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Deletant, Dennis. Hitler's Forgotten Ally: Ion Antonescu and His Regime, Romania, 1940 - 1944. New York: Palgrave Macmillan Publishing Company, 2006
Pages: x + 379
Acknowledgements; Introduction; maps; Annex; Notes; Bibliography; Index
During the Second World War Germany had its Fuehrer, Italy its Duce, Spain its Caudillo, and Rumania its Conducator, a man not known nearly so well as the other three. Hitler's Forgotten Ally is the story of the Conducator and his rule, which wasin the words of the authorhanded to him like a poisoned chalice.
Like many other states in eastern Europe, Rumania found itself during the later inter-war years caught between the competing interests of two large and antagonistic powersGermany and the Soviet Union. By mid-1939 the King and the government found themselves in a position where Moscow appeared unfriendly, Berlin attempted to be friendly in an overly aggressive manner, and London and Paris offered a unilateral guarantee which they were militarily unable to sustain. As with the other states of eastern Europe, Rumania's fragile inter-war equilibrium was abruptly shaken by the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 and the subsequent invasion of Poland. In mid-May 1940 Hungary, ready to resort to military action to recover the portion of Transylvania lost to Rumania at the end of the First World War, deployed troops on the border. The Soviet Union likewise began to pressure Rumania to relinquish Bessarabia. Bulgaria eyed Dobruja. With France collapsing in defeat and Britain distant and powerless, Germany presented the only alternative to the revisionist/irredentist demands of Rumania's neighbors.
So it transpired, as Dennis Deletant explains in the first few pages of his biography of Ion Antonescu, that Rumania began aligning itself with Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler for protection from threats closer and more imminent. When on 26 June 1940 Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov demanded Bucharest must cede Bessarabia and northern Bukovina within twenty-four hours, despite the warming of German-Rumanian relations Hitler nevertheless declined to intervene (since, although he could not say so, under terms of the Nazi-Soviet pact Bessarabia was within the Soviet sphere of influence). King Carol II agreed to Moscow's demands, the Red Army marched in, and the Rumanian press, as Deletant reports, ran feverish accounts of how the Jewish population launched itself into a frenzy of anti-Rumanian protest and depredation. The author points out such news was wildly exaggerated. In reaction to the news, however, a wave of anti-Semitism swept through Rumania, including a number of murders carried out by the Army and the police. In particular, "...the Army became totally infused with anti-Semitism." Deletant does not dig into the composition of the armed forces or any historical predilection toward anti-Semitism at this point, and it might strike the reader as rather odd that events in Bessarabia and Bukovina would suddenly cause such a tectonic shift in the military's attitude toward Jewish Rumanians.
Although Hitler had refrained from assisting Rumania against Soviet demands, following the loss of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina King Carol promptly consigned his nation entirely to the tender mercies of the Fuehrer.
On 1 July, the Romanian
government renounced the Anglo-French guarantee, its membership of the
Balkan Entente and of the League of Nations, and Carol informed Fabricius,
the German minister in Bucharest, of his desire for a political agreement
with the Reich, telling him that, without German protection, 'Romania is
incapable of any action and is subject to Soviet Russian influence'. The
following day, the king requested that a German military mission be sent to
Romania to help train the Romanian army and air force. On 4 July 1940,
Romania joined the Berlin-Rome Axis. Hitler now cleverly exploited his
position In a letter of 13 July, he reminded Carol of his acceptance of the
Anglo-French guarantee and made German protection conditional on the
settlement of the outstanding territorial disputes with Hungary and Bulgaria
over Transylvania and Dobrogea, which the cession of Bessarabia and
northern Bukovina had triggered.
Once again, Rumania lost territory. In the Second Vienna Award, much of Transylvaniaincluding a population of 2.6 millionwas transferred to Hungary in August. In the same month, southern Dobruja was handed to Bulgaria. Only with Rumania so shrunken in population and territory did Germany undertake to guarantee the nation, and the stage was set for the rise of Marshal Ion Antonescu.
