“A Unique Death Cult”

How the Romanian Iron Guard blended nationalistic violence with Christian martyrdom to spread a singularly morbid fascist movement.

Corneliu Zelea Codreanu and members of the Legion of the Archangel Michael (also known as the Iron Guard) in Bucharest, Romania, in 1937.

Wikimedia Commons

This article supplements Fascism, a Slate Academy. To learn more and to enroll, visit Slate.com/Fascism.

Excerpted from A History of Fascism, 1914–1945 by Stanley G. Payne. Published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

By the end of the 1930s, Romania’s Legion of the Archangel Michael (often called the Iron Guard) became proportionately the third-largest fascist movement in Europe.

Unlike Germany or Hungary, Romania was one of the main beneficiaries of World War I, which doubled the size of the country. Yet this enormous expansion—together with Romania’s severe social, economic, and cultural backwardness—posed problems of the utmost severity. The country was faced with the challenge of building a greatly expanded and multiethnic nation, creating a democratic political system, and modernizing one of the weakest economies in Eastern Europe. Partial democratization of some institutions only accelerated a kind of national identity crisis and a prolonged search for alternatives. As in some other Eastern European countries, there had developed strong currents of “populism” that espoused a kind of peasant nationalism, equally opposed to liberalism, conservatism, and Marxist socialism.1

The new democratic constitution of 1923 introduced universal male suffrage, and by 1926 a mass National Peasant Party had emerged. Two years later, it won a large majority in the most democratic election in Romanian history. Yet the Peasant Party soon became divided, producing an only moderately effective government that did not institute any major reforms.

Just as the depression struck, Romania’s political equation was fundamentally altered by the return of King Carol, who had abdicated five years earlier. Though this reassumption of royal power had been engineered by a clique of army officers and authoritarian-minded elitists, it was nonetheless accepted by the political parties when Carol promised to observe the constitution.

In fact, Carol was the most cynical, corrupt, and power-hungry monarch who ever disgraced a throne anywhere in 20th-century Europe. An admirer of Mussolini, he quickly intervened unconstitutionally in the political process and drove the Peasant Party from power in 1931. A brief government by the National Peasants in 1932–33 was short-lived, internal division having stalemated the only large democratic party. Since these problems stemmed in part from the machinations of an increasingly authoritarian king, by 1933 the political system was in full process of decomposition, with groups in several of the parties splitting off and moving further to the right, as had occurred so recently in Germany. In Romania, the postwar democratic breakthrough seemed now to be leading toward a political breakdown.

The only major new political force to appear after the breakup of the National Peasant Party was the Legion of the Archangel Michael, founded by Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, who emerged from the ranks of LANC (Liga Apararii National-Crestine), the largest extreme anti-Semitic political party of which his father was a co-founder. Codreanu came from a family in the northern fringe of Romania that was partly German and Slavic in ancestry but highly nationalistic (his rabidly anti-Semitic father having changed the family name from Zilinsky to the Romanian form, Codreanu). He had been a militia volunteer in 1919 and believed devoutly in redemptive violence. This conviction led to his murder in 1924 of the corrupt, “unpatriotic” police chief of Iasi (the university city where Codreanu had been a student), for which he was absolved and drew much favorable nationalist publicity. During 1925–27, Codreanu studied in Germany and further developed his extremist ideas, deciding that LANC—which won only 5 percent of the vote in the 1926 elections—was too rightist and compromising to regenerate Romania.

The Legion of the Archangel Michael was arguably the most unusual mass movement of interwar Europe. It is generally classified as fascist because it met the main criteria of any appropriate fascist typology, but it presented undeniably individual characteristics of its own. German historian and philosopher Ernst Nolte has written that it “must not only be declared, but also plainly appears, to be the most interesting and the most complex fascist movement, because like geological formations of superimposed layers it presents at once both prefascist and radically fascist characteristics.”2 What made Codreanu especially different was that he became a sort of religious mystic, and though the Legion had the same general political goals as other fascist movements, its final aims were spiritual and transcendental—“The spiritual resurrection! The resurrection of nations in the name of Jesus Christ!” as he put it.3

This seemed to be contradicted by the Legion’s primary emphasis on life and politics as “war,” but Codreanu propounded a doctrine of two spheres: sinful human life, which must be the arena of political endeavor, and the reconciled and redeemed spiritual community of nation, ultimately to participate in eternal life. Ordinary human life was a sphere of constant war and eternal struggle, above all against the enemies of the Tara (Fatherland). The Legionnaire must forgive his personal enemies but not those of the Tara, who must be punished and destroyed even at the risk of the Legionnaire’s personal salvation. Violence and murder were absolutely necessary for the redemption of the nation; if the acts that this required placed in jeopardy the individual soul of the militant who carried them out, his necessary sacrifice was simply the greater. His punishment would consist of the earthly punishment for his deed (which he ought not to avoid) as well as the possible loss of eternal life, the ultimate sacrifice for the Fatherland, which must be accepted with joy. A principal effect of this political theology was a unique death cult, unusually morbid even for a fascist movement.

