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

Updated: Jun 1

Reviewed by Ben H. Shepherd, Reader in History, Glasgow Caledonian University


Ithaca NY, London: Cornell University Press, 2022, xiii, 340pp. ISBN: 1501759965, £39.00



During the Second World War, the conduct of the Holocaust by Marshal Ion Antonescu’s Romanian forces on the Eastern front was second only to that of the Germans in its scale and intensity. Around 300,000 Jews perished in pogroms, mass reprisals, mass deportations, or teeming and insanitary prison camps in Romanian-occupied Transnistria.[1] Since the early 2000s, following decades of inattention, down-playing or indeed whitewashing by numerous historians, the motivations and mechanics of this campaign have been impressively scrutinized by the likes of Jean Ancel, Dennis Deletant and Radu Ioanid.[2] Grant Harward’s impressive debut monograph breaks important new ground by examining what motivated the conduct of Romanian army troops in this undertaking. His analysis is situated within a broader consideration of the troops’ brutal and criminal conduct, and assesses the relationships between such conduct, the army’s combat performance, and the ideological motivations that underpinned both. On all these counts, levels of investigation into the Romanian army have hitherto contrasted markedly with the much more extensive scholarly scrutiny of the German army on the Eastern front.


Dr Harward is a US Army Medical Department historian, a former Fulbright scholar, and a former research fellow at the Mandel Center of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. His work’s thick narrative treatment commences by sketching the ideological components of the Romanian army’s institutional worldview. These included: a chauvinistic fusion of nationalism and Eastern Orthodox religion, which interwar governments intensified in efforts to ‘Romanianize’ the country following its absorption of more ethnically and religiously diverse areas under the post-First World War peace treaties; anti-Semitism, and anti-Bolshevism. In common with the German experience, the latter two were intensified and intertwined by the experience of the First World War, the Russian Revolution and their aftermath into the distorted concept of ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’. Together, all these elements formed the basis of the fascistic ideology that would come to shape the Antonescu regime’s vision of a ‘Greater Romania’, expanded in territory and untainted by ‘alien’ elements.


Romania’s Holy War then examines the development of army culture during the interwar years, including its only moderately competent officer corps, and its lack of an adequate NCO contingent capable of acting as a stabilizing force upon the troops. This was against a backdrop of mounting political disarray within Romania that culminated first in the royal dictatorship of Carol II in 1938, then in the Antonescu dictatorship in 1940 – regimes that the army’s officer corps enthusiastically embraced. Experiencing almost two years of neutrality from September 1939, Romania was tested internally, by the destabilizing violence of the extreme fascist Iron Guard movement; and externally, by the indignity of having to cede western territory to Hungary under a treaty overseen by Nazi Germany, and by the humiliation of having to withdraw from its eastern territories of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina before the Red Army. Smarting particularly from the third of these ordeals, the Antonescu regime jumped on the bandwagon when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. Antonescu saw in the invasion a means for Romania to salvage national pride, vanquish Judeo-Bolshevism, and regain and extend its territory to the east as a precursor to regaining the lands lost in the west.


The next three chapters are the main meat of the book. They examine the army’s conduct in the rear in relation to its performance at the front across its three years of participation in Nazi Germany’s war in the east. Harward dismantles two pernicious myths surrounding the Romanian army of the Second World War. The first is that it was a reluctant ally of Germany, crippled by poor morale and motivation. This image was the product partly of post-war apologists, and partly of denigration by German commentators who often regarded ‘backward’ non-Germanic peoples with contempt and who, both during and after the war, sought scapegoats for mounting failure against the Red Army. In fact, the aforementioned ideological convictions, buttressed by a sizeable propaganda machine and a ferocious regime of military discipline – albeit less ferocious than those of the Red Army and German army – moulded Romanian troops into true believers in their country’s ‘holy war’. The Romanian army’s fighting power was limited, as exemplified by its hideously costly assaults on Odessa in 1941. Generally, however, and thanks also to the durability of primary groups among the ranks, it proved Germany’s most reliable Eastern front ally. Even following the Stalingrad campaign, in which Romanian forces suffered devastating losses, troop morale rebounded to some extent. Across the three years of Romania’s war at Germany’s side, troop morale generally fluctuated in line with frontline successes and setbacks, and only with serial further defeats and losses up to late 1943 did it crumble irretrievably.