Deletant, however, backtracks and turns the remainder of his opening chapter to two other topics: oil and the Rumanian economy, and the development of Rumanian politics from 1918 to 1940. Much of the latter section involves the Iron Guard and its leader, Corneliu Codreanu, which makes for a fascinating story. In the same section, clarifying some of his earlier material, the author notes that King Carol "...promoted anti-Semitism for political expediency" and that under the new administration by 1938 "...anti-Semitism was raised to the level of state policy." These revelations make more comprehensible the reaction to purported incidents during the Rumanian withdrawal from Bessarabia in 1940 as described in the book's earlier pages.
Antonescu strides onto the stage in the second chapter. In about three pages Deletant sketches his birth, schooling, WWI service, posting as attache in Paris, London, and Brussels, and rise to become Chief of the General Staff in 1933. As to family life, and indeed almost his entire life outside the political-military milieu of 1940-1944, the book almost totally avoids the kind of personal information that would appear in a traditional biography. Instead, it focuses almost exclusively on Antonescu's political role.
In 1936, having in the meantime resigned his position as Chief of Staff because of disagreements with the Minister of Defense, Antonescu first met Corneliu Codreanu, with whom he apparently shared a number of views. At the beginning of 1938, in a political dance of considerable complexity, Antonescu became Minister of Defence against the wishes of the King, with the understanding that Rumania would not move closer to Germany, and that the Interior Ministry would not crack down on Codreanu and the Iron Guard. A few months later, when the Guardist was nevertheless arrested on trumped up libel charges, Antonescu resigned from the government and testified in Codreanu's defense. (The founder of the Iron Guard was convicted, imprisoned, and subsequently murdered on orders of the King, as related in the first chapter.) In addition, Antonescu was temporarily placed under house arrest before being reassigned to duty on the distant frontier while the King, in an underhanded intrigue worthy of a championship place in gutter politics, tried unsuccessfully to smear the general by claiming his wife was a bigamist. On 9 July 1940, as Rumania seemed threatened with extinction due to the loss of its territories, King Carol arrested Antonescu. He was soon released thanks to intercession by Germany, but at that point the general remained pro-French and pro-British, a stance he later claimed never to have forsaken.
In the wake of massive anti-government protests organized by the Iron Guard in opposition to the loss of Transylvania, the King was finally persuaded to abdicate. Among his last acts before departing by train on 6 September 1940 with all the loot he could load, Carol suspended the constitution, appointed Antonescuthe only one acceptable to all the competing interestsprime minister, and granted him unlimited powers as Conducator ("leader") of the nation. Without a political party of his own, the Iron Guard took a prominent role in his administration.
The argument has been made by some Romanian historians that
Antonescu and the Iron Guard were brought to power under German pressure. This is overstating the case. At no time did any German official call
for Carol's abdication, even during the crucial events of 3-6 September.
The king's alignment with the Reich at the beginning of July had won him
favour with Hitler, as pointed out by Neubacher in August to a Romanian
military representative when he assured him that both the Fuhrer and
Foreign Minister Ribbentrop were adamant that Carol should remain king
and lead the country, 'otherwise', as Neubacher put it, 'the country would
be exposed to anarchy'. Certainly, a withdrawal of German support was
instrumental in persuading Carol to abdicate, but it was the mood of the
Romanian population that proved decisive. The protests in response to
Carol's supine surrender of territory during the summer, culminating in a
huge demonstration of some 100,000 people in front of the Palace on the
night of 5 September, left Fabricius in no doubt that the king had lost the
confidence of the people and even made him fearful for Carol's safety.... While there was a widespread belief in Romania at the time that the Guard had full German backing, research has shown that both support from the German state the Nazi Party was minimal.
By the time he was appointed head of the government, Antonescu haddespite his personal preference for France and Britainbecome thoroughly convinced that Rumania must remain firmly at the side of Germany in order to survive the upheavals in Europe. At the same time, he was absolutely determined to regain all of Rumania's lost territories. As if resolving those largely incompatible objectives was not enough, the Conducator also faced the possibility of opposition from the Iron Guard and from some factions within the Army who believed him too cozy with Berlin. In fact most of the ministries in the new government went to the Iron Guard, and King Michael declared the nation a "Legionary State" with the Guard "the only movement recognized in the new state." In October the government began enacting anti-Semitic legislation, a topic which Deletant reserves for later chapters. The Iron Guard, usually seen as a pro-German fascist movement, also began to oppose the increasing amounts of German influence in Rumania.
