My father left Romania for the United States in 1983 to escape a dictatorship and give his children the opportunity to develop their talents and follow their intellectual ambition. In the 1980s, living under the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu was unbearable. We lived “bonsai” lives, as a friend of mine calls it: each of us potted and trimmed just so we wouldn’t develop wildly and freely without the communist party’s approval. If you followed the “correct” path, you might be able to arrive at a secure job, with food on the table, a pension, an apartment, maybe a car and a telephone, or even cheap vacations with colleagues. If you insisted on asking questions, reading the wrong things, and turning on Radio Free Europe, you risked being taken off that road towards potted security; you might spend the rest of your life working in a crappy factory job in a third rate city — that is, if you weren’t thrown in jail. Though some scholars describe it as “the exception,” Romania was a textbook example of state socialism, of what a one-party state does to hope, ambition, love of learning, and the spirit of entrepreneurship. The legacy of living under a system of institutionalized corruption, pervasive suspicion and fear is losing one’s moral compass.
Living under Ceausescu was in some ways like living with Donald Trump as president. There was a lot of nationalist swagger, posturing, and boasting about independence from the Soviets. When Ceausescu refused to send troops into Czechoslovakia in 1968 as part of the Warsaw Pact crackdown on student protests, people of my parents’ generation started to look at him as a hero: the man who stood up to Leonid Brezhnev. Ceausescu’s obsession with flaunting Romania’s independence and greatness, along with his own cult of personality, started to swell like a cancer in the 1970s. Cabinet members were made to declare over and over, on radio, in newspapers, and on TV, their love and admiration for the Great Leader. It was mandated that his portrait hang in every classroom and government office. He did not golf, but would pose with all the bears he killed on his hunting expeditions.
Eventually, even the Soviets grew tired of Ceausescu’s posturing. After Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and signaled to other Eastern Europe countries that the Soviet Union would not use military force to preserve communism beyond its borders, Romania and Albania were the only countries where the leadership insisted on remaining as dictatorial as they had been up to then. With the exception of a handful who dared to criticize the regime from inside, most people chose to put their heads down and live in fear. That was when my dad decided he had enough and left Romania, risking his life.
Though my father had joined the Communist Party in the 1960s — he, like others, was supportive of Ceausescu’s independence from the Soviet Union — he had realized his mistake by the mid-1980s. To his credit, he understood what a democracy was and brought his adolescent children away from that place of moral equivalence, fear, and oppression. He gave me the opportunity to learn to differentiate between bowing to party propaganda and becoming educated through uncensored journalism, between bigotry clothed in “free speech” arguments and criticism of xenophobia, racism, and sexism. By taking us out of that toxic environment, my dad enabled my brother and me to make moral choices with all the wisdom that living under a dictatorship teaches you: freedom is a privilege — not just a right — and you must exercise it responsibly, with care for all around you.
Because the Communist Party tightly controlled information, I was ignorant of fascism in the 1980s, ignorant of its deep roots in Romania and in my family. The communist regime talked about it as if it had been something foreign to Romania’s history, rather than an intimate part of many families’ pasts. There existed neither historical research nor publications on the homegrown Legion of the Archangel Michael and the movement it gave rise to, the Iron Guard. The fascist regime that governed Romania during the Second World War, led by Ion Antonescu, was called “Hitlerist,” as if it did not comprise Romanian men who were racist nationalists before allying with the Nazis.
I learned a great deal more about Romanian fascism when I started travelling to post-communist Romania in the mid-1990s with an American passport to study the roots of Romania’s eugenics movement. In 1995 my grandmother let it slip that my grandfather had joined the Iron Guard in the 1930s. He was dead by the mid-‘90s, so I got very little detail beyond the claim that he was just an opportunist. Others since have told me about familial ties to the Legion of the Archangel Michael, consistently referring to it as “just” a Christian nationalist movement. Why “just”? One is not “just” a member of a fascist movement. One chooses to become part of a hate group bent on the elimination of another group based on their biology, and one must contend with the implications thereof. Just like one cannot claim to be “just” a Trump supporter because the man promised to “Make America Great Again” while conveniently ignoring the President’s racism and misogyny prior to and since the election.
In the 1990s a growing chorus of politicians, writers, and historians in Romania began to tout the homegrown fascists as a patriots because they had opposed communism, something that in and of itself signified moral superiority. Monuments went up to Ion Antonescu and the paramilitary bands of fascists who fought against the communist takeover in the 1940s. Cultural organizations were named after members of the Nazi party. Fascists were declared patriots and martyrs because they had fought the Soviets and lost.
In the past fifteen years, however, the pendulum has swung back. Vocal criticism of the Antonescu’s murderous government has made possible the passing of legislation that forbids naming public institutions and streets after symbols, persons, or organizations connected with the wartime regime. Statues dedicated to any such figures have been taken down or relocated to the private property of willing owners. I can’t say that Romania’s moral compass has been fully repaired, but these changes give me a great deal of hope that such extremist attitudes can be overcome.
Today I am a 48-year-old woman with two teenage boys, living in Southern Indiana and teaching at a public university. And, until recently, I felt lucky to be away from the extremism I encountered far too often on my frequent trips back to Romania. But 45 miles from me, in Paoli, lives Matthew Heinbach, who organized a major fascist demonstration in Charlottesville, on the campus of one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the United States, a university built on the foundations of Enlightenment thought, with all its complicated legacies of slavery and belief in the freedom of thought.
At the impromptu press conference Heinbach held after the terrorist attack by car last weekend, he claimed victory for the alt-right and criticized the police for failing to protect the fascists’ right to free speech and assembly. He wore a T-shirt bearing a portrait of Corneliu Zelea Codreanu — the leader of the fascist movement to which my grandfather belonged — and the word “prezent” in capital letters. In Romanian this word means both “present/now” and “ready.” It is the response that members of a military unit give their leader when lined up in formation. I see this choice as a direct signal to embolden other fascists that he is present and ready to assume his duties towards this movement, as well as a direct threat to those who understand the history of fascism.
In light of recent events, can I continue to think about the past in the same way as before? As a historian, the adage “history is condemned to repeat itself” has always seemed nonsensical to me. History cannot repeat itself; it is a flowing river of ever-changing context. But people like Heinbach want to see it repeat itself. He admires Codreanu and probably wishes to see a revival of the fascist cells, labor camps, and legionary stores the fascist movement built in Romania.
The challenge before us today is to insist that we cannot and should not allow history to repeat itself. To do so will require that we educate ourselves about the impact radical right and left wing ideologies had on the societies where these ideas became reality; to think responsibly about the privileges we still hold in this country as citizens of neither a communist nor a fascist regime; and to call out the alt-right and their allies for what they are — a dangerous force undermining our children’s future. If America loses its moral compass, where will I take my children?