Self-sacrifice was exalted in all fascist and revolutionary movements, but in the Legion, martyrdom was virtually required, accompanied by theological heterodoxy. Legionnaires were aware of the uniqueness of their doctrines and of the major differences between their organization and the secular fascist movements, though at the same time they also felt common identity and partially parallel goals with other fascists. While Ernst Nolte is correct to point out that in single-minded fanaticism, Codreanu was the other European fascist leader most like Hitler (whom he also resembled in intense personal magnetism), the Legionnaire martyr complex created a degree of self-destructiveness unequaled in other fascist movements.

The Legion reflected the anti-individualism and emphasis on the collectivity often found in sociopolitical movements in Eastern Orthodox societies, and it has even been termed a kind of heretical Christian sect. What placed it outside even a heretical Christianity, however, was not merely its maniacal insistence on violence but its biological concept of the nation, whose essence supposedly lay in the blood of the Romanian people.

Normally, to obtain membership, new affiliates in each cuib (nest) participated in a grisly ceremony requiring that they suck blood from slashes in the arms of other members. They swore to obey the “six fundamental laws” of the cuib: discipline, work, silence, education, mutual aid, and honor. Then they wrote oaths in their own blood, pledging even to kill when so ordered. Members of the Legion’s direct-action units, appropriately termed echipa mortii (death squads), in turn, each contributed some of their blood to a common glass, from which all drank, uniting them in life and death.

The Legion had little in the way of a concrete program.4 Codreanu pointed out that a dozen different political programs already existed in Romania, and he proclaimed the need instead for a new spirit, a cultural-religious revolution whose goal was creation of the omul nou—the “new man” sought in varying ways by all revolutionary movements, but one that for the Legion would be consubstantial with its interpretation of the Romanian Orthodox Church and the national community. Its leaders recognized that the country had in some fashion to be developed economically, but they disagreed sharply with the Neoliberal (moderate conservative authoritarians) call for rapid industrialization. The high tariff maintained by the government was strongly denounced for increasing living costs among the peasantry.

The Legion sought a more national and collective or communal basis for the economy, while abhorring the materialism of capitalism and of socialism. Industrialization per se was not the goal, and it was to be pursued only to the extent necessary for well­being, though, conversely and somewhat contradictorily, the Legion insisted on development of a strong modern army. Legionnaires would later engage in small-scale collective enterprises of their own for public works, retail goods, and restaurants. Codreanu always emphasized that “everything is possible” and, in typical revolutionary and fascist manner, that “everything depends on will.”5 Material conditions were always secondary: “Cry out loud everywhere that the evil, misery and ruin originate in the soul!”6 The chief enemies were the leaders of the present corrupt system and the Jews. If the former were immediate targets, Jews constituted the special archenemy, to the extent that the Legion was possibly the only other fascist movement as vehemently anti-Semitic as German Nazis.

For several years, the Legion remained a tiny sect, a common experience for most fascist movements in the 1920s, lacking both money and support. In 1930, it founded a sort of militia called the Iron Guard, to include all Legionnaires between the ages of 18 and 30, and managed to win two local by-elections, gaining parliamentary representation for the first time in 1931. In the subsequent national elections of 1932, which were the most honest elections held in Romania during the decade, the main sector of the National Peasants won approximately 40 percent of the vote, while the Legion’s support rose to only 2.37 percent, in ninth place among Romanian political organizations, barely ahead of the small Romanian Jewish party. Nonetheless, the democratic National Peasant government that then briefly came to power showed some interest in gaining Legionnaire support, and for the first time, the National Peasants began to take a position of limited anti-Semitism.

The influence of Nazism became more noticeable that same year, following the increase in the Nazi vote in the German elections of 1932. From that point, Nazi contacts in Romania increased, primarily with the LANC and a new National Socialist Party of Romania, or PSNR, while a Nazi organization was founded among Romanian Germans.

