Less than a decade ago, an entirely peripheral street in Cluj – unpaved, located in an area under construction – was named after writer and politician Radu Gyr. Pressured by the National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania, the Cluj City Hall was supposed to change the name of the said street, but Mayor Emil Boc withdrew the draft decision at the last moment, invoking a petition signed by 6,000 people, petition launched by the ‘Ion Gavrila Ogoreanu’ Foundation which primarily promotes the memory of anti-communist partisans. Radu Gyr (1905-1975) spent a total of almost two decades in prison, mostly during the communist regime.
Cluj’s Radu Gyr Street would have been renamed after Jeno Szervatiusz, a local Hungarian sculptor (1903-1983) mostly preoccupied with the image of the peasant. Some journalists made a tendentious parallel between Gyr – a victim of the communist period – and an artist who was appreciated during that time, also probably because of the topic of his work, which converged with the regime’s populist rhetoric. But while in Emil Boc’s case there’s also political opportunism, the mayor long-preferred by the people of Cluj not wanting to lose the support of that nationalist electorate that kept Gheorghe Funar in office for 12 years, others are defending Gyr for his anti-communist merits. It’s not the first time when such a polemic inflames the minds, but the issue of anti-communism deserves plenty of explanations in order to be taken out of the hands of cunning ideologues.
Romania has suffered over four decades of communist regime, first imposed by the soviets by force, then autonomised and nationalised. It’s natural for there to be resentments and a vigilant anti-communist rhetoric. But this does not mean that whoever is an anti-communist is worthy of being honoured by naming a street after him. The street name plate pointed out that Radu Gyr was a “poet, playwright, essayist and journalist,” but could it be ignored that he was, at the same time, one of the leaders of the Iron Guard Movement, the most successful far-right movement in the interwar period? That he was a high-level civil servant during the Iron Guard Government that lasted several months? He is not the only writer blemished by extremist political militantism, especially in Romania – apart from other personalities of national repute, two former vehement Iron Guard sympathisers would subsequently know world glory: Emil Cioran and Mircea Eliade. But the problem is not that of applying a damnatio memoriae, but of not promoting them as role models for future generations. To name a street like that is the equivalent of semi-amnesia or tacit legitimisation.
There is no need to remove Radu Gyr from the history of Romanian literature – but nor is there a need to credit him with superior aesthetic merits just because he was the poet of convicts at one point –, we must solely promote correct biographies without mystifications. Let’s not hide: antisemitism was fundamental in the ethos of the Iron Guard and the consequences were murderous. Iron Guard members were not the only anti-Semites of the era, and, from the end of the 1930s to the end of the Second World War, Romanian legislation was significantly discriminatory – not to mention deportations and summary executions. Today we decry the fact that the members of the Grindeanu Government did not oppose the quick adoption of Emergency Ordinance no.13, but those who were part of the Iron Guard Government and did not oppose it are guilty even more so. Radu Gyr was not naïve, he was an exalted man who supported the Iron Guard Movement’s orientation, and implicitly its virulent antisemitism. Once he ended up in jail – first during the anti-communist regime of General Ion Antonescu –, Gyr became a victim, like any convict. Even more so during the far harder regime of the communist period.
The fact that he used his poetic talent to ease the pain of so many of his fellow convicts is a merit but does not erase his political sins, especially since he did not recant them – on the contrary, he continued to promote an idyllic image of the Iron Guard. Such a man cannot be glorified simply as “a great writer” – a label that is, at any rate, significantly politicised. It’s the case of many other people of culture, difficult to correctly assimilate without these necessary distinctions. At the same time, it’s difficult to implement the provisions of Emergency Ordinance no.31/2002 – against the ‘cult of persons guilty of crimes against peace and humanity’ – without dilemmas. After all, poet Octavian Goga has numerous busts all over the country, as well as streets and schools named after him, yet he was the first Premier whose Government adopted anti-Semitic legislation – but it would be difficult for all of that to be rescinded. The difference between him and Gyr is more formal, in the sense that he was not convicted in court after the war – he was already dead.
But the position is not that different: he was a poet but also a far-right and anti-Semitic politician. It would be ideal to learn to make, without big inner dramas, the necessary distinctions between what deserves to be appreciated and what deserves to be rejected in regard to the same personality. Otherwise we will remain trapped in false polemics, the likes of: fascism versus communism. Had Hitler spent two decades in jail, in the post-war period, would he have become an anti-communist hero? He was a staunch anti-communist at any rate, but this should not be seen as a merit in itself. However, in the case of the Iron Guard Movement there’s another aspect that stokes the confusion even more. At least from a moment on, it was seen as the political expression of Christian Orthodoxy. An association that is not just ambiguous but also extremely perverse.
After many years of detention, the jailed legionnaires were seen not just as simple victims but as martyrs of Orthodoxy. But suffering does not confer public value to jail time, the justness of the cause for which suffering or death was accepted does. Any religion, any sect, any ideology and even many political regimes had their “martyrs.” In other words, for the legionnaires or even for the Orthodox believers with nationalist tendencies, Radu Gyr can be a martyr, but for the others he deserves being recalled only as a writer – not exactly of great scope – who had an entirely unfortunate political option.