Resurgent Romanian Nationalists

Disenchanted pensioners turn out in their hundreds to commemorate Romania's war time leader and Nazi ally

Resurgent Romanian Nationalists

Disenchanted pensioners turn out in their hundreds to commemorate Romania's war time leader and Nazi ally

"I really admire Antonescu's patriotism and nationalistic attitude," said octogenarian Ilarion Stanescu of his former commander and wartime leader, Marshal Ion Antonescu.


Standing outside the St Constantin and Elena Orthodox church in Bucharest, the Second World War veteran praised Antonescu for his stand against communism, describing him as "one of the most courageous men in the whole of Romanian history".


Stanescu was one of hundreds of mostly elderly people commemorating the 55th anniversary of Antonescu's execution by the country's post-war communist government. The event earlier this week was marked with the unveiling of a bust of the general at the Bucharest church.


Many are upset that such a ceremony could be held for the pro-Nazi leader responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. But there are several right-wing political groups intent on rehabilitating him.


"I will unveil a bust of Marshal Ion Antonescu in every major Romanian city," announced Corneliu Vadim Tudor, leader of the extreme nationalist Greater Romania Party, PRM. This is a suitable way to honour one of the country's "great" men, according to Tudor.


Tudor, whose party did well in general elections last year, is at the vanguard of a growing band of nationalists who, disillusioned with government failures at reform and wide scale corruption, look to authoritarian figures from the past as role models.


And they don't come much more authoritarian than Marshal Antonescu, who deported hundreds of thousands of Jews and gypsies during the Second World War - eighty thousand of whom perished.


It was Antonescu's attempts to expel those he considered non-Romanian, as well as his efforts to reclaim land lost under the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, which so endears him to Tudor and other right-wingers


During his election campaign, Tudor himself pledged to rid the country of criminals and minorities and to carry out "mass executions" of corrupt officials.


Controversy was further stirred at the unveiling when the Romanian army's former chief of staff appeared among the veterans. Members of the cabinet rebuked the general for his inappropriate behaviour, reminding him that members of the army are supposed to show political neutrality.


Defence minister Mircea Pascu called General Chelaru's presence "regrettable" in a press release which said that his actions could harm the country's bid to join NATO. And this is not the first time Chelaru has embarrassed the government.


He was sacked last year after implying that the government was trying to use the army to exert authoritarian rule under the guise of restructuring the army according to NATO guidelines. Chelaru consequently said he had no intention of slighting Romania' chances at NATO integration.


There have been other unfortunate reminders of Romania's wartime Nazi past in recent months. In May, the Romanian Supreme Court of Justice asked prosecutors to launch an inquiry into allegations that Nazi and anti-semitic material had been disseminated at a May book fair.


This came on the heels of Tudor's apology for a book of 'jokes' by a member of his party which offended local Jews. It was withdrawn, but only after 20,000 copies had been sold.


"For sure, such authoritarian leaders as Marshal Ion Antonescu should not represent a model for the young generation in present day Romania," said historian Adrian Cioroianu, who sees the country's "very difficult social and economic situation" as contributing to people putting their trust in such groups.


Marian Chiriac is an independent journalist in Bucharest


Support our journalists