Nationalism vs. Globalism - A False Dichotomy Part II

‹ Back to Part I

As in numerous other European countries, the quest for a Romanian national identity starts with the 19th century bourgeois state building project. At first only intellectuals and educated people had access to this national identity and in many ways it wash shaped by the character of these early adopters: Enlightenment-inspired figures, clergy, foreign-educated intellectuals, liberal reformists. At this time, the mass of peasants labouring in the fields still saw themselves chiefly in religious (Christian, specifically Orthodox, as opposed to Muslim/Turk or Western/Catholic) and regional terms rather than national ones. At this point there was no urban working class to speak of, only an ethnically and linguistically heterogenous class of urban shopkeepers, artisans, intellectuals and administrators in the major urban centres such as Iași and Bucharest. They had an ambivalent, but ultimately mildly supportive relationship with the young centralised, liberal-inclined United Principalities government (which contained the eastern province of Moldavia and the southern provinces of Oltenia, Muntenia and Dobruja, but not the western regions Crișana, Maramureș, Transilvania and the Banat).

Rally for the Union in 2016

However, Romanian identity, from the very beginnimg, like so many other national identities, was fraught with internal disputes between two poles. One was the modernising, Enlightenment-embracing project of aligning the people and nation to the Western European community, an attempt at synchronicity with Western Europe by adopting imported technologies, customs, ideas. The other bore the hallmarks of Romanticism: a fascination with the original, “authentic” and essential character of the Romanian people, a paradoxical idealisation of the rural and marginal (while at the same time denying it a voice), and the construction of an elaborate historical mythology justifying the current state building project. Note that the first tendency did not necessarily reject a unique Romanian ethos – it only framed it in terms of then-current Western European values and forms. Nor did the second tendency necessarily reject synchronicity with Western Europe, it simply insisting on Romanian conditions being unique and resulting in the new state having to walk its own path dissimilar from the Western nations (parallels can be drawn here to the American Manifest Destiny and the German Sonderweg). It is only later that the former tendency acquires its exclusionary character.

Only when schooling began to be introduced in the late 19th century did such ideas become diffuse among the mass of the people. Seems that Romanians, like their fellow European brethren some decades before, also had to learn they were Romanian from schools and books. But note that the state building project experienced much resistance internally, as much as it had from external imperial powers such as Russia, Austria and the Ottomans (for instance, the first unionist prince, the famous Alexandru Ioan Cuza, with a modernising and liberal agenda, had been ousted by the so-called “monstrous coalition” for threatening to usurp the status of long-standing agrarian landowners and Orthodox clergy in favour of the nascent capitalist class and the peasantry) [1]. In any case, the consolidation of the Danubian principalities into a quasi-modern nation state was a radical transformation for a region whose material conditions were only slowly transitioning from feudalism to agro-mercantilist capitalism. In many ways this is the birth-trauma of the Romanian nation, one of its earliest and most painful scars.

The state-building force was radically revolutionary, but it upset the status quo in a way altogether different from a substantive bourgeois revolution, as had happened in other European states like France and England. It superimposed the Western European liberal model onto a pre-modern and pre-capitalist economy without a revolution from below ever occuring, without the values of the Enlightenment and liberalism becoming commonplace among the people themselves. The bourgeois reform was passed in authoritarian form from above and was marked by paradoxical contradictions, half-masures, and substantial failures. The result was that after nearly half a century of such back-and-forth, in the 1910s, the United Principalities contrasted the cosmopolitan “Little Paris”, Bucharest, with an essentially pre-industrial, pre-modern countryside operating very much under the same rules, processes and technologies as it did in 1500 (that is not quite true – there has been land reform, and serfdom had been abolished; but the conditions after transition from serfdom to small-scale subsistence farming followed by wage labour under the employ of the wealthy agrarian landowner class is quite different from the large-scale flight to the cities that occurred during the previous two centuries in the industrialised countries. Large-scale urbanisation in Romania only begun in earnest during the interwar period, and accelerated dramatically later, in the postwar era). Consequently, the model of a Romanian national identity alternated constantly between the two poles discussed above, the one envisioned by the national-liberal urban elites and the other, sustained mostly by the rural landlords (the moșieri). Later nationalisms kept this bipolar character.

