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The Act of August 23, 1944 in Romania

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Throughout World War II, Romanian secret services collected information on the location of German units in the country. King Mihai I and General Constantin Sănătescu had access to this information by collaborating with members of the General Staff. But active-duty officers stationed at the front still supported German units. The officers of the conspiracy group for the return of weapons against Germany (General Constantin Sănătescu at the Court, military officials from Bucharest and those from the Ploiești region) increase the number of Romanian units present in the capital, in order to face the Germans (Axworthy, Scafeș, and Crăciunoiu 1995, 368). A clandestine allied mission was parachuted into Bucharest and secretly hosted by General Constantin Sănătescu (Dennis Deletant 2016, 33).

Following the success of the German offensive on the Iasi-Chisinau lineup, the conspiracy group decided to speed up preparations by creating panic in the General Staff to drive away as many generals as possible from Antonescu (Ceaușescu, Constantiniu, and Ionescu 1985, 38). On August 20, Michael I and the group of soldiers in the conspiracy set the date for the action for August 26 (D. Deletant 2006, 240). If Ion Antonescu refused to negotiate with the Allies, he would be fired and a new government of members of the opposition will be formed, demanding an armistice from the Allies and acting in the direction of the withdrawal of the Germans from Romania.

On the night of August 21, members of the opposition (Iuliu Maniu, Constantin IC Brătianu, Titel Petrescu and Lucrețiu Pătrășcanu) secretly agreed for August 26, then they “hid” (D. Deletant 2006, 240). The Allied High Command in Cairo was to be contacted, requesting support for the action by simultaneously bombing German units in the north of the capital (north of Baneasa Airport) and railway centers on the border with Hungary and Yugoslavia. Finding out that Marshal Antonescu intended to return to the front on August 24, the King was forced to change the date to August 23 (Axworthy, Scafeș, and Crăciunoiu 1995, 177) (Hitchins 1994, 499).

In the evening of August 22, Mihai Antonescu proposed to the Marshal to request an armistice from the Allies, but he refused (D. Deletant 2006, 241). However, Mihai Antonescu sent attaché Neagu Djuvara to Stockholm to inform the Romanian ambassador, Frederic Nanu, that the government accepted the Soviet armistice proposal, but the message reached the Swedish capital on August 24 only (Ceaușescu, Constantiniu, and Ionescu 1985, 29). He also mediates a meeting between the King and the Marshal without the consent of Ion Antonescu, for 15.00. Gheorghe I. Brătianu sent to Ion Antonescu the proposal of an audience with the sovereign (Dennis Deletant 1999, 47).

On August 23, after promising opposition leaders Iuliu Maniu and Dinu Brătianu that he would demand an armistice from the Allies (Erickson 2015, 362), Ion Antonescu considered the possibility of withdrawing Romanian forces from southern Moldova on the Carpathian Focșani-Danube fortified line to continue the fight there (Nagy-Talavera 1970, 336). At noon, following information on the worrying military situation, the marshal decided to return to the front the same evening. Mihai Antonescu, together with the Marshal’s wife (D. Deletant 2006, 241), tried to persuade him to surrender to the sovereign’s invitation before leaving (Axworthy, Scafeș, and Crăciunoiu 1995, 178). Marshal Antonescu agreed, but only on the condition that Iuliu Maniu and Dinu Brătianu support the armistice with the Allies (Constantinescu-Iasi 1968, 47) while he would resist in southern Moldova and inform the Germans about the armistice, and leave Bucharest to move to the West with the help of the Germans in case of failure (Axworthy, Scafeș, and Crăciunoiu 1995, 177). Gheorghe Brătianu fails to find neither Maniu nor his uncle to confirm the agreement with the Marshal’s requests. This situation irritated the Marshal, who decided to postpone the discussion with the King (D. Deletant 2006, 241). On August 23, 1944, Ion Antonescu instructed to request an audience to the King, at 4 p.m., and Mihai Antonescu was granted a separate audience at 3:30 p.m. (Dennis Deletant 1999).

