Politics as Memory Distortion: A Case Study

Stefan Borbély
Politics as Memory Distortion: A Case Study




Between 1948 and 1990, Romania’s National Day was August 23. It commemorated the coup and insurrection of August 23, 1944, when young King Michael I arrested the pro-German chief of state, Marshall Ion Antonescu, overthrew his fascist, pro-Axis government, formed a new leading political coalition (which also included communists), and accepted the armistice proposed to Romania by the USSR, Great Britain and the United States of America. The outcome on the battlefield completely changed the rules of war in the region: the Romanian army turned unexpectedly against their former allies, the Germans, joined the Soviet forces which were invading from the East, cleared Bucharest and the Prahova Valley from German occupation, and considerably eased the advancement of the Soviet front westwards, across the Carpathians and through the hills of Transylvania.
Since Hitler had given the North-Western part of Transylvania back to Hungary, through the Ribbentrop-Ciano arbitrage signed in Vienna on August 30, 1940, Romania claimed its territorial reintegration as a reward for its new political and military commitment. Transylvania had been completely freed from the Germans by October 25, 1944, and was reintegrated into Romania. As a personal reward for the coup, “the Soviet Union hailed Michael as a hero and presented him with its rare diamond-studded Order of Victory” (on July 6, 1945). A few years later, on December 30, 1947, the newly installed communist power forced King Michael I to abdicate from his duties and leave the country by train; on March 4, 1948, “he repudiated his abdication, claiming that it had been imposed on him by force to clear the way for a communist government .”

Aim of the paper

This paper intends to show how real facts concerning the coup and the insurrection of August 23, 1944 were to be distorted by the communist propaganda, and used as an ideological strategy of political self-legitimation. Furthermore, in the coming decades the name and the meaning of the coup and insurrection underwent several changes, reflecting both the ideology and the power struggles within the party. The names of some of the initial participants were deleted from the public memory, while other names – in no way connected to the coup or insurrection – were added to the list. The ideological significance of the event also changed according to the major shifts in the political representation of the nations’ recent history. Within three decades, the events that had taken place on August 23, 1944 were to be hailed differently: at the very beginning (in the late fifties and early sixties), as an “armed insurrection, conceived and led by the Romanian Communist Party”; then, in the early seventies, as an “armed, national and antifascist insurrection”; and finally, in the eighties, as a climactic “social, national, antifascist and anti-imperialist liberation revolution”. The interpretation given to the events was also altered to express the self-representation of each period. In its final section, the paper will reveal this tide of distortion by using resource materials from four different years: 1959, 1965, 1971 and 1984.

THE IDEOLOGY OF DISTORTION (preliminary considerations)

It is worth mentioning that the political distortion of the August 23, 1944 events began as soon as they occurred, with the very first documents concerning the coup, and that these distortions did not belong solely to the communists. There were four political parties that had taken part in the coup, and, of course, by far exceeding all these four together was the role played by the king: in the aftermath of the events, each party gave its particular representation of the coup, offering different versions of the role played by the other partners or by the king.
The communists seized power after the November 1946 so-called “free, democratic” elections, and after they forced the king to abdicate on December 30, 1947. The documents show that the communists did not have a single, generally acknowledged representation of the coup or insurrection, mainly because they seemed to have played a minor role in the most important event of the first part of the insurrection, Marshall Ion Antonescu’s removal from office by the king. The communists were also distressed because of the role played by the king, an authority they had forced to leave the country. Consequently, the presence of the king was to be minimized in the future descriptions of the events, as was to be the role played by the great historical parties (see below). Moreover, in the fifties the Romanian Communist Party went through a rather strenuous power struggle period, until Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej secured his pre-eminence by being elected Prime Secretary in 1959; he kept the power firmly in his hands until March 1965, when he died and was replaced by Nicolae Ceauºescu. Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej had not played any role in the August 23, 1944 coup or insurrection, so he was given one. Even more distressing for the new communist school of propaganda was the fact that a document of the insurrection had been signed by the communist leader Lucretiu Pãtrãºcanu, who fell in disgrace in the fifties, was put to a mock trial and rapidly assassinated. Pãtrãºcanu’s name was, of course, deleted from the textbooks and from the public memory until 1968, when Nicolae Ceauºescu rehabilitated him.
A final change operated by the communists distorted the ideological meaning of the events. To be more specific: the communists adjusted the public – and the only officially admitted - representation of the August 1944 events to make them fit into the Marxist theory of history conceived as a social class struggle, led and won by the proletarians. Social classes and groups progressively replaced persons in the communist textbooks or in the officially approved memoirs, which stressed the role played by the “Romanian people” in the events, a people whose “expression” was the Communist Party. Following the domestic “cultural revolution” of 1971, and advancing towards the personal megalomaniac paranoia of the eighties, Nicolae Ceauºescu’s propaganda machine went even further, because the new leader was only 26 at the time of the coup, and had had no leading role in the party at all when the 1944 events occurred. He was not cast in a leading role at the inner core of the insurrection, for such a historical distortion would clearly have been unsustainable before the public and would have seemed quite ridiculous to many old members of the party but, by way of compensation, the propaganda machine assigned him a sort of major “shadow-figure” role, enlarging the “antifascist” and “anti-imperialist” significance of the event to a scale at which the real event – the coup itself – simply seemed to vanish in the fiery torment of a planetary antifascist and anti-imperialist liberation movement orchestrated from Bucharest.

