Mihai Stelian Rusu. Politics, Religion, and Ideology. Volume 17, Issue 2/3. June-September 2016.
Introduction: Nation-Building, War, and the Martialization of Patriotism
The paper explores the radical morphing of Romanian patriotism in the aftermath of the Great War within the Legionary movement. It shows, first, how the war martialized the rhetoric of self-sacrificial patriotism articulated discursively during the second part of the long nineteenth century that accompanied the making of the Romanian national statehood. Second, the paper focuses on unraveling the postwar cultural matrix that made possible a radical, self-sacrificial, patriotism to emerge within the Romanian Iron Guard’s fascist worldview. Within the Legion’s redemptive political theology, the wartime national patriotism aiming at redeeming the nation by making the Greater Romania was rendered into a mystical self-sacrificial patriotism driven by a messianic thrust and infused with soteriological tropes and martyrological themes of Orthodox inspiration. The paper argues that an ethics of self-sacrificial patriotism with the cult of death at its centerpiece was instituted in the Legion’s conception of heroic martyrdom which corresponds to an ideology of thanatic ultra-nationalism.
As everywhere else on the European continent, the political project of Romanian nation- and statehood building brought about the ‘nationalization of patriotism’. A nationalist rhetoric of patriotism, urging Romanians to give their allegiance to the newly created nation-state from the unification of Wallachia and Moldavia in 1859, slowly emerged from a previous semantics of patriotism summoning peasants to show their love of the country by obeying their political masters (i.e. state authorities, the nobility, and the church). Precipitated by the War of Independence of 1877-1878, the nationalization of patriotism was completed, as the language of patriotism has incorporated the tropes of heroic death on the altar of the fatherland. Dying for the country’s independence was glorified in the romantic literature that sprang up in the aftermath of the conflict as a sacrificial language endowed with religious concepts of national redemption first emerged in Romanian culture. Celebrated poets and writers, later included into the literary canon, hailed in works such as Vasile Alecsandri’s Ostașii noștri [Our Soldiers], Ioan Nenițescu’s ‘Pui de lei’ [Lion Cubs], or George Coșbuc’s Cântece de vitejie [Songs of Bravery] the wartime heroism of Romanian peasant soldiers.
A sacrificial hermeneutics was employed that transformed ‘the death of a soldier into a self-imposed sacrifice while the assault on a Turkish outpost was rendered as a willingness to offer his life as a sacrifice on the altar of Romania’s independence’. Thereby, adumbrating the transvaluation of reality later performed in the Legion’s mystical worldview, ‘his sacrifice became the symbol of the eternal transformation of Death into Life’. Romanian patriotism underwent a dramatic transformation during and especially at the end of the First World War. The war brought about the brutal martialization of the patriotic rhetoric that built up during the second part of the long nineteenth century, as the Romanian statehood was being politically constructed under the ideological driving force of nationalism. Mass death, mourning, loss and grief mingled with the excitement of having made the Greater Romania in the aftermath of the Peace Treaties of 1919-1920, along with the frustrations that came with the enlarged territory, set the scene for a new type of patriotism to emerge.
This study aims at exploring the emergence of a radical, self-sacrificial, understanding of patriotism within the post-war context of an ultra-nationalist ideology preaching the redeeming power of political martyrdom, both for the individual self-sacrificer, and especially for the corpus mysticum of the nation of which the former is only a part. The argument put forward in this paper advances the idea that such a doctrine of sacrificial patriotism came into being in a particular sociocultural matrix in the aftermath of the Great War, into which the historical political tradition of Romanian nationalism was radicalized to reach its fever pitch in the Legion of the Archangel Michael’s worldview. Methodologically drawing on discourse analysis, the study engages with a cluster of Legionary and other nationalist writings in order to unravel the articulation of a self-sacrificial rendering of patriotism in the interwar period.
The paper draws on the double consensus emerged in recent fascist scholarship, both at the general level of fascist studies and at the national level of Romanian studies of Legionarism. In doing so, it builds on the conceptual framework pillared on the works of Emilio Gentile and Roger Griffin. The two have laid the groundwork of the ‘new consensus’ in fascist studies, founded on the harmonization of Gentile’s approach of the sacralization of politics and Griffin’s palingenetic theory of fascism as a ‘revolutionary form of ultra-nationalism that attempts to realize the myth of the regenerated nation’ against the anomic threat of decadence brought about by the modernizing process. The contributions this paper brings to the extant scholarly literature on Romanian fascism are two-fold. First, building on the fine scholarship already done in the field of Romanian fascism in general and of the Legionary ideology as sacralized politics in particular, the paper advances the notion of ‘thanatic nationalism’ in terms of which the Legion’s cult of death and its ideology of martyric heroism are accounted for. Second, the study seeks to elucidate the socio-cultural matrix and ideological milieu in which this thanatic doctrine of martyric heroism could emerge. In pursuing the configuration of this ultra-nationalist ideology, the study will focus on unraveling the post-war transformation of patriotism in the Legionary worldview.
The Curse of the Trenches: Martial Patriotism in the Aftermath of the Great War
It was the dreadful experience of Marne, Ypres, Verdun, and Somme—the great battlefields delineating the quadrilater of death of the Western front—that finally changed the Europeans’ feverish mood of war from martial elation to stark disillusionment. Confronted with the meaningless brutality of mass-death in mechanized warfare evolved into a war of attrition, the ‘spirit of August’ expressing the war euphoria that seized the European countries in the summer of 1914 gave way to a sober depressive realism slowly settling down in the minds of the soldiers. The shell-shock affecting many men-at-arms left indelible sequelae both in their brains as well as in the cultural memory of the war. Previously inconceivable death tolls along with the brutal misery of the trench warfare were needed to downplay the nationalistic enthusiasm vigorously espoused by Europeans on the brink of what would become the deadliest affair yet experienced by the continent and the world at large. But the hot-blooded patriotic enthusiasm expressed so emphatically in the spirit of august 1914 was not to remain cooled down for long. Turned dormant for a while by the sinister legacy of the First World War, the heroic patriotism infused by a revived martial spirit resurged with a vengeance in the aftermath of the conflict.
On the verge of the Second World War, political sentiments all across Europe had yet again reached the fever pitch of nationalist fervor. The Great War left in its destructive wake, beneath the bundle of rubble into which it transformed European societies, the fertile ground for political radicalism to emerge. The seed of war planted in the muddy trenches into which the First World War was fought along the Western front sprouted afterward into fascism, which blossomed as it was feeding itself with the nutrients of trincerismo, ‘the spirit of the trenches’. As keenly pointed out by Modris Eksteins in his work on the cultural history of the Great War, what the haunting legacy of the war did, deepened by the economic depression already taking its toll by 1930, was to ‘prepare the way for a nationalist backlash. […] A literature of ‘national re-awakening’ blossomed’ as Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, with its graphic glorification of war and slaughter, has gained iconic status.
