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East European Perspectives: February 19, 2003

19 February 2003, Volume 5, Number 4


By Michael Shafir

An Ordinance Imposed From Afar

On 13 March 2002, the Romanian government issued an emergency ordinance banning the cult of Marshal Ion Antonescu. The ordinance came into force on 28 March, with its publication in the official gazette, "Monitorul oficial." For unclear reasons, the issuance of the document was kept secret for five days, its contents emerging only on 18 March. The most likely explanation for the briefly kept secrecy should probably be sought in a concerted public-relations campaign targeting foreign, rather than domestic, audiences. For it was also on 18 March that, at the National Defense College in Bucharest, the first syllabus for high-ranking officials on the Holocaust in Romania was launched. Teaching the first course was Dr. Radu Ioanid of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., a Romanian-born historian and author of several books on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in Romania. Not without reason (see below), Ioanid was viewed by many in Romania as some sort of "chief monitor" of the thriving Antonescu cult, the man who was behind alerting U.S. congressmen and Jewish-American organizations that time and again protested against the transformation of the country's wartime leader into an object of semi-officially sanctioned cult. It was apparently hoped that the impact of the announcement on the ordinance would be enhanced by Ioanid's presence at the inauguration of the syllabus -- and its echoes on Capitol Hill would not be missed.

By issuing the ordinance, Premier Adrian Nastase was fulfilling a pledge made during an October 2001 visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum and at a meeting with U.S. Jewish leaders in New York. That the Romanian premier was also received on the occasion of that visit by U.S. President George W. Bush for a previously unscheduled meeting had probably little to do with the way the Holocaust was treated in his country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 October and 2 November 2001; "Cotidianul" and "Curentul," 5 November 2001); rather, it was a "friendly signal" for the premier of a country that had rallied behind Washington more than others in East-Central Europe after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. But the signal was being beamed at a time when Romania was intensifying its (eventually successful) efforts to be accepted as a member of NATO at the alliance's November 2002 summit in Prague; and perceptions in Bucharest about who can influence a positive decision had been unmistakably displayed during a visit paid by Nastase to Israel in July of that year, when he sought to enlist the support of the country's two chief rabbis for Romania's membership of NATO (Romanian Television, Channel 1, 17 July 2001).

In interviews granted on the occasion, Ioanid bluntly told his hosts that Romania "cannot enter NATO with Antonescu on its banners." To become a member of the alliance, he said, Romania must also become a member in the family that shares its values (Mediafax, 18 March 2002). To make that statement at the heart of one of the Antonescu cult cradles -- the Army -- showed no little measure of self-confidence (as well as some chutzpah). As mentioned, the Romanian military and the college that was launching the syllabus had long been among the main promoters of the cult. But Ioanid was drawing attention to recent statements by U.S.-NATO Committee Chairman Bruce Jackson. Indeed, on a visit to Bucharest some three weeks earlier, and despite praising the progress made by Romania in military reforms toward NATO accession, Jackson did not mince words: "Give me a bulldozer and I shall immediately destroy all Antonescu statues," he said, adding that adherence to democratic values includes facing one's historical past and is "not negotiable" in the accession process ("Romania libera," 27 February 2002).

The ordinance prohibited the display of "racist or fascist symbols," the erection of statues or commemorative plaques for those condemned in Romania or abroad for "crimes against peace," and for "crimes against humanity," as well as the naming of streets and other places after those personalities. Exceptions were to be made only for museums where such statues could be displayed for the purpose of "scientific activity" carried out outside "public space." It also outlawed organizations of "fascist, racist, and xenophobic character" that promote ideas "on ethnic, racist, or religious grounds" and extended this prohibition to both registered and unregistered foundations or any other form of organization consisting of three or more people. Finally, it provided penalties ranging from fines to 15 years in prison for those infringing its regulations or denying the Holocaust ("RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2002; "Cotidianul," 19 March 2002; "Monitorul oficial al Romaniei," 28 March 2002). In other words: the ordinance reflected the response to a situation in which the country's ruling political elite had been told it could no longer procrastinate. For what Jackson had told his hosts in February was that an option has to me made between two clashing "memories." On the one hand, there was the "memory" of those promoting the Antonescu cult and of those who acquiesced to that promotion out of utilitarian motivations; on the other had, there was the "memory" of Antonescu as chief perpetrator of the Romanian Holocaust reflected in Jewish and (more rarely) Romany commemorations of his victims. And Jackson had made it crystal-clear that the latter "memory" coincided with the collective "memory" of the organization Romania was striving to join.

