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Ultranationalist utopias and the realities of reconciliation (part one)

Constantin Iordachi and Ferenc Laczó discuss fascism and the Second World War in Romania.

February 25, 2021 - Constantin Iordachi Ferenc Laczó - History and MemoryInterviews

The Iron Guard and its leader Corneliu Zelea Codreanu in Bucharest, Romania in 1937. wikimedia.org

FERENC LACZÓ: You have written several important works on the Iron Guard, including a recent monograph that is available in Hungarian. How would you characterise the Iron Guard? What did this fascist movement share with others in Europe and beyond and what were its special features? What were the main reasons for its popularity in Romania?

CONSTANTIN IORDACHI: The nature of the Legion of the ‘Archangel Michael’, also known as the Iron Guard, has been debated for a long time. This is due to its long history (1927 to 1941), hybrid character, and original features. Unlike in Germany or Italy, this fascist organisation was not created by war veterans but rather by university students. Second, it managed to attract many intellectuals, including university professors, thus gaining a certain cultural prestige in right-wing circles. Third, although the movement defined itself as apolitical at the time of its creation, it eventually grew into a successful mass party, gaining over 15 per cent of the votes in the 1937 parliamentary elections. Last but not least, the Legion’s ideology and practice often involved religious symbols, rites and rituals. These were borrowed mostly from the Orthodox Church and blended with fascist symbolism in a peculiar way.

Due to its multiple sources of identity, the organisation was classified in many contradictory ways during its existence. Apart from being viewed as a fascist movement, it was sometimes understood as an apolitical movement of religious revival, a bizarre religious sect based on Orthodox fundamentalism, a ‘virtuous’ nationalist-populist movement, a nihilist terroristic organization, the fifth column of Nazi Germany in Romania, and a radical right-wing movement.

My research connected the study of the Legion with Anglophone literature on generic fascism. On the one hand, taking inspiration from researchers such as Eugen Weber and Armin Heinen, I challenged influential Marxist interpretations that argue that the Legion had neither an ideology of its own or mass support. This dogmatic interpretation asserted that the Legion was in effect nothing more than a terrorist organisation subsidised by Nazi Germany. On the other hand, I went against the prevailing tendency to ‘exoticise’ Romanian fascism as a peripheral “mutant”, instead integrating it firmly within the mainstream of European fascism. 

I have argued that the roots of the Legion’s ideology are not to be found in the religious dogma of the Eastern Christian Orthodox Church, as the majority of historians have argued. Rather, I believe that the group’s beliefs originated in European Romantic historical ideologies of ‘social rebirth’. I contend that Legionary ideology can be defined as a sort of ‘palingenetic’ political faith of the religious type, called legionarism. This belief’s ultimate aim was to bring about national rebirth and regeneration through violent cleansing. This radical ideology was centered on a romantic cult that glorified two inter-related key figures: The group promoted the Wallachian medieval prince Michael the Brave as a symbol of national unity and regeneration; at the same time, the Archangel Michael was celebrated as the Patron Saint of the Prince and of the Romanians, as the elect nation. I have argued that this dual cult explains the organization’s name and symbolism.

It might seem strange to many that a strong fascist movement developed in Romania, which was a ‘victorious’ country that managed to expand its territory as a result of the Great War. Although Romania doubled in size and population, radical nationalist factions within the political elite increasingly promoted a discourse of national victimisation. They argued that the Romanians remained economically and politically disadvantaged ‘in their own house’ due to the presence of foreign oppressors. They rejected the slow pace of “nationalizing the state” that was supported by the country’s democratic parties. Instead, these groups called for the acceleratation of the nation-building process through the exclusion of ethnic minorities from meaningful rights. 

Faced with the dominant Liberal Party’s refusal to implement such policies, a small but fanatical group of radical student nationalists laid the foundations of a violent youth movement. This group promoted terrorist activities as a means of ‘national salvation’ and challenged the country’s political establishment, which they viewed as corrupt and decadent. Following a ‘neo-Weberian’ theory put forward by Robert C. Tucker, I define this counterculture as ‘charisma of resentment’ or a protest ideology of under-privileged social groups.

The Legion’s ultranationalist and populist message had genuine mass appeal. This was especially true after the devastating world economic crisis of 1929-33. My work has shown that, as a social movement, the Legion was a catch-all party that incorporated diverse elements of society. This included mostly peasants, students, blue- and white-collar workers, members of the rural and urban intelligentsia (often teachers and priests), lower rural and urban bourgeoisie, and also members of the aristocracy. These social strata were united by the feeling that they were being excluded from the full benefits of the socio-political system of Greater Romania. Their unfulfilled postwar expectations led to feelings of relative deprivation.