In the Kingdom of Italy, the immense human costs of the war, unbalance by proportional territorial gains, created the social strife and political turmoil out of which Benito Mussolini’s Fascism was to prevail. The success of political radicalism had become abundantly clear especially in Germany, the great loser of the war, where the harsh conditions imposed by its victors, as set in the Treaty of Versailles, aggravated by the Great Depression of the late 1920s, has set the scene for National Socialism to make its theatrical entrance. On the Eastern flank of the continent, Romania experienced a more ambiguous status, rising from the ashes of a defeated country as established by the Treaty of Bucharest signed on 7 May 1918 to accomplishing its supreme goal of making the Greater Romania. Unlike Italy, whose borders remained largely unchanged, Romania doubled its size and population. But the making of Greater Romania also meant that the formerly ethnically homogenous nation-state of the Old Kingdom had to give way to a kaleidoscopic ethnic diversity. Just like in Italy, post-war Romanian society was ridden with structural social conflict. The major difference lay in the nature of this conflict: whereas in Italy the socio-economic strain was mainly class-based, in Romania the same structural tension was ethnically-grounded. Both countries were nonetheless experiencing the sorrows and frustrations of what Gabriele D’Annunzio has coined as ‘mutilated victory’ (vittoria mutilata). In Italy, this sense of exasperation built-up from previous frustrations derived from the perceived failure of the unification movement, what Antonio Gramsci has expressively named as la rivoluzione mancata, ‘the failed revolution’.
A similar, although different, pattern unfolded in Romania. Here, despite the massive territorial expansion, post-war enthusiasm soon came under a cloud of crisis, as Romanians felt that the political feat of making the Greater Romania was not followed by a consequent ethnic hegemony within the enlarged country. With the territories it acquired, Romania also incorporated a large population of ethnic minorities (Hungarians, Germans, Jews, Ukrainians, Russians, etc.) that were now making almost a third of the country’s population. Especially in Transylvania, where Hungarians and Germans were struggling to keep hold of their socioeconomic status and positions of power in the state apparatus, but also in Moldavia, where the city of Jassy was overwhelmed by Bessarabian students carrying Communist ideas, there was the widely shared feeling that the country was not ruled by Romanians. Against this background, all the territorial gains did not prevent an excruciating perception of an incomplete victory to take root within Romanians’ post-war definition of social reality. A social consensus emerged that the making of the Greater Romania (România Mare) was not enough. This achievement had to be continued through an additional national revolution deemed to create a Stronger Romania (România Tare), ruled by Romanians themselves against their inner foes (Jews and Hungarians in particular). A ‘Romania of the Romanians, only of the Romanians and of all Romanians,’ as was put by Nicolae Iorga, quoted by Codreanu in his address to his Legionnaires.
The Legionary Movement and the Fascistization of Sacrificial Patriotism
It was in the post-war Greater Romania that the feeling of unrest associated with the sense of obtaining an incomplete victory led to the radicalization of the already consecrated tradition of ethnic nationalism into a fascist-inspired doctrine of integral ultra-nationalism. Nowhere was this more evident than in the students’ movement that swept the Romanian universities in the early 1920s protesting against what was perceived as the Jewish dominion of university life. Student radicalism, rabidly anti-Semitic in its claim for a politics of numerus clausus, provided not only the violent integral nationalism that the Legion of the Archangel Michael would embrace, but also other defining features of the Legionary movement. It provided the social basis of organization upon which the Legion would develop as well as a pool for cadre recruiting. It was also within the students’ movement that a first sense of ‘generational messianism’ took shape, that was later incorporated as a driving force behind the Legion’s ideology. Moreover, the face-offs with the authorities during the turbulent period of the student general strike of 1922-1923 was the time of apprenticeship in radicalism and political violence for the future elite of the Legion. When students gave signs of exhaustion, Ion I. Moța devised a grand finale that would dramatically end the student strike in spectacular fashion. Persuading his comrades that students were too weakened by a year of struggle to carry on the strike, Moța suggested that ‘it would be better to urge them to resume classes and us, who led them, to end the movement in a beautiful way by sacrificing ourselves while taking down with us’ all of those who betrayed the Romanian nation. The plot to assassinate high profile corrupt politicians and Jewish bankers, rabbis, and journalists was circumvented by authorities, and the criminal conspirators, Codreanu included, were arrested and imprisoned in the Văcărești Monastery. The group of five, who eventually formed the nucleus of the future Legion, would capitalize on this carceral experience. The Văcărești prison was the experiential site of Codreanu’s revelation, as it was there that he encountered the icon of the Archangel Michael and had the prophetic vision of a Legion of youths who would redeem the nation through their sacrifice, while the Văcăreșteni set the pattern of what would later become the Legionary ‘death squads’. Codreanu first conceived the idea of a ‘death team’ in the context of the 1933 electoral struggle, when he set up an expeditionary group of 20 Legionnaires capable of overcoming all the obstacles created by the governmental authorities on their campaigning tour throughout the country. However, the term would soon assume literal meaning, shifting its semantics from a group of political propaganda to a commando of political violence, when the three Legionnaires later celebrated as the Nicadors assassinated the liberal prime minister Ion G. Duca on 30 December 1933.
The students’ criminal plot of October 1923, followed by Moța’s attempt to assassinate the ‘traitor’ Vernichescu, is a paramount episode in the genesis of the Legion’s ideology, since it is here that we found some basic ideas that would become trademarks of the movement’s uncompromising ideology of sacrificial patriotism. In Moța’s plea for carrying out the plot we find the basic division between a self-sacrificial elite comprised of ‘God’s chosen warriors’ ready to undergo a sacrilegious violent martyrdom for redeeming a non-heroic majority. This notion of vicarious atonement of a people through the heroic martyrdom of its chosen elite is supplemented by a Legionary aesthetics of self-sacrifice whose counterpart is to be found in the fascist ‘aesthetics of violence’. The paramount expression of the ‘aesthetics of violence’ is voiced emphatically in Marinetti’s ‘Manifesto of Futurism’ published in Le Figaro on 20 February 1909. In the aftermath of the First World War, the futurist cult of violence became an integral part of Italian Fascism’s aestheticization of politics. Within the Legion’s worldview, informed by the Orthodox tradition, the aestheticization of violence was subordinated to a more mystical aesthetics of self-sacrifice and death seen as redemptive means of collective salvation.
Besides the failed but otherwise fruitful student plot that eventually led to the creation of the Legion in 1927 and the legend of the Văcăreșteni in the movement’s pseudo-martyrological writings, the year 1923 was an annum crucis in the socio- and ideo-genesis of the Legionary movement and worldview. On 17 May 1923 the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was inaugurated in Bucharest, after a lavish ceremony involving the entire politico-military-religious establishment. Following the post-war trend originated in the Western countries, Romanian authorities decided to honor their 350,000 war dead through erecting a monument to the unknown fallen soldier. After two years of tensional neutrality, Romania entered the war in August 1916 for completing the national project started back in 1859 with the unification of Moldavia and Wallachia. Incorporated within the ‘Mother Kingdom’, Transylvania, the prized territory for both symbolic and economic reasons, was to resurrect the old Kingdom of Dacia and the evanescent polity ruled by the medieval prince Michael the Brave. During the neutrality period, patriotic fervor was brought to a seething point, with the Entente sympathizers urging the passive government and their fellow nationals to take arms and free their Transylvanian compatriots. As with other belligerent countries, a ‘sacrificial patriotism’ has taken shape, impelling soldiers and civilians not only to support the war effort through material sacrifices, but more importantly to be willing and ready to sacrifice their own lives for the superior cause of the nation. In the midst of the tumultuous times preceding Romania’s entering the war, passionate exhortations to self-sacrificial death could be heard all across Romanian culture. One such voice was that of Barbu Ștefănescu Delavrancea, who on the verge of the war delivered a passionate discourse to an audience of primary school children, published as Patrie și patriotism. Telling them that they owe to the country to which they belong to sacrifice themselves for fulfilling the ‘mystery of our historic mission on earth’, children are conjured to emulate the uplifting example of the French, where ‘the butcher’s child and the descendant of the noble from the times of Henry IV stand together, fight together, and die together, seized by the frenzy of death, the glorious death for the Fatherland’. ‘Children’, the exhortation to patriotic martyrdom goes on, ‘learn from the thrill that seized France and raised her in the love of the world, from how to defend the memories of the past, how we must die for the country of our fathers and forefathers’. It would be their fathers who will march to death over the rhythms of patriotic songs, expressing what a year later, the same Delavrancea, talking on the war and our duty, would call as ‘integral patriotism’. Impelled by such warlike injunctions, the First World War had brought the patriotic fervor that simmered throughout the long nineteenth century to fever pitch. The bellicose patriotism brandished by national elites ever more increasing in rhetorical violence towards the fin-de-siècle was eventually martialized at the outbreak of what would become the Great War.