For the purpose of domestic consumption and in what might have been an attempt to sweeten the pill of the foreign-prescribed medicine, the country's leadership seemed to employ an idiom different from that employed for outside usage even after the ordinance's issuance. On 22 March, Nastase was emphasizing his opposition to attempts to "indict the Romanian people for the Holocaust" (Romanian Radio, 22 and 23 March 2002) and that responsibility for its perpetration "squarely falls on the leaders and the government of the times, and on them alone." Nastase was thereby legitimizing the jargon of Romanian Holocaust deniers, who always protest what they claim are attempts to "indict the Romanian people" for the purpose of squeezing out from the country fabulous amounts of compensation. Last but by no means least, the premier was also indulging in the "comparative trivialization" of the Holocaust (see Shafir, 2002) when he claimed that "history has encountered situations that were a lot more grievous, any yet nobody tried to indict the German, Russian or the American peoples."

In turn, President Iliescu, was reiterating -- though in a slightly modified formulation -- his deflection of negative perceptions of Antonescu onto foreigners. Addressing a seminar organized in Bucharest under the auspices of U.S. Jewish organizations, Iliescu said that Antonescu is considered "BY THE STATES WHO FOUGHT IN WORLD WAR II FOR DEMOCRACY AND AGAINST HITLER" to be a war criminal and that consequently "any manifestation of an Antonescu cult" in Romania "NO MATTER HOW ONE TRIES TO JUSTIFY IT" is perceived there as being "in defiance of the international community attached to democratic ideals and values" (Adevarul, 26 March 2002. Emphasis added). The encoded messages of the country's two highest officials thus read: You can rest assured that we shall not force you into facing collective responsibility, and you must understand that we do not necessarily identify with what is being imposed on us.

An additional signal for internal consumption came when the government, in an obvious contradiction to its own ordinance, decided to display at its official seat the portraits of all Romanian premiers. The gallery, of course, included the marshal's portrait, which triggered a letter of protest by the U.S. Helsinki Commission, objecting to both that step and to procrastination in removing the Antonescu statues ("Adevarul," 29-30 June 2002). Culture Minister Razvan Theodorescu, however, had claimed on 27 May that all Antonescu statues -- except a bust displayed in Bucharest in the courtyard of the church built by him -- had been dismantled ("Cotidianul," 28 May 2002). As for the governmental portrait gallery, Theodorescu explained that the exhibit was outside "public space" and thus within the restrictions of the ordinance (Mediafax, 29 June 2002). One could just as well have argued that the official seat of the government was the very center of "public space."

According to the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania, since 1993 six statues had been erected in the memory of the marshal -- in Bucharest, Iasi, Jilava, Slobozia, Piatra-Neamt, and Targoviste (Mediafax, 18 March 2002). The pro-Antonescu forces, on the other hand, counted only four statues (see "Romania mare," no. 612, 5 April 2002). Two more statues -- in Sarmas and Calarasi -- were mentioned in the U.S. Helsinki Committee protest letter. Which of these belonged to the category of "public space" and would thus have to be dismantled according to the ordinance's stipulation was not quite clear. At Jilava, a cross (not a statue) had been erected on the spot of Antonescu's execution sometime in the early 1990s, without any public announcement having been made on it. Administered by the Justice Ministry, the Jilava prison grounds are arguably "public space," but it seems that the cross is still in place. Two busts -- in Bucharest and in Sarmas (Mures County) -- were on church grounds, the one in the capital being in the courtyard of the church built by the dictator, whose unveiling had been attended by Chelaru. Were these monuments in "public space"? The Bucharest statue was not dismantled but was ordered to be "covered" (Mediafax, 29 June 2002; "Romania mare," No. 628, 26 July 2002). The mayor of Calarasi denied that the statue in his town was displayed in "public space," saying that the bust was on the grounds of the Marshal Ion Antonescu League and thus untouchable ("Jurnalul national," 2 July 2002). That left in fact three statues undoubtedly erected in "public space": the one in Letcani, near Iasi, in a military cemetery -- "Heroes' Cemetery Ion Antonescu!"; in Slobozia; and in Piatra-Neamt (the statue in Targoviste apparently does not exist). These were all dismantled (Mediafax, 29 March and 15 April 2002; Totok, 2002). Finally, procedures were launched in early August against PRM Cluj Mayor Gheorghe Funar, who had displayed several blueprints for a planned statue at City Hall and had refused to dismantle them (Mediafax, 1 August 2002; "Romania mare," No. 632, 23 August 2002).