Sources, methodology

For the study of these changes I have relied on historical or political documents revealed by the mass media, on source books and on textbooks. In order to understand better the ups and downs of these representations, it is important to point out that the communists kept the public interpretation of events between 1948 and 1989 under strict control, each new detail of the official version having to be approved first by the propaganda departments of the party and by the leaders themselves. Accordingly, one cannot find any unbiased scholarly interpretation of the coup and insurrection in this period: all we get are ideological vulgatas, shaping the memory of subsequent generations. Direct access to documents or source materials was denied; moreover, even if you did get permission to study them – or if you happened to have a librarian acquaintance to sneak you inside the archives, close the doors behind you and keep cave for coffee or a packet of Kent -, you were unable to publish the information or to make it public through articles, lectures or conferences. History thus became conspiratorial, and was completely replaced by ideological memory, borrowed from the media or from political vulgatas.

The COUP AND the insurrection (a historical reconstruction of the events)

A neat reconstruction of the events surrounding the insurrection of August 23, 1944 runs as follows:

a) Romania’s general political context. Remote or close events related to the coup
On July 24, 1927 Corneliu Zelea Codreanu created “St. Michael the Archangel’s Legion”, which in March 1930 became the “Iron Guard” and in June 1935 was transformed into a party called “Everything for the Country”. The new political organization advocated collective and individual spiritual resurrection through nationalism and orthodoxy, hailed Mussolini’s corporatism, overtly manifested fascist, pro-German attitudes, and practised political violence to reach its goals. On December 10, 1933, Prime Minister I. Gh. Duca dissolved the Iron Guard; in retaliation, on December 29 the same year, he was assassinated by Iron Guard members on the platform of the Sinaia railway station. Less than five years later, on February 10, 1938 King Carol II dissolved the government and imposed his personal, royal dictatorship onto the country. At the end of November that year (29-30), the leader of the Iron Guard, Corneliu Zelea Codreanu and other members of his party were shot at orders given by the king. On March 7, 1939, a new government was formed by Armand Calinescu; on September 21 the same year, he was assassinated by Iron Guard members, who sought revenge for C. Z. Codreanu’s execution.
On September 1, 1939 Germany attacked Poland; Romania declared its neutrality on September 7, but allowed the free trespassing of its territory by military convoys en route to Poland. On July 4, 1940 Ion Gigurtu’s new government included Horia Sima, the new leader of the Iron Guard: the political pressure towards a future pro-German orientation of the country was increasing. On September 4, 1940 the Ion Gigurtu government resigned, and the power was seized by General Ion Antonescu (later: a Marshall), who suspended the Constitution and took over absolute power; the next day, King Carol II was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, Michael I (Mihai).