Sermons were other influential vehicles of war propaganda. As everywhere else throughout the continent, a ‘war theology’ had developed in the Romanian churches. But while the Romanian Orthodox Church from the Old Kingdom was sanctifying the war effort deemed to reunite all Romanians into a Greater Romania, Orthodox clergymen of Transylvania were forced to do political lip service to the Dual Monarchy under whose jurisdiction they were operating. Irrespective of their political agenda, in the midst of war, Romanian Churches sacralized patriotic death, granting the fallen symbolic immortality in Christ and the eternal life of the nation for which they died. The fallen were cast in a theological language as martyrs of the nation (mucenici ai neamului) who, by dying for their country, gained eternal salvation for their souls. This sacrificial rhetoric of patriotism unto death expressed from the pulpit and dais alike aroused a Romanian ‘Spirit of August 1916’, belatedly echoing the Western enthusiasm meanwhile turned into dreadful disillusion, to electrify Romanians into throwing themselves in the fire of war. The 350,000 Romanian fallen soldiers were to be honored by a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, erected in 1923 to preserve the memory of their sacrifice.
In line with the emergent pattern of honoring the war dead in the Western countries, Romania followed a similar ritual process in selecting and burying her own Unknown Soldier. Ten unidentified bodies of presumably Romanian orthodox soldiers fallen in the most important battlefields of the First World War were first selected as a corporeal sample out of which the Unknown Soldier was to be randomly chosen. The 10 bodies were unearthed and transported to Mărășești, the most important site of remembrance in the Romanian memory of the war. In a sober ceremony, blending religion, politics, and the military, a war orphan—Amilcar Săndulescu—stopped in front of one of the 10 sealed coffins laying before him in the Church of the Assumption in Mărășești and, pointing out towards the fourth, said ‘This is my father.’ While the nine coffins were ceremoniously buried at Mărășești military cemetery, the coffin carrying the remains of the Unknown Soldier was prepared to be transported by a funeral train to Bucharest, where it was to be buried in Carol Park. The funerary train stopped in numerous stations on its way to Bucharest, where religious services (parastas) were being performed in a milieu of clerical militarism and liturgical martialism. It is one of the arguments put forward in this paper that the funerary ceremony of burying the Unknown Soldier shaped the Legion’s worldview in its nascent stage in at least two ways. The radical anti-Semitic students who witnessed to the martial political liturgy of exhuming the corpses and reburying the chosen one as the anonymous paragon of wartime heroism adopted and further radicalized the ideology of self-sacrificial patriotism into a political theology of martyrdom.
Secondly, the men of the Archangel also found, in the theatrically performed funerary procession of the Unknown Soldier, a ritual pattern that they would re-enact in burying their own fallen as martyrs of the nation and the movement. This ritual borrowing had become abundantly clear at Ion I. Moța and Vasile Marin’s burial of 13 February 1937, where a martial political liturgy patterned upon the burial of the Unknown Soldier was performed. That the Legionnaires were strongly impressed by the symbolics of the fallen martyrs expressing martial heroism, sacrificial death, and national redemption is indicated by the scandal erupted at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on 24 January 1933. On the day commemorating the 1859 union of Moldavia and Wallachia, a delegation of Legionnaires led by Mihail Stelescu made a bid to raise a cross over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They received the blessing from the Patriarchy to mount a cross, but the government proved to be more reluctant towards their plans of Christening the Tomb. Defying authorities, a thousand Legionary students led by Legionary priests descended into Carol Park, after they sanctified the cross at St. Anthony’s Church. A violent clash with the law enforcing authorities ensued, resulting in wounded casualties on both sides, as students threw rocks into the policemen and the latter fire their arms into the troublemakers. The crackdown of the Legionary procession by the police was fruitfully speculated by the Legion’s propaganda, as the conflict was hyperbolized in a Manichean framework depicting the Legion of the Archangel fighting for the soul of the nation and the memory of the hundreds of thousands of hero martyrs who died for the making of the Greater Romania against the powerful opposition of the forces of Evil. This interpretive framing of the events in biblical language ultimately paid off, since the Legionary students managed to strike a chord in the public’s feelings, who joined them a couple of days later in thousands to finally lay a wooden cross-shaped wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
There is yet another thread connecting the Legion’s sacralized politics with the cult of the fallen soldiers symbolizing the mass-martyrdom of Romanians in their strive to redeem the country during the Great War. The Mărășești Mausoleum was finally unveiled in 1938, 15 years after the construction was started. It was to Mărășești, the site of one of the deadliest battles in the First World War, that the 10 bodies unearthed from all across the country from among the Unknown Soldier was to be randomly selected, were reposited. An ‘ectenie de oase‘ was performed by a sobor of priests, who ritually washed their bones in a liturgy for the dead. At the very centerpiece of the Mausoleum lies the Chapel of Glory, a circular structure adorned with Orthodox paraphernalia (iconostasis, icons, candelabra, mural paintings). The iconography of the painted fresco depicts various heavenly figures revered in the Eastern faith, among whom the towering figure of Archangel Michael bearing his sword in his arms was unmistakable. Maria Bucur has suggested that Codreanu’s followers interpreted this painting not just as a ‘religious symbol of heroism and self-sacrifice’, but saw in it ‘a validation of their own self-perception as heirs of the Romanian army’s great sacrifices in war’.
The year 1923 shaped the Legionary mindset in yet a third way; 26 March 1923 was the day the Romanian Parliament adopted the new Constitution, changing the notorious article 7 so as to grant citizenship to Jewish and other minorities. The civil emancipation of Jewry was perceived by the anti-Semitic nationalist youth, associated with the newly created National-Christian Defense League (Liga Apărării Național-Creștine (L.A.N.C.)), in apocalyptic terms, as the end of the Romanian nation. Codreanu described the ‘infamous’ event as a ‘great act of national betrayal’ that ‘laid in the grave and sealed the tombstone over the future of this people’. This development was instrumental in validating Codreanu and Moța’s belief system founded on the ‘Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy’. It was also in 1923 that Ion I. Moța had translated and published The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in which the Jewish elite was rendered as the embodiment of the Satan and as the causa causarum of all the evil in the world.
