Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Alibi for Prejudice: Eastern Orthodoxy, the Holocaust, and Romanian Nationalism

Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Alibi for Prejudice: Eastern Orthodoxy, the Holocaust, and Romanian Nationalism

Article excerpt

In the summer of 1941 the Romanian Army joined in the attack upon the Soviet Union to ensure, in the words of that nation's military leader and head of state Marshall Ion Antonescu, "the heritage of the Romanian people, the Cross, and justice." Later in the war Antonescu would elaborate upon this theme characterizing the Russian campaign as a "holy war for right, for the Cross, for civilization, for the honor and future" of the nation. (1) Unfortunately, this crusade against the Soviet Union to regain lost territories was also accompanied by an explosive expression of the anti-Semitism that was endemic in Romania. In the words of one of the most eloquent of the victims, Romanian policies during World War II demonstrated a "pervasive hatred towards Jews...." Perceiving the Jew not merely under the traditional stereotype of the "kike" but also as the manipulator of "a devilish network of evil-making influence over the Roumanian soul," all too many Romanians came to equate Jews in general with Bolshevism. (2)

The practical expression of this prejudice became, in the words of those prosecuting the Romanian portion of the Holocaust, "the cleansing of the ground." Tragically, as in more recent cases of ethnic animosity in the Balkans, this phrase was not literary license but actual intent. Indeed, with the Barbarossa campaign only three months old, Hitler remarked that "Antonescu is pursuing much more radical policies in this area [i.e., "the Jewish question"] than we have done so far." Goebbels in the same vein, and probably passing along this evaluation to Hitler, commented within two weeks of the opening of the Russian front that "Antonescu is dealing with the [Jewish] situation. His behaviour in this war as a whole has been magnificent." (3) That behaviour by the Romanian leader precipitated his country's participation in the Holocaust, a venture that set records unmatched even by the Nazis for the number of Jews killed in single actions or in the shortest period of time. While the German forces, both military and police, might be killing Jews as well, they remained much more consistently concerned with record keeping and appearances than were the Romanians. The forces under Antonescu's command seemed to be impelled to carry out their atrocities with a minimum of preparation and a maximum of speed. (4)

By August 23, 1944, when Romania defected from the German side, the most conservative researchers estimate that Romanian forces had killed at least 270,000 Jews. Given both the confusion of the Eastern Front and Romanian nonchalance for bookkeeping, such statistical projections have ranged as high as 400,000. With the release of the most recent Soviet documents on the Holocaust and with the new realization of the magnitude of the killings by mobile units, this larger number no longer seems as speculative as it once did. (5) Besides the number of Jewish dead at Romanian hands, an additional factor highlighted by both participants and victims alike was the zest with which the atrocities were carried out. The Romanian military and police did not simply exterminate the Jewish communities they came upon, but did so with obvious relish and with looting as an important subsidiary consideration. German military reports from the battlefield as early as July of 1941 complained pointedly to superior commanders not only about the bearing and attitude of Romanian troops, but also about the "bestiality" with which they killed Jews. As ironic as it now sounds, these German military officers, even in the context of their own extermination of the East European Jewish population, were worried about the working out of those "more radical policies" of Antonescu's regarding the Jews. They fretted in particular about the deleterious impact Romanian actions might have on the prestige of "the German army in view of world public opinion." (6)

Indicative of the same mentality, though perhaps even more disturbing to conventional public opinion abroad, was the observation of a Romanian Jew regarding the position of the Orthodox Church. …

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