The cheapest statue, Pippidi writes, is the renaming of a street. "Street signs can be replaced as one political regime chases out its predecessor" (Pippidi, 2000, p. 8). According to Premier Nastase, by 31 July, 14 of the 25 streets named after Antonescu had been renamed and the rest were to soon follow (Mediafax, 31 July 2002). But there was also clearly local resistance. Oradea Mayor Petru Filip announced that the municipal council (located on Ion Antonescu street, one of the town's largest avenues) has rejected the government's ordinance because "it is unclear whether the marshal was a war criminal or not." He eventually gave in. The Botosani municipal council followed in its footsteps, with several councilors representing the ruling party joining those of the PRM in opposing the ordinance, but had to change the decision after receiving a stern dissolution threat from Bucharest ("Jurnalul national," 2 July 2002 and 1 August 2002; "Romania mare," No. 634, 6 September 2002). Other local councils simply ignored the ordinance without bothering to react at all.

Far more important, the fate of the ordinance itself was becoming unclear. Emergency ordinances become effective upon their issuance, but must eventually be approved by the parliament in order to become laws. Debates within parliamentary commissions had shown that this was by no means to be taken for granted.

While the Senate's Human Rights Commission approved the ordinance's text without amendment on 9 April, in the Defense Commission representatives of the opposition National Liberal Party (PNL) -- former party Chairman Mircea Ionescu-Quintus among them -- joined those of the PRM in demanding that the text be amended. It was claimed that the Holocaust was a diffuse concept that needed clarification; and it was also claimed that the article in the ordinance prohibiting Holocaust denial infringes on human rights in general and on the right of freedom of expression in particular (Mediafax, 9 April 2002; "Cotidianul," 15 April 2002). Although the PNL leadership distanced itself from its representatives on the commission (Mediafax, 17 April 2002), their position was partly embraced by the same chamber's Judicial Commission. After twice postponing approval, this commission agreed on 5 June to an amended text, based on the proposal made by Senator Gheorghe Buzatu, a PRM deputy chairman and a historian specializing in Holocaust denial. Buzatu had proposed that the Holocaust be defined as "THE SYSTEMATIC MASSIVE EXTERMINATION OF THE JEWISH POPULATION IN EUROPE, ORGANIZED BY THE NAZI AUTHORITIES DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR." In other words, BY DEFINITION there has been no Holocaust in Romania, since the extermination of Jews there had not been "organized by the Nazi authorities." The commission also reduced the maximum penalty for setting up organizations of a "fascist, racist, or xenophobic" character from 15 to five years in prison (Mediafax, 5 June 2002).

The definition is perfectly in line with Buzatu and his associates' peculiar "selective negationism," which does not deny the Holocaust as having taken place ELSEWHERE but excludes ANY participation of members of one's own nation in its perpetration (Shafir, 2002). Should the plenum of the Senate approve the amendments proposed by the two commissions -- and should the Chamber of Deputies, whose commissions have not yet debated the ordinance -- also heed them, the government's emergency ordinance would be emptied of relevance. What is more, an emergency ordinance can be enforced for only one year. If parliament has not approved it by then, the legislation becomes extinct. And it is quite obvious that the purpose of the Buzatu-proposed "definition" was precisely to provoke endless debates, procrastinating on approval until the one-year deadline has run out.

The efforts by Theodorescu to preempt this situation, while apparently prompted by an attempt to overcome resistance, rendered a sense of the tragicomic. He proposed -- as he would do at a special session of the Academy called to debate the issue of the Holocaust and Romania's role in it -- that it be specified that while no Holocaust had taken place in Romania, "Holocaust-like" policies were implemented by the Antonescu regime on territories under "temporary Romanian occupation" (Romanian Television, First Channel and Mediafax, 8 May 2002; Mediafax, 27 May 2002; Rompres, 28 June 2002). The Nazis could almost make the same claim, in fact. Most Holocaust atrocities, they could contend, had been perpetrated on non-German territory. Besides, to consider Bessarabia and northern Bukovina "occupied territories" called into question the legitimacy of Antonescu's joining of the war launched by Hitler against the Soviet Union -- in other words, that very legitimacy on whose grounds many Romanians rejected any parallel between the two countries' wartime acts.