The main argument put forwards in this paper is that the Legion’s ideology of martyric heroism radicalized the wartime sacralization of martial death symbolized in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier into a self-sacrificial doctrine of patriotism infused with mystical notions of symbolic immortality, national redemption, and vicarious expiation of collective sins through sacrificial death. A political theology of redemption founded upon the cult of death had thus emerged at the core of the Legion’s worldview, impelled by an ideology that I shall call thanatic ultra-nationalism. I argue that this political theology of redemption had emerged within a specific historical and sociocultural matrix consisting in (1) a distal historical background and (2) a proximal sociocultural context. The historical roots into which the Legion’s ideology tapped consists in what Constantin Iordachi has identified as (a) the tradition of national messianism most evidently observable in Ion Heliade Rădulescu’s theory of palingenesis; (b) the sacralization of politics occurred during Carol I’s reign (1866-1914) meant to legitimize the new dynastic order in Romanian politics; and (c) the conservative tradition of religious-patriotic militarism. These strands of tradition helped shape the Legionary worldview based on the idea of self-sacrificial patriotism with all its notions of heroic martyrdom, personal salvation, national redemption, and vicarious atonement attained through death in a proximal sociocultural milieu defined by the following features: (a) wartime martialization of patriotism further rendered in the aftermath of the Great War into a self-sacrificial ideology based on a politicized understanding of Christian-like heroic martyrdom. It is in the legacy of the war and the militarization of society that it brought about that the roots of the political violence so central to the Legion’s praxis are to be found, along with its paramilitazation and soldier-like discipline; (b) a political tradition of xenophobic nationalism out of which a violent ‘redemptive anti-Semitism’ emerged in the aftermath of the World War, enhanced by the social conflict made salient in the multi-ethnic and pluri-confessional Greater Romania; (c) a ‘generational messianism’ coupled with what I will call a ‘charismatic juvenocracy’ striving towards a palingenetic new beginning attained through a spiritual and sociopolitical revolution first emerged during the students’ revolt of the 1920s. Intimately connected to the redeeming anti-Semitism of the students’ movement, this salvationist complex espoused by the young generation was further entangled in a semiotic network of political concepts with the fascist ideal of virile masculinity alongside the futuristic principle of ‘vivere pericoloso‘; (d) a politicized ‘ethnotheology’ under the form of Orthodoxism that set the mystical ground for the Legion’s sacralization of politics. As pointed out by Roland Clark, there was an elective affinity between the renascent mysticism in Romanian interwar Orthodox theology and the fascist movements emerging simultaneously. This further led to an entanglement between religion and politics and, by the former sacralizing the latter, it set the ground for the Legion’s political theology to emerge; (e) a ‘culture of mourning’ emerged in the aftermath of the Great War during which the heroization of wartime mass human sacrifices occurred. The post-war ‘mourning process’ where martial death was sacralized in the symbol of the Unknown Soldier constituted the cultural seedbed from which the Legion’s thanatic worldview would eventually sprout. The Legion’s thanatic ultra-nationalism, with its cult of martyrs and celebration of death, is evidently influenced by the mystical interwar ethnotheology, which accounts for the Legion’s politics of the afterlife, its focus on the thereafter, and its conception of vicarious atonement through self-sacrificial death.
Political Martyrdom, National Redemption, and Vicarious Atonement: The Ethics of Self-Sacrificial Patriotism
Drawing on the roots of Romanian nationalist tradition, the political ideology articulated by the Legionary ultra-nationalist movement came to establish in the interwar period an ethics of self-sacrificial patriotism, with political martyrdom as its categorical imperative. The origins of the Legion are to be found in the ultranationalist and anti-Semitic student activism culminating in the students’ general strike of 1922. With roots firmly entrenched in the mid-nineteenth century, Romanian anti-Semitism reached a new milestone after the making of Greater Romania, when European powers conditioned the recognition of the new state by the granting of citizenship to the Jewish population. Going against the grain of popular feeling, the Constitution of 1923 granted civil rights to the Jewish minority, unleashing a new wave of anti-Semitic hate throughout the country. Students in particular were infuriated by the fact that the Jews, although accounting for only 4% of the population, made up 14.2% of student population. The politics of numerus clausus, later spelled out as numerus valachicus, claiming the limitation of university students in terms of ethnic quotas, was the expression of a rabid anti-Semitic ethnic patriotism. With the creation of the Legion of the Archangel Michael on 24 June 1927, this anti-Semitic patriotism that first animated the students soon assumed radical inflections, as it was re-cast in the mystical frameworks underpinned by an ethics of self-sacrifice endowed with redemptive virtues.
The Legion’s ideology buttressed itself, like all the other interwar fascisms sweeping European societies, on ‘a set of negatives, a central organizational feature, a doctrine of leadership, and a basic structural goal’. The fascist negations against which the ideology of the Legion defined itself in apophatic fashion were an impressive string of ‘antis’: anti-materialism and anti-communism, anti-politicianism and anti-liberalism, anti-democratism and anti-parliamentarism, anti-Enlightenment thought and anti-bourgeois decadence, anti-rationalism and, of course, anti-Semitism. Its central organizational feature resided in a strictly disciplined party militia, endowed with full-fledged ceremonial theatricality and military apparel, while its doctrine of leadership displayed a devotional respect for hierarchy expressed through a mystical cult of the charismatic leader. The ultimate aim to which the movement was striving was that of palingenesis, i.e. what Roger Griffin defined as the quest for total re-birth, moral, social, cultural, and political. What would emerge out of the Legionary revolution would be a heroic society that would assert itself in the international political order and fulfill the great mission God had endowed on the Romanian nation. Moreover, elaborating the politics of national salvation into a political eschatology of redemption, the final aim of the Legionary revolution was the Resurrection of the Nation. Or, as hailed by Mircea Eliade, ‘Legionary revolution has as its supreme aim: the redemption of the nation (mântuirea neamului), the reconciliation of the Romanian nation with God, as the Captain has asserted.’ Instrumental in enacting such a spiritual revolution deemed to transfigure and purify Romanian society was the goal of making the New Man, the product of an anthropological revolution meant to restore the true, heroic, nature of Romanians corrupted by the bourgeois decadence of modern liberalism.
In his canonical texts that laid out the dogmatic foundations of the Legion’s political theology of national salvation, Corneliu Zelea Codreanu was abundantly clear on the human dimension of the socio-moral revolution the Legion was set to unleash. Cărticica șefului de cuib, described by Constantin Iordachi as a pseudo-monastic Regula designed as ‘a guide to collective salvation through sacrifice’, together with other writings by Ion I. Moța and Alexandru Cantacuzino, were invested with the sacrosanct status of Scriptures of the Iron Guard’s political religion. A basic theme recurrently emerging from these texts is the concept of the ‘new man’. Codreanu was convinced that ‘this country is dying of lack of men, not of lack of programs. […] It is not programs that we need to create, but men, new men‘. Creating the New Man as an outcome of a spiritual transfiguration was both fundamental (i.e. an aim in itself) and instrumental (i.e. a means to a higher purpose) in building a ‘strong and blooming Fatherland. […] For this Fatherland we shall make from each Romanian a hero, ready to fight, ready to sacrifice, ready to die‘. In the Legionary school of the creative deed, receiving his education in the nest, in the labor camp, through long marches, disciplined hard work, prayer, meditation, fasting, and an askesis of silence, a heroic personality would emerge that will revolutionize the Romanian soul. ‘From the Legionary school, a new man would come forth, a man with heroic qualities; a giant of our history to do battle and win over all the enemies of our Fatherland.’ Continuing to unwrap the threads of his prophetic vision, Codreanu envisions a ‘great type of Romanian, […] something great we never had before, which could break in two our whole history, to lay the foundations for the beginning of a different Romanian history to which this people is entitled’.