Complicating matters even further was the situation of Transylvania, a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-religious region with a Romanian-speaking majority [2] that has been first under Hungarian, then Habsburg rule since the 11th century. The legal, political and economic systems there were completely different from the United Principalities and had a parallel evolution based on the multi-centric and plurinational character of the Austrian empire. Here there was no top-down attempt to create an ethnic-or-linguistic-based national project, as such a project would have been doomed from the start – indeed, bourgeois-nationalist projects such as Lajos Kossuth’s Hungarian secession movement were dealt with brutally (coincidentally, Kossuth’s revolution ended with its leaders being executed in my home town, where a monument has been erected in their memory [3]). The Austrian aristocratic elite regarded nationalist sentiments with horror, and for good reason – the only way that could end for them is by dismemberment of their empire and absorbtion into a Germany dominated by Prussia. For reasons outside the scope of this article, this did not, ultimately, come to pass – but the unique situation of Transilvania merited some mention, as it lays at the root of yet another scar.

Rally for the Union in 2016

The second traumatising jolt came with World War I, although based on what one learns about it in school one would certainly not think so. The Great War is presented therein as ultimately having been a huge success for Romania, the “Holy War for Making the Nation Whole” [4]. In truth, it was nothing of the sort – rather, a pyrrhic victory at best and a meaningless tragedy at worst. As so many other things in our history, it was marred by indecision, instability, half-measures and misguided conviction on the part of a rather clueless and incompetent elite. In this situation, Romania, still limited in territory to the United Principalities and ruled by the German princely house of Hohenzollern, in its aims and ultimate outcomes, seems to have been the very opposite of Germany. The leadership hesitated to join the war effort for the first two years, in no small part because the Romanian armed forces were ill-prepared and weak compared to the Western nations, but finally entered on the side of the Allies by opening fronts against the Austrians in Transylvania (where they chiefly faced their ethnic Romanian brethren on the battlefield) and against the Germans on the Bulgarian border. Fighting in these conditions did not go well, as could be expected – in less than one year the country was almost completely occupied, with the only pockets of resistance fighting on in Moldavia with the help of the Russians. In 1917 however, due to the Russian Revolution, Romania had no allies left and had to capitulate. Subsequently however, due to sly political maneuvering on the part of the king, favourable international circumstances, and a looming Allied victory in the West, it managed to stall any German or Austrian reprisals, ensuring that at the end of the war, not only was Romania counted among the victorious nations, but was also lavishly rewarded and gained immense prestige on the world stage – at the cost of becoming a proxy and buffer territory between the Western core countries and the rising Soviet power. The Old Kingdom doubled its territory and population, gaining control over the nascent industrial centres of Transylvania. This now created the opposite problem for the nationalistic project: huge ethnic minorities were now stranded on Greater Romania’s territory (they made up 28.1% of the population in 1930 [5]). The horrors of the war and the frenzy of the completion of the bourgeois nation-building project masked the question of how this situation was to be dealt with – but it is the second great trauma of the Romanian national identity, and it is, too, relevant still to today’s nationalisms.

The second modernising jolt was the catastrophe of the interwar years, which, in contemporary discourse, is also presented as a mythical Golden Age of parity with Western Europe and unparallelled national consciousness – note again the dual poles of synchronicity and authenticity. It was, again, and rather predictably, nothing of the sort. This discourse of the fabled Golden Age is, of course, an ideological mystification – the historical truth is that the interwar years were politically unstable, gave rise to extreme social inequities which are still visible a century later, and its most enduring legacy is one of intolerant forms of nationalism (modelled, ironically, on then-fashionable imports such as Italian Fascism and German Nazism, by such pure-blooded sons of Olden Dacia as Corneliu Zelinski [6], better known as Corneliu Zelea Codreanu after he changed his name from the Polish [7]). The increased prestige of the now Greater Romania indeed allowed more direct interaction with the Western nations, but Romania overall continued to be a chiefly agrarian, backwards peripheral territory, perhaps better connected to the global flows of capital through major cities and industrial and commercial hubs. But very, very few saw the yields of these developments. Accordingly, many of the much-lauded cultural works dating from this period mostly reflect the class formation and sensibilities of a tiny cosmopolitan elite – often with Fascist sympathies, as in the case of Camil Petrescu or the famed Mircea Eliade [8].

