Ideas And Ideology In Interwar Romania
For the Romanian cultural psyche, the interwar period still appears, after so many decades of indefatigable exegesis, as a real, alluring and embarrassing hortus conclusus, a closed garden of paradisiacal, yet so venomous intellectual flourishing. Major cultural achievements and fundamental social debates seem to occupy the few decades separating World...HOME » MAGAZINES » PLURAL MAGAZINE » Identity and Destiny: Ideas And Ideology In Interwar Romania (29/2007) » Ideas And Ideology In Interwar Romania
Ideas And Ideology In Interwar Romania
For the Romanian cultural psyche, the interwar period still appears, after so many decades of indefatigable exegesis, as a real, alluring and embarrassing hortus conclusus, a closed garden of paradisiacal, yet so venomous intellectual flourishing. Major cultural achievements and fundamental social debates seem to occupy the few decades separating World War One from World War Two, the short period of existence of Greater Romania, with its largest ever frontiers, and during its only economic boom to date. Frequently embellished and mummified, plainly mystified or thoroughly de-constructed, the interwar period challenges any investigation with its active publications and intense debates.
The present issue of PLURAL addresses the main topic of the debates during the interwar period, that is the essentialist statements on the supposed ethnic substance of the Romanians (the particularities configuring their identity as a people), and its corollary, the expected historical fate emerging from those particularities, facing the concrete circumstances of Europe and the world after the first global confrontation of 1914-1918. The birth of the national states in Central Europe from the ruins of the multi-ethnic European empires, on the basis of the principle of people’s auto-determinism heralded by President Wilson and the Paris Peace Conference, created the political conditions and the ideological framework for the predominant discourse on national identity and destiny during the 1920s and the 1930s, not only in Romania, but all over Europe. The auto-determinism itself could be defined as the right (but somehow even the obligation) of the populations with the same ethnic identity to assume a common destiny, embodied in a national state.
War as Origin
World War One is therefore not only a chronological landmark of the period, but actually one of its main social and even cultural ones. Romania participated in the war starting from August 14, 1916, by declaring war solely to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ten days before, Romania had entered the alliance with France, England and Russia by means of a treaty mentioning as its unique goal the unification with the Austro-Hungarian territories inhabited by Romanians: Transylvania, Bukovina and the Banat. The huge enthusiasm of the population and of the army, motivated by the national ideal of unification, boosted the successful Romanian offensive in Transylvania. But the changing fortunes of war, following the Russian revolution of 1917, made the eastern front crumble and, although at times fighting almost with bare hands, the Romanian army was forced to retreat to Moldavia, together with the administration and the democratic institutions installed in Jassy. In a letter to Queen Mary of Romania, in February 1919, King George V of Great Britain acknowledged that “no ruler and government were ever placed in a more difficult position than which then faced Ferdinand and his Ministers.”
After casualties of some half a million military and civilians because of both the war and the subsequent, raging typhoid, an exhausted Romania made peace with the Central Powers in April 1918. This peace was prefaced by the intentional self-destruction of almost all oil-plants and the burning of its own oil-rich fields, to answer a final request of its allies. The Peace of Bucharest with the Central Powers (which was never ratified by Ferdinand, the King of Romania, so it had no official recognition) was a historical landmark of rudeness. In an article published by The Times on 12 March 1919, it was stressed that “the Treaty of Bucharest and its supplements, by which the measures for draining from her the last penny and the last ounce of commodities she could yield, were laid down with scientific thoroughness and comprehension, remain a byword in diplomacy… a masterpiece of extortion. (…) The Central Powers looted the country very thoroughly until they were driven out. They took everything they had a mind to take.” The occupation army had to be fed and maintained by Romania, which was also forced to give up the province of Dobruja and a strip of land bordering the Carpathians, losing in this way hundreds of thousands of its inhabitants. Instead of uniting with the Romanian territories under foreign occupation, Romania saw its land taken away and its economy plundered. At that moment, the war was the most extreme catastrophe endured by the Romanian people, and the real or imagined causes of the situation would stamp deeply the national psyche for decades. Among them, the petty political maneuvers that had sent Romania to war with a poorly equipped and badly trained army, based on a war industry proud of its modernity though finally proving to be strikingly deficient, but also the fierce hatred of the neighboring states, and the largely deluding promises of the allies, unable to accomplish even a fraction of the contributions agreed under the treaty of 1916.