At this point the author's chronology becomes a bit muddled and the causal relationships a bit murky. A German military mission requested by Antonescu arrived in Bucharest on 14 October. At the end of the month British forces moved into the Greek islands, close enough, at least in theory, to bomb Ploesti. On 4 November Hitler ordered plans for an invasion of Greece with German troops staging through Rumania. On 19 November German representatives in Rumania indicated the time had come to end the reign of the Iron Guard and return order to the country. Antonescu travelled to Germany two days later and on 23 November signed the Tripartite Pact. On the night of 26-27 November 1940 the Guard began murdering those they deemed responsible for the death of their founder, Codreanu. On 21 December Antonescu was informed that German divisions would be moving into southern Rumania. Deletant conveys this information in a jumble of paragraphs without connecting all the dots of cause and effect.
On 14 January at a meeting in Germany Hitler indicated he would not object if Antonescu tamed the Iron Guard. Following the murder of a German officer in Bucharest a few days later, the Conducator dismissed the Guardist Minister of the Interior. In turn, members of the Iron Guard opened fire on troops dispatched to arrest them, thus provoking a general insurrection by the party against Antonescu as well as any Jews who happened to make easy targets.
The revolt was largely confined to Bucharest, but the Guardists did not
limit themselves to defending their positions in public buildings. During
the morning of 22 January, Guardists moved against defenceless Jews,
looting and burning their homes, and cold-bloodedly murdering 120 of
them. That same afternoon Antonescu ordered the army to use tanks
against the barricaded Guardists and by the evening they had occupied
most of the buildings. Twenty-one soldiers were killed in the operations.
Emissaries from the Guardists called on General Hansen [head of the German military mission], who told them
that Antonescu had Hitler's support and that they should lay down their
arms. Hermann Neubacher [German minister] decided to intervene to put an end to the bloodshed. He told Sima that his uprising against Antonescu had no chance of
success since the latter enjoyed the full support of the Fuhrer. He advised
the Iron Guard leader to withdraw his men from their positions, in which
case their safety would be guaranteed. Sima accepted Neubacher's ceasefire
terms to which Antonescu agreed.
Antonescu thanked Neubacher for his mediation. When, however,
Antonescu told him that he would hang all the Guard leaders, Neubacher
protested vehemently, making it clear that he would not have persuaded
Sima to lay down arms had he known the general's intentions. The next
day, 24 January, the new German minister von Killinger arrived in Bucharest. He carried with him clear instructions 'to support General Antonescu
in any circumstances'. In order to save the Guard leaders from the noose,
members of the German secret service gave refuge in their homes to senior
Guardists, from where they were smuggled to Germany. Sima, according to
the Romanian Secret Service, was hidden in Neubacher's car and taken to
the German legation in Sofia; he was then taken to Germany in an army
lorry. This was not the only instance of German assistance for the Guard:
General Hansen, head of the German military mission, reported that many
of the arms used by the Guardists had also been used at the beginning of
September 1940 during the protests against Carol and had been brought
With the support of the Army and Germany, Antonescu ended the domination of the Iron Guard. However, as Deletant mentions, Germany's role was never entirely clear. Did the Germans provoke the Iron Guard in order to give Antonescu a pretext to crack down, thus providing the stability and loyalty Hitler needed for the vital Ploesti oilfields? And why did the German representatives in Rumania intervene to save so many Guardists? As with many of the events covered in this chapter, the answers are not always obvious or certain.
At the end of January 1941 Antonescu transformed his government into a military regime with most cabinet posts filled by serving officers. Deletant measures this as not fascist and not totalitarian, but rather an authoritarian military dictatorship, noting how Antonescu tolerated a democratic opposition. Even so, in February new legislation outlawed all opposition to his regime. More than 9000 people were arrested for taking part in the January rebellion organized by the Iron Guard, including some who were tried and executed for murdering Jews. Many Guardists spirited out of the country by the Germans were convicted in absentia. Among other targets of Antonescu's wrath were communists and conscientious objectors. Ever the soldier, Antonescu insisted on discipline, even imposing "a ban on walking the streets in shirtsleeves during the summer...."