During World War II many of these tendencies came to the fore. Political instability at home and military defeat on the front were again the name of the game. After he took power in 1940 by deposing the king via political maneuvering, then consolidated it via a military coup in 1941 against his more radical allies in the Iron Guard (mostly to then act as Hitler’s lapdog), the “National Hero”, “Marshall” Ion Antonescu led the country to ruin. His allies included none other than the purported archenemy of the Romanian nationalists, Horthyist Hungary (to whom the king and his para-Fascist government had earlier ceded northern Transylvania, just like that, as part of the Vienna Diktat). In another matter however, Antonescu was quite successful. Both within the Romanian territory and in the Nazi occupation zones in the Western Soviet Union, the Antonescu administration, after expelling scores of Jews in order to plunder their assets, was eager to participate in antisemitic and antiziganist pogroms (it is beside the point to reiterate the numbers again – there have been volumes written on this subject. Suffice it to say that it was industrialised killing of apocalyptic proportions).

There is no rhyme or reason to the acts of these men – they saw themselves as the Napoleons of their nation and era, but in truth being closer to Oswald Mosley, privileged but mediocre bureaucrats who were given, by rare (and in retrospect, quite unescapable) historical circumstance, the opportunity to do as they pleased. In either case, the result was Romania being bombed back to the Middle Ages.

But as can be seen above, the Iron Guard ceased to be a political force in the early 40’s, while Antonescu had been more successful at using Romanians as cannon fodder for the Nazis in Russia or sending them to the gas chambers than making them the heirs to the Roman Empire or sticking it up to the West. This was the work of vassals, not of champions, just like the mentioned Horthy, or Ante Pavelic to the southwest. Thus the cult of the Iron Guard and Ion Antonescu is fraught with paradox – there is little reason in it. The relationship there was a complex, contradictory and conflictual one from the very beginning – perhaps similar to the one between the Nazis and the Konservative Revolution some decades earlier, only where the arch-conservatives won and the mass movement lost. It is rather simply an exercise in finding our own World War II heroes with cool, menacing costumes and spooky iconography, and laying claim to our own part in the “lost cause” narrative of modern neo-Fascism. It is a sordid thing indeed, to see the death throes of countless Romanians being worshipped as the peak of Romanian glory. Yet such is the Fascist conception of nationalism – paradoxical and contradictory. Kiss that boot with zeal, as long as you get to punch down when it’s your turn. Truly marvelous and profound philosophy, this schoolyard bully psychology.

The most profound phase of modernisation was to come during the Communist years. After the chaos of the immediate post-war years, the young King Michael was dethroned (an event still causing hurt to the many bleeding hearts of would-be royalist nostalgics) and the Russian-appointed Communist government transformed Romania into first a “People’s Republic”, then a “Socialist Republic”. This period is so vast and complex that I could never hope to present it in a paragraph – suffice it to say that it is when modern Romania, with its goods and ills, was born. The Communist years can be divided up into two major periods, named after the big bosses that ran the country. Between 1947 and 1965, the customary leader was one Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, a previously seemingly unremarkable gentleman that nevertheless proved a sly politician, able to achieve unprecedented economic growth in Romania, with the help of (or at the expense of, depending how you want to look at it) Soviets. During this time nationalist sentiments were discouraged – the horrors of the war made sure nationalism was seen with suspicion of Fascist potential. In this period, much to the revolt of liberal, conservative or Fascist emigres, pupils learned that the interwar Romania was an imperialist state that unjustly captured territory at the expense of nearby nations. Yet Dej always sought to escape the shadow of his Soviet overlords and pursue his own policies, which by necessity were national ones. Upon Stalin’s death, he immediately ramped up the industrialisation of Romania, hoping perhaps to replicate the Soviet model internally. To some degree, he succeeded – in the late 50’s, the country was free from Soviet troops and industrialising massively.