The fate of the war changed again through the allied offensive in the Balkans, and the subsequent defection of Bulgaria, but especially because of the victories on the western front, the Austro-Hungarian retreat from Italy and the French offensive against Germany, forced to call for peace on October 29, 1918. Just one day before, Romania re-entered the war together with its allies, the army setting foot into Transylvania again, and rapidly advancing amidst popular joy and acclamation. The fortune change seemed almost miraculous. After the Paris Peace Conference validated the civic option of unification expressed by large national assemblies in the provinces inhabited by Romanians, the country’s territory and number of inhabitants almost doubled. The future belief in a national historical predestination was strongly grounded on the longed-for, yet unexpected, achievements, compared to which the previous devastation looked almost like a necessary sacrifice, in its full religious sense.
The projection of the whole future of the national identity on to the background of the war sacrifices began well before Romania’s entry into the conflict. In a booklet exhorting the national spirit, The Meaning of Sacrifice for the Homeland, published in 1916, Dumitru Drăghicescu made a sweeping analysis of the reasons of one’s sacrifice for the homeland, going from the practical to the religious ones. He asks, “if clear reason and personal interest are completely opposed to war and to sacrifice for the homeland, and if for reason and for personal interest war is a monstrosity and sacrifice for the homeland is absurd, then how can one explain the propensity for making war and sacrifices?” His answer is that “the love for the homeland is an intuition … that is the vision of a personal interest, but of a remote and indirect one.” This remote and indirect definition of the personal interest in terms of a collective, national identity will influence for decades the debates over Romania’s destiny. Depending on historical circumstances, the inclusion or the exclusion from these remote personal interests of certain parts of the population will follow the tide of rising nationalism. Contemplating the future war in 1916, Drăghicescu had a totally inclusive perspective on the matter: “the ancestors of many of us arrived in this country from over the mountains and the Danube, from Macedonia and Transylvania, from Bulgaria and Galicia; the forefathers of many of us had not spilled their blood over this land during the wars, and their mortal remains are not gathered between the walls of our cemeteries. Is this a reason to question their patriotic sentiments?” By including in his exhortation the Romanians with a Slavic and Jewish origin, he foretold the future reality of the war, when soldiers of different origins fought together, for their “indirect personal interest”, the “war lottery”, in the unexpectedly accurate prediction of Drăghicescu.
Even the foreign witnesses realized during the war how the catastrophe and the subsequent miracle both reflected and infused a sense of community and, moreover, endowed with a certain identity the cohesive anthropological profile of Romanians from different territories. A French officer in Transylvania reported in December 1918 to General Pétain that “le Général (the French General Berthelot) et tous ceux qui l’accompagnent… ont été unanimes à admirer la magnifique résistance de la race roumaine à la colonisation étrangère. Les Roumains de Sibiu, ceux de Temesvar, ceux d’Arad ou de Bistritza sont absolument identiques à ceux de Bucarest et de Iassy. Ils ont en plus la virilité que donne fatalement une longue ére d’opression.”
The French officer’s appraisal appears already to be influenced by the principle of the national identity of the peoples, and their subsequent right to auto-determinism, that will characterize the debates over the problem of the national states during the Paris Peace Conference. At the same time, his point of view manifests one of the difficulties induced by this principle: the fact that an insidious comparison and a keen competition between the nations and the nationalities was tacitly taken into account. This comparative/oppositional perspective, despite its apparent objective and falsely scientific ambitions, will imprint a profoundly antagonistic mark (inherited from the finishing war) on the debates over the issues of the national specificity throughout the interwar period. The land, it appeared from this perspective, should belong not only to the most numerous ethnic element, but also to the most self-asserting, resistant and strongest. Thus, in an article published in The Times on March 11, 1919, the explosive situation of the Romanians and Hungarians’ cohabitation in Transylvania is viewed from the point of view of warring factions: “with regard to the Hungarian claim to a higher culture in Transylvania, I found the Magyar and Rumanian peasant in Transylvania to be on the same intellectual level: if anything, the Rumanian appeared to be brighter. To cite the magnates and officials, as example of Magyar culture in Transylvania is open to argument, as the former, who spend the best part of their time abroad and are not producers, can hardly claim to represent the culture of Transylvania. As to the officials, who are supposedly Magyars, the majority are Germans, Poles, Jews, Slovaks, and so forth, and in order to maintain their official positions became Magyarized.”
