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Learning from Codreanu’s Mistakes 
The Rocky Road to Victory

[1]2,809 words

After a long night of celebration of revolutionary victory, the first meeting of the cabinet of the new communist government of Nicaragua opened with the words: “So what do we do now?” Daniel Ortega and his comrades did not have an answer. The Sandinistas had all the requisite skills to make a revolution, but their inability to govern doomed it to be short-lived and futile. Such a dearth of ideological thought and lack of sophistication in the art of political leadership has been, and is, the curse of many revolutionary movements, including many nationalist ones. A classic example is provided by the history of the Romanian Legionary Movement, which provides several important lessons for nationalists today.

The Legion of the Archangel Michael was founded in June 1927 by Corneliu Codreanu. Codreanu had been born Cornelius Zelinski, the first son of a Polish immigrant to Moldavia. His father, Ion Zelinski, a school teacher, became a passionate convert to Romanian nationalism and, in 1902, Romanianized the family name to Codreanu. His first son had been named after St. Cornelius, the Roman centurion who was the first Gentile to receive the word of God—the first Christian soldier. The themes of nationalism and Christianity would dominate Codreanu’s life, requiring him always to flirt closely with death in the name of the cause.

Just after World War One, Codreanu led the small nationalist student group in Bucharest against the powerful alien-led Communist party. His combination of personal bravery and intelligence propelled him to the top of the new movement.

Bucharest was a violent place, and Codreanu reacted to Communist and state violence with force of his own. His group attacked leftist leaders, smashed their meetings, and broke up plays. At the same time they began to build a nationalist student center with their own hands and money.

Brutal Repression

On government orders, Manciu, the prefect of Iasi, personally led a brutal police drive to break up the group. An official inquiry established that the students had been illegally arrested, beaten, and tortured, yet Manciu and his chief assistants were all promoted.

Codreanu responded to this injustice by shooting Manciu dead and turning himself in for trial. The court case turned into a triumph for Codreanu; the jury were out for only a few minutes and returned to acquit him, wearing the colors of his group on their lapels. He was now a national hero.

The nationalist movement was, however, badly splintered, so Codreanu founded his own organization, the Legion.

The Legion was based upon four principles: (1) faith in God; (2) faith in our mission; (3) love for each other, and (4) songs as the chief manifestation of our state of mind. The Legion would have no program, because what the nation needed more was a new type of man. “The country is dying for lack of men, not programs,” wrote Codreanu, who took the title of “Captain.” “Let him of boundless faith come join us. Let him who doubts stay out.” “You want programmes? They are on everybody’s lips,” thundered Codreanu in the Legionary Manual, “better look for men. Anyone can turn out a programme in one night: this is not what the country needs. It needs men, and wills to do what is needed.”

Unanswered Questions

The question of exactly what was needed, beyond heroic spirit, was never addressed in Legionary publications; indeed, with such an attitude at the top, it was not even a broachable subject.

Codreanu directed his efforts at the people that the older, better established nationalist organizations ignored—the young and the peasantry. The high schools and technical schools were targeted, as were the villages, which rarely saw a politician, let alone a revolutionary. It was a movement of the young.

The Legion was tightly organized, from the basic unit — the Nest — to city, county and regional groups. But despite words to the contrary, initiative was prized over discipline, and eventually this would box the Captain into a corner from which he could not escape. Leaders were not appointed but arose naturally by building Nests and then by combining them into larger groups. These men were certainly natural leaders, but they also had their own base of support and, as long as they professed loyalty, Codreanu was loath to move against them, even when they violated policy.

Julius Caesar said that the man who would lead the people must remember always to live simply, but Codreanu took nobility in leadership a step further. He saw political command as a privilege that was to be earned through constant service and sacrifice, and not just in the period before taking power. Too many revolutions had resulted simply in a change in the names of the inhabitants of the plushest homes, with the new elite quickly adopting the ways of the old. Codreanu insisted upon a life-long vow of poverty for the officers of his Iron Guard — the activist wing of the Legionary Movement. His leaders were required to be always correct and sober.

The Legionary Movement was built in its rural strongholds by activists moving from village to village, on footpaths to avoid the police on the roads, singing nationalist songs and doing work which would benefit local people: helping bring in the harvest; building or rebuilding a bridge; mending a road; clearing a ditch; or restoring a church. “The village lads knew little of what we were or what we wanted, but they sang our songs,” says the Legionary Songbook. Songs around the campfire, not speeches, were the spearhead of the Legion, especially in the countryside.

