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Eric Voegelin Society Meeting 2009
as Political Religion. The Case of the Romanian Iron Guard"
2009 Ionut Biliuta
religion or civil religion? The historians's debate
present paper is intended as a critical analysis regarding the usage of the
concept of political religion in fascist studies. More exactly, starting from
different definitions of numerous scholars in this particular field of
interest I will present different understandings of this concept and the
changes operated by scholars like
Eric Voegelin, Robert O. Paxton, Roger Eatwell, Emilio Gentile, Roger Griffin,
George Mosse, and others in their use of the concept. The origins of this
concept can be traced according to Stanley Payne
and Michael Burleigh
to the French Revolution when a new approach of politics was built
by the Jacobin regime. In order to shape a different understanding of the
political reality and to secularize any perception of politics, the Jacobins
fabricated a ‘civil religion' which was used to achieve political
uniformity. The first scholar who applied the term political religion to the
German fascist movement was Eric Voegelin in his epoch-making book, The
Political Religions (1938). He defined the fascist ideology as a political
religion inspired by the gnostic heresy of the Church. Chiliasm, apocalyptic
literature and other anti--modern Christian myths were drawn into
consideration by Voegelin in order to explain the rise of the Nazi Party. The
notion of ‘experience' of the political body played an important role and
was depicted as a spiritual counter-reaction against secular Modernity in
order to reconstruct the medieval political dichotomy between the Pope and
Nevertheless, the main issue of this paper tends to focus not on
Voegelin's parochial understanding of the concept, but rather on its
expansion by such ideologues of fascism as the Italian political scientist,
Emilio Gentile. Inspired by the epoch-making insights of George L. Mosse
, Emilio Gentile, in an article from 1990, named "Fascism as
constructed its own system of beliefs, myths and rituals, centered on the
sacralization of the state."
In other words, "fascist religion placed itself alongside
traditional religion, and tried to synthesize it within its own sphere of
values as an ally in the subjection of the masses to the state, although it
did stress the primacy of politics.
primacy of politics that Gentile is speaking about is nothing more than a "civil
religion" which was a consequence of the historical development of
2001 Emilio Gentile published another corner--stone monograph on the relation
between religion and politics refining his understanding on political versus
civil religion. La religioni della politica:
Fra democratie e totalitarismi (Roma: Gius. Laterza&Figli,
Emilio Gentile's book provides a new definition of fascism as
political religion is a form
of sacralization of politics that has an exclusive and fundamental nature. It
does not accept the coexistence of other political ideologies and movements,
it denies the autonomy of the individual in the relation with the
collectivity, it demands compliance to its commandments and participation to
its political cult and it sanctifies violence as a legitimate weapon in the
fight against its enemies and as an instrument of regeneration. In the
relation with traditional religious institutions, it either adopts a hostile
attitude and aims to eliminate them, or it attempts to establish a rapport of
symbiotic coexistence by incorporating the traditional religion into its own
system of beliefs and myths while reducing it to a subordinate and auxiliary
Gentile's new definition of political religion draws a sharper distinction
between different understandings of the concept of religion and between "secularization
of politics" in totalitarian and democratic regimes. Consequently, he
clarified the terms for the scholar involved in this debate by expanding his
definition and enriching the context of the debate through a clear separation
taken from Political Sciences between totalitarian and democratic ideologies.
Iron Guard as a political religion.
emergence in 1927 of the Romanian fascist movement has been highly researched
and has been regarded by the scholars as one of the most puzzling
fascist movement from the 20th century. There is no scholarly
consensus regarding the fascist involvement of the Romanian fascist movement
. Coming back to the issue at stake, the present section will
attempt to find out if the Iron Guard can be labeled as a political religion
On theoretical grounds, it would be challenging to compare the two
contemporary understandings of the political
religion according to Emilio Gentile's view in order to see the possible
similarities and dissimilarities between their theories on fascism and the
Iron Guard's case. There a couple of issues why Iron Guard as a political
movement was a political, but I will start with those elements pointing out
precisely the contrary.