The confrontational politics of nationalities was reflected in confrontational ideologies of the peoples’ destinies. In his Historical Ideas and Forms, a conference delivered at the University of Cluj in 1919 (until that moment a purely Hungarian one, second-largest in Austro-Hungary), Vasile Pârvan insisted that “the national is something biological-political; it is the unitary self-awareness of an independent organism, in the struggle for existence with other organisms and employing for defense even the animal form of struggle that is war. (…) The culture of a nation is born from the clash of foreign ideological influences… with the creative national instinct.” Vasile Pârvan, a reputed archaeologist and historian who had a seminal influence on the development of the interwar intellectual generation, especially on the young Mircea Eliade, outlined a kind of cultural messiah-like stance combining the need for superior intellectual achievements and the aggressive spiritual aspiration, that will constitute the real core of the future generation of cultural tenors of the 1930s. Pârvan maintained that “the supreme purpose of our struggle is the spiritualization of the great socio-political and culturally creative organism that is the nation. (…) We are the harsh priests of a religion of purification.”
These assertions, centered on the spiritual revival required just after the war, may seem surprising in the conditions of a catastrophic material situation. Romania was deeply indebted, especially to American companies. Its industry was almost destroyed, its transportation system reduced to chaos (there were only 60 functional locomotives in a country that needed more than 2000), and the agriculture suffered from the lack of laborers as the army consisted mainly of conscripted peasants. Yet the need for spiritual renewal gained precedence over the need for material improvement in the public discourse, and this trend characterized the whole interwar period.
Right after the war, a cultural dispute broke out, of a rather economic and sociological nature in the beginning. Among the starting points was the publication of The Romanian Bourgeoisie by the prominent liberal economist C. D. Zeletin, who argued that there was an urgent need for a fundamental change in Romanian agriculture, in order to make it competitive and assure a future for a fundamentally agricultural country. The change consisted in modernizing it: “industrial capitalism revolutionizes indigenous agriculture from its foundations, forcing it to assume the character of capitalist production.” He was an adept of new, capitalist, non-traditional production relationships in agriculture, and of its massive mechanization, irrespective of whether the exploitations were large or small: “as soon as agriculture has donned bourgeois clothing, it has become an automatic machine for proletarians, however much land this machine might be given to graze.” His position prompted immediate and strong answers. In his Agrarian Revolution, of 1923, Virgil Madgearu contradicted Zeletin starting from a deeply traditionalist and organicist standpoint, as he posited a “fundamental distinction that exists between agricultural and industrial production: the process of production per se is organic in agriculture and mechanical in industry. This implies a different working method and a distinct role for human labor.” As a consequence, he considers that “division of labor in agriculture has a limited role, since the nature of the biological production process does not allow the temporal succession of the stages in the production process to be transformed into a spatial succession.” Further on, he infers a more anthropological conclusion verging on ecology and conservationist mentality as we know it, that “the peasant family has sufficient and good enough manpower… while the large exploitation is reliant on hired hands, who do not have the same incentive to work.” Nowadays, such beliefs would be in the ideological avant-garde of ecological and organic agriculture, but at that time, when most of Romanian agriculture was in that situation, the insistence on the philosophical relevance and validity of the small, familial exploitation was nothing more than incitement to regression. Unsurprisingly, the debate over the two divergent views on the historical economic imperatives of the time, on whether modernization through capitalist industrialization or preservation of the traditional autochthonous agriculture was suitable in building the future of Romania, immediately widened.
Between 1921 and 1926, this debate on the right direction of collective social and economic destiny involved reviews such as Gândirea and many prominent personalities of the prewar times. Together with Virgil Madgearu, other center-right thinkers and publicists such as Constantin Rădulescu-Motru, Nichifor Crainic and Pamfil Şeicaru rallied, from various and sometimes divergent standpoints, in defense of the autochthonous agrarian society. The partisans of the modernist position were grouped around such magazines as Viaţa Românească and Ideea Europeană, and their leaders were, except for Zeletin, Eugen Lovinescu, Mihai Ralea, Dumitru Drăghicescu, Henri Sanielevici, other intellectuals with differing center-left views.
However, after 1928 the field of ideological debates changed significantly. The emergence of a new generation of intellectual leaders, prompted by the disciples of Nae Ionescu, and especially by Mircea Eliade, whose Spiritual Itinerary of 1927 re-ignited the disputes, helped the initial social and economic, and somehow technical debate of ideas on the future of Romania, convert into a passionate, purely philosophical and ideological war over the identity of Romanians and their trans-historical fate. The earlier dispute of 1921-1926 (which was trans-generational, and patronized by older personalities) was somehow hijacked and diverted by the postwar generation, the self-styled “experiantialist” (“trăirist”) generation, whose leaders were Eliade, Cioran, Mircea Vulcănescu, and other figures publishing usually in such magazines as Duh şi Slovă (Spirit and Letter) or Cuvântul (The Word). Publications such as the Manifesto of the White Lily (1928) both echoed and participated in the new trend laid out in a 1928 investigation, The New Spirituality, published in Tiparniţa literară (The Literary Printing Works), which tried to objectively trace the limits of the battlefield.