On August 30, 1940 an arbitrage imposed upon Romania by the Germans and signed in Vienna seized the N-W part of Transylvania (42,243 km²) and gave it over to Hungary. Atrocities followed: the psychological effect on the public opinion was devastating. Antonescu advocated a pro-German attitude, visited Hitler at Berlin and Brechtesgaden several times and secured the political support of the Iron Guard: in retaliation for the previous shooting of its members, the Guard executed 67 political leaders in the Jilava prison (November 26-27, 1940), assassinated the great historian Nicolae Iorga at his residence the very next night, and finally instigated an armed rebellion on January 21-24, 1941, in order to eliminate Antonescu and to gain complete and sole political control over the country. Antonescu quelled the rebellion and formed a military government. By that time, Romania’s pro-German orientation had become obvious: on May 29, 1940, Romania and Germany signed an economic cooperation treaty. Romania gave up its declaration of neutrality, but went on losing its territories: on June 26, 1940 the USSR annexed Bassarabia and the Northern part of Bukowina; on September 7 the same year, the southern part of Dobrudja was ceded to the Bulgarians. Antonescu took advantage of the traditional anti-Russian feelings of the people, pretending to forget that Germany and Bulgaria were equally responsible for the amputation of the national territory. As a consequence, on June 11-12, 1941, through a treaty signed in München and Brechtesgaden, Romania agreed to join the Germans in an imminent aggression against the Soviet Union. The Romanian army would cross the Prut river and march deep into the Soviet territory.

b) The coup and the insurrection
b.1. Secret armistice negotiations between Romania and the Allies
Even though in many communist textbooks the armistice was considered to be a catalyst for the August 23, 1944 events, no in-depth analysis has been dedicated to it so far, nor does the public opinion know, by any means, what actually happened. The Romanian government and/or the opposition ran three secret negotiations to reach a separate armistice agreement with the Allies: in Ankara, Cairo and Stockholm.
The Ankara negotiations started in 1943 with an envoy appointed by Marshall Ion Antonescu offering the British and the Americans cooperation and military support if they should reach the Balkans before the Russians. Antonescu’s emissary contacted the British military attaché in Turkey, General A. C. Arnold, but received no satisfactory answer to his proposition: the British claimed that it should be presented to Great Britain, the US and the USSR simultaneously, and that the Romanian counterpart should agree to an unconditional surrender. The British also considered that the Romanian opposition would be a more tractable partner for the talks than the pro-German Ion Antonescu: consequently, on February 1, 1944, Lt. Col. Ted Masterson from the Special Operations Executive (SOE) informed the Romanians that the Allies were ready to meet a representative of the opposition in Cairo, and discuss a separate armistice agreement.
Iuliu Maniu, President of the Romanian Peasants’ Party and leader of the Romanian political opposition shipped Prince Barbu ªtirbey to Cairo; a few weeks later, on May 26, Constantin Viºoianu joined him. Commencing the talks, Prince Barbu ªtirbey suggested that the armistice should involve Marshall Ion Antonescu rather than the opposition, as Antonescu “was prepared” for the armistice and his political and military power was superior to that of the opposition. The documents show that Iuliu Maniu and his domestic partners began the Cairo negotiations having the future geopolitical map of the region in mind: although they recognized that the Red Army was closer to Romania geographically, and more likely to carry out direct military actions than the British and the Americans, they wanted to avoid a stronger Soviet implication in the region and the grim perspective of Romania falling under the Soviet rule in the wake of the impending peace treaty. To do so, the Romanian emissaries preferred to shun General V. N. Novikov, the Russian counterpart to the negotiations, giving the impression that they were interested in talking only with the British and the Americans.
Iuliu Maniu asked his counterparts to agree not to interfere in Romania’s internal affairs, and to guarantee that the N-W part of Transylvania would be returned to Romania. A small incident happened on May 26, 1944, when the second Romanian emissary, Constantin Viºoianu reached Cairo with a detailed message from Iuliu Maniu. Viºoianu asked Christopher Steel, the British official to the talks, to guarantee that Great Britain would take a future interest in the region, and questioned him whether the British government would consider or not allowing communists in the next Romanian government. The question aroused Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s anger, as he considered that the Romanians wanted to separate the Allies from the Soviet Union, and recommended that in future all Romanian propositions should be addressed to Christopher Steel and General V. N. Novikov simultaneously. The Allies also suggested that Iuliu Maniu should send an emissary to the eastern front, to contact the Red Army for a future armed cooperation. Maniu seems to have been reluctant to do so and transmitted new conditions to Cairo, which angered V. N. Novikov, who declared on June 1, 1944 that “the Soviet government will refuse to discuss any of these conditions until Maniu categorically states that he has accepted the proposed conditions of the armistice”. The next day, the Allies let the Romanians know that “any continuation of the negotiations is useless” and that “if Mr. Maniu wants to take advantage of the conditions of the armistice prescribed by the three allied powers, he had better follow the advice he has already been given, and send an officer to the front to get in direct contact with the Red Army”.
Maniu conferred with the king and replied (on June 11, 1944) that the Romanian opposition had agreed to form a political unity front, the National Democratic Block, whose main aims were to depose Marshall Ion Antonescu, form a national unity government and join the Allies in their war against the Germans. Maniu also expressed his confidence that the proposed conditions of the armistice would be amended. The Allies remained silent. After setting up the National Democratic Block (on June 20, 1944), Maniu informed them that Marshall Ion Antonescu’s overthrow was a matter of weeks, and asked for a massive Soviet military intervention to sustain the coup when it happened. He received no answer for more than two months, until the coup of August 23, 1944. The Romanian opposition was amazed and overwhelmed by this unexpected silence, but carried out its plan nonetheless.
As the documents and the public attitudes clearly show, the Allies’ reluctance to respond was motivated by their fear to offend the Soviets, for they fully realized Maniu’s interest in limiting the future Russian impact in the region. Geopolitically, this was impossible: the Allies knew that the Russians had started separate negotiations with the Romanians in Stockholm. The Stockholm talks started on December 25, 1943 and lasted until August 23, 1944, the time of the Romanian coup. On behalf of the Romanians, the negotiator was Ambassador Frederic C. Nanu; the Soviet delegation was led by Ambassador Aleksandra Kollontai, and included several other members, the most prominent of whom was V. Semenov. The talks had been initiated by the Russians, through a Bulgarian journalist, Goranov. That is to say: the Soviets were playing the game at their table, and were fully aware of this advantage. Mrs. Kollontai offered to negotiate with both Marshall Ion Antonescu and the opposition, leaving the Romanians to decide whether Antonescu or the opposition could carry out the conditions of the armistice, which mainly included the Romanians changing sides and turning against the Germans, speedy and complete Soviet military assistance to free Romania from the Germans, and an assurance that Transylvania would belong to Romania at the end of the war. Ambassador Frederic C. Nanu contacted Mihai Antonescu, Marshall Ion Antonescu’s deputy, and negotiated with Kollontai on behalf of the government, which also seemed to be reluctant to accept a massive Soviet influence in the region. The messages received from Bucharest were, for this reason, confuse and rather controversial; Bucharest eventually agreed to send a special envoy to the negotiations: on August 22, 1944 he left for Stockholm only to learn that his trip had been made futile by the August 23 coup.