The idea of the New Man was a crucial topos in the Legionary body of political writings. The goal of creating a new type of human being was a driving force throughout the fascist spectrum. The ‘new phenotype of homo sapiens‘ was conceived of by its political demiurgoi as a ‘bio-nomic man’ meant to rejuvenate and redress the moral anomy of the modern, decadent world. However, it was the Legionary project of political anthropogenesis that drew heavily upon the Pauline doctrine of the New Man (Romans, 6:6; Ephesians, 2:15; Ephesians, 4:22-24; Colossians, 3:9-10). In the politicization of Paul’s theological anthropology, the Legion’s violent conception of self-sacrificial patriotism comes to full view. Within the Legion’s ideology of heroic martyrdom, the baptism of water seen as the symbolic rite of passage transforming the old Adamic man into the new, Christened man, was reinterpreted into a baptism of blood crowned with the wrath of self-sacrifice. The latter type of baptism was seen as a self-sacrificial test of fire, as a heroic means of bringing about the new Legionary man epitomized in Codreanu, Moța and Marin, the Nicadors (the team of three who assasinated prime minister Ion G. Duca in 1933), and the Decemvirs (the commando of 10 who murdered their schismatic ex-fellow Mihail Stelescu on 16 July 1936).
Further detailing the anthropological profile sketched by the Captain, Alexandru Cantacuzino spoke of the ‘Romanian of tomorrow’ as ‘a prophetic being, the dream of an exceptional man’. Carved out of dreams, the New Romanian will only emerge in history after a painful and ‘merciless surgery’ Romanians need to perform on their ‘character and soul. […] What awaits us is a double work, one of healing and purging, another one of creation’. Beyond ‘resurrecting all the virtues of the human soul, all the qualities deep-seeded in our race’ such as ascetic heroism, sacrificial patriotism, and a vigorous sense of the collective self, as Codreanu has envisioned the New Man, Cantacuzino adds to his ideal profile two extra features: the New Man ‘is to be violent as he will be extremist’. Infusing him with the ‘Legionary style’, the Legion will renovate the very nature of the Romanian man. In the aftermath of the Legionary anthropological revolution, the current Romanian man will be freed from the prison of the biological to be released into the realm of the spiritual. Incidentally, it is difficult to miss the ‘immanent contradiction’ lying at the heart of the Legion’s political program of making the New Romanian. In the Legionary imaginary, the New man is simultaneously an anthropological project of the future to be bred in the school of heroic education and a thing of the past—the true, genuine, Christian Romanian corrupted by time and modernity. It is not towards the Old Romanian that the Legion is rebelling against, but the Romanian of today, the current man of the here and now. By a Michelangelonian technique, the timeless Old-New Romanian would have to be carved out from his imprisonment in the marble block of history, where his ideal essence is to be found.
This new breed of heroic Romanian, educated in the Legionary school of the ‘heroic deed’, chiseled in sweat and prayer, was to espouse an absolute willingness to patriotic self-sacrifice, a zealous readiness to die for the movement’s supreme cause, that of redeeming the nation before history and God. Supreme self-sacrifice lies at the very core of the Legionary political ideology and general worldview. The Legionary literature—whether canonical writing of the movement’s leadership such as Codreanu’s booklets or the bursting Legionary periodicals—is suffused with exaltations of violence and exhortations to martyrdom. Reminiscing the disquieting words of Sergey Nechayev, who in his Catechism of a Revolutionary has described the revolutionary as a ‘doomed man’, Codreanu addresses to his Legionnaires in an appallingly similar fashion:
LEGIONNAIRES, […] I think of you as I write. Of you who will have to die, receiving the baptism of death with the serenity of our ancestral Thracians. And of you, those who will have to step over the dead and their tombs, carrying in your hands the victorious banners of the Romanians.
Although situating themselves at opposing ends of the political spectrum, Romanian fascists and Russian nihilists met in the terrorist means they were willing to employ in pursuing their revolutionary goals. Most probably, due to his frugal education Codreanu might never have read the explosive texts of the nihilist literature that burst in Imperial Russia in the second part of the nineteenth century. Some of his comrades, however, such as Ion I. Moța and Vasile Marin (not to mention the sophisticated intellectuals making up the Axa group), were certainly more familiar to European political thought and philosophical ideas, since Nietzsche and Spengler are oft-cited names in their writings. In spite of the lack of any direct influence between the two radically different sociopolitical movements, their common insistence on the self-sacrificial nature of the political engagement, the ‘doomed’ condition of the revolutionary, and the ‘philosophy of the bomb’ is quite staggering.
The Legion of the Archangel Michael emerged as a charismatic movement based on a generational messianism propelled by a redemptive anti-Semitism and violent anti-communism. However, as it matured from anti-communist shock brigades made up of youth thugs later reorganized into an essentially student anti-Semitic movement into a nationwide sociopolitical phenomenon, the Legion developed its own ideological profile blending a fascist strive towards a new order with a Christian theology of martyrdom. What has resulted from this combination was an explosive redemptive political theology thoroughly pervaded by the notions of martyrdom, personal salvation, and collective atonement. It was in the light of these concepts that the understanding of patriotism was transformed in the Legionary thought into a doctrine of self-sacrificial heroism.
In a seminal study, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht has singled out the ‘redemption theology’ underpinning the fascist palingenetic strive towards establishing a new sociopolitical and moral order. A redemptive hope was constitutive of fascism’s historical outlook and it could be mentioned among the demarcating features of fascism in comparison to other teleologically driven political movements. The redemptive mindset was a basic state of mind shared by all varieties of fascism. Redemption theology presupposes a narrative template based on (1) the myth of an ideal past set against (3) a deficient present. Between the two antithetical states, (2) an event or a stream of events are made responsible for degenerating the ideal past into an undesired present, i.e. a sin or a collection of sins. The situation requires (4) an act of redemption as a ransom for these sins designed to restore the idealized past in the present. This redemptive act is conceived of as the self-sacrificial means of actualizing (5) the idealized state of the past into the hic et nunc of the present. What particularizes the Legion’s redemptive mindset within the fascist spectrum is its certainty that it is only through the means of martyric self-sacrifice, understood in terms of a political theology as a ransom of the historical sins of the nation, redemption could ever occur. This redemption scenario at the core of the Legion’s political theology is indicative of ‘fascist temporality’ in general and of the Legion’s sense of time in particular. As shown by Raul Cârstocea, the Legion developed an hourglass conception of temporality, ‘a vision in which a timeless Romanian nation spanning both an immemorial past and an indefinite future was made salient in an urgent present, interpreted as a threshold between two worlds’. It is only through an act of heroic martyrdom that the present could ‘break the teeth of time’ and escape the ‘terror of history’ into a glorious future made present by actualizing the glorious past. Besides a peculiar fascist temporality, the Legion’s redemptive political theology is also underpinned by an apocalyptic mindset. Drawing on Eugen Weber’s analysis of the apocalyptic content of modern secular revolutionary movements, Rebecca Haynes has argued that The Revelation of John in particular provided the Legionnaires with an interpretive framework into which to cast their own visions of apocalypse, soteriology, and salvationist hopes. This apocalyptic strand of thought surfaced recurrently in framing the events to which the Legionnaires were taking part to in terms of a cosmic battle between the forces of evil and the archangelic army of God’s chosen ones.