The issue of violence haunted the Legion from the day that Codreanu shot down his tormentor Manciu. Codreanu came to see his enemies in the government as corrupt and cowardly murderers, and at first he thought that they could be cowed by counter-killing. The problem was that the state could easily replace such men, buying new flunkies with more money and promises of ever-greater ruthlessness, while each Legionnaire was a rare and precious asset.

So Codreanu declared a policy of strict legality. No more killings of oppressive state officials would be tolerated, regardless of their crimes. But the killing and counter-killing went on. A former Legion leader, Stellescu, who betrayed the Movement received 120 bullets from ten Legionnaires who — in keeping with Legion policy — promptly turned themselves in. Eventually, the Prime Minister of Romania was gunned down, as the militants did not realize that it was actually “good” King Carol who was directing their suppression. The problem was that the Captain could not control the extraordinary men of action he had recruited and moulded, and neither could he abandon them if he thought they acted in good faith.

Heavy Losses

The Legion killed ten state officials, losing over five hundred activists to government murder. Codreanu realized that he could not afford such losses and still operate a public movement, but he could not rein in his Christian soldiers. It is important to point out that the murder of state officials did not undermine the Legion’s popularity, as these politicians were generally viewed by the masses as deserving of their fate. The Iron Guard continued to increase its votes, and the Legionary Workers Movement — Codreanu’s union — grew to six thousand members in Bucharest as the Depression worsened; nevertheless it became more difficult to recruit young activists, as only the most courageous would join.

Late in 1938, the King, under the pleas and taunts of his Jewish mistress, decided that the Iron Guard had to be destroyed. Key activists were rounded up without charges and thrown into concentration camps. Codreanu himself was arrested and tortured, also without charge. Then, on the night of November 29th–30th, he and six [actually a total of 13–Ed.] comrades were murdered.

In February 1939, Romanian Premier Calinescu responded to a question by a French reporter in Paris: “The Iron Guard is already an old story. . . . The Iron Guard no longer exists.” On September 21st, Calinescu was shot dead by six Iron Guard activists. The six turned themselves in, only to be promptly murdered at the site of the assassination. As further retribution, 68 interned Iron Guard officers were murdered.

Support from Nazi Germany

In the meantime, though, Germany had conquered Poland, and the nervous King recognized that the Iron Guard was very popular with certain German factions, particularly the German Ambassador and the SS. In June 1940, King Carol therefore invited Horia Sima, the new leader of the Legionary Movement, into the government. On September 3rd, the Legion rose in revolt in Bucharest, Brasov, and Constanta. Carol turned to his chief of the general staff, General Ion Antonescu, for help, but Antonescu forced his abdication in favor of his son, Mihail, and King Carol left Romania with his royal possessions and his mistress.

Now the Germans intervened on behalf of the Legion. Antonescu kept the army under his own control, but gave Horia Sima the political reins of government. Unfortunately, the Iron Guard was still more interested in men than in ideas. The bulk of its effort was directed at retribution, and the seizure of property — often illegally — of those who had opposed the Legion, including other nationalists. All too often, the spoils ended up in the hands of petty officials who had only joined the Iron Guard after the accession to power.

In short, Sima and his followers proved within six months that they did not know how to govern. Ideas were foreign to them for, as Codreanu’s deputy Vasile Marin had said shortly before his death in Spain fighting against the Reds, “the deed is our only ideology!” Antonescu appealed to the German government, and the Nazis reluctantly agreed that order had to be brought to the chaos. Antonescu rounded up the leaders of the Legion and they were held in gentle captivity in Germany — an ace in the hole for the National Socialists should Antonescu get out of line.

Codreanu’s movement was unusual in Europe in its religious overtones, as most of the European nationalist movements were either neutral or hostile to Christianity. In backward Romania this was certainly an advantage, in the sense that Codreanu was in touch with the prejudices and aspirations of his people: “To create a movement means in the first place to create, to generate, a state of mind which does not rest in reason but in the soul of the masses. This is the essence of the legionary movement,” he tells us in his memoirs.

Unfortunately, the emphasis on faith at the expense of reason caused a disdain for ideas. In reality the Legion had no ideology. Its newspapers and magazines, which, at its peak, sold tens of thousands of copies every week, did not discuss a vision of the future, or a program of how to get there. What did the Legion believe in regard to the distribution of wealth, how would the government be organized, who would run it, how would the leaders be selected, how would the inept and corrupt be weeded out, was there to be land reform, how would the peasant be made more productive, etc., etc., etc.?

