Vol 1, No 3, 12 July 1999
M I O R I T A:|
Iron Guard Revival
Trapped between communism in Russia and fascism in Germany, interwar Romania struggled to find politically stable ground in its sham democracy. Extremism was inevitable.
The Legionary Movement of the Archangel Michael, also known as the Iron Guard, represented fascist ideals, preaching and practising anti-Semitism, racism and violence. At first, the Movement worked 'underground', but it later became an arm of General Antonescu's interwar government, working in collaboration with Germany.
This year, on the 72nd anniversary of the establishment of the Legionary Movement, Nicador Zelea Codreanu, the nephew of the original founder, Corneliu Codreanu, has announced his desire to revive the fascist group. Fears and concerns are immediately aroused. What form will the new movement take? Will the fascist principles and aims remain the same? Will an extreme right wing movement gain popular support? What will it mean for the minority groups living within Romania?
The original Movement in theory...
Corneliu Codreanu founded the Legionary Movement of the Archangel Michael in 1927, drawing on the prevalent nationalistic and extremist mood. The main principle of the Movement was to create a new 'state of mind' for the nation - to unite the nation through a 'national religion'.
At the core of their ideas was the concept of national identity, and nations were seen to be religious entities, not political concepts. They believed nations were divine creations, not products of history and geography. Every nation had its own mission in the world. The nations that betrayed their God-given mission would disappear from the face of the earth. Politics was separate from religion, and only men who respected the divine order became true patriots.
Man himself was considered a divine creation and a bearer of superior values which transcended his existence. Spiritual values would always take precedence over material needs. The realisation of these values came from individual struggle and sacrifice. Codreanu had laid out a doctrine that established a hierarchical order: the individual was subordinate to the nation, and the nation was subordinate to God and the divine laws.
The basic principles of the Movement had many gaps. For example, which religion was supposed to be the underlying religion? How would separate nations determine what their divine missions were? How did the nation come into being? There were many more questions that could be asked, but the one major flaw in Codreanu's ideal was this: he did not define what the nation was and who composed the nation. Consequently, his theory was open to manipulation, providing the grounds for xenophobia and persecution.
...and in practice
On 10 February 1938, King Carol II of Romania inaugurated his Royal dictatorship. He aimed to steal the ideological appeal of Codreanu's troublesome Iron Guard and use it for his own benefit to improve relations with fascist Germany. By joining alliances with the Movement, Carol could help control the guerrilla violence of the Guard and gain popular support.
Carol's fatal mistake was to murder Codreanu in November 1938. The murder provoked hostility from Hitler who regarded it as an attack on fascism in general. On the second anniversary of Codreanu's death, the Guardists, under the leadership of Sima, went on a sustained rampage, slaughtering political opponents and massacring Jews. The rampage provided a foretaste of what was to come during the war years.
In 1940, King Carol II was overthrown, and the Iron Guard was declared the sole legal party of the National Legionary State, with Sima as Vice President. The President, General Antonescu, had - with the help of the Guardists - turned Romania into an Iron Guard-army fascist state.
Much of Europe witnessed the sweeping persecution of Jews and 'non-Aryan' ethnic groups during the Second World War; in Romania the main instigator of such violence was the Iron Guard. They lacked the technology, equipment and organisation of the Nazis, however, and thus, they employed different methods of terror and extermination, for example, cutting Jews into pieces and smearing their blood on the axles of carts, suffocating prisoners in carriages with sealed ventilation holes and beating them until they lost all strength.
Nicador Codreanu's recent announcement calling for a revival of the Iron Guard could be cause for great concern. In his speech Codreanu acknowledged 'past mistakes' of the Iron Guard, including the movement's anti-Semitism and racism. He also said the new Iron Guard had to 'distance itself' from acts committed under Corneliu Codreanu's successor, Horia Sima, and in that sense, move away from past associations. (Mediafax, 24 June 1999)
As the deputy chairman of the National Union for Christian Revival (UNRC), Nicador Codreanu places strong emphasis on the role of religion for the Romanian nation. It is possible that his proposal to re-establish the Iron Guard is based on his uncle's theories of the nation as a religious entity and not on a return to fascist principles per se.
But although Nicador Codreanu acknowledges the terror inflicted by Sima's Iron Guard, he fails to acknowledge the errors of the earlier interwar Movement.
Fear is a major factor determining the future success or failure of the Iron Guard revival. The role of the Movement in the interwar period and throughout the Second World War connects it with a history of violence and atrocities against minority groups, not least the Jews.
The memories of past atrocities remain, and, with them, fears of repetition. A nation on the verge of being admitted to NATO - a nation with a relatively large minority population and a younger generation becoming more and more 'Westernised' - may not be willing to accept the restoration of the Iron Guard Movement. Codreanu's revival would be a non-starter without popular support.
From movement to party
During the interwar period, Corneliu Codreanu had his links with politics, and he recognised the advantages of working with the government. However, at least originally, the ideals of the Iron Guard were represented in Parliament by a separate organisation, a party called 'Everything for the Fatherland'. Consequently, Codreanu could keep the appearance of the Guard as a non-political organisation and not deviate from his founding beliefs.
It is thus significant today that Nicador Codreanu regards political recognition as an objective of his proposed revival of the Iron Guard. In his speech marking the 72nd anniversary of the Legionary Movement for the Archangel Michael, Codreanu said that the new Guard would seek to merge with other formations that had similar roots. If such unity on the far right were possible, the Movement could be sitting in Parliament within the next few years.
At present, however, support is lacking for Nicador Codreanu. The UNRC has only about 300 members, and Romanian law states that a political party requires at least 100,000 members. If Nicador's aim is to achieve political status, he is already turning away from his uncle's national-religious principles and moving towards the politicisation of the Guard seen under Sima.
Instability, obviously, could bring crisis. At present, Romania's economy is collapsing, and the government is failing: the necessary prerequisites of stability are not there. The general elections next year will be of the utmost importance. Many Romanians may feel that democracy is not working and look for answers elsewhere.
Fears and concerns over an Iron Guard revival are thus not wholly unfounded, and Nicador Codreanu is already deputy chairman of one nationalist group. Re-establishing the Iron Guard would provide more weight behind him.
Caution rather than fear
Although there is a possibility that the Iron Guard will be revived, there is much speculation over precisely what principles it would adhere to. The transformation of the original movement into an extreme fascist organisation may provide a precedent that society today would not accept. Romania has moved forward politically and economically. The threat of losing territory has become minimal, and minority groups live with a more tolerant Romanian society. Romania's policy aims and objectives have changed (see article in last week's Central Europe Review).
Memories of Guardist power and nationalist principles could generate a feeling of strength amongst the more extreme elements of society, and economic and political instability may aid popular Romanian nationalism in its quest to find an ethnic scapegoat for the country's problems.
But fears of a Guardist revival must not be exaggerated. It seems unlikely that a society moving towards NATO and EU entry, with a desire to eliminate the stain of Communism, would retreat backwards.
History has left an important imprint on Romanian society. Memories of Guardist atrocities evoke dread not only among the minority populations but also among the increasingly tolerant and Westward-looking ethnic Romanians. In the end, the stigma surrounding the original Iron Guard may prove too strong for any revival to succeed.
Catherine Lovatt, 7 July 1999
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