[Please note: This post includes historical accounts of horrific massacres. Further, several quoted passages include antisemitic slurs.]
It’s March of 2017 and all 100 United States Senators are urging Donald Trump to do something about the sharp rise in antisemitism since his election. If you follow the Senate, you’re aware 100% agreement in that august body is akin to seeing a real-life unicorn. One unbalanced former journalist aside, the sickening spike in bomb threats to Jewish community centers/synagogues and desecration of Jewish cemeteries is real – and should trouble us all.
I’ve been thinking about antisemitism a lot these days, as I slowly work my way through Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), a cornucopia of academic journal articles and the occasional podcast. One particularly incisive podcast, as I’ve mentioned before, is Slate Academy’s limited series named (and concerning) Fascism. Their third episode is dedicated to its Romanian iteration. Outside the field of fascism studies and Romania itself, this history is either largely overlooked or unknown in our country. It had barely registered on my radar, and I was at least somewhat actively in search of that kind of information.
It should be noted this history is vast and serpentine. My overview can only scratch the surface. If you’d like to contextualize the emergence of the movement as it relates to Romanian history, see BBC’s Romania history timeline; for a more comprehensive chronology of the fascist takeover, we refer you to the Analytical Chronology of the Romanian Legionary Movement, who were also known as the Legion of the Archangel Michael or Iron Guard.
Founded in 1927 and officially brought into the fascist coalition government by Conducător Ion Antonescu in 1940, the Iron Guard led vigorous pogroms against the Jewish population and assassinated their political enemies. These Romanian fascists had many of the ideological markers one might expect: rabid nationalism, malice towards perceived Others and systematized antisemitism/anticommunism were precepts of the movement, but by wedding those currents to Orthodox Christianity they transformed into a mystical “political religion” and a “death cult”.
“God is fascist!”
One of the unique characteristics of Romanian fascism is the incorporation of Orthodox Christianity into the political doctrine and structure of the Iron Guard. The religious element of Romanian fascism was utilized by the Iron Guard to gain the support of the rural population of Romania where religious beliefs were the strongest. The Iron Guard used religious themes for most of their propaganda. The widespread occurrence of “miracles” in Romania during the rise of the Iron Guard represented the utilization of religious propaganda to appeal to the superstitious rural population. In addition, Romanian fascists made use of collective prayers, religious chants, and processions in order to sway and influence the Romanian people. Orthodox Christianity was an essential component of Romanian fascist ideology because it was considered one of the most important elements of the “historical continuity” of the Romanian people. The Iron Guard was initially called the “Legion of the Archangel Michael” because it characterized the predestined character of the legionnaire movement.
In his A History of Fascism, 1914 – 1945 (published in 1996), historian Stanley G. Payne described The Legion of The Archangel Michael/Iron Guard as
arguably the most unusual mass movement of interwar Europe. It is generally classified as fascist because it met the main criteria of any appropriate fascist typology, but it presented undeniably individual characteristics of its own. German historian and philosopher Ernst Nolte has written that it “must not only be declared, but also plainly appears, to be the most interesting and the most complex fascist movement, because like geological formations of superimposed layers it presents at once both prefascist and radically fascist characteristics.” What made [Iron Guard founder and martyr C.Z. Codreanu] especially different was that he became a sort of religious mystic, and though the Legion had the same general political goals as other fascist movements, its final aims were spiritual and transcendental—“The spiritual resurrection! The resurrection of nations in the name of Jesus Christ!” as he put it.
The “spiritually resurrected” man viewed the Jewish people with deep suspicion on a good day and murderous intent on a bad one. They were a constant bugaboo, accused of everything from being fifth column communist saboteurs to stealing hardworking Romanians’ jobs (in reality, a poor economy exacerbated by 1929’s stock market crash meant there just weren’t enough jobs to go around). The soil was fertile for the kind of violent reactions that would culminate in a holocaust. In 1941, the newly empowered Iron Guard (at this time lead by Horia Sima) and Antonescu came into serious conflict over the best way to rob the Jews.
[T]he Legionnaires wanted everything, and they wanted it immediately; Antonescu, while sharing the same goal, intended to achieve it gradually, using different methods. The leader stated this clearly in an address to Legion-appointed ministers: “Do you really think that we can replace all Yids immediately? Government challenges are addressed one by one, like in a game of chess.”
The Iron Guard’s plan for getting everything was terrorizing, torturing and murdering Jewish people, then plundering their possessions. Dissatisfied with Antonescu’s gradual legal disenfranchisement stratagem, the Guard began spreading rumors that the Conducător was a Freemason, and worse! had Jewish ties. They were setting the table for a coup that they hoped would put them in full control of the government.