according to Roger Griffin, the possibility of the Iron Guard to be labeled as
a political religion are weak regarding the fact that Codreanu and his
followers never gain absolute power
. Constructed as a nationalist organization with terrorist means to
achieve power, The Legion of the Archangel Michael was suppressed several
times (1933, 1938 and 1941) and although gained power for a short time (6
September 1940--23 January 1941) was never able to control and revolutionize
the Romanian society because the ‘National Legionary State'
was nothing more than a coalition between the Army represented by
General Ion Antonescu and the Iron Guard. Therefore, although the ideological
core of fascism was present, Roger Griffin considered the Romanian fascism
movement an incomplete fascist movement
because they were never able to gain absolute control over the
Romanian society and to implement the palingenetic myth from the stand of the
highest chair in the
important issue in contradiction with Gentile's theory which states that
fascist regimes always tend either to subordinate or eliminate the Churches,
either to live in a symbiosis with them represents the ambivalent position of
the Romanian Orthodox Church towards the movement. Although the high clergy
preferred a glacial relationship with Corneliu Codreanu's supporters, the
low clergy chose to enlist in Codreanu's movements, depicted by them as a
spiritual revival of popular devotion towards Orthodoxy's millennial
principles. According to some sources 2000 from a total of 11 000 priests
joined the Iron Guard, but the number was insignificant if we have to compare
it to those supporting other parties such as the National Liberal Party or
even the National Peasant Party. During the movement's existence (1927
-1941) the relationship between the Romanian Orthodox Church and the Iron
Guard was never characterized by such words as ‘elimination', ‘subordination'
or ‘symbiosis', but rather the Romanian Orthodox Church fails to appear in
the texts and speeches belonging to the Iron Guard. What mattered mostly was
the personal devotion of every member and less the whole Church as an
about Christian devotion, nobody can deny the Iron Guard's genuine Christian
devotion associated with a flamboyant and revolutionary ideology. Because of
it, many theologians and Christian intellectuals as Nichifor Crainic, Fr.
Liviu Stan or Nae Ionescu joined the movement depicted as the traditional
counter-reaction of Romanian peasant inspired culture against the corrupting
influence coming from the decadent Western civilization. Even such scholars as
George L. Mosse
or Eugen Weber
has acknowledged the importance played by Christian Orthodox
ritual inside the movement and the sincere devotion expressed by the movement's
members in different stages of the movement's existence.
speaking, considering the Romanian blend of fascism a political religion
represents a possible answer to the "mystical" character attributed which
made the Guard so unique by different scholars.
, fascism as a political religion is described by several element:
leader's cult and the importance of leader's charisma, the cult of
martyrs, the importance awarded to ceremonies and symbols, the cult of the
Nation, the subordination of the society, the belief in the movement, the
primacy of violence and exclusion of political or racial enemies, etc. All
these elements were present in the history and the ideological agenda of the
Iron Guard, but I will focus only on two of them: the leader's cult and the
leader's cult and leader's charisma in the Iron Guard, there are several
attempts which proves without any doubt that Iron Guard's leader, Corneliu
Zelea--Codreanu was the incarnation of the values present in the person of
other fascist leaders
meaning a certain God given mission to reform history and to lead
the Romanian people into a new age. Codreanu's charisma was also
cultivated by Nae Ionescu and Ioan Moţa who were the main ideologues of
the Iron Guard. In his Testament
he invested Codreanu with a certain investiture which was
considered to be almost messianic. Codreanu was depicted as the true leader of
the Romanian people, as a providential person sent from above to bring relieve
to the Romanian people. Codreanu's charisma was reinforced also by Nae
Ionescu statements which passed into the intellectual environments in which he
was the main figure. "When God does not send to his people a King, he sends
a Captain" was one of many statements which made Codreanu and Nae Ionescu
charisma in the student's environments infectious.
feature which gathers together all the features of the Iron Guard as a
political religion was the burial of the Iron Guard's martyrs Ioan Moţa
and Vasile Marin (13 February1937)
. Although uniforms were prohibited by the Romanian government,
this event had all the characteristics which enable any scholar to consider
the Iron Guard as a clear example of fascism as political religion. Leader's
cult, the request addressed by Codreanu to the Romanian Orthodox Church to
consider Moţa and Marin as martyrs and saints dead for Christianity, the
ritual and fascist symbols (the flags, the fascist salute, the swastika, the
black leather costumes and green shirts, the militarist hymns sung by the Iron
Guard's members) bound together with the religious service for the dead, the
cult of death for the Nation
were all richly displayed into a secularized liturgy of the
nation. The most interesting moments in the whole political liturgy, namely
the appeal addressed to all those present by Vasile Iaşinschi ‘to
baptize themselves in the legionary faith' or the famous rally-call of the
names of the dead to which the whole gathering replayed with the word ‘Present!',
emphasized the political character of the burial and the undermining of the
religious services seen as an ancillary ornament for the particular display of
social power employed by the movement. Nothing was spared in order to depict
the Iron Guard as a political religion trying to offer a different alternative
of making politics.
Iron Guard seen as a political religion according to Emilio Gentile's
over-generalizing definition represent a typical way of applying to the
Romanian fascism movement an ideal type inspired by the fascist studies.
Nevertheless, someone can argue that the Legion of the Archangel Michael has
some peculiarities which were not common to other fascist movements from
these question which can be applied to the Romanian fascist movement I believe
that the best answer was delivered by Richard Steigmann-Gall when he stated
bluntly that "Nazism was not the result of the ‘Death of God' in
secularized society, but rather a radicalized and singularly horrific attempt
to preserve God against secularized society."