Time and again, martyrdom was heralded as the paramount virtue of Legionary patriotism. The acts of redemption meant to redress the deficiencies of the present and to resurrect the nation were conceived of as martyric acts of voluntary self-sacrifice. In fact, fascistizing the Orthodox doctrine, the Legion’s ideologues elaborated political martyrdom into the ‘eight sacrament’ of the movement’s political theology of national redemption and the cornerstone of the Legionary conception of patriotism. The rhetoric of heroic martyrdom and self-sacrificial patriotism gained such importance in the movement’s worldview and political identity that it shaped the Legion as a ‘charismatic community of sacrifice’ driven by what I will call as the ideology of thanatic ultra-nationalism. By this term I designate a radical ideology of integral nationalism celebrating self-sacrificial death for its fructifying benefits and claiming from the part of their adherents the willingness to undergo political martyrdom for the movement’s superior cause (i.e. the final redemption of the entire nation).
‘We believe in the redemptive virtue of tombs,’ sounds the confession of faith made by Alexandru Cantacuzino, before joining the Legionary commando that will fight on the Spanish front. Sharing the same ‘generational creed’ of redemptive martyrdom as his comrade Cantacuzino, together with Vasile Marin, Ion Moța would live up (or should one say ‘die up’?) to his words, ‘Sacrifice is the measure of our Christianity,’ in welcoming violent death in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. Revealing once again the palingenetic thrust of the Legionary ideology, Moța went on saying that ‘we were the ones who brought the heroic urging, IN THE SPIRIT OF COMPLETE PERSONAL SACRIFICE, against this old and alienated world’. Plunging further into the realm of a tantalizing mystique of death, Moța was convinced of the victory of the movement, ‘now than we have at our disposal the most formidable dynamite, the most resistant fighting instrument, stronger than tanks and machine-guns: it is our own ashes‘. In similar thanatic fashion, Vasile Marin established as the first article of faith defining the creed of his generation that ‘the self-sacrificing spirit is essential’. Ion Moța and Vasile Marin will die in the battle at Majadahonda, fighting in the civil war along the Spanish Nationalists against the Republican communists. They sought redemption in death, for themselves and the nation they were representing, by what they conceived of as fighting in a holy war on God’s side. Their dead bodies, teeming nevertheless with political life, were sacralized by the Legion as political reliquiae, as they were carried around in a mortuary train throughout Europe and the entire country to be publically displayed and revered in theatrically performed political liturgies. Their bodies were laid to rest in a mausoleum especially built to receive the martyrs’ corpses, erected near the Headquarters of the Legion in Bucharest. The mausoleum soon became a shrine of national memory and a major destination of pilgrimages for the members and supporters of the Legionary movement. After the mausoleum was struck by a lightning bolt causing the wooden canopy to burn, save the cross, it was also hailed as a site of miracles.
Adding another explicit dimension to the religious framing of their death as sacred martyrdom, a fellow comrade of Moța and Marin in the Spanish campaign has described the two as being ‘crucified’ in the war against the Bolshevik Satan. In a similar hermeneutical vein, drawing on the martyr motif of the via crucis, Ion Dumitrescu-Borşa, the orthodox priest who also joined the Legionary expedition to Spain, designated their voluntary death for Christ and the Cross as ‘the greatest Legionary sacrifice’. Despite their rather ambivalent attitude toward the Legion, the Orthodox Church’s higher clergy finally surrendered their doubts in the face of Moța and Marin’s self-sacrificial death. With many of its lower priests entangled in the Legionary movement (which also included in its ranks numerous theology students), hierarchs of the Orthodox Church were now keen to employ their sacerdotal power not only to sacralize their death as triple martyrs (Christian, National, and Legionary), but also in establishing their deed as the paramount example of patriotism. A specimen in this regard are the words of the vicar bishop of the Mitropoly of Transylvania. In his discourse held during the funerary ceremony organized while the mortuary train transporting the bodies of Moța and Marin stopped in Sibiu, the hierarch had addressed the dead by saying to them: ‘In sacrificing your youthful lives to Christ and the Nation, you bequeathed upon us as testament and legacy the example of the foremost sublime, the sole and true patriotism.’ The metropolitan bishop himself, Nicolae Bălan, who headed the funeral in Bucharest, echoed in his sermon the Biblical parable of the grain of wheat (John, 12:24-26), praying to God for allowing ‘the martyrdom of your servants Ioan and Vasile to bear fruit on the land of our country’.
The Spanish Civil War was being for them the cosmic battleground in which Satan was attacking God for world spiritual supremacy. At war were ‘the genius of Evil set out to wipe off the face of the earth the symbolic icon of Divinity against the fierce tenacity of Christ’s martyrs’. Consequently, at stakes was not only the fate of Spain, but the soul of the world: ‘This Holy War is not just Spain’s, it is everyone’s and thus it is ours too. […] If Spain will live and it will live, we will live as well, and if Spain will die but she will not die, we will die too.’ Nationalist Spain will live on, but Moța and Marin died defending her. Nevertheless, within the Legionary worldview, their physical deaths granted them symbolic immortality as Christian and Legionary martyrs to be forever worshiped in the national memory. Their acts of heroic martyrdom were set as a supreme example of Legionary self-sacrifice, deemed to inspire similar actions of martyric patriotism. An outburst of obituaries and memorial writings glorifying their supreme heroism flooded the country, amounting to a full-fledged martyrology. Deliberately blurring the boundaries between military death driven by political commitment and religious martyrdom propelled by Christian faith, Moța and Marin’s violent deaths were sacralized as Legionary acts of martyrdom. Their voluntary deaths were conceived of as a ‘ransom’ for the sins of the nation. Talking about Moța, the most zelotic of the two, Alexandru Cantacuzino, their comrade-in-arms on the Spanish front, said that ‘He obstinately wanted to give an example of martyrdom. It was his deliberate will to die as a soldier of Christianity to ransom all the curses that were thrown over our nation.’
It is an argument put forward in this paper that Moța and Marin’s burial had drawn on two sources of inspiration in transforming the funerals into a powerful means of political propaganda. First, Legionnaires found inspiration from an immediate, exogenous source, i.e. the 12 February 1936 state funerals of Wilhelm Gustloff, the Nazi leader of Switzerland, assassinated in his home in Davos. The coffin containing his body was transported to his birthplace in the town of Schwerin, with a special funerary train that stopped in major cities as it crossed Germany south to north. Hitler himself delivered the eulogy, while other Nazi dignitaries honored their fallen martyr with their presence. A second, distal but endogenous, source of inspiration was provided by the 1923 reburial of the Romanian Unknown Soldier. After a coffin was randomly selected from the 10 containing unidentified remains of Romanian soldiers of Orthodox faith, it traveled in a funerary train that stopped at every station from Mărășești to its final burial place in Bucharest. Patterning the burial of Moța and Marin on the two models, I argue that a double fixation of the Legion’s political culture was thus achieved. Firstly, on a horizontal level, a fascist synchronization with the Nazi political cult of the fallen was made (through a Nazi burial mimesis). Secondly, on a vertical level, a historical communion with the Romanian heroic and martyrological tradition symbolized in the Unknown Soldier was established through an act of reburial re-enactment. Although it had drawn heavily on the political martial liturgy performed at the reburial of the Unknown Soldier in staging the funerals of Moța and Marin, the Legion’s necropolitics departed from its 1923 model in significant ways which shed light upon its peculiar redemptive political theology. As it was the case in February 1937, the ceremony observed with the reburial of the Unknown Soldier was filled with religious meanings. The language of sacrifice and redemption was employed to make sense of the war dead. The monument erected to honor the Unknown Soldier was meant to symbolize the national redemption achieved through the sacrification of the 350,000 fallen soldiers ‘on whose bones rests the soil of the Greater Romania’, as it is inscribed on the epitaph. The collective death of the fallen soldiers to which the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was erected was interpreted as a supreme material sacrifice, as a bodily martyrdom for the purpose of politically redeeming the nation (i.e. its territorial integrity, its independence, and its sovereignty). However, it also included powerful symbolic and religious elements. The unburied remains were ritually washed in an ‘ectenie de oase‘ liturgical ceremony, by which the bones were sacralized and turned into relics. Religious meanings were also made salient through the scheduling of the ceremony to occur on the Ascension Day, celebrated 40 days after the Day of the Resurrection. That the ceremony was held on the Day of the Ascension was meant to symbolize that the fallen gained (1) personal salvation and thus eternal life in Christ but also (2) memorial afterlife in the nation’s collective memory.
