After Hours

Book review: No saints, Romania’s legionary death cult

Holy Legionary Youth: Fascist Activism in Interwar Romania, by Roland Clark

The next time anyone tries to convince you that the Romanian Legionary Movement of the 1930s and early 1940s was anything other than evil it is enough to remember just one passage describing the Bucharest pogrom of January 1941 from this quite brilliant book:

Legionaries began arresting Jews on 20 January, and the following afternoon gangs of legionaries invaded Bucharest’s two largest Jewish neighbourhoods. They loaded roughly two thousand Jews – including children and the elderly – onto trucks and transported them to prearranged sites where they beat, raped and tortured them. Of the legionaries involved in torturing Jews at the police station on Matei Basarab Street, most were aged between 15 and 25 years old.

Despite such horrors there is an increasingly vocal minority of people in Romania attempting to rehabilitate the legionaries, emphasising the suffering endured by many of them at the end of World War II, when they were imprisoned. Some have gone so far as to propose their canonisation, calling them Christian martyrs. Read Roland Clark’s book and you will be left in no doubt as to whether or not these thugs were saints.

They were not, in the first place, Christian. Though legionary dogma contained certain mystical elements and its practices (and name) borrowed from Eastern Orthodoxy, the Legion was a death cult which resembled the secular Nazi SS far more than a religious movement. Plenty of Orthodox priests condemned the Legion. The monks at Putna Monastery in Bucovina went so far as to refuse to bless their flags and other paraphernalia. Indeed, as the author explains, the legionaries did not view themselves as being particularly religious. The narrative that they were ‘good Christian boys doing God’s work’ only appears much later, after many had rotted away in prison.

Boys, however, they certainly were. The Legion’s membership was made up primarily of very young, physically impressive, racially pure though often poorly educated youths: almost exclusively male. Just like the Nazis, the Legion had little time for the frail, the physically impaired or the disabled. The Legion was fixated by muscular masculinity and the idea of creating a ‘new Romanian man’ (something with which Nicolae Ceausescu would later become equally obsessed). ‘Work camps’ were organised at which strenuous physical exercise, generally done in very little clothing, was ever present but women seldom were.

While Clark makes it clear that some of these young men were manipulated by their leaders into committing acts of violence he goes too far in our opinion towards using their naïveté as an excuse for their barbarism. It is a moot point of course, and is just about the only fault we could find. Holy Legionary Youth is packed with detail, impeccably documented and – given its academic provenance – thoroughly readable. Published almost three years ago the book had been off my radar until I was sent a link to a podcast interview with the author himself. If your interest in the subject does not stretch to the 32 UK pounds for the book itself (even the Kindle version costs over 20 UK pounds), then the podcast is well worth a listen, as Clark talks at length about many of its main themes.

Romania’s infamous Legion of the Archangel Michael grew out of various anti-Semitic, anti-foreigner political movements which appeared in the aftermath of World War I. The charm of Queen Marie had managed to more than double Romania’s size at the Treaty of Versailles, and as a result various nationalities, from Ruthenians and Ukrainians to Hungarians and Saxons had to be incorporated into what had hitherto been a far more homogeneous country. All were targeted at some stage, but it was the Jews who bore the brunt of the fascist movement’s discourse and attacks, beginning with the chaotic student protests of 1922 and ending in the pogroms of the 1940s.

The Legion spent much of the early 1930s roaming Romania’s cities attacking anyone they disapproved of, primarily (but not only) Jews. They found such things amusing. Like many young men from all over the world, some even went to Spain: not to fight for freedom and the Spanish republic however, but to fight with Franco. The dead were then given state-like funerals when their bodies were returned.

The Legion was led by Corneliu Zelea-Codreanu (the central figure in the main photo at the top of the page): a vicious murderer with a messianic-complex who saw violence not merely as a means of achieving political goals, but also as something that would boost the masculinity of those who perpetrated it. On his wedding day he and his wife wore crowns emblazoned with swastikas.

As the 1930s progressed Codreanu’s disciples terrorised large swathes of the Romanian population, carrying out political assassinations and murder with impunity. And as Clark is not slow to point out, they did so with much popular support, both from the peasantry and from intellectuals who really ought to have known better. Emil Cioran and Mircea Eliade were just two of the astute minds seduced by the Legion. To his eternal credit, Cioran spent much of the latter part of his life genuinely remorseful and deeply ashamed of his earlier fascist sympathies. Eliade’s attitude towards the Legion was always far more ambiguous.

Some intellectuals went beyond merely sympathising with the upstart political movement of the day. Radu Gyr, a poet, was an active legionary who led one of its notorious death squads. Last year a clothing company, Legende Vii, was forced to withdraw from sale a t-shirt emblazoned with Gyr’s portrait following protests from Romania’s Holocaust Studies Institute.