Mihai Antonescu goes alone to the fixed audience with the King (D. Deletant 2006, 241). General Constantin Sănătescu calls the Marshal to persuade him to come too. Ion Antonescu finally agreed to go to the royal palace (Nagy-Talavera 1970, 337) although there were many differences between him and the King (Axworthy, Scafeș, and Crăciunoiu 1995, 178). He arrives at the palace at 16:00 and explains to the King the military situation and his plans. Mihai I asks him to accept an armistice and to give up any resistance in order to convince the allies of Romania’s goodwill. The Marshal flatly refuses (Hitchins 1994, 499) (Erickson 2015, 362) (Axworthy, Scafeș, and Crăciunoiu 1995, 178) (D. Deletant 2006, 242) (Nagy-Talavera 1970, 337), saying that he will conclude the armistice only with Hitler’s consent, justified by “the word of officer given to Adolf Hitler” (Sănătescu 2006). The King dismissed him (D. Deletant 2006, 242), and ordered the arrest of Marshal and Deputy Prime Minister Mihai Antonescu (Constantinescu-Iasi 1968, 48), by Colonel Emilian Ionescu with a group of four soldiers, these being locked in a room in the palace around 17:00 (Axworthy, Scafeș, and Crăciunoiu 1995, 179).

In an interview with Stelian Tănase, Mihai I said that, based on the decision to leave the war on August 26, ”I sent a very detailed telegram to the English supreme commander who was in Italy, and in short I said this: in view of certain events in our country, I ask him to send the American aviation, to bomb certain key points around Bucharest and I gave them the exact directions.” (Europa Liberă 2021) The date was later moved to August 23rd. At the meeting with Antonescu, “I told him, more in disguise, that he would be the man who should do this. Okay, he protested, of course, Mihai Antonescu also tried to say something to calm him down a little, that the situation is too serious for his pride, Sănătescu who had been a colleague of his with the Cavalry, he tried too. Then Antonescu got a little agitated and said: “I, without Hitler’s permission, I can’t do such a thing!”” After the arrest of Antonescu ”I also called General Mihai, who was expelled from the army by Antonescu, and I appointed him Chief of the General Staff, then immediately, in the same afternoon. And after that came Aldea and I sent him to command the troops going to Transylvania.” (Europa Liberă 2021) It should be mentioned that Sorin Aparaschivei says that Traian Borcescu (head of the SSI Counterintelligence Section) confirmed that Ion Antonescu would have had an approval from Adolf Hitler to discuss with the Anglo-Americans the possibility of leaving the war, but against the Soviets[1]. (Aparaschivei 2021)

Subsequently, at the King’s behest, other supporters of the marshal were arrested, summoned to the royal palace under the pretext of an extraordinary council (Constantinescu-Iasi 1968, 48) among them, General Constantin Pantazi, Minister of Defense, General Dumitru Popescu, Minister of Interior, General Constantin Vasiliu, Undersecretary of State at the Ministry of Interior and Colonel Mircea Elefterescu, Chief of the Bucharest Police. (Dennis Deletant 1999)), with the exception of Eugen Cristescu, the head of the Romanian secret services, who seems to have suspected that something was wrong. Eugen Cristescu was also arrested a few days later. The 1923 Constitution was restored (Axworthy, Scafeș, and Crăciunoiu 1995, 179). The new government led by General Sănătescu included all officers and politicians affiliated with the National Bloc (Hitchins 1994, 500). Maniu and Pătrășcanu were to establish the ministers of the new government, until August 23 (Porter 2005, 104).

In the evening, the German headquarters in Bucharest was isolated by cutting the telephone lines, and the military occupied the strategic points of the capital (Axworthy, Scafeș, and Crăciunoiu 1995, 179). Upon informing Cristescu of a possible coup, the German ambassador to Romania, von Killinger, goes to the palace at 8 pm, where he is advised by Michael I and Prime Minister Sanatescu “to withdraw German troops from the country to prevent them from being attacked by the Romanian army” (Axworthy, Scafeș, and Crăciunoiu 1995, 179). Around 21.00, a group of communists of Emil Bodnăraș take Ion and Mihai Antonescu and carry them, together with the other detainees (Constantinescu-Iasi 1968, 48), in a conspiracy house where they were later extradited to the USSR on August 31 after Soviet troops entered Bucharest.

