Book review – From Lightning: Corneliu Codreanu, Horia Sima and the Story of the Romanian Iron Guard, by Troy Southgate

Published by Black Front Press, 2016. ISBN: 9780993170348. 329 pages. Paperback.

Reviewed by Peter Rushton in Issue 78 of Heritage and Destiny, May 2017.

In 2015 a new English-language edition of Corneliu Codreanu’s autobiography For My Legionaries was published, with an introduction by Dr Kerry Bolton. Now Troy Southgate (who brought out his own edition of the text in 2013) has produced a detailed historical study of Codreanu, his successor Horia Sima and their Romanian nationalist movement – the Legion of the Archangel Michael, better known as the Iron Guard.

Paradoxically Codreanu’s reputation has suffered among many British nationalists from the very fact that he was promoted as a hero/messiah by one particular faction of young National Front activists during the 1980s. Influenced by Italian exiles Roberto Fiore and Massimo Morsello, and centred on Nick Griffin (then in his 20s and a professed ‘radical nationalist’, very different from the bloated and corrupt BNP leader he became twenty years later) and the more ideological Derek Holland, this faction is best remembered for its promotion of Codreanu’s “cadre” strategy, first outlined in his 1933 text The Nest Leader’s Manual.

Sadly the NF’s cadre faction achieved little beyond inciting a near-terminal split, which in turn prompted further splits among the ensuing fragments. Its one positive legacy is the prolific author Troy Southgate, who joined the NF cadres as a youth. Some authors (including Ian Freeman in H&D Issue 33) have lamented that Mr Southgate came into the movement at the wrong time and joined the wrong faction. However another way of looking at things is to say that by joining the doomed cadres, Mr Southgate was saved from wasting his time as a councillor or apparatchik in a temporarily more successful party!

Certainly this new book confirms that the council chamber’s loss has been the broader movement’s intellectual gain. Mr Southgate succeeds in rescuing Codreanu from what the English semi-Marxist historian Edward Thompson famously termed “the enormous condescension of posterity”.

Corneliu Codreanu

For many modern readers – perhaps even for some H&D readers – the Iron Guard founder’s anti-Jewish rhetoric seems a bizarre, inexplicable and eccentric obsession. Yet in his own time (as Mr Southgate points out) such views were widely shared. In 1898, a year before Codreanu’s birth, the prominent Romanian novelist Mina Savel wrote that for “someone to be an antisemite today […] means to be a devoted fighter against a materialist current that puts money above honour, virtue and the highest sentiments worthy of human nature. At the same time, to be an antisemite is to be a martyr and defender of one’s nation, of the rights and institutions that, together with the spirit of liberty, contribute to the progress of a nation. An antisemite fights not only against Yids, but also against those Judaized people who support them.”

Immediately after the First World War, with Central and Eastern Europe under obvious threat from (usually Jewish-led) communist movements engaged in often bloody subversion, there was a natural resistance from conservatives, nationalists and Christians. Inspired by Mussolini, some of these attempted to form an ‘Italian-Romanian National Fascist Movement’ in 1922, but this collapsed within two years, and in Mr Southgate’s view was crippled by personality clashes and links to reactionaries in Romanian government circles. (One should remember that Il Duce inspired reactionaries as well as radicals across Europe: today’s Tory backbenchers in the British Parliament still call themselves the 1922 Committee because their forebears were inspired by Mussolini’s March on Rome to take a stand for ‘real’ Conservatism and defy their timid leaders!)

The roots of the Iron Guard can be traced back earlier, to pre-First World War nationalist publications and parties organised by journalist Nicolae Iorga and Professor Alexandru Constantin Cuza. The latter took a more hardline stance on the Jewish question and broke away to form the National Christian Union in 1922, renamed the following year as the National-Christian Defence League.

Codreanu’s mentor, Professor Alexandru Constantin Cuza

The young student Codreanu joined Prof. Cuza’s breakaway party, which took the swastika as its official emblem. Tension between reactionary and radical ideas (or between imperialism and positive nationalism) is apparent from the start of Codreanu’s activism. Mr Southgate writes:

“Fanatically loyal but tragically misguided, Codreanu’s principled and unwavering support for the Romanian monarchy would later prove to be his undoing.”

