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Witness to Fascism

Journal, 1935–1944

by Mihail Sebastian,translated from the Romanian by Patrick Camiller, with an introduction by Radu Ioanid
Ivan R. Dee, 641 pp., $36.00


Early in 1935, the Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian—journalist, playwright, novelist, literary critic—decided to start a diary. He was twenty-eight. The first entry, dated February 12, hints at the events that preoccupied him.

10 PM. The radio is tuned to Prague. I have been listening to a concerto by J.S. Bach in G for trumpet, oboe, harpsichord, and orchestra. After the intermission, there will be a concerto of his in G minor for piano and orchestra.

I am immersed in Bach. Yesterday evening, while writing a long letter to Poldy [his brother Pierre, a doctor living in France], I listened to the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto from Lyons—for the first time with extremely clear reception—and then to a Mozart concerto for piano and orchestra.

I went to see an eye specialist. He recommended glasses and I have started to wear them. It changes me quite a lot and makes me look ugly.

It was funny when I told him my name. He said that his family has much discussed my [novel] For Two Thousand Years, which he has not read himself. He has heard a lot of people cursing me. I realize that [my attempt to defend my work] has really been lost. [My article] How I Became a Hooligan is not reaching the circles where I am cursed even by “hearsay.”

On Sunday at Tîrgovisåüte, where I had gone for a lecture, Samy Hersåücovici told me a story that indicates how the “affair” is seen by the public.

The bookseller who was selling tickets for the lecture offered one to a professor at the teachers’ training college: “Sebastian? Aha! That yid who got himself baptized.”

Here Sebastian mentions most of his principal concerns: music; his novel; the recent attack on it, and on him, for being Jewish, and his defense of it in his pamphlet How I Became a Hooligan. He continued making entries on this “affair” and other subjects in his journal until the end of 1944, half a year before he died in May 1945.

Mihail Sebastian” was the adopted name of Iosif Hechter, who was born in 1907 in the port town of Braila to an assimilated Jewish family and without denying his Jewish origins considered himself fully Romanian. He had been involved in the Bucharest artistic and literary world since his youth. Though not particularly pious, he occasionally attended synagogue services, which seemed to him aesthetic failures.1

His novel For Two Thousand Years, published in 1934, was a roman à clef whose Jewish narrator explores the various choices—assimilation, Zionism, communism, and traditionalism—open to Romanian Jews faced with the country’s pervasive anti-Semitism.2Among the recognizable characters in the novel was Nae Ionescu, Sebastian’s teacher, a charismatic professor of philosophy at the University of Bucharest. Ionescu’s enormous influence, which spread far beyond academic circles, depended not on his published work—he wrote little—but on his lectures, in which he preached a mystical nationalism and a vision of Romanian regeneration. Ionescu had encouraged Sebastian to become a writer, and when he asked him to contribute a preface to For Two Thousand Years, Ionescu agreed to do so. Unfortunately Ionescu had recently decided to endorse the fascist ideology of the Romanian Iron Guard; without giving Sebastian any advance warning, he took the opportunity to write a ferocious harangue against Romanian Jews.

Sebastian, deeply wounded, chose to publish this introduction and then reply to it separately. For Sebastian to think himself a Romanian, Ionescu wrote, was “an assimilationist illusion…. Remember that you are Jewish!” In How I Became a Hooligan, Sebastian soon after tried to respond not only to Ionescu but to other critics as well, and to defend both his Romanian identity and his Jewishness. Evidently, according to Sebastian’s diary, that pamphlet was not as widely read as he hoped it would be.

What matters here, though, is that despite Ionescu’s assault on his very identity as a Romanian and his increasingly intense pro-fascist politics, Sebastian did not turn against his friend. When he learned of Ionescu’s death in March 1940, he confessed to his diary the day after: “Nervous, uncontrollable sobbing as I entered Nae Ionescu’s house yesterday morning, two hours after his death. He takes with him a whole period of my life.” In short, some of Sebastian’s best friends were anti-Semites. But, paradoxically, his willingness to tolerate, though with increasing impatience, their anti-Jewish sentiments, coupled with his firm refusal to leave the country during the war even though his life was in danger, were to do his potential readers a great favor. They kept him in Romania to bear witness to life under fascism.3