Codreanu led the Legion with an iron fist and central control over the membership was tight. All new recruits had to read his atrocious writings. Dissent was not tolerated and legionaries who stepped out of line were severely dealt with, sometimes even murdered. So obsessed with discipline was Codreanu that he even issued a decree dictating how legionaries spent their free time (in the service of the Legion, of course). The word cult barely existed in the 1930s, at least not with its current meaning. But there is little doubt that’s what the Legion was.

Though Codreanu himself was fortunately killed by Bucharest police in 1938 (if ever there was a sound case for extra-judicial killing, this was it) the movement did not die with him. In partnership with Codreanu’s father Ion (until they later fell-out), the leadership was assumed by Horia Sima and, if anything, the Legion became even more violent. From September 1940 to January 1941 it briefly ran the country, until Marshal Ion Antonescu, Romania’s wartime military dictator and himself no angel, could no longer tolerate the Legion’s violence. It survived in exile (Sima went first to Germany and ended up in Franco’s Spain), although many of its foot soldiers were imprisoned. Others became communists.

It is hard not to make the obvious comparison between the violent, peasant-student movement of early 1920s Romania (which begat the Legion) and the Red Guards of late 1960s China. Both sets of students were appallingly educated (barely literate in some cases) intent not just on usurping their elders but utterly destroying them. The Legion’s ideology, not fully developed until the mid-1930s, placed great emphasis on the need for the individual to wholly submit to the collective. It is no wonder so many former legionaries found communism attractive.

Finally, it is important to note how similar legionary ideas are to those of today’s Romanian ultra-nationalists. The threads which ran through legionary dogma: Jews/foreigners/women-with-ideas-above-their-station are preventing us from becoming a great people/country; the modern world is evil; they are colonising us and destroying our culture and traditions; only sacrifice, blind obedience and a return to reactionary values can save us; are there for all to see in the rantings of the neo-Legionaries.

Fortunately, today’s Romanian youth is much different to its 1930s equivalent. Hedonistic, well-read, well-traveled, open-minded and increasingly wealthy, these are not the shock troops of a legionary revival. The pleadings of today’s fascists are thankfully falling on deaf ears. The failure of last weekend’s constitutional referendum was proof of that.

Main photo: Wikipedia/Public Domain

9 Comments

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  • Are there any facts, or just “some 2000” or “some what-not” backed by countless “in my opinion” + this is how I feel about it. Oh, it takes a special kind of person to put hedonism first in a list of so called strengths of character.

  • Wow, that country had some bone in the past. Impressive! Because today we believe it is the stooge of the Brussel’s luvvies. Anyway, as the WWIII is looming large the Western rulers will badly need people like the Legionnaires to fight Putin’s and Mao the Nth’s boys, because the vapid “highly-(wiki)educated”, what, (face)bookish, millennials will most likely wet in their pants…

  • It is correct to equal, “fascism = communism” and vice versa, in terms of horrors, gravity and danger to the liberal society. However, communism is much older than fascism, the latter taking inspiration from the former.

    From this perspective one can see that (nationalist) Jews preach against their own sins. As one Jew put it, “if you look at the list of Old Bolsheviks pseudonyms aside, it reads like the guest list for a bar mitzvah: Rosenfeld, Bronstein, Kaganovich.”
    How many (of the “well-read” young Romanians) know that the Stalinist dictator of Hungary, that Hungarians revolted against in 1956, Matyas Rakosi, was of Jewish origin?… Not to mention Bela Kun and his Lenin boys and their “red terror” before.
    How many know that Poland between 1944 and 1956 was ruled by a triumvirate of Stalinist leaders, two of them Jewish, Jakub Berman (the head of the secret police) and Hilary Minc?… I hope at least that they know more about “Romanian” communists….

    In Michael Schapiro’s book “The Jewish 100”, one of those one hundred most influential Jews is no other than… Leon Trotsky, the first commander of the Red Army. No criticism of him in that chapter, great guy this Trotsky…

    We (White, Christian, Europeans) are told that before taking pride in our history we must “assume it” and “apologise” for wrongs, etc. first. Yeah, Kant, Gauss, Bach were Germans but what about Hitler?… Yeah, Lavoisier, Pasteur, Debussy were French but what about Petain and the Dreyfus affair?… Yeah, Newton, Darwin and Benny Hill were English but what about…what about… (the blackout is probably a consequence of reading too much English-speaking journalism, the bad guys are always foreigners).

    But what about Jews? They have nothing to “assume” for? What about Jewish nationalism/chauvinism? There isn’t such a thing? Where we can read more about it? Are there books written on it? But please, no “anti-Semitic” authors! What do you say Craig, could you answer me some of these questions? (Don’t bother).