A series of center-left intellectuals opposed the new wave of spiritualist and Orthodoxist autochthonism. Besides Eugen Lovinescu and Mihai Ralea, Şerban Cioculescu and Pompiliu Constantinescu, who published in Kalende, joined in opposing what was called the “new barbarity”, which was also opposed by lone figures such as Eugen Ionescu. But the dispute lasted until the late thirties, with varying intensity, and in an atmosphere of domination from the part of the national spiritualist camp. Despite distrust (Şerban Cioculescu: “Romanian spirituality remains a desideratum…”) and skepticism (Eugen Lovinescu: “mystical calls and Orthodox exhortations seem to come from different sides of the younger generation, in which is difficult to discern honesty… a spirit of imitation, or the simple budgetary aspiration: only time will tell the nature of this ‘new spirituality’.”), even older cultural figures rallied around the younger spiritualist generation. Despite consistent claims by Rădulescu-Motru, Ralea, Lovinescu, and Eugen Ionescu that most of the new spirituality is a matter of snobbery and self-advancement, major thinkers like Lucian Blaga considered that “the new spirituality exists. So much that I personally feel myself living only because of it,” while Nicolae Iorga avowed that “I am an old incurable traditionalist who has completely lost the notion of the new.”
Significantly, the first debate, in the years 1921-1926 was not really focusing on the matter of a given collective identity, but on the future developments one would expect Romania to engage in. A sense of competing alternatives and an impression of having the free choice for one or another still on the horizon characterized the critical disputes. Contrariwise, the second debate, during the years 1928-1936, derived from the first one, was a no-exit one, uncritical, with the Orthodoxist camp in the dominant position, as if a certitude had been reached, and just a few obstructive minds were left aside, fulminating against it. The theoretical traditionalism at stake in the first debate became militant Orthodoxism in the second wave. The second debate was seemingly starting from a settled issue of national identity (which had to be Romanian in the purist, Orthodoxist way), and its only preoccupation was the question of the future fate, the national destiny, which was congruously represented in an exalted mood, either in a utopian (Eliade), or in a dystopian (Cioran) fashion.
In 1927, Mircea Eliade insisted on the state of exceptionality of his generation, trying to explain, in his turn, how it happened that a largely positivist intellectuality before the war, preoccupied with science and progress, had left the place to a spiritualist one: “the religious crisis was for us more powerful than the crisis of the previous generations. Before the war, the teenager reader of Enigmas of the Universe or of Force and Matter found himself an atheist almost without surprise. (…) We have experienced situations which led us to reason, to art and mysticism. (…) Being painfully and precociously hit by life, we have become accustomed with realities unknown to others (...) We have understood that suffering in life is motivated… We want the values that are not derived from political economy, nor from technology or from parliamentarism to be victorious. Pure, spiritual – absurdly spiritual – values, the values of Christianity.”
Such a disenchanted perspective seems misplaced in the case of a young intellectual, but he was already part and parcel of the anti-modernist, anti-progressive and anti-democratic tradition boosted by World War One, and the subsequently consecrated ideology of oppositional-competitive identities and national (but also generational) destinies. Vasile Pârvan, one of Mircea Eliade’s idols, maintained just after the war that the entire ideology of the economic, social and political progress was responsible for it, because “the triumphant capitalism of the West scornfully tramples under foot all the ideals for which intellectuals, in solidarity with the people, believed they had to fight in the Great War. Triumphant Socialism in the East… has begun by destroying all that is not primitiveness or the bestiality of the amorphous mass. (…) The result of a great majority of this progress is… the learned assassination of millions… in the present war…” The whole cultural, political and scientific project of modernity appeared doomed when seen through the looking glass of war.
Sorin Pavel, Ion Nistor and Petre Marcu-Balş (a.k.a. Petre Pandrea), the authors of the rather brazen Manifesto of the White Lily in 1928, continued to place the Great War and its aftermath at the foundation of Romanian culture and public consciousness, seeing themselves as inheritors. They condemned their fathers’ generation, the prewar one, because it “impudently placed faith in human reason as the only formation and criteria of theoretical knowledge and as the sole provider of moral norms and trends…” Apparently, it was the war that (like in the views of Pârvan and Eliade) totally contradicted the faith in reason and progress. But it was also the war and its consequences which furnished the main task for the subsequent generations: “a decade past we received – by chance of fate – a grand gift: the bringing together in a unitary state of the provinces scattered by historical adversity: much like a flock of sheep lost and found after a shower of hail. These territories were bestowed with new obligations and glorious prospects.”