High morale and the ideological beliefs underpinning it also help to explain the troops’ full-throated involvement in war crimes, particularly against Jews. The second myth that Harward dismantles, eroded to some extent by aforementioned studies but demolished emphatically here, is of the ‘reluctance’ among the troops to participate in the Romanian Holocaust. To varying degrees, at different times and in different places, ideology, indiscipline, direction from the top, incitement by fanatical officers on the ground, humiliation at military setbacks and brutalized frustration in the wake of mounting frontline losses all combined to drive the army’s murderous treatment of Jews. Nowhere perhaps was this combination more apparent than in the aftermath of the aforementioned battle of Odessa. Romanian troops perpetrated ‘hot’ killing, savage and atavistic butchery of the kind of which German agencies disapproved, albeit out of concern for ‘efficiency’, not morality. But they also participated in the type of organized ‘cold’ killing of which German agencies, particularly the SS, were the undisputed masters. They conducted mass reprisals on their own initiative for supposed attacks by Jews or Jewish-inspired partisans, and extensively assisted Einsatzgruppe D in its murderous work against Jews in Ukraine, Crimea and the northern Caucasus. Romanian troops also contributed to the maintenance of ‘order’ more widely through the killing and maltreatment of groups such as Roma, Communists, prisoners of war, and Soviet civilians generally. The turn in the war with the battle of Stalingrad gave the Antonescu regime and troops on the ground cause to moderate their treatment of Jews, but brutal crimes against other groups continued, particularly in areas where ever larger Soviet partisan groups operated.


The main portion of Romania’s Holy War is rounded off by two thematic chapters, one on the impact of propaganda and discipline upon army morale, the other on the army’s attitude towards women and minorities who worked alongside it or within its ranks. The latter in particular works remarkably well, dissecting as it does the often-complex relations between the army and members of the various ethnic and religious minorities who served within it.


Harward judiciously exploits a multitude of primary sources, many of a kind that few non-Romanian scholars have hitherto utilized. They include speeches, orders and reports from the Romanian National Military Archives and from Antonescu’s Military Cabinet and Ministry of Defence. There are also individual-level sources from Romanian military personnel, including diaries, letters, memoirs, post-war interrogations, and circa 40 interviews conducted by the author himself. Finally German and Soviet sources provide an ‘outside’ view. At times, greater use of Romanian army morale reports – insofar as they might be available – might have added further heft to assertions made about rank-and-file attitudes; some of the points in the thematic chapter on discipline and propaganda might have been better woven into the preceding thick narrative, and the final chapter might have devoted more space to drawing together and evaluating the book’s main conclusions.


These are minor criticisms, however, for Romania’s Holy War is a valuable, pioneering and highly impressive addition to the literature. It successfully and innovatively integrates Holocaust history with an examination of Romanian troops’ motives, and also benefits greatly from a highly engaging style and an effective use of visual sources. It deserves to become a standard work, and considered a sound basis for the kind of micro-level study that further examines morale, motivation and brutality, and the variations in them, within and across individual units or sectors. It can thus be hoped that study of the Romanian army of the Second World War will benefit from the kind of historiographical ‘flowering’ that has so enriched study of the German army in recent decades.


[1] Harward, Romania’s Holy War, p. 265. [2] Jean Ancel, The History of the Holocaust in Romania (Lincoln NE, Jerusalem: University of Nebraska Press, Yad Vashem, 2011); Dennis Deletant, ‘Transnistria and the Romanian Solution to the “Jewish Problem” in The Shoah in Ukraine: History, Testimony, Memorialization, eds Ray Brandon and Wendy Lower (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 2008), 156-90; Radu Ioanid, The Holocaust in Romania: The Destruction of Jews and Gypsies under the Antonescu Regime, 1940-1944 (Chicago IL: Ivan R. Dee, 2000).

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