b.2: The coup
By the end of April 1944, the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party had formed the Workers Unity Front. The parties did not play a major role in Romania’s political life: the Front had an insignificant manifestation on May 1 that year, which was barely noticed by the media and the major political forces of the country. Nevertheless, the Front was the creation of the Communist Party, a minor detail that would be inflated by the communist propaganda machine in the coming decades in order to belittle the role played by the so-called “historical parties” (the National Peasants’ Party, led by Iuliu Maniu and the National Liberal Party, led by the Brãtianu family). As a response to the armistice negotiations held in Cairo (see above) the political opposition created the National Democratic Block (on June 20, 1944), including the National Peasants’ Party, the National Liberal Party, the Socialist Democratic Party and the Communist Party. The structure of the Block reflected the structure of the negotiations abroad: nobody would have considered including the communists if the Allies had not had the Soviets on their side. Moreover, as I have already pointed out, the Red Army was closer to Romania geographically than any other allied army. Therefore, even though Maniu and the Liberal leaders were reluctant to deal with the red agents, they were obliged to admit that Marshall Antonescu’s overthrow and a favourable armistice with the Allies could not be achieved without a political concession to the Russians.
The insurrection was secretly set for August 26, but Marshall Ion Antonescu’s decision to leave Bucharest to inspect the Eastern front speeded up the events. The situation on the Eastern front was really dramatic: on August 20 the Russians launched a massive offensive on the Iassy-Kishinow line, and the Romanian army had to withdraw to a southern defensive line (Focºani-Nãmoloasa-Galaþi). In the evening of August 22, the German plenipotentiary minister in Bucharest, Carl Clodius visited Ion Antonescu, who assured him that in spite of the disasters on the eastern front, he would do his best to stop the Russians. This visit shows that Ion Antonescu had previously informed the Germans about the negotiations in Cairo, because Antonescu spoke to Clodius about his decision to reject the Cairo talks “given his allegiance” to the Germans, accusing them, at the same time, of not having secured the eastern front, in order to prevent the Soviet offensive. Clodius left and informed Berlin about his impression that Antonescu was playing a double game; before his departure, another appointment was set for the next day, at 5:30 p.m., but this never took place, as Antonescu was arrested.