In Lieu Of Conclusion: Constrained Memory And Its Discontents
The "clash of memories" has expectedly resulted in the victory of the stronger. How secure that victory can be considered to be is, however, a different matter. Historical experience advocates caution. The 1923 extension of full citizenship rights to Romanian Jews was also achieved under considerable Western pressure over a long period of time, dating as far back as the 1866 constitution. Like then, the pressures extended by the Alliance Israelite Universelle via the Western powers was much resented, and in the end the 1923 "achievement" proved short-lived (see Livezeanu, 1995 and Iancu, 1996).

Reactions to the ordinance confirm that cautionary note is in order. First, the acceptance of the Buzatu version of the "definition" of the Holocaust speaks volumes about the Romanian attempt to "have its cake and eat it too." Second, the Romanian leadership's ambivalence in presenting the necessity of having the ordinance approved was telling a different story to domestic ears than the tune played for international listenership. In defending the ordinance, Defense Minister Ioan Mircea Pascu went as far as urging young PSD members to be "rational, rather than emotional." Medieval Prince Vlad the Impaler -- for many a national hero -- would have been condemned for "crimes against humanity" had he been put on trial at Nuremberg, Pascu said (Mediafax, 26 July 2002) -- thus hinting that he agrees that Antonescu's condemnation was quite unfair but also that history's FINAL judgment might produce a different verdict. Moreover, and third, there was obvious reluctance within the ranks of the ruling party itself to the government-initiated measures. This was hardly surprising, as the PSD has always willingly included in its own ranks nationalists and extreme nationalists. A former Iliescu critic over Antonescu and his positions on the Holocaust, Adrian Paunescu, was now a PSD senator, and he did not hesitate to wage war on his own party's position. In fact, the debate at the Romanian Academy was prompted by Paunescu's insistence that "history must be left to historians" -- which was also one of the main anti-ordinance postures displayed by the PRM, though not only by it ("Cotidianul," 26 March 2002). Nor was Paunescu alone within the PSD ranks in his resistance. He was joined, for example, by PSD Cultural Commission Deputy Chairman Grigore Zanc (Andreescu, 2002).

Positions displayed by Romania's historians in the ensuing debate were not surprising either. The most militant on the rejectionist side was, of course, Buzatu. The only ethnic Romanian historian to come out clearly in favor of the ordinance was, again unsurprisingly, Andrei Pippidi. His spouse, political scientist Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, pointed out that the ordinance was in itself insufficient. Public perceptions of Antonescu, she said, will change only if the legislation is followed by a more critical debate of what the marshal actually did. "From now on, it is the duty of liberal intellectuals to say that they have another opinion of Romania's past" (interview with Reuters, 6 May 2002). Indeed, a public-opinion poll carried by the daily "Ziua" among its readers in 2001 showed that less than one in four (24.59 percent) were of the opinion that Antonescu had been a war criminal, and a large majority of over 75 percent held the opposite opinion ("RFE/RL Newsline," 26 June 2002). This is, by and large, precisely what historians FAILED to do, however and, as Mungiu-Pippidi hinted in the same interview, there were good reasons to suspect this would be so. "Ceausescu," she said, had needed these intellectuals to "show that his policy, independent from the West and from the East, was a national policy," and for this purpose he had used them; "but Ceausescu is now dead and the groups are still here."

In the ensuing debates, former party-subservient but nationalist-minded historians would size the occasion to make clear their opposition. This, for example, was the case of university Professor Mihail Retegan, who (as if he had ever raised his voice against the party under the previous regime) said he thought the days when the communist regime was interfering with historical research had been left behind. This was similarly the case of the head of the Academy's Historical Section, Dan Berindei, who stated that Romania needs no legislation against Holocaust denial, because "there has been no Holocaust in Romania. There have been some deportations to Transnistria; [Romania] was an anteroom of the Holocaust but not [the place of the] Holocaust" (Jurnalul national," 8 May 2002). Or, as Berindei would put it at the debate of the Romanian Academy, the country had only been "a wing of the phenomenon, that touched Romania as well" (Rompres, 28 June 2002). Florin Constantiniu, a correspondent member of the Academy, on the other hand, put on his habitual performance of "objectivity": On one had, he praised Antonescu for being "the only politician in Romania's history" who attempted to restore the country's territorial integrity, while on the other hand he deemed his policies toward the Jews as "more than a crime -- a mistake!" At a symposium at the Bucharest Institute for Defense, Political, and Military History Studies on 1 July that I had the honor to attend, the historian complained, on the other hand, about attempts to impose "political correctness" and dictates from abroad, and wondered why historians, political scientists, and politicians in general display such "haste" toward Romania's "Antonescu problem," which, he claimed, would find its clarification and solution in due time. Constantiniu's criticism was common to several anti-ordinance postures. Though obviously driven by radically different motivations, the PRM or Serban Suru, leader of the neo-Iron Guard in Romania, found themselves sharing the same boat with the Romanian Association for the Defense of Human Rights-Helsinki Committee, which issued a position paper on the ordinance. Gabriel Andreescu, a prominent defender of human rights in his country, emphasized in that position paper that the Emergency Ordinance 31 lacked any "emergency" except for bowing to pressure from the West (Andreescu, 2002. For the PRM see the declarations of Mihai Lupoi and Mihai Ungheanu, Romanian Radio, 26 March and 16 April 2002 and Buzatu's speech at the Romanian Academy session in "Romania mare," Nos. 625-630, 5 July through 9 August 2002; for Suru see "Romania mare," No. 618, 17 May 2002). I must admit that at the symposium I was unable to refrain from asking Constantiniu whether having waited 12 years -- the time that has passed since the fall of the communist regime -- was being "hasty."

