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Raul Cârstocea

Raul Cârstocea is Associate Lecturer at the University of Flensburg and Senior Research Associate in the Conflict & Security Research Cluster at the European Centre for Minority Issues, Flensburg, Germany. He holds a PhD in History from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London (UCL), with a thesis that examined the role of anti-Semitism in the ideology of the ‘Legion of the Archangel Michael’, Romania’s interwar fascist movement. He has worked as Teaching Fellow at UCL and held a Research Fellowship at the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies. His research interests focus on Jewish history, anti-Semitism, and more broadly on the history of nationalism and nation-building processes in nineteenth and twentieth century Central and Eastern Europe.

The Boundaries of ‘the People’: Populist Elements in the Ideology and Practices of the Legionary Movement in Interwar Romania

In the current European context that witnessed a steady increase in the importance of right wing populist and far right parties and movements, their absence in Romania appears conspicuous, all the more so since the country has a considerable nationalist legacy. During the interwar period, the ‘Legion of the Archangel Michael’, Romania’s native fascist movement, developed into the third largest fascist organisation in Europe (Payne 1995: 275-7; Heinen 2006: 357); the nationalist features of Romania’s communist regime after 1965 were so pronounced as to warrant Katherine Verdery’s identification of the state ideology as ‘national-communism’ (Verdery 1991). Following the collapse of communism, right-wing populist and far-right parties and movements were indeed very prominent in Romanian politics during the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s, only to fade into irrelevance during the last decade. Despite this conspicuous absence, I argue in my presentation that the legacy of the interwar fascist movement remains an important political factor in Romania, as demonstrated by the intense reaction against the modification of an existing law on Holocaust denial (Law 107/2006) that explicitly included the legionary movement in the category of fascist organisations (Law 217/2015). Far from being limited to the far-right fringes of the political spectrum, the opposition to the modification of the law came from prominent, mainstream figures of the Romanian cultural and political establishment. As such, instead of having disappeared due to  being definitively challenged in the second half of the 2000s (and especially following the work of the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania, led by Elie Wiesel, whose Final Report was published in 2005), I argue that the legacy of the legionary movement has rather been mainstreamed, with some of its more visibly extremist elements having been discarded or ‘normalised’ by a discourse that nevertheless recuperates its populist impetus and, most of all, defends the memory of interwar intellectuals with a well-known legionary past as sacrosanct.

To do so, my presentation will step back in time to analyse the specific features of populism in the ideology and practices of the legionary movement in interwar Romania. I argue that the populist elements in the legionary movement’s ideology, positing an alleged inclusiveness that was specifically aimed at obtaining the allegiance and the support of certain marginalised groups, primarily peasants and workers, backed up by a propaganda style that emphasised grassroots mobilisation, activism and voluntarism, were pivotal for the spectacular growth in popularity of the organisation. The resulting dichotomy – between an allegedly alienated political establishment serving foreign interests and the (formerly) disenfranchised, neglected and oppressed ‘masses’, seen as the authentic repositories of ‘virtue’ and ‘tradition’ – is one that is virtually omnipresent among populist movements, as analysed starting from Ionescu and Gellner’s (1969) edited volume dealing with the concept, through Margaret Canovan’s (1981) study, and finally to Ernesto Laclau’s interpretation (2005).

In addition to the theoretical approaches to populism per se, the present paper is also informed by theoretical approaches to fascism that emphasise the importance of populism within fascist ideology (e.g. Eatwell 1992; Griffin 1993), and particularly by Roger Griffin’s synthetic definition of fascism as ‘a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism’ (Griffin 1993: 26).

The contemporary significance of the present paper can also be identified as transcending the Romanian case under consideration, as most of the populist elements the paper analyses are alarmingly visible among movements and parties in contemporary Europe, albeit adapted to present-day circumstances. From the distinction between an allegedly corrupt establishment and an ill-defined ‘virtuous’ ‘people’ whose boundaries are nevertheless rigid when delimited from outsiders, to an alternative style of politics meant to resonate more directly with the ‘silent majority’ that is allegedly neglected or ‘left behind’, such elements represent an important part of the new nationalisms that, all too often, draw on the legacy of past ones.