In my writings, I have shown that the Legion’s political faith was centered on leader Corneliu Zelea Codreanu’s charismatic cult. It managed to mobilise various impoverished groups who perceived themselves as losers within the parliamentary system. Simultaneously, the group also emboldened a dynamic urban population that, whilst advancing up the social ladder, nevertheless felt hampered by ‘minority’ groups or governmental policies. The Legion’s nativist discourse revolved around the “autochthonous rights” of the Romanians, or Christians in general, against Jews and their Romanian “acolytes”. The Jewish population was continuously attacked as “invaders”, “parasites” and “corrupters” of national traditions. Thus, while consensus was easily found within its own charismatic community, the Legion encouraged conflict between its followers and the country’s minorities and political establishment. 

Overall, while stressing the original features of the Legion, I have argued against the organization’s alleged ‘exceptionalism’, which was supposedly based on either Balkan backwardness or Orthodox traditions. I have instead argued that the Legion’s campaign for ‘purification’ through violent cleansing, its paramilitarism, its antisemitism, anti-communism and anti-liberalism place it alongside other fascist movements. 

The Iron Guard marching in Bucharest between 1940 and 1941. Source: wikimedia.org

What roles did the Iron Guard play in Romania during WW2? How did the movement’s relationship with the Nazis and the Italian fascists change over the years?

The Legion originated independently from German Nazism and Italian fascism. Of course, the Legionaries were aware of their similarities to fascist movements elsewhere and looked to Germany and Italy for inspiration and support. In his early student letters to his mentor, the antisemitic professor A. C. Cuza, Codreanu expressed his admiration for Mussolini and his movement. In 1922-23, Codreanu went on research trips to Berlin and Jena to establish links with the emerging national-socialist movement. He even came back with a suitcase full of decorative swastikas that were given to his followers as souvenirs. Other Legionary leaders, such as Vasile Marin, were closer to Italian fascism. Both regimes remained influential models for the Legionaries. In 1937, Codreanu stated that he would forge “an alliance with Rome and Berlin” in 48 hours if he successfully took power. 

A transnational alliance of fascist movements was, however, complicated by their mutually exclusive ‘ultranationalist dystopias’. The Legionaries were always adamant to stress the originality of their ideology and even argued that legionarism was superior to German national socialism and Italian fascism. Yet, in geopolitical terms, the proposed alliance with the Axis powers was problematic for Romania. This is because the country was on the side of the Entente in World War One and functioned as a pillar of the Versailles peace system in Central Europe during the interwar period, while Germany and Italy were revisionist powers at this time. In 1940, Romania lost Northern Transylvania to Hungary under pressure from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Its subsequent alliance with these powers was considered by many as going against the country’s national interest. There was even a bitter contemporary joke that, after liberating Bessarabia in 1941, the Romanian army kept going the wrong way and was searching for Transylvania in the Soviet Union…

At the same time, it is well known that, despite supporting other fascist movements, Italy and Germany nevertheless adopted a pragmatic foreign policy and did not hesitate to marginalise or even challenge other fascist leaders if they got in the way of their geopolitical goals. It is telling in this respect that, while condemning King Carol II’s assassination of Codreanu in November 1938 and praising his ‘fascist martyrdom’, Nazi Germany decided to channel its financial support to the National Christian Party and not toward the Legion. This group was led by Octavian Goga and A. C. Cuza and was a rabidly antisemitic radical-right party. It is true that Nazi Germany supported the Legion’s rise to power in September 1940 in alliance with General Ion Antonescu (Marshal from August 1941). Yet, in January 1941 Hitler decided to support General Antonescu in his conflict with the Legion and allowed him to suppress the organization by military means. The Führer feared that the Legion’s ‘revolutionary’ policy of violent revenge would lead to chaos. The Legion enjoyed the support from the German SS and SD during this internal conflict but that backing was not enough to overcome the strength of the army. The Legion was thus eliminated as an active political force in January 1941.

Let me ask a broader question about comparative fascist studies, one of the fields you are prominently involved in as president of a recently established organisation. What are some of the key questions scholars focus on when they aim to compare fascist movements and regimes today? What major conclusions have recently been drawn from such comparisons?

