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The Iron Guard is the name most commonly given in English to an ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic, fascist movement and political party in Romania in the period from 1927 into the early part of World War II.
Originally founded by Corneliu Zelea Codreanu on July 24, 1927 as the Legion of the Archangel Michael (Legiunea Arhanghelului Mihail), and led by him until his death in 1938, adherents to the movement continued to be widely referred to as "legionnaires" and the organization as the "Legion" or the "Legionnaire Movement" (Mişcarea Legionară), despite various changes of the (intermittently banned) organization's name. In March 1930 Codreanu formed the "Iron Guard" (Garda de Fier) as a paramilitary political branch of the Legion; this name eventually came to refer to the Legion itself. Later, in June 1935, the Legion changed its official name to "All for the Country" or "All for the Fatherland" (Totul pentru Ţară).
Founding and rise
In 1927, Corneliu Zelea Codreanu left the number two position (under A.C. Cuza ) in the Romanian political party known as the Christian National Defense League (CNLD) and founded the Legion of the Archangel Michael, which contrasted with most other European fascist movements of the period in its overt religiosity (in the form of an ostentatious embrace of the Romanian Orthodox religion) and in having its mass base among the peasantry and students, rather than among military veterans. However, the legionnaires were of the usual fascist pattern in their use of violence, up to an including political assassinations.
With Codreanu as a charismatic leader, the Legion was known for skillful propaganda, including a very capable use of spectacle. Utilizing marches, religious processions, convenient "miracles," and patriotic and partisan hymns and anthems (along with more mundane tactics like volunteer work and charitable campaigns in rural areas) in support of its anti-Communist, anti-Semitic, anti-liberal, and often anti-parliamentary philosophy, the League presented itself as an alternative to corrupt, clientelist parties including the CNLD.
A bloody struggle for power
In 1936 the Legion came third in the Romanian parliamentary elections, behind the Liberal and the Peasant Parties, with 15.5 percent of the vote. King Carol II was strongly opposed to the Legion (not least because of his beloved Jewish mistress Elena Wolff, also known as Magda Lupescu) and successfully kept them out of government until he himself was forced to abdicate in 1940. During this period, the Legion was generally on the losing end of persecution. On February 10, 1938 the king dissolved the government, re-establishing the absolute monarchy.
Codreanu was arrested and imprisoned in April 1938, and ultimately killed along with several other legionnaires on the night of November 29-30, 1938, purportedly during an attempt to escape from prison. It is generally agreed that there was no such escape attempt, and that Codreanu and the others were killed on the king's orders, probably in reaction to the November 24, 1938 murder by legionnaires of a relative (some sources say a "friend") of Armand Călinescu, then Minister of the Interior in the king's cabinet.
The royal dictatorship was brief. On March 7, 1939 a new government was formed with Călinescu as prime minister; on September 21, 1939 he, in turn was assassinated by legionnaires avenging Codreanu. Further rounds of mutual carnage ensued.
Sima's brief ascendancy
In the first months of World War II, Romania was officially neutral. However, especially after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 23, 1939, which stipulated, among other things, the Soviet "interest" in Bessarabia, earlier French and British pledges were worth no more to Romania than to Poland. When Nazi Germany invaded Poland, Romania granted refuge to members of Poland's fleeing government, and even after the assassination of Călinescu, King Carol tried to maintain neutrality, but France's surrender and Britain's retreat from Europe rendered meaningless their assurances to Romania. A lean toward the Axis Powers was probably inevitable.
This political alignment was obviously favorable to the surviving legionnaires. Ion Gigurtu's government, formed July 4, 1940 was the first to include a Legion member, but by the time the movement achieved any formal power, most of its charismatic leadership were already dead: Horia Sima, a particularly virulent anti-Semite who had become the nominal leader of the movement after Codreanu's death, was one of the few prominent legionnaires to survive the carnage of the preceding years.
On September 4, 1940, the Legion formed a tense alliance with General (later Marshall) Ion Antonescu to form a "National Legionary State" government, which forced the abdication of Carol II in favor of his son Mihai, and leaned even more strongly toward the Axis. (Romania would formally join the Axis in June 1941.) Horia Sima became vice-president of the Council of Ministers.
Once in power, the Legion ratcheted up the level of already harsh anti-Semitic legislation and pursued, with impunity, a campaign of pogroms and of political assassinations, not to mention showing their own skill at clientelism and at outright blackmail of the commercial and financial sectors. More than 60 former dignitaries or officials were executed in Jilava prison while awaiting trial; historian and former prime minister Nicolae Iorga and economist Virgil Madgearu , also a former government minister, were assassinated without even the pretense of an arrest.
The Iron Guard were particularly infamous for the virulence with which they participated in what was later to become known as the Holocaust. In The Destruction of the European Jews, Raul Hilberg writes, "There were... instances when the Germans actually had to step in to restrain and slow down the pace of the Romanian measures." The annihilation of the Jews of eastern Romania (including Bessarabia, Bucovina, Transnistria, and the city of Iaşi) had more the character of a pogrom than of the well-organized brutality of the transports and camps.
However, the Legion soon overplayed their hand. On January 24, 1941 Antonescu successfully suppressed a Legion-inspired military coup, resulting in the Legion being forced out of a governing role and losing its government protection. Horia Sima and many other legionnaires took refuge in Germany; others were imprisoned.
See also Romania during World War II.
- An excellent web site about the Iron Guard, produced as a class project at Claremont College. Essays on that site provide a detailed picture of the growth of the Iron Guard and the legionary movement, the cultural aspects of the movement, and the involvement of the Iron Guard in the Holocaust, as well as an year-by-year chronology of the Iron Guard, its antecedent groups and rival fascist and proto-fascist movements, beginning in 1910.
The name "Garda de Fier" is also used by a small, Romanian fascist group, active in the post-communist era. There was a Peronist faction in early 1970s Argentina known as the Guarda de Hierro (Spanish: Iron Guard) which had no connection to Romanian fascism.
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