The feeling of being invested by history with a bright destiny comes out somehow automatically from the sense of belonging to a group identity. Even the frequently invoked specific, confrontational aspirations of a generation, that sometimes turned into a real “generational poetics” based on trans-personal, competitive identity obsessing the young intellectuals, were nothing more than manifestations of a group solidarity, a corporatist and collective ideal destiny that bordered enrollment in a platoon. The generation was the makeshift concept for the collective, for the national, in the ethnic sense. The opening statements of the White Lily manifesto makes it clear: “the young Romanian generation – the most magnificent, majestic and fresh – has risen stoutly on the horizon…” Indeed, they were asking for “more enthusiasm and more sense of responsibility…” and even, like Pârvan and Eliade, for “the purity of the highest values and that of mystery”, but nonetheless they made clear that this was to be done “through the cult of the State, and through the predominance of great collective interests over the individual ones.”
Much later, in 1939, a different type of intellectual, the Orthodox theologian Dumitru Stăniloae, insisted that the Romanian people succeeded in enduring through the history thanks to “So help me God!” but “after the war So help me God! has begun to be forgotten in politics, in education, in the household.” And his advice was to “go back to faith, in the state’s organization, in school, in social life, and to leave aside the models of the Western states, unfaithful and rationalist!”
Catastrophic as it was, World War One was consistently invoked as a turning point, and also as a cathartic and foundational moment for all the future developments of the Romanian civilization. With its ideological, political and industrial aspects, the war had thrown a shadow of distrust over the groundwork of the occidental democracy, on its humanitarian stance, but also on the scientific ideal of the positive modern science, the constant progress to the benefit of humanity. The result, for many intellectuals in the interwar period, was an unabashed skepticism and an inclination to forget liberal and democratic individualism in favor of various formulae of collectivism. The previous generation, the one that had gone to war and made Greater Romania, whose sacrifice was the keystone of the national edifice, was most frequently seen as a deluded, ignorant and manipulated one. Their beliefs in democracy and science were the supposed cause of their bad fate.
For the next generation, national identity and collective destiny were favorite receptacles of personal engagement under the pressure of historical imperatives. The traumatic experience of Romania’s participation in the war worked like a tragic engine in calibrating the cultural output of the following decades. A young generation of intellectuals purveyed, after the war, with all the premises of Europeanism and positivism (the economic boom of the mid-1920s, the solid industrialization, the educational advances, the active international politics weaving Romania in a network of treaties and alliances), was turned aslant to spiritualist nationalism. One would expect that an emergent medium power in the region would orient itself toward developing series of technocratic professionals in every field. In fact, most of the superior intellectual investment was directed toward defining, re-defining, constructing, deconstructing, claiming and criticizing some supposedly irreducible features of the national psyche that made the Romanian people excessively particular, special.
Sociologists and economists, philosophers and historians competed in arguing not the openness of Romania, but its closure, its inscrutable identity. Instead of concluding the dispute over the national identity and destiny, through the successful unification of the country, the war had irrevocably inflamed and hypertrophied the debates. The mixture of sacrifice, miracle, collective effort and endurance; of fate and subsequent confidence in the general destiny as a group, based on faith, propelled an increasing monopolization of the national identity by the corporate state turned into the effigy of the people.
An acute analyst of the cultural and social phenomenon of his time, doubled by a bold polemicist, Mihai Ralea subscribed to the explicative framework proposed by his proponents, conceding that “Our ancestors believed, without rescue, in Darwin, in Spencer, in Haeckel, in Comte and Marx… But humankind, which has in itself an absurd and capricious demon, suddenly got fed up with so much calm and satisfaction… A terrible storm was stirred then…” As in the interpretation of his counterpart, the national-spiritualist tenors of the time, Ralea agreed that the war, the “terrible storm” called forth by humanity’s “capricious demon”, was responsible for the dramatic change of principles and priorities, of values and norms with which the postwar generation confronted the public consciousness. He echoes Eliade when positing that “we were witnesses, as adolescents, to the gradual increase of knowledge,” but the “capricious demon” of humanity made that generation to appraise, instead of the positive science, the workings and the “acknowledgement of hazard, which is God’s other name.” Moreover, “hazard was becoming as important as determinism, mystery as important as what was known…” and the repercussion of these changes in ideas was that “a hideous barbarity was everywhere in the young… They despise civilization and its goods…”
Spiritualist as it was, when argued at a social level, their contempt and aversion for Western civilization turned into an actual policing of cultural relationships. This was the barbarity incriminated by Ralea and other representatives of the occidentalist camp, such as Lovinescu, Camil Petrescu or Zeletin. The local brand of spirituality, Orthodoxism, became the main issue in cultural debates, its real nucleus being the need for defining the national identity in different terms from those specific to the modern Western society. The foremost champion of Orthodoxism was Nichifor Crainic, the director of Gândirea, the leading traditionalist magazine of the time. Crainic’s spirituality, Orthodoxism, was constructed, like many of the similar theories, in a negative way, as a militant retraction and response to the challenges of modern Western civilization, but also to their religious and cultural background.
