Romanians cherish memories of their genocidal dictator: Cult of the wartime pro-Nazi leader casts doubt on Bucharest's faith in democracy, writes Tony Barber, East Europe Editor

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IN HIS lifetime, he was known as Hitler's favourite East European ally, a red-haired syphilitic former cavalry officer who joined enthusiastically in the genocide of the Jews. But today, 50 years to the day after he was overthrown in a coup d'etat, Marshal Ion Antonescu is the object of a posthumous personality cult that is raising question marks over the quality of Romania's post-Communist democracy.

The rehabilitation of Antonescu, who was executed as a war criminal in June 1946, is no academic matter. It bears directly on present-day Romanian politics. For the man who rid Romania of its wartime dictator was King Michael, now aged 72 and in exile, who still hopes that one day he can return to his throne.

Romania's post-Communist rulers detest King Michael. Many of them, including President Ion Iliescu, built careers under the tyrannical Nicolae Ceausescu, who was killed in the anti-Communist revolution of 1989.

Their minds are still cluttered by ideology. They are accustomed to think of the king as a piece of historical garbage. Some of them are also implicated in the restoration of Antonescu to official favour. It thus becomes difficult for Romania's rulers to celebrate the 50th anniversary of 23 August 1944, the day when King Michael ordered Antonescu's arrest, withdrew Romania from its abject alliance with Nazi Germany and ended one of the nastiest periods of internal political repression in Romania's history.

Antonescu came to power in 1940, soon after Romania had been forced to cede one-third of its territory to the Soviet Union, Hungary and Bulgaria.

At first he ruled with the help of the Iron Guard, a murderous Fascistic organisation. However, such anarchy broke out that Hitler, who needed Romania's help to invade the Soviet Union, allowed Antonescu to suppress the Iron Guard in three days of street battles in January 1941. Antonescu repaid Hitler's trust by committing 30 Romanian divisions to the war against Moscow. Hitler called him his 'favourite Latin' - a more reliable ally than Benito Mussolini, Philippe Petain or Francisco Franco.

Antonescu was the first foreigner to be awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. He was also one of the few men permitted to tell Hitler to his face that he was wrong. Antonescu called himself the Conducator - the Romanian term for Fuhrer, or leader. It was the title that Ceausescu was to confer on himself three decades later.

Antonescu's rehabilitation has proceeded in leaps and bounds since 1989. Dozens of books have praised him as a military genius and a patriot. The Romanian parliament stood in silence for one minute in 1991 to mark the 45th anniversary of his execution.

A bust of Antonescu went up last year in the southern town of Slobozia. At least eight other towns have named streets after him. One such town, Botosani, had a large pre-war Jewish population. Antonescu deported them for extermination.

Almost 200,000 people have signed a petition calling for the retrial of Antonescu so that he can be posthumously acquitted of war crimes.

Last New Year's Eve Romanian television broadcast a programme that mixed pictures of Antonescu's execution with pictures of King Michael receiving a Soviet award for his role in overthrowing the dictator. The programme was inspired by the ultra-nationalist Greater Romania Party and was clearly intended to portray the king as a traitor who was in the pocket of the Kremlin. President Iliescu has not personally endorsed the rehabilitation of Antonescu, but the impression remains that the campaign has broad official support. Clearly, one important factor is the desire to discredit King Michael and prevent him from re-entering Romanian politics.

A second factor may be Antonescu's anti-Semitism, which still resonates in a country that is sensitive about its 'national purity' and which is always ready to find scapegoats for its perceived misfortunes. A third factor is Antonescu's record as a determined opponent of the Soviet Union and Communism.

When Antonescu took Romania into the war against Moscow, he had overwhelming support from a population angered by Stalin's annexation of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina. Romania's rulers today like to cast themselves in a patriotic light by stressing their freedom from Russian influence. Hence it suits them to draw attention to Antonescu's anti-Russian attitudes.

Antonescu's rehabilitation may shock outsiders who recall his alliance with Hitler and his prominent part in the annihilation of Romanian Jewry. But in Romania, now as in Communist times, predicting the past has never been a simple matter.

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