But historians habitually perceived to have been on the other side of the national-communist Ceausescu fence did not display any eagerness to support the ordinance either. Interviewed on Romanian Radio on 19 April, Dinu C. Giurescu said that "because of geo-strategic, NOT BECAUSE OF HISTORICAL REASONS," Antonescu's statues should be displayed in the private, rather than in public space. However, he added, the time will come when "that statue's merits and responsibilities will be reconsidered" (Romanian Radio, 14 April 2002. Emphasis added). Membership considerations, in other words, might prevail over monuments, but whether they can prevail over memory is another matter. Without knowing it, Giurescu was thus vindicating his peer, Andrei Pippidi, who in the interview with Reuters observed that "those defending Antonescu feel...the admission of his role in the Holocaust would be humiliating for Romania."

The reader would note that the PRM had been left out of this study's focus. There were good grounds for doing so. Nothing the PRM said or did in connection with ordinance was in any way surprising or unexpected. That Tudor declared that he was ready to place an Antonescu bust in the "private space" of his courtyard was part of his habitual, provocative postures -- as indeed was his unveiling in Cluj of a bust of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, into the ceremony for which he unsuccessfully tried to lure U.S. Ambassador Michael Guest, or his announced intention to unveil a bust in Brasov of assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yizthak Rabin (Mediafax, 24 May 2002 and "Romania mare," Nos. 610, 611, 627, 22 and 29 March and 12 July 2002, respectively). At most, the Wilson and Rabin busts could be viewed as an extension of the negationist counteroffensive hitherto limited to making use of Holocaust terminology to refute the "enemy's argument." The linguistic war had thus been extended to the war waged over public space. Remarkably, the PRM also drew attention to the absence of similar legislation directed against communist symbols and the denial of the communist genocide. Not only Andreescu, but also Pippidi, in the interview with Reuters, had done so. This author has already expressed his position over this contentious issue (Shafir, 2002) and cannot but reiterate it in the briefest possible form: The PRM is right, even if for the wrong reasons! I only urge the reader to remember that non est idem, si duo dicunt idem! (it is not necessarily the same when two say the same thing).

But what about utilitarian anti-Semitism's prospects? I fear that this study's conclusion must be that precious little has changed in elite political culture in Romania in the 12 years that have elapsed since the overthrow of the former regime. What I had termed as "simulated change" remains just as prominent a feature of that political culture as was under the previous regime (Shafir, 1995). Nothing perhaps better demonstrates this simulative aspect than an event registered almost simultaneously with the saga of Ordinance 31/2002. In an attempt to demonstrate to Western eyes that extremism is on the wane, in early 2002 the ruling PSD accepted among its members two defectors from the ranks of PRM parliamentarians. One was a former member of the communist secret police; the other, Ilie Neacsu, was the former editor in chief of Romania's most anti-Semitic postcommunist weekly (typically called no less than "Europa"!) and a deputy chairman of the Marshal Antonescu League (see Corbea, 2002).

Memory, it seems, can be constrained. But a constrained memory might either display cognitive dissonance, at best, or indulge in simulation. At worst, it will resist, bidding its time -- an asset of which collective memories are never short. And that can hardly be said of memberships.

* This is an abbreviated version of a paper delivered at the international conference "Jews and Anti-Semitism in the Balkans," Bled, Slovenia, 21-23 October 2002.


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