In the morning of August 23, 1944 Marshall Ion Antonescu met the Liberal leader Gheorghe Brãtianu, and asked him for a letter of assent from the historical parties, which would authorize him to sign the armistice treaty. As expected, in his claim Antonescu disregarded the communists, whose party didn’t count too much on the political chess table. The same day, the Marshall contacted the king for an audience and the appointment was set for 4 p.m. Antonescu had kept a last, feeble card in his pocket to present to the king, if necessary: he had been informed that Turkey was about to enter the war, which seemed likely to draw a massive British and American military force onto the Black Sea: the Marshall thought that it would be big enough an action to counterbalance the Soviet influence in the region. The king asked Antonescu whether he was or not ready to sign the armistice proposed by the Allies. Antonescu replied by mentioning his previous meeting with Gheorghe Brãtianu; he said that he had been ready to sign the treaty, but that he had had to inform the Germans about this move. The king realized that by implicating Hitler, the plans of the armistice would be brought to light, and the Germans would retaliate. Making up an excuse that he had left his cigarettes behind, the king went out of the room for a few minutes, quickly consulted his aids waiting next door, and returned to inform Marshall Ion Antonescu about his decision to free him from the duties of chief of state. At 4:58 p.m. the king left the Yellow Room (where the audience had taken place), and a small military crew entered, led by Major Anton Dumitrescu. They arrested Ion Antonescu together with his deputy minister Mihai Antonescu, locked them up in a safe room on the first floor, where the royal stamp collection was kept, and detained them there until 3:30 in the morning, when a group sent by the Communist Party took them to a secret location situated in the Vatra Luminoasa neighbourhood. They stayed there until September 3, 1944, when the Communists handed them over to the Soviet Military Commandment (the Red Army had reached Bucharest by the end of August).

Media reactions to the coup
The coup was sealed by the king’s Proclamation to the Nation and by a joint Manifest signed by the four parties previously reunited in the National Democratic Block. The king’s Proclamation was first issued in the communist newspaper România liberã (no. 11/ August 24, 1944); the independent, but pro-German influential newspaper Curentul published it in its August 25 issue (XVII, no. 5936). The proclamation was aired by Radio Bucharest on August 23, at 10:25 p.m. Its content reflected the new political orientation of the country: Romania had agreed to join the Allies in their war against the Germans, and had stopped any hostilities against the Soviet Union; it was pointed out that the domestic political dictatorship had come to an end, and that the Allies guaranteed the independence of the country, having “recognized the unfairness of the Vienna Dictate, under which Transylvania was taken away from us”.
The National Democratic Block’s Manifest appeared in the communist România liberã (no. 13, August 27), in Dreptatea, the official newspaper of the National Peasants’ Party (no. 2, August 28) and in the 28 August issue of Curentul (no. 5938). The standard text was signed by the leaders of the four constituent parties of the Block (I. Maniu, president of the National Peasants’ Party, C. I. C. Brãtianu, president of the National Liberal Party, C. Titel-Petrescu, president of the Socialist Democratic Party and Lucreþiu Pãtrãºcanu, leader of the Communist Party). The version published in Curentul ignored Pãtrãºcanu’s name and signature, suggesting that the communists had had a separate position and that they had not play any role in the insurrection. This first, independent (!) distortion of the event appeared on the front cover of the paper, through the publication of a separate Proclamation to the Country, signed by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Thus, the paper discretely suggested that the communists were acting separately in those hot insurrectional days. On the other hand, the communists kept on suggesting that the crew sent to arrest Marshall Ion Antonescu had comprised communist fighters led by ªtefan Mladin (information which randomly reappeared in several subsequent source books). However, as we have already seen, the communists had had nothing to do with the arrest itself, though it was true that they took over Antonescu at a later stage of the affair. It is my supposition that by allowing the communists to take Antonescu to a remote secret location belonging to the party, the king and the historical party leaders had in mind a potentially double strategic game, conceived to meet both ends of the ongoing events. On the one hand, handing Antonescu over to the communists was meant to be a courtesy gesture towards the Russians. On the other hand, IF the plan failed, and IF the German retaliation annihilated the coup, the communists could be presented as scapegoats, suggesting that they alone had initiated the whole mess. The documents reveal that the historical parties tried to narrow down the implication of the communists, although the communist leader Lucreþiu Pãtrãºcanu was appointed minister of justice. The first major misunderstanding between the communists and the historical parties occurred at the end of August the same year, when the new head of the Iron Guard, Horaþiu Comaniciu, dissolved his Movement by a Proclamation (issued on August 26, 1944), whereby he urged the members to join the parties forming the National Democratic Front, “as their conscience urged them”. Iuliu Maniu saluted the initiative, in a letter dated August 29, 1944 , and welcomed those members of the Legion “who were not guilty of crimes or of dishonest behaviour”. In reply, the Communist Party claimed “no mercy for these traitors”, and asked for severe and immediate punishment. The Communist Party’s intolerant text was published by the independent media (for instance, it appeared in Curentul, no. 2, August 31, 1944), but it was suppressed by the Peasants’ Party paper Dreptatea (no. 5, August 31, 1944), which restricted itself to releasing only the party leader Iuliu Maniu’s letter to the former Iron Guard chief.