By shifting the whole concept of religion, Steigmann-Gall changed
the understanding of the concept of political religion as well. Into an
, Steigmann-Gall explains why the concept of political religion
becomes totalitarian in itself: "Far from being a secularist movements
replacing Christianity with a new object of worship, Nazism sought to defend
German society against secularization."
In other words, fascism as a political religion was not caused by
the "secularization of politics" present in Gentile's understanding of
political religion, but rather "for Steigmann--Gall, Nazism was no
political or secular religion, but ‘religious politics', that is, politics
in conformity with Christian (Protestant) precepts."
The same goes in the case of the Romanian Iron Guard which can be
depicted as a form of "religious politics" at least until 1938. The strong
Christian commitment of its members and the highly fueled critique addressed
by Iron Guard's intellectuals against modernity and secularization brought
up by the Romanian State in order to achieve a different political discourse
represent a direct application of Richard Steigmann--Gall's theory
regarding the construction of fascism/ Nazism as a political religion from the
Christian roots of its members.
Powers. Religion and Politics in Europe from the Enlightenment to the Great
George L. Mosse, The
Nationalization of the Masses: Political Symbolism and Mass Movements in
of Contemporary History, Vol. 25, no. 2/3, 1990, p. 229--251.
Emilio Gentile, 'Fascism
as Political Religion', p. 230.
Gentile, Sacralization of Politics in
Emilio Gentile, ‘Fascism
as Political Religion', p. 248.
For us it was available
the following English translation: Emilio Gentile,
Politics as Religion (
as Politics, p. 140.
Nicholas M. Nagy--Talavera,
The Green Shirts and the Others. A
history of Fascism in Hungary and Romania, Stanford, 1970, Radu Ioanid, The
Swords of the Archangel, (New York, 1990), Armin Heinen, Die
Legionen "Erzengel Michael" in Rumänien, Soziale Bewegung und
Politische Organization. Ein Beitrag zum Problem des internationalen
Faschismus, (Munchen: R. Oldenburg Verlag, 1986), Romanian edition
Bucuresti: Humanitas, 1999).
Armin Heinen, op. cit., p. 15.
According to Mihai
Chioveanu in Legionarismul ca religie
politică, Idei în dialog
9 (24), September 2006, p. 48-49 it seems that Iron Guard was a classic
example of political religion.
Roger Griffin, The Nature of Fascism, (London: Routledge, 1993) p. 126.
Iron Guard was named ‘The Legion of the Archangel Michael' and this is
the reason why sometimes its members were called ‘legionnaires'.
Roger Griffin, op. cit., 125.
George L. Mosse, Nazism.
A Historical and Comparative Analysis of National Socialism. An interview
with Michael A. Leeden (Oxford: Basil
Blackwell, 1978), p. 90: ‘The new man in the fascist movements in the
Balkans -- the Iron Guard, for example -- is a little different because
there Christian elements play an important role. The new man in the Iron
Guard is a believing Christian.'
Eugen Weber, Varieties
of Fascism. Doctrines of Revolution in the Twentieth Century (
personal memoirs of Corneliu Codreanu, the Iron Guard's Leader, written
during his last detention (16th of April -29th/30th
of November 1938) spent in Văcăreşti Prison are a
strong testimony of Codreanu's Christian inspired imagination.
Francisco Veiga, La Mistica del ultranacionalismo. Historia de la Guardio de
Publications de la Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, 1989)/ Romanian
edition (Bucharest: Humanitas Publishing House, 1995).
Emilio Gentile, "Fascism
as a Political Religion" in Journal
of Contemporary History, Vol. 25, no. 2/3, 1990, p. 229 -- 251.
Please see Stephen Fischer--Galaţi,
„ Codreanu, Romanian National Traditions and Charisma" in Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions Vol. 7, No. 2, 2006,
p. 245 -- 250 or Constantin Iordachi, Charisma, Politics and Violence: The Legion of the ‘Archangel Michael' in
interwar Romania, Trondheim: Trondheim Studies on East European Cultures
and Societies, 2004.
Ioan Moţa, Testament, (Salzburg: Colecţia „Omul Nou", No. 8, 1951) p.
For details, please see
Armin Heinen, op. cit., 293--295
and Valentin Săndulescu, „Sacralised Politics in Action: the February
1937 Burial of the Romanian Legionary Leaders Ion Moţa and Vasile Marin"
in Totalitarian Movements and
Political Religions Vol. 8, No. 2 (2007), p. 259 and following. In the
last article "sacralization of politics" seems to be the historical
metaphor describing the event and not political religion.
other hymns sung by the Legionnaires the most interesting was the Death's
Squads Hymn: "With a smile on our lips
We look death in the eye
For we are the Death team
That must win or die."
Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919 -- 1.
and the Revival of Political Religion Theory" in Totalitarian
Movements and Political Religions Vol. 5, No. 3, 2004, p. 376 -- 396.
Steigmann -- Gall, "Nazism and the Revival of Political Religion Theory",