No one knew what the Legion intended to do, because the leaders did not consider these questions important, or did not want to be bothered discussing them. They did not want to have to answer questions and so insisted upon faith and song — as do all religious movements in order to deflect attention away from difficult ideological discussion.

Such questions were discussed as a matter of course by the Fascists and National Socialists in Italy and Germany, and, as a direct result, both movements were able to govern effectively.

Unfortunately, the level of ideological discussion in many of the nationalist movements of the modern white, English-speaking world is not particularly sophisticated. There is, by and large, excellent analysis on what is wrong with the System, but little on what we would do differently and how we would do it. This stems, no doubt, from a mistaken belief that such discussion will cause more rifts, when, in reality, it is organizational discipline which holds a movement together, not ambiguity.

When the Mensheviks proved unable to govern Russia in 1917, it was the Bolsheviks who replaced them. The Mensheviks had sought to paper over differences in order to weld many potentially hostile factions together; thus, when push came to shove and they actually came to power, nothing of substance could be agreed upon. For the Bolsheviks it was quite different. They were up front about the truly radical programs they intended to institute. If a party member chose not to toe the party line once an official position was decided upon, he was expelled.

Certainly the degree of conformity demanded by the Bolsheviks makes us uncomfortable, but in fact such organisational discipline allows greater freedom of discussion, as the leader can always cut it off if it becomes a threat to unity by declaring a final position and threatening expulsion. Leaders who do not have such power are — as the history of the democratically-run NF showed repeatedly — right to be afraid that discussion of controversial issues will get out of hand and lead to splits. But those with a sane constitution based on the leadership principle and with a firm grip on their organisations are not hampered in this way.

For all the foregoing criticism of the Legion’s disdain for reason and overemphasis on faith, it nevertheless has much of value to teach us. It lived the philosophy of service and sacrifice, and as such commanded the respect of the people. Leadership is not a prize which we win in order to enrich ourselves, but a privilege which must be earned through the willingness to serve always, and to accept the greatest burden of sacrifice when necessary. The people quickly lose respect for those leaders who cease to live simply. Their motives are distrusted even if their talents cannot be questioned.

Idealism and Unity

Unity is the essence of nationalism. And not just in the ranks of the nationalist vanguard — where, as we have seen, debate and constructive criticism must be allowed to thrive within the limits demanded to preserve that unity. The ordinary people must also remain committed to the national ideal, and they will only continue to be so while they believe that the nationalist leadership exists to serve the people as a whole. That faith is undermined whenever nationalist leaders exploit their positions for personal power and profit, so laws must be passed and monitor organizations set up to prevent this immediately when the national revolutionary government comes to power. Let us never forget how the establishment of secret special shops for the families of the Bolshevik elite completely undermined the commitment of the masses to their new Soviet leaders once the scam became widely known.

The other positive aspect of the Legionary Movement of which we must take note is its ability to sink local roots. Small communities were targeted where minor projects as simple as clearing a ditch could have a major impact on the psychology of the people. The Legionnaires went into the most backward parts of Romania in order to reach those people whom the politicians had forgotten. In their case, that meant the small communities of the countryside, whose peasants still made up a large proportion of the overall population.

Obviously our circumstances are very different, but the way the successes of the Legion in working closely with small, neglected, and desperately poor communities still provides us with some clues for the future. All too often modern nationalists take a very different approach, appearing once in a blue moon with a fleeting and anonymous leaflet drive among the anonymous masses of an entire city. A more careful look at any constituency will reveal pockets of unusually fertile ground.

The modern equivalent to the remote Romanian village is, paradoxically, the white working class near-ghetto in an area where local government by the Labour party is run on behalf of the increasingly demanding non-­white population. The Isle of Dogs was a classic example, but it is by no means the only one, nor are the others confined to the East End of London. Another place where a strong sense of community survives side-by-side with high youth unemployment, hopelessness, and sheer boredom is the medium-sized town. Searchlight’s concern about “market-town racism” reflects a genuine social phenomenon ripe for exploitation by the BNP. Whatever form a closely-knit community takes, personal example by correct, polite, sober, idealistic, and helpful nationalist activists in such places will have a far bigger impact than fleeting anonymous effort elsewhere.

This is one of the positive lessons to be learnt from the heroic failure of the Iron Guard. Let us not forget the negative ones either.

Source: Spearhead, no. 336, February 1997, pp. 18–20.