On August 12, many Americans were introduced to a new figure of racial intolerance: Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, when a white supremacist wore a T-shirt with his name on it to a rally in Charlottesville, Va.
So, who was Codreanu, and why has a Romanian, who died before World War II, been lionized by white supremacists in the United States?
Codreanu (September 13, 1899–November 30, 1938) was the leader of the main Romanian fascist organization, the Legion of the Archangel Michael, also known as the Iron Guard. In the years before World War II, Codreanu advocated for the elimination of Jews from Romania. He promoted virulent antisemitism and nationalism, declaring unequivocally to his followers, “The historical mission of our generation is solving the kike problem.” Kike is antisemitic slang referring to Jewish people. Rejecting democratic values and an admirer of Nazi Germany, Codreanu advocated the use of violence as a political weapon.
In 1924, in the turbulent years after World War I, Codreanu assassinated the police prefect of the city of Iasi, Romania’s second-largest city. The Legion organized pogroms in 1927 and 1930, targeting violence against Jews. Under Codreanu’s leadership, the Iron Guard murdered the prime minister of Romania, I.G. Duca, in 1933, and in 1936 organized seven “death squads” for the purpose of physically eliminating Legion’s opponents.
In Romania’s December 1937 parliamentary election, the Legion obtained 16% of the vote. Viewed as a serious threat to the country’s political stability, Codreanu was killed in 1938 on the orders of the country’s King, Carol II.
The nationalist, antisemitic ideology and terror with which Codreanu had indoctrinated his green-shirted “Legionaries,” however, continued after his death. A second prime minister was murdered on the street in 1939, and Legionary units assassinated two former prime ministers, as well as other major political figures in a single night of violence in November 1940.
The Legion shared power in the national government from September 1940 to January 1941 and implemented the fascist dictatorial program of its founder. These were also months of growing antisemitic intimidation and persecution, which culminated with the massacre of 121 Jews, the destruction of synagogues, and the looting of hundreds of Jewish homes and offices in the Bucharest pogrom of January 1941.
His ideas had great currency in Romania during the war, when the nation was led by Ion Antonescu, who was also a fascist. Allies of the Nazis, the Romanians were the second largest killers of Jews during the Holocaust after the Germans.
Many of Codreanu’s followers came to the US after World War II, when the Soviet Union helped establish a Communist government in Romania. Fascists were seen in America as strong anti-communists during the Cold War.