In foreign affairs, the General continued to believe that Rumania must remain at Germany's side in order to have any hope of recovering Transylvania and the provinces taken by Moscow. On 12 June 1941 Hitler officially informed Antonescu of the impending invasion of the Soviet Union. The Rumanian armed forces were unhesitatingly committed to the campaign. Indeed, on 22 June the Rumanian nation rallied immediately to the cause of liberating the lands taken by the Soviets. Given the success of Operation Barbarossa, Bessarabia and northern Bukovina were back in Bucharest's hands by 27 July at a relatively modest cost to the Rumanian army. In August King Michael promoted Antonescu to the rank of Marshal and on 4 September the Marshal decreed the lost provinces formally reincorporated into Rumania.
Antonescu, however, did not stop at the Dniester. Rumanian forces crossed the river on 3 August and continued to push into Soviet territory that had not belonged to Rumania. Despite intense pressure from the western Allieswith whom Rumania was not yet at warAntonescu insisted that the only way to retain his provinces and to recover Transylvania would be to continue marching beside Hitler until Moscow was defeated and the war reached a conclusion. "It might also have crossed Antonescu's mind that after their removal in January 1941, the leaders of the Iron Guard had found refuge in Germany and were conveniently waiting in the wings should Hitler deem it necessary to replace Antonescu." On 16 October Rumanian troops entered Odessa and all of Transnistria cameat least in theoryunder Rumanian control. Unlike the relatively light casualties in June and July, however, the cost to take Odessa had been extremely heavy.
With Antonescu's troops fighting on soil other than their own, London declared war on Rumania on 7 December. On 12 December Bucharest, under pressure from Berlin, declared war on the United States. Deletant quotes Antonescu as admitting "I am an ally of the Reich against Russia. I am neutral in the conflict between Great Britain and Germany. I am for America against the Japanese." The same quote has also been attributed to Francisco Franco. In any event, what might have seemed like bravado in December 1941 turned into something else together almost a year later when the Soviet offensive destroyed the Rumanian 3rd and 4th Armies around Stalingrad. Still, Antonescu remained optimistic, telling his ambassador in Berlin that Hitler had promised secret weapons, masses of fresh troops, and new plans for winning the war.
As with the whole of the campaign on the Russian Front, Deletant does not go into details on military operations. (See Mark Axworthy for the primary English-language work on Rumanian operations.) Instead, the author devotes five chapters in the middle of his book to Antonescu and the Holocaust. This is an ugly, tragic story. On a personal level, Antonescu appears to have been as anti-Semitic as his countrymen, but not to any extreme degree. As dictator, the Marshal proved inconsistent in his treatment of the Jews, but only in the sense that it's possible to say he wasn't quite as evil and inhuman as he could have been. Antonescu drew a line between "our Jews" and "other Jews," especially "bolshevised Jews." Under his orders, for example, thousands of Jews were murdered at Odessa in 1941 in retaliation for partisan bombing of Rumanian army headquarters, and thousands more were driven out of Rumanian territory into almost certain death. A large proportion of Rumania's Jews survived the war, but as many as 250,000 others perished because of the Rumanian dictator, and Deletant judges the Marshal guilty of brutal criminality because "...the blunt truth is that Antonescu's action led to the death of tens of thousands of Jews and Romas."
After his chapters on the Holocaust, Deletant returns to Rumanian politics and foreign policy. By January 1943 numerous peace-feelers were being extended to the western Allies via Berne, Madrid, Lisbon, and Stockholm with Antonescu's knowledge. In the meantime, the British attempted to remain in touch with King Michael after he publicly called for Rumania to withdraw from the war. The Allied insistence on unconditional surrender consistently remained an obstacle to negotiations. Aware of the ongoing efforts to disengage Rumania, Hitler ordered plans drawn up for German occupation. As late as March 1944, however, Antonescu renewed his pledge of loyalty to Hitler. Behind his back the King and the democratic opposition in alliance with the small surviving communist party (including a representative of the NKVD) prepared to remove the Marshal from power and leave the war. On 20 August 1940 the Soviets launched an offensive against Axis forces along the Prut River, threatening to overrun Rumania and removing the last possibility that German troops could intervene against a coup and exact retribution. On 23 August, in a complex scenario thoroughly described by the author, Antonescu refused to step down as head of the government and was arrested by order of King Michael. All the army's senior officers obeyed the King's directive to promptly cease hostilities against the Soviets.
