Willing Executioners: On Grant T. Harward’s “Romania’s Holy War”

By Philip Ó CeallaighMarch 17, 2022

Willing Executioners: On Grant T. Harward’s “Romania’s Holy War”

Romania’s Holy War: Soldiers, Motivation, and the Holocaust by Grant T. Harward

“THE WAR, THIS WAR, IS a great battle of Christian civilization in opposition to the new barbarians,” Romania’s vice prime minister declared as the Axis attacked the Soviets in June 1941. “I believe that since the sacred wars of the Crusaders, no battle was holier, greater, and more epic than that which Adolf Hitler, the apostle of our new civilization, began today.” In his new book, Romania’s Holy War: Soldiers, Motivation, and the Holocaust, Grant T. Harward combines Holocaust and military history to demonstrate the depth of Romania’s ideological commitment to its crusade against “Judeo-Communism,” legitimized by both the state and the Romanian Orthodox Church.

The Antonescu regime joined Hitler’s war in the east to recover territory lost to the Soviets in the previous year, but by the autumn of 1942, Romanian units were serving across 900 kilometers between the Dniester and the Don. By spring 1943, after the defeat at Stalingrad, and when the Hungarians and Italians had withdrawn their frontline troops, the Romanian Army still had six divisions in the Caucasus and three divisions in the rear. Marshal Antonescu never seriously considered abandoning Germany. There were no draft riots when he ordered another general mobilization in early 1944 in response to the Red Army’s approach, nor was there any partisan movement to sabotage trains or attack convoys. Antonescu could not have organized the defense of Romania without the broad support of his officer corps and the public.

That the Antonescu regime murdered some 300,000 Jews, largely without German assistance, is not contested within serious academic circles, established by Raul Hilberg’s seminal work in the 1960s and confirmed by Jean Ancel’s comprehensive Yad Vashem–published The History of the Holocaust in Romania (2011). Outside academic circles, it is another matter. The idea that Romania was an unwilling or ineffective ally of Nazi Germany is still widely held in Romania today, and that view has found its way into less rigorous accounts published in English. “Marshal Ion Antonescu, the anti-communist military dictator of Romania, did not share his ally’s anti-Semitism,” declares Antony Beevor in Vasily Grossman: A Writer at War (2005) — quite a slip when you consider that Grossman, the first to document the Holocaust on Soviet soil, had his findings suppressed by Stalin, who did not wish to acknowledge the ethnicity of any group of victims or to draw attention to the issue of collaboration with the perpetrators. In communist Romania, too, serious discussion of the war years was taboo. Matatias Carp’s Black Book: The Suffering of the Jews from Romania 1940–1944, a documentary work on Romania’s Holocaust, was suppressed soon after its 1946 publication. Historiography was replaced with myths, one of which — that Marshal Antonescu saved hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Nazis — still persists in Romania today.

The dual treatment of ideology and military history in Romania’s Holy War is therefore a valuable addition to the work of Ancel and others, and contributes to understanding the willingness of ordinary Romanian soldiers to commit atrocities — a predisposition that differentiated them from Hungarian or Italian troops. Holy War also looks at the actions of the Romanian troops in Crimea and elsewhere, where they rounded up Jews to turn over to the Schutzstaffel (SS) and committed massacres themselves. The author notes that no one has yet investigated the way in which the Romanian army assisted German troops in implementing the Final Solution deep in Soviet territory.

Harward paints a particularly compelling picture of how events at the front line affected the treatment of Jews in occupied territory. Jews never ceased to be regarded as a security risk, and the Romanians never ceased to fear counterattacks, coastal landings, and uprisings in the rear. They always considered their advances into Soviet territory and their policy toward the Jews as a defensive action.


The early chapters of Holy War trace this insecurity and ideological fervor to interwar Romania’s experience as a young nation trying to forge an identity around language and religion while facing the reality of being ethnically heterogeneous. The politics of the period was obsessed with mythological Jewish conspiracies and rife with fake news involving “invasions” by hordes of Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union. Romanian insecurity about borders, however, was more soundly based: Greater Romania and the Soviet Union, which came into being almost simultaneously, had fought to establish their borders. Romanians were clear-sighted about the realities of the Bolshevik terror, including the persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church and the existence of mass famine among the peasantry. Fatally, for the region’s Jews, the real Soviet threat was conflated with a mythical Jewish conspiracy as “Judeo-Communism.”

