Love in a Romanian Fascist Movement

Corneliu Zelea Codranu, at his wedding, Romania.

In a fascinating CARR Insights Blog last year, Cynthia Miller-Idriss and Daisy Gebbia-Richards argued that ‘love drives extremism’ because the close communities provided by extremist organisations meet activists’ need ‘for human connection, togetherness, belonging and love’. This was certainly true for fascists in interwar Romania, which is my area of expertise. Despite some periods of legality, Romanian fascists usually operated at the limits of the law and most activists spent at least some time in prison. The extremist and violent character of their organisations meant that activists’ choices involved their friends and families as well.

Grassroots antisemitic organising blossomed in Romania after a strong student movement formed in 1922 demanding limits on the number of Jews allowed to study at university. Women made up roughly 30% of university students at the time, and female students signed petitions, assaulted Jews, vandalised property, and sewed fascist flags in their dormitories. According to police reports, three of the most widely respected student leaders – Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, Ion Moța and Ilie Gârneața – did nothing without first consulting their girlfriends. Codreanu’s fiancé, Lilica Ilinoiu, carried out propaganda amongst both men and women, and often appeared alongside her boyfriend at public events. Her father was a leading antisemite in Iaşi, and Codreanu boarded at her house as well as using it as a meeting room. Ion Moța was engaged to be married to his friend’s sister, Iridenta Codreanu, but rumours also spread that Moţa only married her after she became pregnant with the child of Gheorghe Cuza, the son of a law professor who mentored the antisemitic student movement. For their part, Ilie Gârneața and Elvirea Ionescu were ‘inseparable’ according to police. When she died young, her husband left their two children in the care of an older couple who were also prominent antisemites because he felt that he could not carry out fascist activities and look after children at the same time. The movement had begun to wane by late 1923, and Codreanu, Moţa, and Ilinoiu devised a strategy to revive it while hiking together in the mountains near their home. The plan was to assassinate a number of important Jews with the hope of inspiring antisemitic violence across the country. When the plan failed, Moţa’s fiancé Iridenta smuggled a gun into the prison which he used in the courtroom to shoot the man who had betrayed the plot.

Codreanu married Ilinoiu in 1925. Between 80,000 and 100,000 people reportedly turned out for their wedding. The procession from the town to the forest where the celebrations were held stretched for 7 km. Codreanu formed his own movement in 1927, known as the Legion of the Archangel Michael, or the Iron Guard. With large numbers of young people involved in the movement, weddings were a common occurrence. Codreanu often acted as a godfather (naş) for couples on their wedding day. As a movement that promoted ‘family values’, weddings were excellent propaganda opportunities for legionaries and fascist symbols such as swastikas were usually visible.

Fascists also profited from cultural traditions such as the Marţişor celebration. On 1 March Romanian men traditionally give trinkets with braided red and white threads attached to important women in their lives. Fascists produced their own marţişori, using gold medallions and green thread to represent the movement’s colours. They sold these at affordable prices but sometimes lost large stocks when discovered by the police.

Large numbers of young women left home to study or work in the big cities for the first time during the 1930s, and joining a fascist group like the Legion allowed them to embrace a conservative Christian image while simultaneously providing them with a support network and opportunities for political activism. Legionary girls had a reputation for only dating boys who were also fascists. Apparently they also preferred to talk about politics and philosophy rather than being wooed with sweet-sounding phrases. The Legion provided a strict moral community that policed romantic relationships with an iron fist. Eugenia Vişoianu married a legionary by the name of Veselovschi at a fascist summer camp in 1935, but he left her only a few days after their wedding. The movement’s leader, Codreanu, made him walk around the country – a circuit of roughly 3000 km – collecting signatures from legionaries in every town he came to as punishment. A year later a female volunteer at a legionary cooperative named Mariana Kuntzl was insulted by another legionary, Vasile Boştină, who was then struck by a third legionary seeking to defend her honour. Boştină challenged the latter to a duel, which was approved and overseen by General Cantacuzino, one of the Legion’s top leaders and the president of its political party. The general also excluded Boştină from the Legion for a month for insulting a woman because, he said, ‘a woman should not even be touched with a flower’.

Sustaining relationships within an illegal organisation was not always easy. Alla Thomac told the secret police that, ‘I married Ion Jelescu-Roth on April 29, 1937. … Our marriage was not a happy one because my husband was involved in legionary politics which caused moral and financial problems for our family’. Ion Roth spent most of their marriage either under arrest, in hiding, or doing military service. ‘He was arrested in August 1938’, she wrote, ‘when I was giving birth. I was completely demoralised because apart from the fact that my husband was in prison I also felt guilty towards my family, towards my mother and father, who … had to endure such shame’. The two divorced after he fled to Germany without her in 1942. Despite such challenges, fascists wooed, wed, and agitated for their movement throughout the interwar period. Love and politics, it would seem, can and did go together like a horse and carriage.

Dr Roland Clark is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Liverpool. See his profile here.

© Roland Clark. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).