Answering and opposing the need for a professional and technological advancement of Romania, he operated a distinction between “a technique of the life of the matter and a technique of the life of the soul. One is the result of scientific findings and inventions based on precise and universally valid laws; the other is the result of a long-wearing inner experiences of man with himself… a decantation of life trialed across centuries under the imperative of religious belief and race-bound temperament…” However, the “long-wearing inner experiences” do not aim any more at scientific development and technological progress. On the contrary, they point to different sets of situations and values, less characteristic to a state of social and political normality (as it was supposed to happen at that time, if one takes into account the lucid economic statistics), but rather to a state of inauspicious exceptionality. If the machine was the paragon of a kind of doomed and abhorred normality, the one of capitalist industry, spirituality is, paradoxically, the central feature of other limit-situations, and is itself unsettling: “the technique of animated existence constitutes the culture of a people – i.e. of a particular way of being, thinking and feeling, speaking and worshipping, hoping and even of dying.” Although it opposed the frustrating, mechanical industrialism of capitalist civilization, traditionalist spirituality was itself an instance of failure, of finally accommodating death through worshipping and hoping. Its triumphalism was visibly tainted by apocalypticism, as if, when so defined, the national identity meant a preparation for the worst as its imminent destiny.
The worst was the next step out of tradition for Nae Ionescu too, one of the main vocalists of Orthodoxism. To portray the fantasy-bound mind of a whole cultural milieu promoting national closure and apocalyptic fear facing the menacing world, one of his early texts was chosen, In Defense of Orthodoxy, from 1923, in which, starting from the fact that a certain English bishop (with fanciful ideas of his own) was speaking at a conference in Bucharest, warned against the (really wild) danger of “unifying our Orthodox Church with the Church of England.” A besieged citadel, Orthodoxism is equaled to the Romanian identity, because the fantasy project of uniting the Anglican Church with the Romanian Orthodox one was explicated as “counterfeiting our faith, which does not rest upon a moralizing Gospel but on the profound, organic, link with God… it means exposing our spiritual life to any foreign political influence.”
However insane as they appear, both the project of uniting the two profoundly disconnected Christian churches and the appeal to fight against the project evince a kind of imperialist spirituality. As in the case of the democratic and progressive skepticism boosted by the war, which turned into anti-democratism and anti-rationalism, in this case too there was a reason for fear, that is the older, partial unification of the Romanian Orthodox church of Transylvania with the Roman Catholic Church, under the political pressure of the Hapsburg Empire. Thus, a breach into the general front of preserving Romanian identity in Transylvania was seemingly opened. Although, paradoxically, the true apostles of Romanianness in Transylvania in the 19th century were educated intellectuals coming from the religious milieu of the Uniate Church, the fear of losing the national identity entered the collective psyche just as the traumatic participation in World War One. The caricatured expression of it, like in the case of Nae Ionescu, is an argument for representing traditionalist and spiritualist nationalism of the interwar culture as a (frequently deviated) post-colonial angst syndrome.
The theologian Stăniloae developed a real “political anthropology” based on the identity between Orthodoxy and national specificity, and the need for preserving the spiritual profile of the people in order to claim an ethnic destiny. In the background of his apparently supercilious militant spirituality, one can read the same post-colonial cultural anxiety: “Orthodoxy is the accomplished rhythm of life, its entelechy. Neither Catholicism nor Protestantism care for some of the essential aspects of reality, while exaggerating others. (…) Catholicism does not perceive the eternal variety of the nations… it is collectivist… Protestantism is… individualist and has no faith in God’s help. (…) Western peoples see in nature only the matter to be exploited.” The aggressive disjunction of the national Orthodox spirituality from the Western, European matrix is actually the reflex of the need to preserve a certain identity facing the corroding action of cultural and religious values that were always doubled by political ones. Stăniloae insists that “the lack of a lasting ethnic rhythm means anarchy and ethnic dissolution,” and this process could happen, as it usually happened in history, through the conjugated operation of religious and political factors. Conceiving of both Catholic and Protestant nations as essentially utopian civilizations, Stăniloae remarks that “all utopian nations are conceited”, and the wars were the direct offspring of their conceit, whereas “our nation was never involved in wars of conquest, the wars of conceit.”
