When in Romania…

This book will be valuable as much for Eastern Europe specialists as for the general reader


This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Although Romanians trace their country’s foundation back to Ancient Rome, Paul Kenyon begins his account in 1431, with Prince Vlad III Dracul, son of Vlad II, who controlled Wallachia, the semi-independent vassal of the Ottoman Empire (sustained by Islam and ruled by the Turkish Sultan). The imprint of Vlad III Dracul — made famous in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula — provides an interesting thread that weaves throughout the book.

Children of the Night: The Strange and Epic Story of Modern Romania by Paul Kenyon, (Head of Zeus, £25)

When Vlad II was murdered, his 15-year-old son was sent off by the Sultan with an army to regain lost territory. He stormed the palace at Targoviste, Wallachia’s capital, killing everyone in his way, to find his father’s corpse with the head bludgeoned to a pulp, before exacting vengeance and winning the battle.

On gaining territory his preferred response was to impale his enemies on stakes in the ground, leaving thousands of other victims in the fields to die a slow death. He inflicted similarly sadistic punishments not only on foreign armies but also on treasonous groups at home.

On one occasion he sent out an invitation to several hundred cripples, the blind, the diseased, the destitute and beggars, to attend a lavish feast of wine and good food. Halfway through the meal, smoke poured into the room; the barn was ablaze. They all found themselves locked in, with no escape. Thus did Vlad rid his kingdom of those he deemed a drain on society.

Vlad III Dracul had imbibed Christian faith as a child, attending daily services in a chapel. His father passed on to him the honourable title and membership of a secret chivalric society, The Order of Dragon, consisting of 24 members of Europe’s most prominent Royal families. He was now required to make a vow before God to protect Christianity from invading forces.

Romania is still a country of many religions: Romanian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Jewish. There is even a relatively small Islamic population. From the 18th century onwards, every form of antisemitism is displayed: pogroms, excessive taxation, eviction and massacres. Antisemitism reached its peak when officially endorsed in 1909 under the premiership of Ion Bratianu, leader of the National Liberal Party. Meanwhile, Romania’s frontiers shift. Territory is conquered or lost as prime ministers and presidents rig elections, are imprisoned, betrayed or murdered by one another in efforts to reconquer land for their diminished country.

The kingdom of Romania was finally born in 1866 when Wallachia unified with its neighbour, Moldova, and the resulting country was recognised by the western powers — albeit with some delay, since they insisted that Romania could not achieve full sovereignty until it endorsed the Minorities Clause in the Paris Conference Agreement. This demanded a guarantee of equal rights for Jews and other ethnic minorities.

The political figure who stands out the most, and is described in great detail, is Corneliu Codreanu (1899-1938), a hero to many Romanians to this day. This scholarly intellectual radiated a kind of mystical power; his magnetism and hypnotically good looks gave rise to such descriptions as, “a God descended among mortals … the ideal of beauty of ancient Greece” and “a solemn voice of history, successor to ancient nationalist heroes like Vlad III”.

He did not drink; he prayed often; he preached that only pain and suffering would win the holy war for a pure, uncontaminated, Greater Romania. Honesty at whatever cost was a core value of his movement. His first political act took place when he was a student in Iasi university and stirred up mob violence against communists and Jews after an Orthodox ceremony had been cancelled.

His irredentist nationalism drew increasing numbers of followers. He succeeded in instilling a fear of losing Romania’s territory and of the dangers of Romania’s vulnerability to the whims of foreign powers. He believed Romania’s soul was Christian and holy, and he wore leather pouches round his neck to distribute to his friends and supporters earth from the hallowed turf of old battlefields.

As early as 1923, Codreanu (left) began to follow the then little-known Adolf Hitler. In 1927, he founded the Iron Guard, a right-wing, anti-democratic, anti-capitalist, anti-communist and antisemitic political party.

A decade later his links with Hitler were well-established. His life from then on was embatteld. He was arrested, sentenced to hard labour for life, released, rearrested, acquitted, arrested again, convicted, imprisoned. In November 1938 he was garotted by the Gendarmerie. His body was buried under several tons of concrete in the courtyard of Jilava prison.

Kenyon’s account reaches its apogee of horror under Nicolai Ceausescu’s communist dictatorship (1965-1989). Ceausescu’s close henchman, Ion Iliescu, was considered a Soviet agent tasked with overthrowing Ceausescu (a theory still believed but unproven in 2021). Iliescu presided over the kangaroo court and Ceausescu’s summary execution. He then swiftly formed his National Salvation Front before being installed, a few weeks later, as Romania’s first “post-communist” president.

Another of the old guard who flourished after 1989 was the Securitate officer, Virgil Măgureanu, who had learnt his trade in the Soviet Union’s social science academy. After Romania’s so-called revolution, Măgureanu attempted to conceal his work for the Securitate, but Western intelligence services discovered that — unbeknownst to the Romanian government — Măgureanu had met secretly with the KGB.

It is deeply researched and richly documented: there are excerpts from newly discovered ancient sources and secret government reports

In 1997 I had the dubious privilege of being granted the right to see my carefully selected Securitate files, and afterwards to interview Măgureanu over tea at the old Securitate headquarters. He is still around and at liberty in Romania. In contrast, it is pleasing to read that Ceausescu’s top Securitate adviser and one-time right-hand man, Ion Pacepa, defected to America in 1978 and exposed the dictator’s loathsome secrets in his book “Red Horizons”.

Romania is the only East European country which did not immediately purge itself of its communist politicians after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the “transition to democracy”. Iliescu was in control off and on for another ten years — a period known as the “decade of death and near darkness”. But since then 20 prime ministers have come and gone, many of them forced out after being charged with crimes and corruption. The country and its political elites remain mired in corruption to this day.

This is an extraordinary book and in some ways a brilliant one. It will be valuable as much for Eastern Europe specialists as for the general reader with little or no background knowledge of the subject. It is deeply researched and richly documented: there are excerpts from newly discovered ancient sources, fascinating letters, diaries, speeches and secret government reports.

Added to this is the author’s poetic prose, which draws us in, so that the ferocious complexity of Romania’s history — with its constantly changing borders, its plethora of political parties, corrupt and revengeful presidents, and politicians switching allegiance in bids for power — does not feel overwhelming.

Paul Kenyon believes “Romania is the most beautiful and misunderstood country in Europe.” Yes, the most beautiful, but thanks to this book it is infinitely better understood.

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