This reflection is prompted by Codreanu’s own memory of his student activism at the reopened University of Iași, where Prof. Cuza taught:

“A few of us who were still trying to man the barricades were surrounded by an atmosphere of scorn and enmity. …Thousands of students in meeting after meeting in which Bolshevism was propagated, attacked Army, justice, Church, Crown.”

Outside the university campus, young Codreanu and his fellow nationalists perceived that Bolshevism’s appeal to industrial workers had to be countered not just by reactionary strikebreaking but by a positive “National-Christian Socialist” programme. (Bear in mind that this was long before Adolf Hitler’s national-socialists came to prominence.)

Codreanu advised a comrade: “It is not enough to defeat Communism. We must also fight for the rights of the workers. They have a right to bread and a right to honour. We must fight against the oligarchic parties, creating national workers’ organisations which can gain their rights within the framework of the state and not against the state.”

Codreanu salutes his Legionary comrades

A National-Christian Socialist creed committed Codreanu’s group to “nationalising factories (the property of all workers) and distributing the land among all the ploughmen”. Alongside this pro-worker orientation, Codreanu and his fellow students committed themselves to an uncompromising anti-Jewish outlook. After he graduated in 1922, Codreanu’s fellow students pledged an “Obligation of Honour” which concluded that as “the Romanian people finds itself menaced in its very existence by an alien people that grabbed our land and tends to grab the leadership of the country […] we determinedly rise around a new and sacred ideal, that of defending our fatherland against Jewish invasion.”

Moving on to Berlin to study politics, Codreanu first became aware of Adolf Hitler in October 1922. Mr Southgate (as readers of his other publications will know) is a stern critic of Hitler, and is keen to emphasise the ways in which Codreanu’s movement differed from both German national-socialism and Italian fascism – notably in decision-making based on a collegiate forum of legionary commanders, as opposed to a Führerprinzip. Furthermore, Mr Southgate argues that Adolf Hitler’s government was partly responsible for Codreanu’s death. In 1938 the corrupt King Carol II (notorious for his association with a cabal of Jewish businessmen and his Jewish mistress Mme Lupescu) visited Hitler at the Berghof and (according to Mr Southgate) returned confident that the Third Reich “was not at all interested in helping the plight of the nationalist movement in Romania, [so] set about murdering and jailing hundreds of Legionaries.”

This reviewer takes a slightly different view. As with the Strasserite critique of Hitler’s domestic priorities, it seems to me that Mr Southgate and his ideological soulmates have an unrealistic and romantic attitude of what even a revolutionary leader can be expected to achieve, without risking the early demise of his regime.

In the case of Romania, German support for radical nationalism would surely have incited Britain to intervene (at least diplomatically if not militarily) in support of Romania’s reactionary and semitically-permeated establishment. The late Jürgen Rieger pointed out in one of his last published essays that Britain had vital economic interests in Romania – especially in the oil industry – and that Romania was materially far more important to Britain than Poland would ever be.

In March 1939 the Romanian ambassador in London, Viorel Tilea, succeeded in panicking Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax with a false story that Germany was militarily blackmailing the Romanian government. It was against this background that Chamberlain was pushed into an increasingly anti-German policy.

As Rieger stressed, Tilea’s story about German intervention in Romania in 1939 was false: so imagine what would have happened if (as Mr Southgate implicitly recommends) Germany had genuinely intervened in support of Codreanu in 1938. Perhaps more than anywhere else in Europe, Romania was packed with British agents (many recruited via freemasonry and business contacts), who by the end of the 1930s operated through Section D of MI6, which eventually became the core of the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

Codreanu had progressed quickly from student firebrand to serious revolutionary threat. Returning from his few months of Berlin studies in March 1923, Codreanu joined his academic mentor Prof. Cuza and fellow student radicals in forging the National-Christian Defence League (LANC). This was one of numerous fascist/national-socialist groups in Romania at that time, but LANC was particularly militant not only in opposing Bolshevik-inspired strikes and student leftism, but in a fundamental stance against the Liberal government’s proposals to extend the civic rights of Jews. As Codreanu put it: “Giving this privilege of meddling in Romania’s public affairs to as high as two million Jews, and to the just-settled Jew on our land, the right of equality with the Romanian who lived on this land for millennia, was both an injustice crying to high heaven and a great national menace that could not but worry and profoundly shake every Romanian who loved his country.”