  • There is a common Holocaust narrative/discourse (using “narrative” I am not suggesting it is not factual, though “Holocaust denial” refers also to revising the narrative or to opposing the notion of its “uniqueness”?) and the present article is just a product of it. Though when a critical mind thinks about it unanswered nagging questions crop up.

    To a critical mind the first questions that come up when exposed to the Holocaust narrative are: “what/who is a Jew”, “what is anti-Semitism”, “who is an anti-Semite”, “how can anti-Semites go about finding Jews”.

    Let me explain. In the liberal West, particularly in the USA and Britain, there is an official discrimination policy (called “positive” discrimination) in the higher education against “White” men (and in favour of “Blacks” and women). Before about 1965 in the USA there was also an official, albeit informal, discrimination policy against “Jewish” students. (Read the Wikipedia article “Numerus clausus”). It is reasonable to think that as a consequence there is/was an incentive for the discriminated parties to claim a different identity: for White men to claim that they are Black women and for Jews that they are Gentiles. Now, while the fraud of pretending to be a Black woman for a White man is exposed the moment the candidate presents himself, a Jewish candidate can claim to be of any religion and ethnic background (within the “Caucasian” race) he wants…

    To be more specific, I would like to know how the Romanian “anti-Semites” defined a “Jew” (in a religious sense, in an ethnic sense, in both?), how the Legionnaires defined a Jew, how the Antonescu regime defined a Jew.
    Whether a converted Jew could have joined the Iron Guard (if he pleased so)? For instance, could Mihail Sebastian, the pupil of fascist Nae Ionescu, have adhered to the Iron Guard like Eliade, another pupil, did if he had converted to the Orthodox faith (on merely marrying an Orthodox woman, for instance)? (Do you know the case of Nicolae Steinhardt?)

    How the “anti-Semitic” Romanian governments went about distinguishing between an “Aryan” Romanian and a “Jewish” Romanian? Did they posses an unheard of advanced technology, AI or something?

    About “anti-Semitism”. Why Wikipedia writes that Antonescu was a “vicious anti-Semite” while Carol II, who signed the first “anti-Semite laws” of Romania, is not an “anti-Semite” but merely “an opportunist interested only in power”? (Apropos, his lover, Catholic Magda Lupescu, whose father was a converted Jew, was a “Jew” according to the same laws, or not? Definitely not an Esther this Magda…)
    “Anti-Semitism” (Judeophobia) belongs to the same sematic family with Romanophobia, Germanophobia, Russophobia, etc. or it is something in a class of its own, “unique”?

    Oh, so many questions… Life is full of puzzles… Will anybody answer them before we die?…

  • Hi Craig, could you provide any reference that poet Radu Gyr “led one of its notorious death squads”. I was trawling the internet for any reference to your statement but nothing. Please don’t send me to the Wiesel Commission Report, it’s on my (before I die) reading list! By the way, have you read it yourself? Send me a quote.

    Secondly, your statements:
    “Both sets of students were appallingly educated (barely literate in some cases) intent not just on usurping their elders but utterly destroying them.”

    “Fortunately, today’s Romanian youth is much different to its 1930s equivalent. Hedonistic, well-read, well-traveled, open-minded and increasingly wealthy, these are not the shock troops of a legionary revival.”

    are hilarious.

    Aren’t students the future elite of a country? How can they be “illiterate”? And the legionary youth of interwar Romania were the “normies” of the time. In interwar Europe, Fascism was one of the most “in the buzz” political movement of the day as today are the political movements spurred by the victories of Trump and the Brexit camp. See who has won in Brazil and see who is to replace Merkel at the head of CDU! Nationalism is again in the buzz!

    Your article suggests that the typical Legionnaire was some Romanian shepherd from the Carpathians who has never seen foreigners, Jews, women in swimsuits, or miniskirts, and is puzzled by toothpaste… No, Craig, they were the Romanians most attuned to the West at the time. The #Rezist generation of the interwar Romania!…

    It’s hard to resist the temptation not to refer to the sad incidents in Pittsburgh. Do you think the anti-Semitic terrorist learned anti-Semitism from Codreanu’s translation into English of “All for the country”, or rather from his fellow countryman Henry Ford’s “The International Jew”?…
    What would you say if Romanian authorities and the Romanian press would “vigorously condemn” the USA for not doing enough to tackle the anti-Semitism present in the American society, “Romania’s, pardon, America’s anti-Semitism problem”?…

    Oh dear…

  • Hahaha. This was an amusing bit of pseudo-history. Awfully written, badly researched, idiotic one might say. Thankfully For My Legionaries has sold far more copies than this book will ever sell. And ‘Craig Turp’ is a name not a single Romanian has ever heard of. lol

  • 1. “Despite such horrors there is an increasingly vocal minority of people in Romania attempting to rehabilitate the legionaries.”

