stockholm. The meetings and memoirs were directed mainly at the British and American representatives, who let them understand that Romania should deal mainly with the Soviet Union. Thus, the talks started in April 1944 in Stockholm, but did not move advance too much, because the marshal refused to give up Northern Bukovina and Bessarabia.
From the spring of 1944, when the front reached and even crossed the Romanian borders, he commenced to actively get involved in the military operations. He failed to convince Hitler to retreat the 17th Army (which contained 7 Romanian battle hardened divisions) from Crimea, while there was still time to pull it out in an organized fashion and without useless losses. After the Soviet offensive started on 20 August 1944, realizing that disaster was near, he went on the front, at the headquarters of the 4th Army, where, following an argument with general Avramescu, replaced him with general Steflea, the Chief of the General Staff. He then went to the command point of Army Group Southern Ukraine. On 21 August he was again on the front at the 4th Army. The same on 22 August, when he assumed direct command over the Romanian troops and ordered the general withdrawal on the Adjud-Focsani-Namoloasa-Galati fortified line. He returned in the evening in Bucharest and intended to go on the front on 24 August, at Focsani, where he planned to move his general headquarters, and leave the government to Mihai Antonescu.
On 23 August, in the afternoon, he was summoned to the Royal Palace, where King Mihai I asked him to immediately sign the armistice with the Allies. Following his refusal, the King ordered his arrest and that of Mihai Antonescu and his other close associates. After a short detention in the Palace's safe, the marshal was given by lt. general Sanatescu, the new Prime Minister, to the Communists, who locked him up in a house in Vatra Luminoasa neighborhood in Bucharest. He was later given to the Soviets, on 1 September, and transported somewhere in the vicinity of Moscow, where he was kept in a former chateau and treated very well. It seems he attempted to commit suicide, but failed.
In May 1946 they returned to Romania to be put on trial by the so-called People's Court. Following a mock trial, on 17 May 1946, he was convicted to six death penalties, two life in prison sentences, 80 years in jail and 140 years of civic degradation.
The execution took place on 1 June 1946 at 1803, in the Jilava penitentiary. Marshal Antonescu asked to be shot by the army, but was refused and the firing squad was made up of 12 prison guards. In the moment of the volley, he saluted and then fell down. He rose up on his right arm and said that he was not dead and that they should fire again. The chief of the guards shot him in the head with the revolver, but the doctor did not confirm the death, so another shot in the chest was necessary. But he and general Constantin Vasiliu were still alive. The chief of the guards then took a rifle and fired three bullets in several places of their bodies. Only then did the doctor confirm his death. For general Vasiliu another three shots in the head were necessary to kill him.