Both King Carol and the new prime minister, Gheorghe Tatarescu (leader of the PSNR and brother of the Romanian Nazi leader), had hoped to domesticate and exploit the Legion, which acknowledged the monarchy as a fundamental Romanian institution. The government itself tried to form a new parafascist youth group, the Straja Tarii (Guards of the Fatherland), but its artificiality made its generation of support almost impossible. By the first months of 1937, the king began to realize that persistent efforts to co-opt Codreanu were never going to achieve much effect. That spring, more effective measures were taken to put an end to the Legion’s work projects, as well as to its labor groups that tried to operate as surrogate trade unions, but the semiclandestine structure of the Legion itself was tougher to crack.

German influence reached a new level during 1937. Though Codreanu and other leaders were aware of the considerable difference between the Legion and Nazism, they were convinced that the future of their movement and of Romania lay with the “national revolutions” led by Hitler and Mussolini. German support would be crucial, and by the last months of 1937 Codreanu was delivering extremely pro-German speeches, calling for an immediate alliance with Germany and Italy.

The growth of the Legion continued steadily, reaching more than 200,000 by late 1937. Legion meetings in peasant villages would open with a religious service in which all participated. If Codreanu were present, he would enter wearing an elaborate white peasant costume astride a white horse. Tall, with an intense gaze and classic features, he was probably the most handsome of the major fascist leaders (bearing, in more mature and serious form, some resemblance to a Hollywood actor of that era, Tyrone Power). This theatricality often had a strong effect on peasant audiences, and Legion support expanded rapidly in parts of the countryside.

In the electoral campaign of December 1937—the last before the war—All for the Fatherland (TPT, the legal cover name for the Legion) formed a pact with the National Peasants, on the basis of a common nationalism and pro-peasant orientation. But while the Legion drew support from many different peasant areas, it actually did better in the more prosperous, lower-middle-class rural districts. The Legion also drew support from industrializing areas; of 22 principal industrial districts surveyed by the German historian Armin Heinen, 11 were among those in which the TPT had its greatest success.7 Of 2,607 ordinary Legionnaires surveyed in 1939, 20.5 percent were unskilled workers, 17.5 percent peasants and farmers, and 14 percent skilled workers, indicating that in the cities a considerable proportion of the activists came from the working classes.8

By the election of 1937, Romania had reached the situation of Germany five years earlier, with no majority available. In the customarily corrupt and partially manipulated electoral outcome, a Neoliberal–National Peasant alliance registered a nominal plurality of 35.92 percent, the Peasants 20.4, TPT 15.58, and the National Christians 9.15. The Legion, with its strong peasant support, was the third most popular fascist movement in Europe, behind the German Nazis and the Hungarian Arrow Cross (the Italian Fascists having achieved equivalent size only after Mussolini came to power). In fact, the 272,000 members that the movement had at the height of its influence amounted to 1.5 percent of the Romanian population,9 compared with 1.3 percent for the Nazi Party in January 1933, and 0.7–0.8 percent for the Italian Fascist Party in mid-1922.

From A History of Fascism, 1914–1945 by Stanley G. Payne. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 1996 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.

1. See especially the discussion of the “great debate” in K. Hitchins. Rumania. /866-/947 (Oxford, 1994), 292-334.

2. E. Nolte, Diefaschistischen Bewegungen (Munich, 1966), 227.

3. C.Z. Codreanu, Eiserne Garde (Berlin, 1939), 399. Legionnaire doctrine is quoted in the same words—“The ultimate goal of the Nation must be resurrection in Christ!”—in K. Charle, Die Eiserne Garde (Berlin, 1939), 79.

4. Professor Nae Ionescu, perhaps the leading Legionnaire ideologue after Codreanu, is quoted as declaring: “Ideology is the invention of the liberals and the democrats.” “No one among the theoreticians of totalitarian nationalism creates a doctrine. Doctrine takes shape through the everyday acts of the Legion as it evolves out of the decisions of him whom God placed where he orders.” R. Ioanid, The Sword of the Archangel (New York, 1990). 83: for a lengthy exposition of Legionnaire ideas, see 98-174.

5. Quoted in A. Heinen, Die Legion Erzengel Michael” in Rumiinien (Munich. 1986), 210.

6. Quoted in Nagy-Talavera. Green Shirts 309.

7. Ibid., 411-12.

8. Ioanid, Sword of the Archangel 72.

9. Heinen, Die Legion 382. 59.