Harward finds his narrative stride with the cession of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina to the Soviets in 1940, under the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, the event that marks “the de facto start of Romania’s holy war.” Only nine Romanian soldiers were killed during the hasty withdrawal, but the national humiliation fed into antisemitic narratives: Jews were blamed for attacking the Romanian army and thought to be celebrating the arrival of the Soviets. In fact, the main casualties of the withdrawal were Jewish soldiers and civilians, and the perpetrators were the Romanian army. A pogrom in the town of Dorohoi began, ironically, with the funeral of a Jewish soldier killed in a confrontation with the Soviets; the soldier’s honor guard was set on while leaving the cemetery by another Romanian unit and killed. A day-long pogrom ensued that left as many as 200 civilians dead. The crisis occasioned by the loss of Bessarabia allowed Antonescu to become military dictator and radicalized antisemitic policies. By the end of the year, there were 20,000 German troops in Romania and the populace was militating for an attack that would redeem the nation.

Antonescu and Hitler met on June 12, 1941, to discuss preparations for war, including “cleansing the terrain of Jews” behind the front line. With common soldiers already primed by antisemitic propaganda, the scene was set for massacres of Jews. “The [Romanian] Third Army was slowed more by soldiers pausing to commit atrocities in liberated towns than enemy resistance,” Harward notes. As the Axis penetrated deeper into Soviet territory, Jews behind the front line were killed, interned, and herded into ghettoes. Both Hitler and Antonescu planned to send this population eastward, but disagreements soon arose concerning the pace of deportations. In the first week of August, the Germans expelled 12,500 Jews that the Romanians had pushed into their sector of occupied Ukraine; several thousand more had been shot because they were unable to move.

In part to resolve such disagreements over logistics, Hitler and Antonescu signed the Tighina Agreement at the end of August. Under its terms, Romania was granted control over a vast swath of territory between the Dniester and the Bug, which they named Transnistria. In return, the Romanians committed not to send their Jews east of the Bug until final victory was achieved.

In October, Romanian forces finally took Odessa, Transnistria’s largest city, after a long and bloody siege. Antonescu blamed the resistance on the Jews; a third of Odessa’s prewar population of 600,000 was Jewish and as many as 90,000 Jews remained in the city. Over 12,000 of them were massacred in the first weeks of the occupation, many of them as “reprisals” for Romanian losses. The ghettos and camps established for the 100,000 to 150,000 Jews in Transnistria were at the same time being swollen by the arrival of 142,000 deported Jews from Romania. Over 100,000 were shot by Romanian police, Ukrainian auxiliaries, and SS soldiers. Tens of thousands more died of disease and starvation.


In December 1941, Romania’s state propaganda service went into overdrive, “with messages about Christian civilization and Soviet barbarity.” The Romanian and German armies cooperated closely in annihilating Jews, but Harward paints an interesting picture of the Romanian attitude to non-Jewish civilians:

Romanian soldiers still believed in the holy war and felt like crusaders as they marched through Ukraine. Whenever Romanian soldiers paused, Soviet villagers brought babies, children, and youths to be baptized by the chaplain. Soldiers acted as godfathers and provided small gifts of food or soap. Captain Dumitru Păsat […] participated in ten baptisms on his way to the Don.

By the second winter of war, “most Romanian soldiers remained committed to the holy war against Judeo-Bolshevism. Their ideological beliefs had, if anything, hardened after losing comrades, being attacked by partisans, and seeing the misery in which Soviet civilians lived.”