The Communists who came to power during the late 40’s are nowadays mostly seen as Stalin’s stooges, and they indeed cared little for theory, yet they understood perfectly well that there can never be any modern economic system without an industrial proletariat, much less a socialist one. They consequently undertook the momentous task of transitioning from a quasi-medieval economy of subsistence farming and animal husbandry (that was also severely damaged in the war) to an industrialised command economy. They did this to the extent the material conditions allowed, and their talents permitted. Yet the result was no less spectacular (though the cost was dear, and paid in both blood and debt). In went a young country already in ruins, of shepherds and superstition – out came a country of the 20th century, in which all could read, go to school, receive a house and a job, and be part of something greater and filled with infinitely more potential than tilling the “organic sod of the peasantry”. That this something turned out to be just as shitty is not the fault of the people who laid the roads and blasted the tunnels, erected the power lines and built the dams, ran the factories and mined the coal.

This period was followed by the rule of Dej’s apprentice, the (in)famous Nicolae Ceaușescu, (1965-1989, his death). The Ceaușescu era started with an anti-Soviet, pro-Western liberalisation phase in the 60’s, culminating in his explicit defiance of Soviet hegemony when, upon hearing of the August 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, a Warsaw Pact country itself, he stated in no uncertain terms that the Soviet invasion was a crime against peace in Europe, contrary to the spirit of the Warsaw Pact and a threat to international socialism. Such bold rhetoric was reserved in the past for the likes of Tito – no wonder he instantly became incredibly popular both among the people and abroad; yet when this brief courtship with the West failed to yield the fruits he had hoped for, Ceaușescu oriented the country towards the Third World and China. In essence a noble intention, this meant in practice, however, that Ceaușescu had earned the enmity of both the West and the Soviets – and it seems to me rather clear that the later excesses of the regime can be attributed to i) the crisis of capitalism in the 70’s, for Romania, while nominally socialist, was still part of the global capitalist world-system, no? ii) the economic sanctions and leverages placed upon Romania by both the US and the Soviets; iii) the increasing anti-Communist nature of the dissident movement at home, stoked by handsomely rewarded pro-US emigres abroad and iv) the growing authoritarianism, paranoia and detachment from reality of the regime, in part inspired by the North Korean Juche ideology. Together with this detachment from reality came a troubling nationalist shift too.

The change in the ideological narrative can be seen symbolically in a change of the national anthem: the Internationale was switched out to a 19th century patriotic song named “In this world, I know three colours” [9], those three colours being none other than red, yellow and blue, the colours of the Romanian flag. Lyrically, it is only during the fifth stanza that anything about socialism comes up, and even there the workers are not mentioned except indirectly, as united under the Party. On the other hand, it constantly references the glorious Romanian people (though always in the Romantic sense of the Volk), their illustrious ancestors, and the crushing of the nation’s enemies in mortal combat. This nationalist-inclined ideology went so far as to restore the ancient Dacian names of several cities, renaming localities after national heroes, and the glorification of a certain standardised folklore. Thus, in essence, the Securist [10] of the late 80’s came to be distinguishable from the Legionnaire of the 20’s only in aesthetics and armament, negligibly in ideology.

