Religion and Romania’s Iron Guard

From Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, From the Great War to the War on Terror, by Michael Burleigh (HarperCollins, 2007), pp. 270-271:

Few European Fascist movements went so far as to proclaim that ‘God is a Fascist!’ or that ‘the ultimate goal of the Nation must be resurrection in Christ!’ Romania was the exception. Romanian Fascists wanted ‘a Romania in delirium’ and they largely got one. The Legion of the Archangel Michael was founded in 1927 in honour of the archangel, who had allegedly visited Corneliu Codreanu, its chief ideologist, while he was in prison. It was the only European Fascist movement with religion (in this case Romanian Orthodoxy) at its core. In 1930 the Legion was renamed the Iron Guard. While rivalling only the Nazis in the ferocity of their hatred of Jews, these Romanian Fascists were sui generis in their fusion of political militancy with Orthodox mysticism into a truly lethal whole. One of the Legion’s intellectual luminaries, the world-renowned anthropologist Mircea Eliade, described the legionary ideal as ‘a harsh Christian spirituality’. Its four commandments were ‘belief in God; faith in our mission; love for one another; son’. The goal of a ‘new moral man’ may have been a totalitarian commonplace, but the ‘resurrection of the [Romanian] people in front of God’s throne’ was not routine in such circles. But then few European Fascists were inducted into an elite called the Brotherhood of Christ by sipping from a communal cup of blood filled from slashes in their own arms, or went around with little bags of soil tied around their necks. Nor did they do frenzied dances after chopping opponents into hundreds of pieces. Not for nothing was the prison massacre of Iron Guard leaders – including the captain Codreanu himself – by supporters of King Carol II known to local wits as ‘the Night of the Vampires’. Although the Romanian elites emasculated the Guard’s leadership, much of their furious potential was at that elite’s disposal.

Hitler’s conquests in western Europe in 1940 led Carol II to abandon his country’s alignment with Britain and to seek a role for Romania within the all-conquering German ‘new order’. That June, the Soviet Union took Bessarabia and Bukovina under the terms of the deal it had struck with Hitler. Three million Romanian Orthodox Christians languished under an alien and atheist regime, a state of affairs that outraged opinion in the Old Kingdom. In September 1940 Carol invited the military strongman, General Ion Antonescu, to form a government, which within a month deposed the king in favour of his son prince Michael, who is still the claimant to the throne of Romania. Because, like Franco, Antonescu lacked a political base, he revived the Legion so as to provide a basis for what became the ‘National Legionnaire State’. The Iron Guard leader, Horia Sima, became vice-premier, and the Guard gained five ministerial portfolios. For the ensuing five months the Guard attempted a stealthy coup from within, even as their corruption and violence created chaos. Since sections of the Nazi leadership favoured the Guard, the wily Antonescu knew where to turn.

In January 1941, Antonescu flew to Germany for a meeting with Hitler , whose troops were massing in Romania for the projected invasion of the Soviet Union. The strong personal rapport between these two implacable haters of the Jews enabled Antonescu to provoke and crush a revolt by the Guard after he returned home; nine thousand were detained and eighteen hundred sentenced to imprisonment. The Guard was proscribed and the Legionnaire State abandoned. Antonescu assumed the title of ‘conducator’ used by the murdered Codreanu, while his son Mihai became vice-premier of a government largely consisting of antisemites of the National Christian Party, for in this respect the old elites were no different from the Fascists. Acting reflexively in its search for someone to blame, the Guard carried out a pogrom in Bucharest, killing 630 Jews, some of whose corpses hung in the capital’s slaughterhouse as ‘kosher meat’.

In 1983-84, we lived in an apartment at the north end of Parcul Tineretului within easy walking distance of both the main slaughterhouse and the main crematorium, the latter surrounded by huge cemeteries, including Cimitirul Israelit. (The crematorium features in Saul Bellow’s novel The Dean’s December, which we read that year.) Here’s my translation of the paragraph on the history of the crematorium at the link above:

The crematorium “Cenusa” [‘Ash’] is one of the few monuments in Bucharest that is closely tied to the recent history of Romania. The first person incinerated here after its inauguration in 1928 was Profira Fieraru, a woman who died at the age of 40. The opening of the crematorium was the subject of controversy between church and state, leading to discussion of the legitimacy of the burning of cadavers from the point of view of religious doctrine. Among those said to have been cremated in “Cenusa” are General Antonescu, several legionnaires from the interwar period, and Ana Pauker from the communist period. At the Revolution of 1989, those 43 people killed at Timisoara were brought to the crematorium and incinerated, but their ashes were thrown away.

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Filed under Germany, nationalism, religion, Romania, USSR, war

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