Romania's external position immediately after the coup was that of an
independent state waging war against its former allies on the side of its former
enemies, with whom its relationships were covered by the Armistice Agreement
between the Allies and Romania signed in Moscow on 12 September 1944.
As part of the armistice agreement the British suggested to the Soviet Foreign
Minister Veaceslav Molotov that an Allied Control Commission be set up
to oversee the implementation of the terms, but the Soviet determination to
have the main say in this matter was carried through in their armistice draft
of 31 August, which stated that the terms would be implemented 'under the
control of the Soviet High Command, hereinafter called Allied (Soviet)
High Command, acting on behalf of the Allied powers'. Stalin used the
Armistice Agreement to subvert the effects of the 23 August coup which had
threatened to wrest the initiative in Romanian affairs from him. In order
to regain the initiative the Soviet leader fashioned from the armistice a
legal framework for securing a dominant political and economic interest in
Romania. Since the Soviet Union had a monopoly of its interpretation, the
Armistice Agreement became the mechanism for the takeover of Romania.
Articles 13 and 14 provided for the arrest of war criminals and the dissolution
of 'Fascist-type' organizations. Antonescu's detention in Russia was now
placed on a legal footing.
These articles, in practice, provided the basis for the transformation of
Romania into a Communist state. With the entry of the Red Army, the
advance units of which arrived in Bucharest on 30 August, the country
came under Russian control. The Allied authority set up to supervise the
execution of the Agreement was de facto Russian. Soviet policy in Romania
was designed to exact retribution for the Romanian invasion of the Soviet
Union and to provide for permanent military securitya notion implying
not merely disarmament and treaty guarantees but also the abrogation of
the political power of those who had launched the invasion.
On the last day of August Soviet troops took Antonescu into custody and set out for Moscow, where he was imprisoned in a castle outside the capital. On 8 November, the Marshal attempted unsuccessfully to hang himself. On 10 May 1945 he was moved into Liubyanka prison. He returned to Rumania in 1946 to be put on trial on 6 May. Despite the Bucharest venue, the proceedings evinced every appearance of Moscow passing judgement on its former enemy. Antonescu defended himself vigorously, and the snippets of transcripts quoted by Deletant make it clear that the Marshal was absolutely convinced he had been making the best of an impossible situation from 1940 through 1944, doing what had to be done. After ten days, no matter what his arguments, Antonescu was inevitably convicted of leading Rumania into war and ordering war crimes. Sentenced to death, no amount of maneuvering by the King or the western Allies could save him. Despite the myth that, only wounded by the firing squad, the fallen soldier commanded "Shoot again, boys, shoot," the execution on 1 June 1946 was in fact far less dramatic. (It was filmed and released publicly more than forty years later.) Having done what he had to do, Antonescu paid the price. Deletant comments sagely: "Despite the procedural flaws in Antonescu's trial, it is hard to escape the conclusion that a court set up by the western Allies would have found him guilty of war crimes on the evidence available at the time."
In a very interesting Conclusion, Deletant explores the manner in which the communist regime of post-war Rumania dealt with Antonescu and various wartime events in textbooks and official historiography. Officially mandated lies, distortions, and omissions essentially painted Antonescu as a war criminal solely responsible for leading Rumania into an illegal, unprovoked war against the Soviet Union. In the same historiography, the Rumanian communist party led the anti-Antonescu coup. With the end of communism in Rumania, ultra-nationalists adopted Antonescu as a hero and patriot, and tarred the aging former king, Michael, for single-handedly presenting Rumania to Moscow. Deletant's Conclusion also reviews several books about Rumania and Antonescu, notably Romanian Cassandra by Larry Watts. In these discussions more than in his preceding chapters the author makes it clear that, whatever Antonescu's motivations, guilt must be assigned to him for his decisions and actions. "Being a 'patriotic' war criminal hardly constitutes grounds for entry into the gallery of a nation's heroes."