At 22:00, Mihai I makes a radio statement recorded on disk, in which he announces the rupture of diplomatic relations with Germany, the acceptance of an armistice with the Allies (Erickson 2015, 362) (Sănătescu 2006) (to be signed on September 12) , and his decision to reclaim Northern Transylvania. Sănătescu ordered the Romanian representatives in Cairo to accept the conditions of armistice imposed by the Allies in April (Hitchins 1994, 500). At around 11 pm, General Gheorghe Mihail, the new head of the Romanian General Staff, ordered the Romanian military units to expel the German forces from the country and prevent them from concentrating in the Carpathians (Ceaușescu, Constantiniu, and Ionescu 1985, 38) (Constantinescu-Iasi 1968, 49). Soon, the King took refuge in the mountains to avoid being captured if the Germans managed to seize Bucharest (Dennis Deletant 1999, 51).

Former ambassador Manfred Freiherr von Killinger took refuge in Săftica, near Bucharest. The day after the coup, he was visited by Romanian Colonel Eugen Cristescu and General Constantin Tobescu, who proposed the withdrawal without a fight of the German army from Romania, commanded by Johannes Frießner. Von Killinger refuses and the Romanians arrest him. Learning that the USSR wanted to take over all German prisoners, Manfred von Killinger committed suicide on September 2, 1944 (Erickson 2015, 363).

In the declaration of the military who contributed to the planning and execution of the act of August 23, 1944, entitled “Anonymous contributions to the act of August 23, 1944” and signed by Gheorghe Zamfirescu, Head of Section I (Intelligence), General Staff of the Romanian Army, and his men – Colonel Comișel Pantelimon and Colonel Valeriu Selescu, it was stated:

“We, the 3 of us, carried out the following activities:

  1. Conscious Postponement and procrastination of the categorical orders received by Section I, to send to Moldova the 29 recruit divisions. If the recruits of the 1945 contingent were in Moldova on August 23, 1944, any military action against the Germans and then in the joint Romanian-Russian action in the West was definitely impossible. This procrastination measure was taken at our own risk, without the approval of any hierarchical commander.
  2. The operative organization of the 29 recruit divisions, precisely so that they can respond to possible operations for the intended political purpose. Without this measure, in conjunction with the above, the disarmament, capture and expulsion of German units and joint operations with the Red Army would have been impossible.
  3. The three persons obtained from the persons who had taken action on 23 August 1944 documents containing:

– the disposition of our troops on the whole territory of the country, with the indication of the possible interventions for the prevention of the eventual action of the German troops;

– the disposition of the German troops with the indication of their combat potential (Documents can be found at the Royal Palace). The officers did everything they could with all the risks that could arise, knowing that they were acting for our Homeland and for the King.

  1. Also on the own initiative of the 3, the action of informing the organs of Eugen Cristescu was paralyzed, by hiring lt.-col. Traian Borcescu and Mr. Mihai (Gh., Arrested), the people who worked in this sector (and this 4 week before August 23, 1944). If these bodies were not used for the purpose of confusing the action of the German secret police, there could be no element of political and military action on 23 August 1944, as we later learned that 15,000 people were on the German police secret list for the first information to be arrested and, of course, suppressed. However, this information did not arrive, because through personal commitments, I repeat, the action of this Police was paralyzed.
  2. These 3 officers kept in their action the continuous connection, for the act of August 23, with the generals [Vasiliu] Rășcanu, [Aurel] Aldea, [Gheorghe] Potopeanu, [Dumitru] Dămăceanu (to whom all were handed the documents in points 3) and Colonel adj. Ionescu Emilian [royal aide].
  3. I mention the case of Col. Valeriu Selescu, one of the 3 officers, who in addition to those indicated in points 1-5 was sent on the night of August 23-24 to the Royal Palace, by General Constantin Sănătescu, to accompany the German general Alfred Gerstenberg to Otopeni, the latter had given his word of honor that he would order the withdrawal of his troops. Instead, he ordered an attack on Bucharest, taking the Romanian officer prisoner, who was held by the Germans for 5 days under pressure from the suppression and always in the area of fire of artillery and then machine guns of our troops.