In Moța and Marin’s funeral, the concept of ‘national redemption’ underpinning the political martial liturgy performed at the reburial of the Unknown Soldier is further escalated to reach ‘vicarious atonement’, i.e. the redemption of the nation’s sins through their deaths. Moța and Marin’s self-sacrificial death not only redeemed the nation from her physical dangers, as the fallen during the Great War have done, but also ransomed her moral sins in front of history and God, an idea that was not present in the politico-theological semantics surrounding the Unknown Soldier. I thus contend that a swift shift had occurred in between the two funeral ceremonies, which is indicative of the Legion’s particular political theology. It consists in a shift from national redemption and collective soteriology visible in the reburial of the Unknown Soldier to vicarious atonement and expiation of sins through self-sacrificial heroic acts designed to ransom the sins of the nation.
The religious aura seeping through the Legionary notion of political martyrdom is particularly conspicuous. The Legionary doctrine of sacrificial patriotism, as the Iron Guard’s entire ideology and worldview, drew heavily on the Christian ethos of martyrdom, which it managed to bastardize into a thoroughly politicized feat of dying for the nation. Due to the intimate fusion with the religious ideology of Orthodoxism, Romanian Legionarism is a prime example of what Dorothee Sölle has called ‘Christofascism’. Legionary Christofascism and the movement’s redemptive political theology were the result of a chiastic interpolation between politics and religion. Starting with the fin-de-19th-siècle, Orthodox clergymen made the step into the field of politics, thus politicizing the sacred. Simultaneously, Romanian nationalism joined forces with dynastic royalism in sacralizing the politics, a process which culminated in the Legionary fascistization of transcendence as expressed by I. P. Prundeni’s assertion that ‘God is a fascist!’ This politicization of the sacred concomitant with the sacralization of politics is thus indicative of a chiastic interpolation between politics and religion that would ultimately lead to the articulation of the Legion’s peculiar political theology of national redemption.
Following the by now classical interpretation advanced by Emilio Gentile, fascism in general and the Iron Guard in particular resorted to ‘the sacralization of politics’. If Italian Fascismo and German Nationalsozialismus excelled at what Walter Benjamin has called as ‘the aestheticization of politics’, Romanian Legionarism exceeded itself and other brands of interwar fascisms in sacralizing politics, violence, and martyric death. Present within the Legionary idea of political martyrdom is the concept of existential transvaluation, which also stood at the basis of the understanding of religious martyrdom in the first centuries of Christianity. Appropriating the martyric drive into death espoused by the first Christians, the political philosophy developed by the Iron Guard incorporated the transvaluation of reality, i.e. transforming life into death and vice versa, transfigurating death into life. ‘Legionnaires do not die,’ asserted Codreanu. ‘Erect, immovable, invincible and immortal, they look forever victorious over the impotent convulsions of hatred.’ Romanian Legionnaires adopted the fascist ritual of shouting ‘Present!’ when the name of a dead was called. This fascist dialogue with the dead was enacted on 13 February 1937, at the funerals of Moța and Marin, when the Legionary crowd responded with ‘Present!’ to the roll call of the martyrs’ names. Foreshadowing his own death, Ion Moța actively contributed to his symbolic construction of political martyrdom by writing one of his last articles while on the Spanish front bearing the title ‘Present!’ Emilio Gentile was among the scholars to notice that ‘the fascists compared themselves to the first Christians, who spread the word amongst the pagans, ready to brave martyrdom for the triumph of the new faith’. Just as Christian martyrs of the Early Church were receiving the agony of torture resulting in death from their Roman persecutors as the gateway to heavens, Legionnaires were similarly searching salvation through death. It is this Christic mysticism of self-sacrifice, expressed through a martyric ecstasy and an unmatched cult of death that singled out Legionarism within the interwar European fascist spectrum. Although a Legion’s trademark, this was by no way unique to Romanian fascism. Other strands of fascist movements had also developed an elaborate cult of the dead along with ideas of resurrection and immortality, from the Spanish motto ‘¡Viva la Muerte!‘ to the Croatian Ustaša‘s ‘fantasies of annihilation’ as well as of collective redemption. What made the Legion stand out from among its fascists counterparts was its mystical outset imbued with Orthodoxist precepts regarding the sanctity of martyric death modeled after the deeds of the first Christians. That the Legionnaires also took the saluto romano (the salute of the Christians’ persecutors) adds to the contradictory nature of Iron Guard’s symbolics.
At the centerpiece of the Legion’s political theology of national redemption stood the cult of death. Rebecca Haynes has made the point that the necrophilic mindset from the core of the Legion’s worldview has its roots in Romanian popular orthodoxy, which the movement has tapped and incorporated into its own ideology of thanatic ultra-nationalism. But it has also drawn heavily on the Christian theology of death and martyrdom, which its doctrinaires succeeded in sacralizing them within the Legion’s redemptive political theology. Profoundly impressed by the collective pledge taken by the Legionnaires in front of the coffins of Moța and Marin, where they swore ‘to stand ready to die at any time for the Resurrection of my Nation’, Mircea Eliade wrote that ‘the Redemption of the Nation is not possible without self-sacrifice; no Resurrection is possible without death’, even less so the collective resurrection of the Romanian nation. The necessity of voluntary death found its paramount expression in Dan Botta’s pro mori exhortation, ‘For the Cult of the Dead’, ending with the exclamation: ‘We shall learn to die!’ The worship of death was fused with the cult of the fallen martyrs within the Legion’s ideology of heroic martyrdom and later organizationally institutionalized in the ‘Moța-Marin Corps’, established on 13 January 1938 under the leadership of Alexandru Cantacuzino. Also hailed as the ‘Battalion of Death’, it was designed as an elite corps created to honor the memory of the two fallen commanders on the Spanish front on 13 January 1937. It was also meant to institutionalize within the movement the exemplary self-sacrificial death of the two. The corps was demographically limited to 10,033 youths, all of them under 30 years of age, who were willing to fully embrace the Moța-Marin pledge of the supreme self-sacrifice, together with a highly demanding ascetic ethos requiring black fasting three days a week, permanent prayer, and celibacy.
