Interview with Cristina A. Bejan
Q&A with the author of Intellectuals and Fascism in Interwar Romania: The Criterion Association (2019)
Can you give us an overview of your work thus far? What led to your pursuing the research that culminated in this book project?
When I was growing up in Durham, North Carolina, my father told me about how his parents were imprisoned by the communist regime. I wondered how such a beautiful country could have such an evil government. My father told me that Romania had once been a flourishing democracy. It was during that period, in the 1930s, that my grandparents met at a military ball at Cercul Militar in Bucharest. They were students and the first in both their families to attend university. I asked, “So what happened to democracy? How did the communists take over?” My father explained that they did not: it was first the fascists, the Legionary Movement, and after WWII, with Soviet interference, the communists came to power.
So from an early age, I have wondered what happened to Romania’s Golden Era. How did it collapse into authoritarianism? In 1989, a window opened: the Romanian Revolution happened. This is my most vivid childhood memory and it meant that we – the American Bejans – could finally go to Romania. The 90s were full of visits to Romania and my father bringing Romanian students to the US. While an undergraduate at Northwestern University, a Romanian professor in the French department introduced me to the work of University of Chicago historian of religions Mircea Eliade. After completing a Philosophy honors thesis on Kant’s concept of autonomy and civil society in post-communist Romania, I won a Rhodes Scholarship that took me to the University of Oxford. There I embarked on graduate study investigating the appeal of fascism to Romania’s elite and most celebrated intellectuals such as Eliade and Emil Cioran.
What are some of the triumphs and trials you experienced as you conducted this research and wrote this book?
The greatest triumph was the discovery of the Criterion Association itself. I went into this project knowing the big names of the Romanian intellectuals in exile: Eliade, Cioran and Eugène
Ionesco. When researching their cultural activities in the 1930s, I discovered the Criterion Association. Criterion was founded by their friend and collaborator Petru Comarnescu, who is relatively unknown in the West because he did not flee abroad before the establishment of the communist regime.
University of Illinois Professor Keith Hitchins gave me a tip on where to find Petru Comarnescu’s personal archive: the Library of the Romanian Academy. There I discovered a gold mine of information about Criterion: notes from meetings, flyers, correspondence, and newspaper clippings about the association, among other items. Then I knew that I had to write the biography of the Criterion Association, and it was through that lens that I would explore why certain Criterionists became fascists and some did not. Criterion collapsed due to the rise of fascism within its ranks and also a scandal resulting from the newspaper Credința accusing key Criterionists of homosexuality.
Another triumph was working in CNSAS, the archives of the Securitate (Romanian Secret Police). CNSAS had just been opened to the public, and I was among the first generation of researchers to look at those files. I was able to access many personal dossiers of Criterionists, including Marietta Sadova and Constantin Noica. In the files, there were testimonies of their legionary (fascist) activities and clandestine efforts to smuggle outlawed literature by the Romanian diaspora into communist Romania.
In terms of trials, the greatest trial when conducting research in Eastern Europe is the difficulty, inefficiency and mystery surrounding archival work. At CNSAS for example, I was denied files that I knew existed (Petru Comarnescu’s for instance, which has recently been published in a book by Lucian Boia) and given files of people I did not request.
Why, in your view, does this research matter?
This research is a contribution to the field of Romanian, Eastern European, Holocaust, European, World, Women’s and LGBTQ+ History. My book provides global exposure for this period in Romania and these intellectuals’ political and cultural activities, as it is the first book in English on the topic and the most extensive to date.
As Oxford Brookes professor Marius Turda wrote in his endorsement, “This book could not be more relevant or timely.” Authoritarianism and radicalized politics are on the rise throughout the world. The word “fascism” has returned with a vengeance when we describe this increase in global extremism. A newer word “populism” (whose precise meaning is widely debated) has emerged as well.