    As despite the horrors of the “republican” side in the Spanish civil war there are chaps who say they were” the good guys”. Do you know any such people Craig? 😉

    2. “the Legion was a death cult which resembled the secular Nazi SS far more than a religious movement”

    Or maybe the crusaders of yore, IMHO.

    3. “The Legion’s membership was made up primarily of very young, physically impressive, racially pure though often poorly educated youths: almost exclusively male.”

    “Racially pure” is here only ironically put, isn’t it? Any “educated” person “knows” that “there is only one race, the human race”… But read about Haig Acterian, he was a Romanian Armenian legionnaire. Moreover disproportionally many legionnaires were Aromanians. Codreanu himself had a Polish real surname. A quite multicultural this Iron Guard…

    4. “Just like the Nazis, the Legion had little time for the frail, the physically impaired or the disabled.”

    Many “frail, the physically impaired or the disabled” on the propaganda posters of the Spanish Republic… Or in Hollywood…

    5. “The Legion was fixated by muscular masculinity and the idea of creating a ‘new Romanian man’ (something with which Nicolae Ceausescu would later become equally obsessed).”

    The idea of the “new man” was originally of socialist/bolshie origin.

    6. “All were targeted at some stage, but it was the Jews who bore the brunt of the fascist movement’s discourse and attacks.”

    In Iasi, were the movement started, 50% of the population was Jewish in 1930, while in Bucharest 10%, probably Bucharest’s largest ethnic minority. It is not a justification, merely a rational explanation.

    7. “The Legion spent much of the early 1930s roaming Romania’s cities attacking anyone they disapproved of, primarily (but not only) Jews.”

    Really? But why we know only about the 1941 legionary pogrom in Bucharest? So there were other pogroms before, in early 1930s?…

    8. “not to fight for freedom and the Spanish republic however,”

    “Freedom” and “republic” like in Cuba or Venezuela perhaps?…

    9. “On his wedding day he and his wife wore crowns emblazoned with swastikas.”

    Oh, did he have a wife?! Impressive! Like Trump! It must have been a forced marriage because I can’t imagine that not all women are feminists…

    10. “Cioran spent much of the latter part of his life genuinely remorseful and deeply ashamed of his earlier fascist sympathies. Eliade’s attitude towards the Legion was always far more ambiguous.”

    Yeah, the deeply reactionary and un-PC Cioran fooled us all while the wish-wash Eliade managed to fool only Saul Below… Have you read any text by Cioran, Craig? I recommend you to read in parallel “A solitary people” from “The temptation to exist” (1956) and the chapter on Jews from “The Transfiguration of Romania” (1936), spot the difference…

    11. “Last year a clothing company, Legende Vii, was forced to withdraw from sale a t-shirt emblazoned with Gyr’s portrait following protests from Romania’s Holocaust Studies Institute.”

    Yeah, and they changed course and started to sell the routine Che Guevara t-shirts… I’ve been told they are testing the waters with Saul Alinsky…

    12. “Codreanu’s disciples terrorised large swathes of the Romanian population, carrying out political assassinations and murder with impunity.”

    “Though Codreanu himself was fortunately killed by Bucharest police in 1938”.

    This two sentences contradict themselves.

    11. “if ever there was a sound case for extra-judicial killing, this was it”

    Extra-judicial killings were common on the Republican side of the Spanish civil war…

    12. “until Marshal Ion Antonescu, Romania’s wartime military dictator and himself no angel”

    Yeah, “not an angel” but maybe “a good soldier”, to quote president Macron on Petain… (read the news)!

    13. “Others became communists.”

    So, some redeemed themselves, like Cioran, nice! Communists, like the “republicans” in the Spanish civil war… That washed all their sins!

    14. “It is hard not to make the obvious comparison between the violent, peasant-student movement of early 1920s Romania (which begat the Legion) and the Red Guards of late 1960s China”

    No, Craig, they were more like Bela Kun’s Lenin boys as one commenter observed. Manuel Barroso, the former president of the EU’s Commission was a Maoist in his youth.

    15. “The failure of last weekend’s constitutional referendum was proof of that.”

    This is the most hilarious sentence in your article. As one Romanian journalist (CTP) put it people didn’t turn up to vote because there was nothing to be gained from, “no pig, no sheep”… What do you want, Romanians are down-to-earth no-nonsense people! But according to opinion polls 85% are against same-s. marriage. Just “no pig, no sheep”…