In conclusion, I repeat that the action of 23 August of the 3 officers, although anonymous, was determined by the success of this act and that I drew up these notes, first of all, for the historical completion of the facts and, secondly, line, for my conscience for the comrades who helped me in this action and – even for me personally. / [Signed] The Head of Section I, Colonel Gh. Zamfirescu[2] ” (Aparaschivei 2021)

Some of these soldiers (gl. Aldea, gl. Miter, gl. Curta (intimate adviser of Iuliu Maniu) in charge of the armed resistance in Transylvania, gl. Coroamă, gl. Teodorini Corneliu, gl. Constantin Sănătescu, gl. Niculescu (Cociu), former military commander of the Capital, gl. Gh. Mihail, gl. Cameniță, gl. Mociulschi, gl. Georgescu Constantin, gl. I. Constantinescu, gl. Marcel Oltean, gl. Emilian Ionescu, gl. Bărdan, gl. Nicolae Rădescu) formed, immediately after August 23, 1944, the “Army Resistance Group”[3], with the aim (considered by the NKVD) of “serving the causes of the Anglo-Americans to the detriment of the USSR and against the current [communist] regime[4].” (Aparaschivei 2021)

The Marshal was not tried in the Nuremberg trials. In the trial of the People’s Court in Bucharest, the Marshal refused to sign the pardon request, being sentenced to death and executed on June 1, 1946, near the Jilava prison (Ciobanu 1991) (Ionnițiu 1993).

Bibliography

  • Aparaschivei, Sorin. 2021. “23 august 1944 – O afacere exclusiv militară.” 2021. https://www.historia.ro/sectiune/general/articol/23-august-1944-o-afacere-exclusiv-militara.
  • Axworthy, Mark, Cornel I. Scafeș, and Cristian Crăciunoiu. 1995. Third Axis, Fourth Ally: Romanian Armed Forces in the European War, 1941-1945. Hailer Publishing.
  • Ceaușescu, Ilie, Florin Constantiniu, and Mihail E. Ionescu. 1985. A Turning Point in World War II: 23 August 1944 in Romania. East European Monographs.
  • Ciobanu, Mircea. 1991. Convorbiri cu Mihai I al României. Humanitas.
  • Constantinescu-Iasi, P. 1968. “L’insurrection d’Aout 1944.” Revue d’histoire de La Deuxième Guerre Mondiale 18 (70): 39–55. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25730186.
  • Deletant, D. 2006. Hitler’s Forgotten Ally: Ion Antonescu and His Regime, Romania 1940-1944. Springer.
  • Deletant, Dennis. 1999. Communist Terror in Romania: Gheorghiu-Dej and the Police State, 1948-1965. C. Hurst & Co. Publishers.
  • ———. 2016. British Clandestine Activities in Romania during the Second World War. Springer.
  • Erickson, John. 2015. The Road To Berlin. Hachette UK.
  • Europa Liberă. 2021. “23 August 1944 – Mărturia-document a Regelui Mihai.” Europa Liberă România, 2021, sec. Politică. https://romania.europalibera.org/a/august-1944-mărturia-regelui-mihai/31420740.html.
  • Hitchins, Keith. 1994. “România. 1866–1947.” Humanitas. 1994. https://humanitas.ro/humanitas/carte/rom%C3%A2nia-1866%E2%80%931947.
  • Ionnițiu, Mircea. 1993. Amintiri și reflecțiuni. Editura Enciclopedică.
  • Nagy-Talavera, Nicholas M. 1970. The Green Shirts and the Others: A History of Fascism in Hungary and Rumania. Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University.
  • Porter, Ivor. 2005. Michael of Romania: The King and the Country. Sutton.
  • Sănătescu, Constantin. 2006. Jurnalul generalului Sănătescu. Humanitas.

Notes

  • [1] www.CNSAS.ro. (National Council for the Study of Security Archives), File P 000218 (Pătrășcanu group), vol. 4 p. 245
  • [2] ASRI Fond P (criminal), File no. 25374, Vol. 36, tab 302: Statement of Gheorghe Zamfirescu, Head of Section I (Information), General Staff of the Romanian Army, entitled: Anonymous contributions to the act of August 23, 1944, signed on: March 21, 1945.
  • [3] ASRI File no. 8171, vol. I, f. 688, Informative note, October 10, 1945.
  • [4] Ibidem.

Sfetcu, Nicolae, “The Act of August 23, 1944 in Romania”, Telework (April 6, 2022), DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.11855.56483, URL = https://www.telework.ro/en/the-act-of-august-23-1944-in-romania/

Email: nicolae@sfetcu.com

This essay is under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license. To see a copy of this license, please visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/4.0/

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