Despite incarnating its political ideology on the spiritual backbone of Eastern creed, the Legionary Orthodoxism was nevertheless highly ‘unorthodox’ in its sacralization of politics. As pointed out by Radu Ioanid, in spite of its blatantly displayed Orthodox paraphernalia, fascist Legionary mysticism attempted at ‘subordinating and transforming that theology into a political instrument in a way that made it the enemy of genuine Christian values and spirituality’. Indeed, the New Romanian patriot nurtured in the Legionary values of martyric heroism was to espouse the Nietzschean philosophy of vitalism hybridized with a ‘muscular’ and exclusivistic understanding of Christianity as the love of the national neighbor and the hate of the national other. Although the Legion defined itself in Christian terms—from its origin in a carceral revelation, to its archangelic name and its religious mission to redeem the Romanian nation—it was not the Jesus of love, mercy, and forgiveness that the Legionnaires were following, but the Jesus of the sword, war, and revenge (‘Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword,’ Matthew 10:34). The Legionary brand of Christianity was a doctrine of political violence, infused with testosterone, masculinity, and martial heroism. Thoroughly suffused with Orthodox spirituality, the ideologues of the Legion were nevertheless longing feverishly for a ‘Romania in delirium’, impatiently yearning for ‘a nationalist Romania, a delirious and chauvinistic Romania, armed and vigorous, pitiless and vengeful’.
Blending Christian forgiveness with the ethos of martial mercilessness, Codreanu himself urged his followers to pardon the ones who wronged them. ‘Forgive those who struck you for personal reasons.’ But be ruthless towards those who wronged the nation. Political revenge instead of Christian forgiving is called for the enemies of the nation, who must be punished in exemplary fashion: ‘unforgiving and unmerciful’. Alexandru Cantacuzino saw no opposition in proclaiming that ‘the Romanian of tomorrow will be a good Christian, more faithful and more observing than the Romanian of today’, next to saying that ‘the Romanian of tomorrow will have two qualities: he will be grateful and he will be revengeful. Remember, gentlemen, he will be merciless’. This paradoxical and quite contradictory doctrine of ‘Nietzschean Christianity’ promoted within Legionary ideology was to give birth to the Übermensch Orthodox Romanian ready and eager to give his life for the superior cause of his nation, such as Moța and Marin. Or, when the time calls it, to sacrifice themselves to life in prison by sacrificing others to death, such as was the case with the Decemvirs—a death commando of 10 Legionnaires—who on 16 July 1936 shot and chopped the dead body of their former comrade, Mihail Stelescu, accused of treason. Not only did they show no sign of remorse in the aftermath of their savage act of political violence—after killing Stelescu who was recovering in the hospital bed after an appendectomy, the Decemvirs initiated a macabre dance around the deceased’s butchered body—but at their trial in May 1937, they even made reference to the ‘Christian principles of love and forgiveness’. Seduced by Nietzsche’s Macht-Philosophie, the Legionary ideologists were at pains to reconcile it with the Orthodox faith. The same Alexandru Cantacuzino, a prominent leader of the movement, had managed to defuse the essential tension between the two opposing principles, in asserting that ‘our nationalism will accept nothing but the superman and the super-nation elected and marked by the grace of God, and only for the purposes of redemption and salvation’. Moța and Marin’s heroic martyrdom on the Spanish front washed in blood some of the country’s historic sins. The Decemviri who ‘punished’ the schismatic Stelescu, accused of having planned a plot to assassinate Codreanu, were glorified in the Legion’s exuberant press for having redeemed the Romanian nation of the ‘curse of treason’ that curbed in the past the country’s path towards achieving its glorious destiny. Filtered through the interpretive scheme of ‘vicarious atonement’, their murder was conceived of as a necessary self-sacrificial ransoming of Romanian nation, now purged of its historic curse of treason. Butchering Stelescu, the personification of treason, the 10 Legionnaires killed ‘the principle and the consequences of treason’ in the Romanian history, they would claim boasting of their murderous act. The same rhetoric of cleansing treason through a violent act of redemption had been employed when Ion I. Moța unloaded eight bullets in his fellow student conspirator, Aurelian Vernichescu, for punishing his alleged betrayal. The assassinations committed by the other notorious ‘death teams’—the Nicadors who murdered the prime minister Ion G. Duca on 30 December 1933 and the Avengers who revenged Codreanu’s death by killing another prime minister, Armand Călinescu, on 21 September 1939—were shrouded in the same tropes of martyrdom, self-sacrifice, divine justice, and political redemption.
Conclusions: The Self-Sacrificial Dimension of Patriotism
This study has examined the fascistization of patriotism under the Romanian Iron Guard’s political theology of national redemption. It argued that within the political theology underpinned by an ideology of thanatic ultra-nationalism, a self-sacrificial understanding of patriotism emerged in the Legionary movement. In this mystical mindset, dying for the Fatherland, the Legion, and the Nation was seen as a sacred political martyrdom that brought personal salvation to the self-sacrificer along with the ransoming of the nation’s sins as a necessary condition of her final redemption. Stimulated by continuous harassment by the state authorities, the Legion developed a political theology of redemption coupled with a political theodicy of suffering whose cornerstone rested on the idea of martyrdom, by which self-sacrificial death was sacralized as a hollowed means of redeeming the nation.
Its radical formula of integral nationalism imbued with such religious meanings was grounded on a nationalist ethos in which dying for the nation (i.e. ‘self-sacrificial patriotism’) was glorified as the ultimate value. Moreover, in its most radical rendering, the Legion’s thanatic ultra-nationalism required as the supreme moral duty from the part of every national to die readily for the nation, as expressed in the Moța-Marin pledge. At the core of this ideology lay a frantic cult of death, transvaluated through martyric heroism in the gate for the eternal afterlife in the immortal body of the nation. The nation itself was conceived of as the eternal community of the dead, the living, and the still unborn, bounded together in the great corpus mysticum of the nation through the unbreakable ties of common blood and historical destiny.
In this mystical vein, Codreanu defined the nation (neamul) as including in the same communion of blood, soil, and faith (Blut, Boden und Geist) the temporal communities of the contemporaries, the predecessors, and the successors, that is to say: ‘1. All the Romanians presently alive, 2. All the souls of our dead and the tombs of our ancestors, 3. All those who will be born Romanians’. The final aim of the nation, Codreanu established in his political theology, ‘is not life, but resurrection’, when Romanian people will rise from the dead and present themselves, as a corporate body, before God’s final judgement. Until this ‘noblest and most sublime’ final moment will come, the Legionnaires are deemed to receive the ‘baptism of blood’ and the ‘crown of death’ for redeeming the Romanian nation within human history, working through their self-sacrifices to its inner-worldly salvation in the realm of the socio-historical hic et nunc.
In articulating the radical doctrine of sacrificial patriotism around the mystical will to martyrdom, the Legionary worldview sacralized violent death as the supreme patriotic sacrament in the worship of the nation. Two major features set apart the Legion’s sacralization of death from the similar acts performed before and during the First World War. First, although the Legion did not pioneer the justification of military death in religious terms, it did surpass its precedents by articulating not only a political theodicy, but an elaborated political theology of national redemption. This was endowed with an eschatological finality consisting in the resurrection of the nation, ideas of vicarious atonement and collective redemption, whose cornerstone rest on the sacrament of heroic martyrdom. Secondly, whereas in previous renditions of Romanian patriotism, including the Great War, heroic death for the cause of the country was defined as the state of exception, the Legion institutionalized martyric heroism as a state of normality. Therefore, the crucial feature demarcating the Legionary sacrificial patriotism from other conceptions of Romanian patriotism is the former’s institutionalization of the state of exception concerning the necessity of sacrifice. This urgency of embracing the categorical imperative of martyrdom can only be made sense of when set against the Legion’s political theology in whose light what was at stake was not only the country’s political freedom, but also the nation’s redemption before history and God.