It is a pity that the author devotes so little space to explicitly contrasting Romanian and German fascism, the former permeated by Orthodox Christianity while the latter stressed race rather than religion. One wonders whether the Nazis might have fought the Soviet Union more effectively had they behaved more like liberators in Slavic territories. Another fascinating statistic Harward mentions — almost in passing — is that fully a third of Romanian soldiers were illiterate. This suggests another important difference in the way ordinary troops responded to ideas received from state propaganda; Romania was still a peasant society, permeated by the power of the church, and a Romanian soldier would have seen Ukrainian peasants as co-religionists deprived of their faith and soil by an oppressive regime. “Scientific” racial ideology had penetrated the more educated classes in Romania, but it was not a significant factor in Romanian fascism.

Harward charts the shifts in Romanian policy toward the Jews over the course of the war, but again, one wishes for a more comprehensive contrast to German policy. Romanian units were involved in massacres of Jews from the very beginning of the war; the Iasi pogrom in late June left an estimated 8,000 Jews dead in the very first week of hostilities. German troops did not begin to massacre civilians on such a scale until August. The Germans intensified their policy of genocide when the tide of war shifted against them, while the Romanians relaxed theirs; deportations of Jews to Transnistria ceased in late 1942, and the repatriation of deportees began in 1944. Romanians truly believed in the “Judeo-Communist” conspiracy and that vengeance was coming with Soviet victory; as the Red Army approached Romania, fear deterred soldiers and civilians from organizing pogroms.

The preparations made for the deportation of the Jews of Bucharest and Southern Romania to extermination camps in Poland fizzled out in September 1942. “The lackluster news from the front was the final straw,” Harward writes. Less cogent is the author’s assertion that “[i]nternational pressure from the papal nuncio and the Swiss embassy (which also passed along US protests), disapproval from King Mihai I and Queen Mother Helen, and opposition from some liberal intellectuals all contributed to the Antonescu regime’s decision to pause deportations.” It is unlikely that the disapproval of liberal intellectuals — or anybody else — had much influence on a regime that had expressly set out to eliminate Jews from its territory and had already demonstrated a formidable appetite for genocide. Hitler had once declared to Goebbels that Antonescu’s Jewish policy was more radical than his own.

Harward puts less emphasis than previous historians on the financial motive for the abandonment of the plan to deport Romanian Jews to the extermination camps. As early as 1963, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt wrote: “What the Germans had not taken into account was that this was not only a country with an inordinately high percentage of plain murderers, but that Rumania was also the most corrupt country in the Balkans.” A flourishing bureaucracy already existed in Jewish “exemptions,” and it was now discovered that Jews could be sold abroad for hard currency rather than handed over to the Germans for free. Though the scheme did not earn as much as had been expected, Romania became one of the few outlets for Jewish emigration to Palestine during the war. Arendt here was relying heavily on Hilberg, but Ancel too attaches some weight to the financial motive.

Holy War repeatedly references the phenomenon of corruption at the political level, mentioning Radu Lecca’s leadership of the board for reviewing Jewish exemptions, “which turned into a corrupt system of Jews paying kickbacks to lawyers and ‘honoraria.’” The author also looks at those at the bottom of this system of brigandage:

The Romanian Army had a problem similar to that of the German Army, as the state wanted to seize Jewish property, but soldiers were first on the spot. When soldiers shot Jews, they used the chance to enrich themselves by seizing valuables. Peasants often bribed gendarmes to shoot Jews being deported to Transnistria, in order to strip them of their clothing and valuables.

This is a huge subject — the impoverished, uneducated soldiers and peasantry of a corrupt state being given free rein to murder and loot — and Harward could have constructed a compelling and thematically coherent chapter around this subject alone.

A comprehensive account of Romania’s fascist years — combining intellectual history, politics, Holocaust studies, and the war in the east — has yet to be written. But Romania’s Holy War, by combining military history with insight into the Romanian army’s ideological motivation, is an important contribution to the field.


Philip Ó Ceallaigh is short story writer as well as a translator. In 2006, he won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. His first two short story collections, Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse and The Pleasant Light of Day, were short-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. His third collection, Trouble, has just appeared. He lives in Bucharest.

LARB Contributor

Philip Ó Ceallaigh is short story writer as well as a translator. In 2006, he won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. His two short story collections, Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse and The Pleasant Light of Day, were short-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He lives in Bucharest. [Photograph by Johannes Kruse.]


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