LANC’s assumption was that the government’s pro-Jewish measures could only be opposed by direct action, since political and media corruption would otherwise ensure that these measures were sneaked onto the statute book. Sure enough legislation was passed through Parliament with unseemly haste before LANC’s demonstrators were even mobilised, but a series of violent rallies went ahead, with Codreanu in the thick of the fighting.

To an extent difficult for modern readers to comprehend, universities were the centre of struggle against increasing Jewish influence in Romania. 45 years later European students on barricades across campuses were the vanguard of a social revolution that changed our entire culture, but in 1923 it was the anti-Jewish and patriotic movement that was acting as a militant Romanian student vanguard.

During the autumn of 1923, faced with increasingly obvious betrayal by the political elite, Codreanu and his fellow student radicals determined on a violent uprising involving the assassination of several government ministers and other key figures. Rather than anti-Jewish pogroms, the targets would be treacherous fellow-Romanians. As Codreanu put it: “If I had but one bullet and I were faced by both an enemy and a traitor, I would let the traitor have it.”

Codreanu with his wife and fellow Legionary Elena Ilinoiu (1902-1994), who survived years of postwar imprisonment and exile under communism

Codreanu and several comrades were betrayed by an informer in their ranks and arrested, but (perhaps surprisingly) were acquitted after a brilliant legal defence by one of their academic supporters, Prof. Paulescu. Mr Southgate goes on to detail various political, factional and legal travails as Codreanu attempted to build a movement – eventually creating the Legion of the Archangel Michael (inspired by an icon he had seen in a prison chapel) in May 1927.

This Legion (or Iron Guard) differed from other interwar nationalist/fascist movements in that, as Mr Southgate puts it, “the Iron Guard was based neither on the plebeian values of democracy nor on the cruelty and oppression that one ordinarily attributes to dictatorship. Ironically, Codreanu believed that Legionarism was a new form of politics through which the will of ordinary people is reflected by the example of a dedicated cadre of young activists. Not in the narrow, representational manner of the Bolsheviks and their so-called ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, but by allowing people to actually participate in a Movement that essentially becomes a living manifestation of their basic needs and aspirations.”

In 1931, with government in the hands of Prof. Cuza’s former ally Nicolae Iorga, who had become a corrupt reactionary conservative, the Legion (officially dissolved after yet further coup plots and trials, but reformed under a new name) won a sensational by-election in Neamt, a picturesque region in the Carpathian mountains.

Mr Southgate explains that this and later political successes merely intensified the brutality of the Legion’s opponents, with many of the worst attacks coming from conservatives rather than the Left. In response Codreanu developed his theory of cadre organisation, underpinned by a spiritual character that is easily mocked in our post-religious age. His “Nine Legionary Rules” ended thus:

“The Legionary fears no one but God, sin, and the moment when physical or spiritual strength fails and he must withdraw from the fight. The Legionary loves Death, for his blood will serve to form the cement of Legionary Romania.”

In 1938 the reactionary Iorga government jailed Codreanu for slander and sedition, and in November that year (under the pretence that they had been attempting to escape) the Iron Guard leader and several of his comrades were strangled by prison guards and their bodies disposed of. Mr Southgate’s book concludes with a couple of chapters examining the post-Codreanu Iron Guard under Horia Sima, whom he accused of inept leadership and betrayal of the Codreanu legacy. He also has harsh words for Codreanu’s former ally, the wartime dictator Marshal Ion Antonescu, writing that “Antonescu’s ‘nationalist’ credentials had all but dissipated in a furious orgy of bloodshed and persecution”, when the Iron Guard was suppressed in 1941.

As today’s European nationalists seek to define themselves, and to distinguish a genuine nationalist ideology from reactionary opportunism and ignorant Islamophobia, Troy Southgate’s new study of Codreanu’s struggle will act as both warning and inspiration. Some readers might be more sympathetic than the author to the political and diplomatic dilemmas facing Adolf Hitler; others may be disturbed by Codreanu’s religious intensity and uncompromising hostility to Jews. It’s unfortunate that a book with so much detail lacks an index, but aside from this omission From Lightning is strongly recommended to H&D readers.

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