Politics as History Distortion: Further communist propaganda

The Romanian Communist Party numbered less than 1,000 members in August 1944: this hardly allowed the party to call itself “influential”. The increasing Soviet influence in the region and the invitation launched to the communists to join the August 23, 1944 coup and insurrection gave a big push to the party, also sealed by the Yalta agreement, where Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt had decided that Romania would fall under Soviet protection after the war. The Russian presence in Romania electrified the tiny communist party: on October 12, 1944, it created the National Democratic Front, which retained the Social Democratic Party as a running mate from the glorious National Democratic Block, but repudiated the great historical parties. The separation became more obvious a little bit later: the stronger and stronger Communist Party imposed a democratic government, led by Dr. Petru Groza (March 6, 1945), destroyed the great historical parties by splitting them into different wings, won the November 19, 1946 “ first free elections” (where the traditional, Brãtianu wing of the National Liberal party and the Maniu wing of the National Peasants’ Party were annihilated), and imposed the king’s abdication on December 30, 1947, when the country was proclaimed The Popular Republic of Romania.
The forthcoming ideological distortions of the August 23, 1944 coup and insurrection were to be closely connected to the bitter power struggle within the party. As seen above, the National Democratic Block Manifest had also been signed by communist leader Lucreþiu Pãtrãºcanu, who was appointed minister of justice. The party was led by a committee at that time, controlled by Ana Pauker, Vasile Luca and Teohari Georgescu, that is: by an “exterior fraction” of the party, guided from the Kremlin, which was continuously challenged by the “interior fraction”, led by Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. On May 26-27, 1952, the “external” group was repudiated, and five days later, communist leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej (who had taken part in the king’s abdication) became Prime Minister. He did not, however, gain complete control over the party: on April 6-13, 1954, Lucreþiu Pãtrãºcanu (in house arrest since 1948) was put on trial and convicted by means of false accusations: he was rapidly executed on the night of 16-17 April (allegedly by Iosif Moldoveanu, his main prosecutor ). Having got rid of his major symbolic rival, Dej still couldn’t seize power within the party: following Pãtrãºcanu’s assassination, the April 19, 1954 Central Committee appointed Gheorghe Drãghici as prime secretary. A year later, on October 1, 1955, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej was finally elected prime secretary, and formally confirmed by the 3rd Congress of the Romanian Workers’ Party (the 8th congress of the Communist Party – June 20-25, 1960).
I have chosen four sets of documents to illustrate the communist ideological distortion of the events and of the significance related to the August 1944 coup:
I.-III.: three school history textbooks (1959; 1965; 1971), and
IV. the 1984 collection of the official party newspaper Scînteia, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the August 1944 coup.
The selection of the textbooks was dictated by ideological and historical reasons:
the textbook of 1959 reflects the official version of the events from the fifties, following Pãtrãºcanu’s execution;
the textbook of 1965 was issued during the summer following Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej’s death and his replacement by Nicolae Ceauºescu: it is too early to notice a conceptual distinction, but the textbook shows the official interpretation of the coup in Dej’s time;
the textbook of 1971 is symptomatic for the first part of the Ceauºescu era: it came out before June 1971, when Ceauºescu launched his “cultural revolution”, following a nice visit to China and North Korea, where he learned how a leader should be deified;
the Scînteia collection of 1984 shows the peak of the political, ideological and personal paranoia of a leader who was frustrated because of not having taken part in the events; the 1984 celebration also marked the most grandiose Romanian commemoration ever dedicated to the August 1944 insurrection.