Romania’s history is essential to understanding Sebastian’s world, since anti-Semitism was a birth defect from which the country still has not recovered. In 1878, Britain, France, Prussia, and the other powers met in Berlin to carve out new states from the dying Ottoman Empire. In creating Romania, they insisted that it grant citizenship to Jews, many of whom had immigrated from Russian Poland and were scattered in both the cities and the countryside, notably in the eastern province of Moldavia. In addition to the traditional charge of being the offspring of Christ’s killers, these Jews had to bear the burden of being considered invaders imposed on Romania by Western allies; they were seen as exploiters and parasites. The Romanian state selectively enforced its constitution by expelling Jews from villages, imposing quotas on them in universities, and closing professions to them.

Romania was from the first an insecure and troubled country; it was economically backward, and plagued by endemic, and seemingly incurable conflicts between rich landowners and peasants, many of whose families had formerly been serfs and were still living under largely feudal conditions. In these circumstances hatred of Jews was as widespread as it was inaccessible to rational argument. In 1907 peasants in Moldavia launched a rebellion that spread until it amounted to a virtual revolution against landowners; the revolt soon became a pogrom against local Jews as well. That the peasants’ longstanding arrangements with the landowners were not more favorable was said to be the fault of Jewish tenants.4 As is often the case, the rebels found it easy to identify the enemy as the aliens among them.

When a larger Romania emerged after World War I, xenophobia only tightened its grip on educated Romanians. Thanks to the victorious allies, the country doubled in territory and in population; this meant acquiring new minorities, particularly Hungarians, who could be despised and held responsible for the country’s economic failures. Parties emerged and disappeared along with their leaders, and most elections were rigged. In this volatile and often corrupt atmosphere, the Legion of the Archangel Michael emerged in 1927, committed to imposing authoritarian order on the country; hence the nickname “Legionnaires,” a word we often find in Sebastian’s journal. Three years later the Legion evolved into the notorious Iron Guard. Its ideology was a bastard mixture of Italian fascism and Nazi racist slogans, coupled with indigenous nationalism, religious anti-Semitism, contempt for democracy, a generous supply of nativist populism, the whole sprinkled with Orthodox mysticism and a commitment to violence as a political technique.

While the Iron Guard attracted thugs, for some of its intellectual supporters its emotional attraction lay in its claim to bring about a Romanian Renaissance. Sebastian writes that Nae Ionescu advocated “the natural, organic evolution of the Romanian people,” a doctrine sufficiently vague to mean almost anything; in Ionescu’s version it featured xenophobia, philosophical irrationalism, and the cult of a glorious death. When two Legionnaires died in Spain fighting for Franco, the members of the Iron Guard had the martyrs they had always wanted.

From the 1920s on, most of the turgid political debate over the “new Romania” was carried on in university lectures, newspapers, and novels. The lectures of a self-important and confused political thinker like Nae Ionescu were treated as the bible of a new movement. After he died, the playwright Eugen Ionescu, no relation to the intellectual leader of the Iron Guard either biologically or politically, said of the “odious defunct” Nae Ionescu, “Because of him all became fascists.” That Nae Ionescu had such strong appeal tells us much about the political intelligence of Romania’s leading intellectuals at the time.

The Iron Guard introduced assassination into Romanian politics—its killings were carefully planned, and carried out in cold blood. The ignominious deaths of the dictator Nicolae Ceausåüescu and his wife, Elena, who were secretly tried and executed on Christmas Day 1989, were part of a long tradition. In 1924, the right-wing leader Corneliu Codreanu made a name for himself by shooting the police chief of the town of Iasi, who had tried to stop the anti-Semitic riots Codreanu had instigated. He was acquitted. In 1933, with Codreanu’s authorization, Iron Guardists murdered the Liberal prime minister Ion Duca for attempting to bring their movement under control. In 1938, King Carol, now openly acting as a dictator, had Codreanu arrested for libel against the ex-premier Nicolae Iorgia. Codreanu was convicted, and then shot “while trying to escape.” In September 1939 the Iron Guard was responsible for killing Prime Minister Armand Ca*linescu, who had tried to arrest some of the extremists.