But their insubordination would not go unchallenged. With Adolf Hitler’s assent, Antonescu began purging Legionnaires from government through firings and arrests. Sima, realizing the window of opportunity would not stay open much longer, initiated a two-pronged attack. The Iron Guard stormed the Ministry of the Interior, police stations and media outlets, and drafted sympathetic elements of the rural peasantry to fill the streets of Bucharest. At the same time, the Guard enacted a pogrom against the Jews to “legitimize” their uprising. Swaths of Jewish property were destroyed, and 125 Bucharestian Jews were murdered. Christopher Simpson recounts one such mass killing that took place during the rebellion in Blowback: The First Full Account of America’s Recruitment of Nazis and its Disastrous Effect on Our Domestic and Foreign Policy (1989).
Some victims were actually butchered in a municipal meat-packing plant, hung on meathooks, and branded as ‘kosher meat’ with red hot irons. Their throats were cut in an intentional desecration of kosher laws. Some were beheaded. ‘Sixty Jewish corpses [were discovered] on the hooks used for carcasses,’ US ambassador to Romania Franklin Mott Gunther wired back to Washington after the pogrom. ‘They were all skinned … [and] the quantity of blood about [was evidence] that they had been skinned alive.’ Among the victims, according to eyewitnesses, was a girl no more than five years old, who was left hanging by her feet like a slaughtered calf, her body bathed in blood.
Antonescu was able to repel the Iron Guard’s putsch. Some of the guardsmen who weren’t killed in the fighting, like Sima, fled to Germany, while some 9,000 others were imprisoned. Though they had lost, certain members of the Iron Guard would go on to zealously cooperate with Antonescu later that year. Iasi, which bordered Russia, had a sizable Jewish population. As Hitler and his allies went to war with the Soviet Union, Antonescu suspected Iasi Jews were on the side of the communists. He ordered the military to “cleanse” the city; at the same time, Legionnaires in the city were released from prison to assist in the massacre.
Iasi was one of the bloodiest pogroms of the era, resulting in the death of an estimated 13,266 Jews. Radu Ioanid’s article The Holocaust in Romania: The Iasi Pogrom of June 1941 (published in 1993) gives you a sense of the carnage with following eyewitness account:
I saw a multitude of people rushing in confusion towards the Zafiropol garage, near the Chestura, in a hail of machine-gun fire. Two bullets grazed me as I fell to the pavement. I lay in this state for several hours, and saw with my own eyes people die in front of me, some of whom I knew, others who were strangers. For instance a wounded Jewish veteran of the 1916-1918 campaign, with his medals for ‘Courage and Faith’ still pinned to him, in his hands papers that entitled him to rights (as a Romanian citizen), his chest torn open by bullets, died like a dog in a rubbish tip. Then there was young Segal, son of a leather dresser (who also died, together with his two other sons), who kept moaning as he was dying: ‘Mother, father, where are you? Give me water, I’m thirsty.’ But nobody could help him. The soldiers passing by saw Jews in their agony and pierced them with their bayonets to end their misery.
Nor was Iasi an isolated incident. In Hitler’s Forgotten Ally: Ion Antonescu and his Regime, Romania 1940 – 1944 (published in 2006), Dennis Deletant surveys the breadth of Romania’s genocidal fervor:
The statistical story is grim: ‘mass murder’ was ‘carried out by the Romanian authorities under Antonescu’s military dictatorship’. The death toll was ‘the result not only of systematic killing, but also of deportation and its consequences … These figures—almost 300,000 Jews in all—give the Antonescu regime the sinister distinction of being responsible for the largest number of deaths of Jews after Hitler’s Germany’.
As the Axis fell into disarray near the end of World War II, a successful coup was launched against Antonescu by Romania’s deposed Monarch Michael I. Michael I was then compelled to appoint a communist government and to hand Antonescu over to them. The Conducător was put on trial, and executed by firing squad in 1946. The country he had allied with Hitler would be overseen by a repressive pro-Soviet puppet government until the fall of the USSR in 1989. Its legacy of fascism and genocide, however, would remain a deep wound to the national psyche.
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Episode 3: Romania: Bloody, Mystical Fascism from the East is behind Slate’s paywall, but I’ve taken the liberty of excerpting a few of the observations Rebecca Onion, Joshua Keating and June Thomas made about this sad chapter in the country’s history.