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Vol 3, No 10
12 March 2001
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Curing the past
Marius Dragomir


After experiencing all the nuances of nationalism in the 20th century, from an extreme right wing ideology, to a less noisy national philosophy centered on the country's desire to isolate itself from the world and live within a national pattern, Romania saw the fast growth of a new "national theme" following the collapse of Communism in 1989. Speculating that it was the cause of Romania's poverty, the "new" generation of Romanian politicians combated the "old style" nationalism of Nicolae Ceauşescu's regime.

Following the initial euphoria after the collapse of Communism, and the subsequent rebuttal of the Communist era, nationalism has once again came to the fore. The nationalist revival was seen in last November's general elections when Corneliu Vadim Tudor, the leader of the right wing Greater Romania Party (PRM), entered the second round of the presidential elections. Even more striking, Tudor's party gained enough seats in the parliament to become the second largest party behind the Party of Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR).

The "national theme" changed in the years following the 1989 anti-Communist revolution in Romania, offering a new ideology noted for its acts of hate speech against "others" (minorities, usually) and "foreign" countries.

Romania's present case can be considered separate from traditional occidental nationalism (which evolved differently) and is instead better likened to a more "Eastern" style of nationalism brought about by a lack of modern European education and the social and economic decline of the former Communist bloc in the past 50 years. The national philosophy promoted by erudite and highly educated Romanian intellectuals between the two world wars has degenerated into a pathetic, inept boulevard nationalistic demagogy that is now flooding public discourse in post-Communist Romania.

Long history

The national issue goes back to political Romanticism in the 19th century when one of the best-known Romanian poets, Mihai Eminescu, extolled the "national specificity," bringing public attention to the danger that the "others" posed for the first time. In this instance he blamed the Jews for pauperizing the Romanian nation.

The beginning of the 20th century saw the recrudescence of intolerance towards the "others" that bore the brunt of the frustration caused by a fragmented Romanian state. Nationalism went beyond public discourse and manifested itself in Romanian art and literature.

The conservative literary movements engulfed by so-called "traditionalism" required writers and creators to be inspired by rural life and "national specificity." The religious Romanian spirituality embodied by Christian Orthodoxy added a major dimension to this cultural momentum, crystallizing the "ideology" in the years prior to the Communists taking the helm in Central and Eastern Europe.

Despite a warm response from a large section of the public, supporters of the "national theme" encountered fierce opposition from the promoters of the cultural modernism imported from the West as a way of synchronizing Romanian culture with European culture. The "traditionalist" works did not survive, however, in the public memory, which remained lukewarm to the sterile creation inspired by "the eternal village."

Between the two world wars, when Romania realized its dream to be a single united nation, "traditionalism" gained popularity, due to its talented creators and remarkable intellectuals. They managed to take out the traditional line from the simplistic rustic life that their predecessors had stuck to writing about. "Traditionalism" was now wearing the coat of universality.

Nevertheless, more dangerous ideas that suggested ethnicity be the base for the political state encouraged the nationalistic trend. This resulted in a large extreme right political movement embracing the "mystic of death" and struggle for a pure ethnic Romanian state. The embodiment of this slide to the extremes was the Iron Guard. The charisma of its leader, Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, coalesced with the economic recession at the end of the 1930s brought the "legionary" ideology strong popularity that pushed Romania outside of Europe. The climax was reached in the Second World War when Romania fought together with Nazi Germany.

Nationalist Communism

Initially, the Communist regime was not so prone to developing the "national theme," since the engendering of the "new man" required by the communist ideology was a phenomenon for the whole region.

The resurgence of a more acute nationalism was brought by the Ceauşescu regime (1965-1989) and had a surprisingly strong impact on the Romanian people at a time when some of the once best-known supporters of the right wing, like the theoretician of religions Mircea Eliade or the philosopher Emil Cioran, were retracting their ideas from the writings of their youth.