Let us analyse them in chronological order:

I. 1959

The coup is presented as an “armed insurrection, conceived and led by the Romanian Communist Party”. The text says nothing about armistice treaty negotiations carried abroad, nothing about the king, and nothing about the National Democratic Block or the role played by the traditional historical parties; instead, it presents the war as the aggression of a terrorist, pro-German government against its own poor and helpless people. In this unbearable situation – the textbook says – the Romanian Communist Party remained the only political force to assess the context calmly – and to get strength from this recognition. The book maintains that the party enjoyed wide support from the people, who helped it to carry out the insurrection - alone. The stereotype of the period envisaged the communist party as the brains trust of all past popular victories. As such, the party is presented as a clever, cool-headed, collective organizational genius: no leader figure emerges or sticks out from the ranks of the party; since each leader is an integral part of his party, the party becomes an organic replacement for the entire nation.
The text says nothing about Lucreþiu Pãtrãºcanu, who had been murdered less than five years before; on the other hand, it presents the coup as a huge controlled mass movement, coordinated from a sacred centre, i.e. the communist party’s headquarters. We can read in the textbook that “patriotic guards” penetrated the royal palace, and arrested the chief of state; that the workers’ insurrection followed the pattern of a perfect plan, sending troops to occupy the vital points of the nation’s political and economic network: the ministries, the government buildings, the main post office in Bucharest and the local railway station. The textbook also mentions the September 12 Moscow armistice treaty, in order to point out that the humanitarian Russians were eager to make a clear distinction between the innocence of the Romanian people and the guilt of its government. This sharp distinction will reappear as a stereotype in future books and scholarly studies, as it separates the good, eternal soul of the people from the sins of its ephemeral leaders. The impact of this separation goes much further beyond, because it sharply suggests that the Communist Party acted according to the expectations of the inner soul of the people, and by doing so, it became part and parcel of this soul. We must remember that even long after 1944, the Communist Party was still perceived as being alien to the Romanian people, as some sort of red import shipped to Bucharest from the Kremlin. Presenting the August 23 coup as the work of the people’s soul, a soul that had reached self-expression through a feat accomplished by the communists, the party actually was actually working on its self-legitimation.

II. 1965

As we have seen, by the end of the fifties the power struggle within the party had come to an end with Gheorghe Gheorgiu-Dej’s victory; although he had not participated in the August 1944 coup, he had nevertheless played an important role in the abdication of the king on December 30, 1947. Dej was, by all means, the big boss when the textbook was written (but not when it was published, as he died in March that year); the historians struggled, therefore, to adjust the 1944 events so that they could include Dej. Until August 13, 1944 (when he escaped), Dej had been in prison: as a consequence, the textbook presents the coup as the grand finale of an arduous antifascist fight, which had involved communists both inside and outside prisons.
A favourite political stereotype of the time featured the horrendous Tîrgu Jiu prison camp as a sort of communist meeting club, where the reds met, had free sittings and pulled all the political strings of the country. As such, the textbook says that the August 23 coup was the result of a “general plan of action” conceived in prison by Dej and his comrades. Of course, the plan couldn’t have been carried out with its chief brain master behind bars: so the party helped him to escape on the dark night of August 12-13, just in time to join the crew which was ready to enter the royal palace, greet the king and treat Antonescu with a pair of rusty handcuffs. As further compulsory stereotypes the textbook mentions the Workers Unity Front (created by the communists) and the great “popular enthusiasm” stirred by the coup (hardly believable in times of war and, anyhow, a huge strategic mistake, because if it had happened, it would have revealed the whole secret to the Germans). These minor details did not bother the authors at all, as 1960-64 was a period of controlled mass enthusiasm in Romania. Accordingly, the coup was presented as an outburst of popular happiness and joy: who cared that the Germans wouldn’t have stomached it in the middle of their desperate fight? The textbook also pictures Dej talking to the workers at a meeting held on August 30, 1944. A few years later, as seen in another picture, the speaker was Nicolae Ceauºescu, sided by his gracious wife, Elena.