The house of “The Spark”

In the distance, partly obscured by fog, the former headquarters of Scînteia (“The Spark”), the official newspaper of the Romanian Communist Party, built in a Stalinist architectural style. It is now surrounded by steel and glass towers housing the offices of several tech corporations, including Vodafone and Microsoft

In this later Communist (sometimes called National-Communist) phase, local identities were weakened by massive internal migration as dictated by industrial demand. Local patriotisms, such as the local identity of Transylvanian cities like Cluj or the distinct local identity of the Banat were stamped out by the authorities by shipping in populations from other regions such as Moldavia and Oltenia, relocated in confiscated housing. The massive new apartment block complexes dominating our cityscapes were built in record time for these new proletarians. Thus, any subsequent indentitarian calls had to be nationalist rather than regionalist in order to have any kind of coherence – even though the regionalist chauvinism never really died down. Is it any wonder that the Ceaușescu regime resurrected some of the interwar spectres of Fascism? It was the only coherent unifying national narrative they had laying around, and was also conveniently xenophobic and isolationist for adapting them to a Balkan Juche. The grassroots reaction to it, localism, was comparatively weak and dying in the indistrial furnaces of the immense plants and foundries. Nowadays, such sentiments are mostly restricted to the older generations that remember the before. For us? We are all migrants – no use in perpetuating a petty Romantic dream of the cities and towns of yesteryear. Like the furnaces and plants and factories, they are just another ghost for us.

No, it was not the regional identity that challenged the Ceaușescu regime – it fell, rather, victim to its own excesses. Without allies and with the socialist block collapsing around it, the Ceaușescu regime fell during a violent revolution in December 1989, during which the (by now) SS-style Securitate forces played the part of agent provocateur against the army as well as the people. The difference is that this time around, distinct from the treatment of the Legionnaires in the late 40’s and 50’s, no one sent them to prison or did anything to them – they were sent home with a state pension, not to mention their hidden caches of hard currency, thus allowing them to evolve slowly into today’s local klepto-capitalists. The final and ongoing modernising jolt is this post-December 1989 period, during which they played a major role, and we will explore it and its nationalisms next.

› To Part III


  1. Not coincidentally, this is also when the Roma minority, the much-maligned Țigani, were emancipated from their bondage (robie) to powerful Orthodox clergy and monasteries. Let us not, however, overlook the leading role of clerics opposed to this bondage arrangement, the abolition of which was one of their major demands during the revolutions of 1848. Indeed, in the Danubian principalities, during the late 1850s, the state paid the bondsmen’s masters in gold as compensation – effectively buying the Țigani’s freedom – the current Romanian government should, perhaps, take their forebears as an example that spending taxpayer money on a right cause is not always bad.
  2. The term “Romanian” in this case is, technically, a misnomer, as they most definitely did not speak the standardised, literary Romanian language that only became common much later, at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.
  3. The 13 Blood-Martyrs of Arad, Wikipedia,
  4. Sfântul război de reîntregire a neamului
  5. 29 December 1930 census / Demographic history of Romania, Wikipedia,
  6. Zamfirache, Cosmin Pătraşcu, “Cine au fost strămoşii lui Corneliu Zelea Codreanu” (“Who were the ancestors of Corneliu Zelea Codreanu”), Adevarul,
  7. Zelinski is a variant of Zielinski, one of the top-ten most common surnames in Poland. His father’s choice of Romanian name – for it was his father, Jan (Ion) Zelinski, that changed both their names – can’t be a coincidence either: Codreanu is derived from Codru (“Woodland”), while Zelinski is derived from the colour green and suggests a person living in green surroundings – perhaps in a woodland?
  8. Perhaps I am being unduly harsh here. There is also a lot of great stuff as well. Especially highly recommended are Liviu Rebreanu, Vasile Voiculescu and George Bacovia. If you can forgive him his orientalist exoticism-fetish and idealist thinking, and can separate the man from the text, the mentioned Eliade is also really good when it comes to short stories, though I am less fond of his novels. I used to love his stuff on the history of religion, though I am of late sceptical of any such grand narratives that ignore material conditions and rely on “histories of ideas”. His is a kind of mystical structuralist Romantic interpretation of religious experience, perhaps close to one such as Joseph Campbell.
  9. Trei culori cunosc pe lume
  10. A member of the Securitate (“Security”), the powerful and feared Romanian Communist Secret Police