Stăniloae’s principal influence in building up a national metaphysics of religious extraction, Lucian Blaga, was interested in uncovering rather deeper structures of the collective psyche, the ethnic archetypes and matrix as they are transparent in a nation’s popular culture. But, at the back of one’s head, he also maintained that “the highest, most complex and diverse folk cultures in Europe belong… to Orthodox people.” A native of Transylvania, he also manifested the same diffidence toward other Christian religious branches (on the same post-colonial ground made manifest by Stăniloae): “Catholicism, presenting itself as God’s state on earth, displayed right from the beginning an obvious desire for imperialist expansion.”
However, there is not a long way from preserving the spiritual specificity of a nation to changing it into a winning formula to impose upon the world. Underneath a certain perplexity and exasperation, and taking into account the background of historical angst that propelled it, some people such as Cioran made that step further. In the Transfiguration of Romania (1936) he claimed that “In order for a country to open up a path in the world, all means are justifiable. All victories are moral. (…) What undeniably exists in Romania is the messianic aspiration… Only then will Romania have a purpose in the world, when the last Romanian will acknowledge the specificity and the uniqueness of the Romanian condition. (…) A fanatic Romania is a transfigured Romania.”
The fatal mixture of ancient post-colonial apprehension, of apocalyptic fears and recent historical vulnerabilities, together with traditionalist arrogance and youthful, snobbish or revengeful provocation was the main ingredient in concocting the diverse variants of nationalist discourses. Their local sources remained unchanged since the early decades of the 20th century. A classical example of xenophobic nationalism, of the European reactionary sort, with all its pathos and pseudo-scientific pretensions, is furnished in the selection from A. C. Cuza’s writings. Nonetheless, until late in the 20th century, the same mixture was promoted by the last remnants of the interwar generation; an example is provided in the selection from the influential oral foreman Ţuţea, whose apothegms of the genre “any great intelligence is bound to oscillate between philosophy and theology” made epoch as late as the early 1990s.
The move from spiritual victimization to the pressure of a spiritual police was intrinsic to the large majority of the intellectuals preoccupied with defining the national identity and the nation’s destiny. One of the theoretical grounds of spiritually disciplining the national body through traditionalism and Orthodoxy was the largely spread organicist belief. The bodiliness of the nation appeared as a given, in the sense of the European, Spenglerian theories of this kind. The organicism connects different tendencies. Besides the scholastic organicist nationalism of A. C. Cuza, the more spiritual Orthodoxism was organicist too; Crainic writes: “the entire national body seemed to convulse, injured and bullied” by the modernization imposed in 1848. Stăniloae had an organicist perspective too: “Romanians have two great passions: the land and the faith. They are the two organic and essential realities of the life.” His master’s spiritual anthropology, Blaga’s theory of the “mioritic space” imbues the whole nature with soul, with an organic national soul, in his view of the Romanian landscape as a “rhythmic succession of hills of trust and valleys of resignation.” Pârvan had the same convictions: “the national is something biological-political; it is the unitary self-awareness of an independent organism…” Dimitrie Gusti, in his speculative sociology, sees “the will” as the “very essence of the national life”, and to him nothing could be understood about the Romanians without “the profound and organic connection between the land and the people.” The same belief is deeply entrenched in the speculative economy of Madgearu too, who thinks that “the process of production is organic in agriculture…” but also by Nae Ionescu, who maintained that the national Orthodox faith assured a “profound, organic link with God…”, or by Vasile Băncilă, who speculated on the organic participation of Transylvania in the definition of the nation’s body and soul.