Under the leadership of Ceauşescu, Romanians faced all shades of nationalism, starting with the creation of the secret police unit, which was modeled after the Russian's and that recruited informers to discover potential threats from abroad. It was the first phase in Ceauşescu's nationalistic show: if not finding, making up the "enemy" of the nation.

They were found sooner than expected: Hungarians, because of their claims on Transylvania, and Americans, seen as agents of an "imperialistic invasion."

The consolidation of Ceauşescu came in 1968 when he refused to take part in the Soviet invasion of the former Czechoslovakia. His opposition to his Communist allies brought great fame to the Communist Party of Romania.

Part of this rolling out of nationalism was the myth building machine designed by the propaganda apparatus for Ceauşescu's public celebrations. All the creativity was driven to shape the cult of the Communist Party and its leader Nicolae Ceauşescu who became the great protagonist of the "national theme." Nationalism was the new religion.

Both the goal and the result of such policies were the deliberate isolation of the country from the "imperialistic powers."

Compared to the first waves of nationalism practiced by the Romanian intellectuals—nationalism which grew out of philosophical debate—the Communist nationalism under Ceauşescu was a monstrous ideology grown out of a propaganda machine that specialized in gerrymandering facts to fit with and prove the social progress realized by Communism.

Megalomania was part of the new nationalism promoted by the Communist rulers, and its main expression was the Palace of the People, the second largest building in Europe, built with enormous sacrifices under Ceauşescu's order.

So far, the years of post-Communist transition in Romania have seen a steady revival of "national theme" that is an eclectic mix of all the elements of Romanian nationalist trends throughout the nation's history.

The most salient mouth of the nationalist discourse irrefutably became the Greater Romania Party with its strong support from other "brother" parties (for example, the Party of the National Romanian Unity, PUNR). This new wave of nationalism is the heritage of Communist rule. Its main components are the less than mediocre public discourse breeding the thirst of Romanians for culprits in a time of social anxiety and poverty; the attacks on the minorities; the glorification of the Ceauşescu rule; and surprisingly, the reorientation of the church to the old "eternal" Orthodoxy, which had, in the past, become a melodramatic and hilarious religious masquerade.

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A big contributor to the revival of nationalism after the 1989 coup, was seven years of governance by Ion Iliescu's first administration (1989 to 1996), under which ethnic attacks were directed against the large Hungarian minority. Some of these attacks ended tragically. In 1990, Hungarians and Romanians fought in Tîrgu Mureş after politicians incited the Romanian population by bringing the discussion of Transylvania back into public debate.

In 1996, Emil Constantinescu was elected president. He was left to grapple with the remnants of the totalitarian state that worked hand-in-hand with organized crime, at high levels. In this fight, the representatives of the former system won the game and exploited the pauperization of the population by luring it with promises taken from the nationalistic repertoire.

The present Romanian nationalism is the application of an eclectic nationalistic program in a country that has experimented with various facets of an intolerant and isolationist ideology. However, although imbued with national myths taken from a large palette of works, regardless of their intrinsic value, the Vadim Tudor generation is the most, however black, comical among all the nationalist and traditionalist groups in Romanian history.

Rolling out denigrating public campaigns targeting Hungarians, Jews, Gypsies, in a vulgar urban slang, the Greater Romania Party and its leader are not a long-term threat for democracy in Romania. Their political life is likely to be short, and their influence is not as significant as, for example, the initiative for a Central European Union or the rise of Austrian nationalist Jörg Haider in a traditional Western democracy. These situations could change Europe dramatically.

Romania is still on the trail to democracy and has to overcome many obstacles still hindering the curing of major illnesses like nationalism and intolerance. Certainly, this transition is going to last longer than expected, and will perhaps meet with challenging political realities that could have tragic consequences. It also has to pass over the "nationalistic reflex" still alive in the collective outlook that woke up with the rise to power of the PRM.

Marius Dragomir, 12 March 2001

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