What we can agree on is that the far-right is gaining traction across the world. Authoritarianism does not have to lean to the right of course. We need only consider Russia, the People’s Republic of China and Venezuela. Radical Islam is also a global threat and epitomizes the threat of radical ideology. The religious core of ISIS and its counterparts has parallels with Romania’s mystical Orthodox Legionary Movement.
The pressing question today is: how is this happening? Democracy seemed so robust and invincible at the end of the Cold War. What can we learn from our past democratic experiments to preserve our democratic values and institutions today? This is one of the reasons that my research matters: I investigate the interwar period in Romania, which was then a constitutional monarchy. I explore reasons for that collapse, most importantly how and why leading intellectuals were disillusioned with democracy and endorsed fascism instead.
How did you identify the need for a book focusing on the Criterion Association and the rise of fascism in Romania?
When I began investigating this topic I noticed there was a gap in the literature. I felt an in-depth comprehensive biography needed to be written. I also felt like the literature about Romanian intellectuals’ flirtation with fascism was very heated. In my book, I have tried to achieve a critical distance from the subjects as I tell the story of the Criterion Association, which was one of the great modernist cultural experiments of the 20th Century. It was revolutionary, ambitious, cosmopolitan, diverse and inclusive. For two years, Criterion had an eclectic program that ranged from public lectures, music, theater and dance manifestations and a visual arts exhibition. The democratic structure of its symposia was groundbreaking for its time. The association’s eponymous publication further explored these issues.
There is a distinct need to learn how fascism can appeal to educated cosmopolitan individuals. Each intellectual under my investigation who supported fascism had their own reasons but there were some common themes: anti-communism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, a thirst for power, a preference for masculinity, skepticism of democracy, promotion of mystical Orthodox Christianity, and, for all, an intellectual arrogance that allowed them to believe that they must be right in their conclusions. Some would understand fascist thinking as an embrace of “unreason.” In fact Eliade, and company rationalized their actions and unequivocally considered themselves rational actors. Ionesco called his friends’ descent into fascist thinking “rhinocerization” and wrote the play Rhinoceros, which captured this phenomenon of the individual joining the herd.
How do you hope your research has real-world impact?
My book already is being taught at Yale University and the University of Leicester. This is an enormous honor for me and definitely proof of world impact. Having my book distributed to libraries and bookstores is extremely important. I also hope to have my book translated into Romanian so it can be part of the discourse in Criterion’s homeland. I hope that the literature and plays written by the Criterionists will continue to be translated, published, and performed around the world.
I also hope to inspire the Romanian diaspora in the US to both examine our cultural greats with a critical lens and, at the same time, celebrate their achievements. Keeping the memory of Criterion alive can bring Romanian-Americans together in conversation about our painful totalitarian past and also inspire us to continue to innovate and create culture: both Romanian and global, as the Criterionists did.
And finally, I hope that people suffering in totalitarian countries all over the world can look at Romania as an example of what’s possible. This, of course, is not to say that Romania is perfect. But she did break the shackles of totalitarianism. Today, Romanians live and thrive all over the world. My book is a testament to what we, as a country, lost, and my story of the greatness of Criterion is a suggestion of what she can once again become.
What would the world be like without the humanities and why do we need to continue investing in historic research and education?
Many of my students at Metropolitan State University of Denver have not declared a major yet and are considering the humanities. When we discussed the importance of a history degree, the first thing a student said was, “When we learn from the past, we can better understand our present and make the effort to not repeat the past in the future.” Of course, if we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. But there are also positive things to learn from history that we might wish to emulate, and I think that the Criterion Association is a great example.
I believe that the humanities challenges us to think critically, to learn to make an argument and provide evidence for it. In my teaching, I emphasize the need to be informed in order to be a participating world citizen. That’s what the humanities gives you, the tools to understand our world and make critical decisions. Studying the humanities, one learns to make connections between past and present; connections between ideas; connections between themes; and so much more.
Cristina A. Bejan is an Oxford DPhil and a Rhodes and Fulbright scholar. She has held fellowships at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Georgetown University and the Woodrow Wilson Center.