Deletant also sums up nicely in a few paragraphs from his closing pages:
Antonescu inherited from King Carol a poisoned chalice; Romania's
predicament on the eve of the war was that of a state determined to preserve
not only its identity but also its existence between significantly more
powerful neighbours. Romania was in the circumstances of 1940 driven into
the arms of Germany following the Soviet annexation of Bessarabia and
northern Bukovina. Had Romania defied the Soviet Union in June 1940 she
would probably have gained, like Finland a year earlier, widespread
sympathy, but little else. Germany could not help her since her hands were
tied by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. When Romania did go to war against
the Soviet Union in the following year she did so as Germany's ally and thus
incurred the enmity of Britain. Her alliance with Germany was not
embodied in any treaty, merely signified by adherence to the Tripartite Pact.
She was not a totally voluntary partner, as the opposition of Maniu and
Bratianu demonstrated, but she was a partner and not vassal, and remained
under the control of a Romanian ruler.
Antonescu remained the ultimate arbiter of Romanian policy. Although
he remained master of his own country, any attempt to withdraw from the
war invited German occupation before 1944. By 1944, the attrition of
German forces deprived Hitler of the force necessary to punish Romania for
doing just that. As long as Romania was able to preserve her internal cohesion
and some military might, she was able to preserve her freedom of action.
This she did until the invasion of the Red Army.
Antonescu's treatment of the Jews was ambivalent; for the Jews of Bukovina
and Bessarabia, Antonescu was a cruel anti-Semite; for those of Moldavia,
Wallachia and southern Transylvania, he was a providential anti-Semite.
Even his inhuman and shameful behaviour towards the Jews of Bukovina
and Bessarabia admits a distinction to be drawn between Romanian and
German action. While German and Romanian forces joined in mass executions of Jews in Bessarabia and Bukovina in the summer of 1941, after that
date Romanian treatment of the Jews broadly speaking followed a separate
course. If, as in the German case, discrimination was followed by deportation, deportation, in the Romanian case, did not lead to the gas-chamber.
Tens of thousands of Jews from Bessarabia, Bukovina and Transnistria were
indeed shot in the period from winter 1941 until early spring 1942 on
Romanian orders in Golta county, but subsequently the plight of the Jews in
Transnistria was characterized by degradation and callous neglect. Jews
residing in Ukraine beyond Transnistria were likely to suffer a quick death
by shooting at the hands of the Germans, but in Transnistria Jews often
faced a slow death by typhus or starvation. The contrast between German
and Romanian actions is illustrated by the fact that the largest proportion of
Jews to survive Axis rule during the Second World War in the Soviet Union
was in Transnistria.
When it comes to thoughtful opinions and carefully considered judgments about Marshal Antonescu, the Conclusion shows the author at his best.
Elsewhere, a couple of pages make it seem like the depth of Deletant's research and the totality of his understanding of the subject are not always matched by his ability to clearly communicate all that knowledge to the reader, but those are few in number and by the end of the book they are easily forgiven. The difficulty might have more to do with the complexity and ambiguity of certain personalities, events, and relationships in Rumanian politics, of which Antonescu was at the center.
Although ostensibly a biography of the man, this is not really a book that manages to look deeply into its protagonist, except perhaps in respect to the Holocaust. For example, if he had children, they seem not to be mentioned here. While the Conducator occupies center stage throughout most of the chapters, that seems to be more a result of his position in Rumania rather than an effort to examine what made him tick. Strictly as a biography, Hitler's Forgotten Ally leaves something to be desired, and can't measure up, for example, to Carlo D'este's biographies of Eisenhower and Patton. On the other hand, as a history of Rumania during the period of Ion Antonescu's rule, Deletant has produced a valuable and enlightening book, one that nicely complements Axworthy's volume on Rumanian armed forces and military operations. Deletant's effort compares favorably to the relatively disorganized work of Dinu C. Giurescu (which also tends to sidestep the issue of Rumania and the Holocaust), and it contains quite a few details (especially on the Holocaust in Rumania) not found in the substantially broader Rumania 1866-1947 by Keith Hitchins.
Hitler's Forgotten Ally is a strong addition to the literature about Antonescu and Rumania during the war years. Anyone with an interest in that topic will want to read this book, and those not familiar with the considerable complications of Rumania's wartime position will learn a great deal from Deletant about the nation, its Conducator, and his poisoned chalice.
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Thanks to Palgrave for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 29 October 2006
Copyright © 2006 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone