The twentieth century undoubtedly will mainly be remembered for producing totalitarian politics. Italian Fascism was the first to give this name to the phenomenon, even though Mussolini’s movement was the least “total” of the regimes upon which the name has since been bestowed. While Mussolini wanted concentration of all power in his dictatorship, his movement was mainly concerned with Italian national causes and imperial ambitions, and Italy’s international prestige. It did not put forward a doctrine of millenarian international expectations or promise the transformation of Italians—or of human society itself. That was what Nazism and Leninism did, which set them off from their contemporaries and from the political phenomena of the past.
The essential identity of the two is the subject of The Devil in History, the fine and undoubtedly enduring study by Vladimir Tismaneanu, a Romanian, born in 1951 to a father who had lost his arm at the Battle of the Ebro in the Spanish civil war while serving in the International Brigades, and a mother who, as a medical school student, was serving in Spain as a nurse. Returning to Romania, the senior Tismaneanu resumed a role in the underground Romanian Communist Party, was arrested, and in prison met the Party leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, who became his mentor. When Romania acquired a Communist government, following the arrival of Soviet troops in 1944, Tismaneanu became an influential figure in the ruling party.
As the child of a privileged family in the nomenklatura, his son, Vladimir, attended elite Bucharest schools, where he was a classmate of Nicu Ceauşescu, the son of the successor to Gheorghiu-Dej (who died in 1965). In this book Tismaneanu tells of being drawn at the University of Bucharest to the dissident and Western neo-Marxist literature to which he had access because of the family’s political position—the writings, for example, of Antonio Gramsci, Georg Lukács, Leszek Kołakowski, and the Frankfurt School. He became aware of the increasing absorption into the discourse of the ruling party of themes and motifs from the pre-war Romanian far right.
The “legionnaires” of Romanian Fascism (the League of the Archangel Michael, founded in 1927, eventually known as the Iron Guard) “embraced death” in the cause of national renewal and renounced all that was “mundane.” The movement’s founder, Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, was a religious mystic, and the Legionnaires, who maintained to the end an intense commitment to Romanian Orthodox Christianity as a vital expression of the nation, and were ferociously anti-Semitic, found a wide popular following among the peasantry. In its religious commitment the League did not in the least resemble Nazism—which was pagan and anti-Christian as well as anti-Semitic—nor even Italian Fascism, whose relations with the Catholic Church were politicized, temporizing, and expedient (it concluded a concordat with the …