The first thing to say is that fascism was a global phenomenon. In the interwar period, there were fascist movements in almost all European countries, as well as in several non-European states. Yet, for many decades, national historiographies approached these movements in isolation, within their own national contexts. When scholars first attempted to compare the groups they tended to restrict it to the ‘core’ cases of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Even the historians who took a more general, continental perspective, saw fascist movements in Central Europe as simple imitations of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

In recent decades, historians have proposed more sophisticated comparative frameworks as a means of approaching fascism as a continental or global phenomenon. Stanley G. Payne, for example, created a ‘retrodictive’ theory of fascism based on the study of interwar fascist movements. Simultaneously, Roger Griffin promoted a concise, highly-needed ‘ideal-type’ definition of generic fascism. These models led to great debates over the definition of fascism and boosted comparative research, yet they remained focused on defining fascism as an ideology. 

My aim as a scholar and president of the International Association for Comparative Fascist Studies has been to promote a new agenda by redirecting research from the prevailing Weberian ideal-type methodology, which is fixated on the fascist “ideological minimum”, to new comparative-historical analyses focused on the three key themes of ideology, movements and regimes. I argue that research on fascism should rely on new comparative theoretical and methodological foundations generated by a greater interaction between research traditions in Eastern and Western Europe. ComFas is also interested in promoting close dialogue and cooperation with scholars from other regions of the world, such as North America, Latin America and South-East Asia. 

My approach rejects a division between ‘core’ and ‘peripheral’ fascisms in favour of a transnational and comparative approach. Crossborder ‘laboratories’ of radicalisation to fascism existed in Europe before and after the First World War. For instance, France-Italy and Germany–Austria are great examples of this phenomenon. The new nationalising states in post-imperial Central and Eastern Europe, including Hungary, Poland, Romania, Ukraine and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes/Yugoslavia are also other good examples.

In order to study these parallel yet intertwined processes of radicalisation, it is not enough to focus on the similarities and differences between different ‘national’ fascist movements. Their shared history, which was marked as much by conflict as exchange and cooperation, also needs to be explored. By using this paradigm, emphasis falls on exchanges and mutual interactions rather than isolated, parallel developments. New transnational spaces of interaction and the intermediaries that facilitated these links subsequently become the focus of research.

I also think that the prevailing ‘culturalist’ approaches to fascism should give way to new socio-cultural approaches that explore not only the ideology of fascism but also its propensity to create violent sub-cultures. Who were the fascists? Under what conditions does fascism emerge? What are the social, cultural and geopolitical factors that facilitate its genesis? How has fascism changed over time? Answers to these pressing questions could help explain the 21st century revival of fascism, as well as the concoction between fascism and the authoritarian radical right that we are seeing today.

Our annual ComFas Conventions have proposed themes that could help fill gaps in the existing research on comparative fascism studies. The first convention at Budapest’s Central European University in 2018 invited reflections on “Fascism and the Transnational Turn”. The second convention held at Uppsala University the following year focused on fascism’s relation to violence, while the third, online convention in September 2020 explored the relationship between fascism and the radical right. Some of the results of these conventions have been published in Fascism. Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies. ComFas has cooperated closely with this journal for many years.

Portrait of Romanian officer and future military dictator Ion Antonescu and fascist leader Corneliu Zelea Codreanu in 1935. Source: wikimedia.org

How would you describe the role Romania played in the Holocaust? What actors and institutions were responsible for the genocide in the country? What conclusions have studies on the Romanian perpetrators reached? 

Interwar Romania was a constitutional monarchy. Its political system was dominated by large democratic parties, most notably the National Liberal Party and the National Peasant Party. These parties were formally committed to political pluralism, the rule of law, and to observing the rights of ethnic minorities as enshrined in international treaties. Despite its numerous and undeniable flaws, interwar Romania’s unconsolidated democracy survived until the eve of the Second World War. The last free elections took place in December 1937, at a time when most European countries had already turned into dictatorships.

This liberal political order was nevertheless challenged, early on, by what Michael Mann describes as a complex “family of authoritarians”. This group was made up of various radical right parties, such as the League of National-Christian Defense or LANC, which was established in 1923. The 1935 successor to this organisation, the National Christian Party (created by the League and Goga’s National Agrarian Party), emerged as a prominent member of this group alongside the fascist ‘Legion of the Archangel Michael’. Both groups were antisemitic but they differed in their radicalism. For instance, LANC focused almost exclusively on the exclusion of Jews by legal-political means, while the Legion supported a violent ‘national revolution’ that would purify the country of ‘unwanted minorities’, as well as corrupt and decadent politicians. In September 1940, Romania’s ‘family of authoritarians’ managed to acquire political power as a diverse and uneasy alliance between the radical right, represented above all by General Ion Antonescu, and the fascist Legion.