III. 1971

The authors, Constantin Daicoviciu, Miron Constantinescu and ªtefan Pascu guaranteed the utmost official status of the textbooks: all of them were members of the Academy and high ranked professors and political officials at different universities. The textbook presents the coup as an “armed, national and antifascist insurrection” and as a “popular revolution”, led – of course – by the communists alone. The books insists on the diversity of the social dissatisfaction which had led to the coup: the workers were oppressed, the peasants suffered requisitions, the intellectuals were “hurt by the Germans” (?) and even the factory owners were dissatisfied with their lives, seeing how their economic interests had been undermined by the Germans. The textbooks goes beyond the commonly admitted social classes (workers, peasants and intellectuals), pointing out that the army advocated mainly anti-German feelings and that even the Germans living in Romania hated Hitler, and organized antifascist actions against him. After Gheorghiu-Dej’s death (1965), Lucreþiu Pãtrãºcanu was rehabilitated: accordingly, the textbook mentions his involvement in the events, but says nothing about the armistice negotiations conducted by Antonescu or the opposition (because it would be unfair to suggest that the country’s destiny could have been decided elsewhere than within its borders).
The book goes on to present the coup as the outcome of massive social protests. It mentions the compulsory Workers’ Unity Front and dares to suggest that Marshall Ion Antonescu was actually arrested by the king. Nevertheless, the royal palace and the great historical parties are presented as being rather hesitant and stuck into some sort of traditional mud or inertia; by contrast, the communist party proved to be efficient, determined and energetic. The book suggests, therefore, a combination of political and biological determination, portraying the coup as a struggle between two faces of history: the old and the new. It is worth noting that what we encounter here is a major obsession of the emerging Ceauºescu regime, which perceived itself as an ideological front of the young and the restless, ready to wipe away the political reluctance and ideological inertia of the old and the rusty.

IV. 1984

In 1984 Romania celebrated the 40th anniversary of the 1944 events: the entire year was dedicated to this celebration, which culminated in a huge mass meeting held in Bucharest on August 22. The denomination of the 1944 events shifted several times during that year: the word “insurrection” had dropped from the vocabulary by the beginning of the year, and the media started to use the term “liberation revolution”. In the end, Nicolae Ceauºescu consecrated the new title, pointing out with his usual cleverness that the insurrection had been a “revolution of social, national, antifascist and anti-imperialist liberation”. Ceauºescu’s propaganda machine and the leader himself made a clear distinction between “insurrection” and “revolution”: as Ceauºescu put it in an interview taken by Pravda , an insurrection was only a part of a wider social, historical and political revolution. Thus, in his never-ending speech of August 1984 (which no important Western emissary attended), Ceauºescu presented the insurrection as the “natural expression of the revolutionary tradition” of the Romanian people, suggesting that the Communist Party had expressed this tradition by leading the insurrection. That’s why the keyword of Ceauºescu’s speech is “national”: the war fought beside the Germans against the Russians had been – the leader said – “antinational”, and the new government called to replace Ion Antonescu’s outrageous dictatorship had also been one of national unity. Building up the revolution, and leading it to its perfection, the Communist Party had acted in a national way – suggested the leader -, expressing the feelings not of a people, but of a whole nation. Accordingly, by becoming the political leader of the country, the Communist Party came to reign over the soul, rather than over the will of the people. It becomes easy to notice that the speech disclosed the crass self-sufficiency of a regime that equated ideology with nationalism.

Let’s finish by getting some smiles out of texts one usually doesn’t read

In its August 21, 1984 issue the Scînteia quoted some recollections belonging to very old people who had allegedly witnessed the 1944 events. Ion Dobocan, who used to be a worker at that time, recalled that he used his… bicycle to summon up 8,000 people for the insurrection. This frantic and speedy wigwagging throughout a capital jammed with unfriendly German uniforms, war machines and firearms happened on August 23, early in the evening, when “the lights went on. The people burst out into the streets. The joy overwhelmed everyone.” The careful journalist and his even more careful political guardian and censor did not realize that since the king’s message had been aired at as late as 10:25 p.m., the joy must have had to be postponed.
An even funnier detail crops up in another section of the paper. Some journalists working for the paper travelled abroad to interview people living in Budapest about how fatherly the invading Romanian army had behaved, after liberating Transylvania and entering Hungary. The paper quotes among those who expressed their gratitude Mrs. Raiciki István, “who has her house near the old horsetrack” …



from: Caietele Echinox

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