By this time, political assassinations had become so commonplace that they had turned into popular spectacles. The eleven assassins of Ca*linescu were captured, executed on the spot, and left to lie in the street where they had fallen, covered by a placard saying, “Traitors to the country!” Sebastian, who was then serving in the military, went to the scene, and reported his impressions in his journal:

Thousands of people came by streetcar, by car, by bus, or on foot. It was like a big fair. They were laughing and joking. A company from my regiment only just managed to keep the crowd at a distance from the killers’ dead bodies…. Those who were unable to squeeze through to the front saw nothing. A lady beside me said: “They should keep order, put us in two rows so that everyone can see.”

People from nearby had brought some wooden stepladders, and those who wanted a better view paid two lei to climb up and look over the rest.

Don’t do it!” said one guy who had paid his two lei but had been disappointed. “Don’t do it! All you can see are their feet.”

Sebastian’s comment: “It all seemed appalling, humiliating, shameful.” He notes that there were similar reprisals in the provinces, where King Carol had some two hundred and fifty Legionnaires shot. “I am at my wit’s end,” Sebastian wrote. “There is nothing to think, nothing to foresee. Let us wait and, if possible, not lose our heads too much.”


Nae Ionescu’s move to the right would not be Sebastian’s only deep disappointment in his friends; but Ionescu had been his teacher, and, more important still, had continued to support Sebastian’s literary career. Sebastian was also close to Mircea Eliade, a writer and scholar precisely his age, and, like Nae Ionescu, a passionate Iron Guardist (though one would not know this from Eliade’s untrustworthy Autobiography, written after Eliade became a well-known authority on Oriental religions). In the mid-1930s, Eliade was Ionescu’s assistant. For years, he and Sebastian saw each other almost daily as colleagues on Cuvântul, a literary and political journal that had started out as a fairly liberal paper but gradually drifted into the orbit of the Iron Guard.5 Eliade was writing novels, traveling abroad, and—Eliade claims—keeping up Sebastian’s morale whenever it needed a boost.6 If this is true, their friendship must have been closer before 1935, for the diary Sebastian started that year documents a growing estrangement between the two men. As early as November 27, 1935, Sebastian noted a

  1. 1

    On September 22, 1941, as the persecution of Romanian Jews was at its most intense, Sebastian attended services to observe the Jewish New Year and recorded the event with a characteristic mixture of involvement and detachment: “Rosh Hashanah. I spent the morning at the temple. I heard Safran [the country’s chief rabbi], who was nearing the end of his address. Stupid, pretentious, essayistic, journalistic, shallow, and unserious. But people were crying—and I myself had tears in my eyes.”

  2. 2

    For a detailed account of the novel, see Matei Calinescu, “Romania’s 1930s Revisited,” Salmagundi, No. 97 (Winter 1993), pp. 133–151. I am indebted to Norman Manea for this reference.

  3. 3

    Sebastian’s journal has rightly been compared to Victor Klemperer’s great diary of life under the Nazis from 1933 on: I Will Bear Witness (Random House, 1999). Klemperer’s daily entries, precise and immensely informative, add up to an exhaustive record of the workings of Nazi sadism. Quite unintentionally, Klemperer compiled an astonishing masterpiece. Sebastian for his part wrote less regularly; for six months he did not touch his journal at all. Critics have commented that Sebastian, being more literary than Klemperer, was the more elegant writer. But Klemperer’s diary has its own magnificent passages; the long narrative of his week’s imprisonment in June 1941, poured out at white heat shortly after his release, has a power reminiscent of Dostoevsky. Both diaries are indispensable, though rather different. From now on, the history of Fascist Romania and Nazi Germany cannot be written without them.Collection of Cornelia Stefanescu

  4. 4

    Actually, as Henry L. Roberts, a distinguished American historian of Eastern Europe, put it some years ago: “While Jewish tenants were important on the largest estates of Moldavia, the great majority of tenants (73 percent) were Rumanians.” See Rumania: Political Problems of an Agrarian State (Yale University Press, 1951), p. 14n. Despite its age, this study has retained its value.

  5. 5

    To see how far it drifted, on March 17, 1938, we read in Sebastian’s journal: “Headline in today’s Cuvântul: ‘Pseudo-Scientist Freud arrested in Vienna by National Socialists,’” which was not only libelous but untrue.

  6. 6

    See Mircea Eliade, Autobiography, Vol. 1, 1907–1937, Journey East, Journey West, translated by Mac Linscott Ricketts (Harper and Row, 1981), p. 303.

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