They have in common the representation of the nation as a living being, an organism provided with identity, with body (the land) and soul (Orthodoxy), but deprived of any other destiny except that of merely existing, surviving and reproducing itself in an a temporal fashion. What matters is only the given, the matrix-like land and the immortal national soul. There is little room left for mutual agreements between individuals producing the laws governing a democratic society. The equivocal and loose place of the state in this combination is significant for a society still diffident towards the democratic mechanisms of modern civilization, preferring the traditional relationships of dependency and spiritual obedience. When invoked, the state (the Cult of the State) is seen simply as an instance of (aggressive) authority, needed to reinforce the national identity of the people, through xenophobic measures of the kind of “numerus clausus” advocated by A. C. Cuza, or by means of re-spiritualization of the institutions as required by Stăniloae, if not by way of following the program of a “science of the nation” like the corporate one proposed by Gusti, whose main point was “to oversee the life attitude of the nation and of its neighbors…”
Theoretically, Romania had by that time a sound democratic constitution, a party system and a lively parliamentary life that would apparently ensure a proper cohesion of its inhabitants as responsible citizens of a modern European state. If this were to be the case, the recourse to traditional, pre-modern forms of social cohesion and their gradual transformation into a real spiritual police dominating the debates in the public space would be unimaginable. The reason that the reverse occurred resides in the flawed functioning of the Romanian democracy, both before and after the war. Incriminating the extended petty politics and corruption he encountered, the French ambassador to Bucharest in 1919, Beaupoil de Saint-Aulaire, remarked that in Romania “le principal correctif des abus est l’alternance des partis appelés à en profiter,” which was actually correct then as well as later.
In its own state, the Romanian nation felt uneasy in the narrow clothes of parlamentarianism. The social and political body seemed refractory to abstract laws and norms, but obedient to authority and force. As a society, the Romanians were characterized by agglutination instead of solidarity, by rumor instead of communication, and faith instead of a national project. As shown by the selections from Constantin Rădulescu-Motru, but especially from Mihail Manoilescu, the living together of Romanians was either complacent and promiscuous in the cities, mimicking Western patterns, or immobilist and fatalist in the countryside, attuned to immemorial traditional schemes. A basic distrust in theses, in arguments and theories characterized their rapid emptying of content and sarcastic manipulation of ideas as void wording. Pretending and mocking, masking and deriding fundamental statements of democracy were business as usual.
It is on this foundation, and against the background of a flawed democracy, that the spiritual police followed its course. Its final outcome, the emergence of the fascist movement, and especially of the Iron Guard, profited (contrarily to the Italian fascism, based on antiquity-bound mythology of power) from the local sediment of traditional Orthodoxism, that is a non-political element. The corporate civic politics of the kind of the fascist state found little support in interwar Romania. One may grasp this from the case of the short-lived construction of this kind, the royal dictatorship of Carol II, from 1938 to 1940, emulated after all the authoritarian models of the time, from Mussolini and Hitler to Franco and Salazar. The insubstantial royal myth and the counterfeited popular support is transparent from the inflated, ludicrously triumphal text of Armand Călinescu presented in this anthology.
Facing all these features, one has no difficulty in understanding why Romanian intellectuals were developing, in general, mechanisms of national dis-identification (appearing often under the disguise of over-identification). Distrust and discontent (but only seldom applied criticism) characterized for a long time the intellectual positioning facing the national identity and destiny. The liberal generation of 1848 was discontent with tradition, the “sămănătorism” and “poporanism” and the traditionalists after 1900 were distrustful facing the revolutionary liberalism of 1848, the so-called generation of 1927 was discontent with both liberalism and traditionalism, and so on and so forth.
However, there were, during the interwar period too, a few thinkers that had little in common with either tendency. They were building theoretical systems apparently foreign to the ideological and political tensions that marked the rest of the intellectual endeavors. Among them, Ionel Dobrogeanu-Gherea (Le Moi et le Monde, Bucharest, 1938) developed an existential phenomenology with a hermeneutic opening well avant la lettre, while Ştefan Lupaşcu (later Stephane Lupasco) elaborated, in a few treatises published in Romania in the 1930s, an ontological construction based on the newest achievements in the philosophy of science (L’expérience microphysique et la pensée humaine, Bucharest, 1940). They were defining their identity and destiny in a purely implicit and individual way, out of the current schemes on the Romanian intellectual scene. In a sense, they are the only ones who forged their intellectual identities out of the problem of the (purely national) profile and, as a corollary, they point to a cultural destiny that surpasses the purely local one. Without being truly cosmopolitan, they produced “works” in a stronger technical, abstract sense, their researches aiming for results able to exceed a validity restricted hic et nunc. Unsurprisingly, some of their contemporaries like Eliade and Cioran for example, so deeply entrenched in the national matters in the interwar period, will follow later on the same path to more de-localized research and universal, abstract thinking.
by Erwin Kessler
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