A Fascist Christmas: Romania 1940

Ion Antonescu (left) and Horia Sima, leaders of the National Legionary State.

When leaders of the National Legionary State celebrated Christmas in 1940, it was with a feeling of exuberation and victory. Since it was founded in 1927, the fascist Legion of the Archangel Michael had suffered frequent government persecution and prominent legionaries had spent the past two Christmases in prison or exile. Their ‘Captain’, Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, was killed in November 1938 and hundreds of his followers were murdered by police over the next twelve months. But the Second Vienna Award of 30 August 1940 had cost Romania northern Transylvania, and had so humiliated King Carol II that widespread protests forced him to abdicate. The end of Carol’s royal dictatorship brought General Antonescu to power together with a reconstituted Legion under the leadership of Horia Sima.

During their five months in power, legionaries carried out a veritable revolution, appointing their own people to jobs as varied as government ministers, theatre directors, and head teachers of schools. They established a parallel police force that frequently undermined the authority of state officials. Individual legionaries ate and drank at restaurants without paying and took control of Jewish businesses in the name of ‘Romanianization’. Any funds that could not be directly pocketed were redirected into an official charity, called ‘Legionary Aid’, which ran soup kitchens, provided aid to refugees from the annexed territories, and gave stipends to the families of legionary martyrs or activists. A poor harvest, massive disruptions to industry and transport, and a steady breakdown in law and order were compounded on 10 November by an earthquake that registered 7.7 and destroyed most of Bucharest. In the wake of the earthquake, legionary publicists claimed that the regime needed to reaffirm its fundamental beliefs in sacrifice and perseverance, stating that ‘this country will be saved whether it wants to be or not’. Over the following weeks they exhumed and reburied Codreanu’s body with great pomp and ceremony, making funerals and religious commemorations a regular feature of the regime. To cap it off, on the night of 26 November legionaries massacred 65 inmates of Bucharest’s famous Jilava prison before murdering Nicolae Iorga and Virgil Madgearu in their homes. Iorga was a renowned historian and nationalist politician and Madgearu a brilliant economist and leader of the National Peasant Party. Both had clashed repeatedly with the Legion in the past.

Territorial losses, the threat of war, and social and economic problems were not forgotten when Christmas arrived in 1940. Legionary officials and journalists used the theology of the holiday to underscore the goals and possibilities of their own regime. Vasile Posteuca, a publicist with a reputation as a violent student leader turned factory agitator, wrote in the official legionary newspaper The Word – suggesting that the Christmas of 1940 ‘will be darkened by pain and unending sadness’. This was due to the sufferings of Romanians in northern Transylvania, now under Hungarian control. Only when all Romanians were once again united within the same nation-state could Christmas be celebrated properly again.

Antonescu and Sima did their best to win favour with the arbiters of Europe by throwing a Christmas party for prominent Nazis in Bucharest. Choirs sang traditional carols for their guests in front of a Christmas tree dedicated to the Germans. Despite the host of social and economic problems they faced, legionaries declared that on this day ‘everyone should feel the warmth of our souls’. Pictures of Antonescu could be seen in newspapers handing out presents to soldiers. Legionary Aid teams distributed firewood, potatoes, beans, onions, cabbage, and other food to 500 hungry families in a working-class suburb of Bucharest, while other teams visited Christmas celebrations at local schools where they gave out clothes, shoes, and food parcels for the children to take home. Not all schools were so lucky, as many had been closed since the earthquake that year and their pupils were forced to stay at home. Children whose parents worked at state institutions, such as the Financial Administration, the Chamber of Commerce, or at one of Bucharest’s largest factories, attended Christmas celebrations with choirs, Christmas trees, and sweets.

On Christmas day, several full-page articles could be found in major legionary newspapers reflecting on those who died during ‘the persecution’ of 1938-39 and the debts of remembrance and revenge that those still living owed them. ‘The assassins of 1938 did not realize’, one journalist wrote, ‘that on that Christmas when they made the decision that the nation must die and organized their murderous, bacchanal orgy; Romania was born, together with Jesus, through the sacrifice of the Captain … The nation was born, after two thousand years, together with the Saviour, by His will, and under His sign’. Injustice, sacrifice, and salvation were cornerstones of the legionary worldview. Reflecting on King Herod’s murder of the infants in another article, the theologian George Racoveanu wrote that ‘everything that happened in Herod’s day had to happen. The insane command had to be carried out. The salvation of the world had to follow sacrifice’. Messages of hope and promises of future happiness dominated legionary writings that Christmas. In the words of Christofor Dancu, ‘that bright stable in the beautiful winter’s night means the upending of a world, putting an end to the dominance of evil and the beginning of a new age of salvation. The beginning of an age of joy through birth and death’. Whose birth, and whose death, would bring about the promised age of fascist glory remained purposefully vague.

Dr Roland Clark is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Senior Lecturer in History at University of Liverpool. His profile can be found here:

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