This newfound alliance enabled the Legion to pursue its vision of ‘national purification’ through cleansing.The peculiarities of Romania’s anti-Jewish campaign can only be understood by taking into account both the history of the Jewish Question and its international geopolitical context. In August and September 1940, Romania entered firmly the Nazi sphere of influence. Whilst Bucharest subordinated its foreign policy to Nazi Germany and allowed a large German military presence on its territory, Romania preserved its statehood, internal autonomy, and decision-making capabilities. Following Romania’s entry into the war against the Soviet Union in June 1941, General Antonescu decided to deport Jews from Bukovina and Bessarabia, two provinces that had experienced Soviet occupation in late 1940-41. Moreover, the general even agreed in principle to the deportation of Romanian Jews to Nazi extermination camps. In Bessarabia, Bukovina, and on the Eastern Front, Romania conducted an antisemitic campaign of “cleansing” that resulted in the death of between 280,000 to 380,000 Jews.

After 1942, however, in light of the deteriorating military situation on the Eastern Front, Romanian authorities ultimately refused to deport Jews from the Banat, southern Transylvania, and other provinces of the ‘Old Kingdom,’ to the Nazi camps. Thus, while Nazi Germany intensified its campaign of extermination toward the end of the war, Antonescu halted the deportations of Jews from Romania and even tried to cover up its murderous campaign.

Overall, Antonescu’s “Jewish policy” possesses a terrible yet contradictory record. As mentioned, Romanian policies resulted in the death of between 280,000 to 380,000 Jews. Around 25,000 Romani people were also deported and half of this group died in concentration camps. In 2004, the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania led by Elie Wiesel concluded unequivocally that Romania’s antisemitic campaign of deportation and extermination was an integral part of the history of the Holocaust. In addition, German and Hungarian authorities were responsible for the extermination of over 130,000 Jews in Northern Transylvania. At the same time, despite considerable German pressure, Romania’s Jews from the Wallachia, Moldavia, southern Transylvania and the Banat were not deported to Nazi death camps. As a result, over 300,000 Romanian Jews survived the war.

With regards to the perpetrators of this campaign, it should be noted that the Legion did not play an active role in the deportation and extermination of Jews during the war against the Soviet Union due to its removal from power in January 1941. Undeniably, The group was instrumental in creating a climate of antisemitic violence and terror in Romania that was to culminate in pogroms (such as the one in Iași in June 1941, prior to the attack on the Soviet Union). Ultimately, however, it was the Antonescu regime that implemented these antisemitic policies in practice. The campaign of ‘Romanianization’ through the deportation and dispossession of Jews was supported by a coalition of right-wing nationalist collaborators and justified by appeals to ‘integral nationalism’ rather than fascism.

There is a more general lesson to be learned from these events. The ‘Final Solution’ was Nazi Germany’s initiative and political project. However, its implementation turned into a Europe-wide campaign as it was joined by a variety of antisemitic collaborators. In many satellite countries, it was oftentimes nationalist-authoritarian leaders rather than ‘pure fascists’ who played the main role in the deportation and extermination of Jews. These politicians did not hesitate to take advantage of the Nazi Final Solution as a means of settling political scores and fulfilling their plans for ethnic purity. This reminds us that fascists do not have a monopoly on antisemitism and violence. In specific contexts, seemingly more moderate nationalist and authoritarian-minded politicians can act just as brutally as their fascist counterparts.

This discussion, consisting of two parts, first appeared on the Hungarian language platform Mérce.

The second part will be published on March 4th

Constantin Iordachi is professor at the Department of History, Central European University, Vienna, co-editor of the journal East Central Europe (Brill), and president of the International Association for Comparative Fascist Studies. He also serves as a member of the Academic Committee of the House of European History, Brussels. Iordachi is the author of A Vasgárda: Karizma, politika, és erőszak Romániában, 1927-1941 (Budapest: L’Harmattan, 2017, 2018), Charisma, Politics and Violence: The Legion of “Archangel Michael” in Inter-War Romania (Trondheim: 2004), and Liberalism, Constitutional Nationalism and Minorities: The Making of Romanian Citizenship, c. 1750-1918 (Leiden: Brill, 2019). He has edited and co-edited over a dozen volumes.

Ferenc Laczó is assistant professor with tenure in European history at Maastricht University and, most recently, co-editor (with Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič) of The Legacy of Division. East and West after 1989 (CEU Press-Eurozine, 2020) and (with Włodzimierz Borodziej and Joachim von Puttkamer) The Routledge History Handbook of Central and Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century Volume 3: Intellectual Horizons (Routledge, 2020).


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