Mircea Eliade and Antisemitism: An Exchange

Bryan Rennie and Philip Ó Ceallaigh exchange views on Mircea Eliade and antisemitism.

Bryan Rennie Responds to Philip Ó Ceallaigh’s “The Terror of History: On Saul Bellow and Mircea Eliade” (August 11, 2018):

I’M GRATEFUL TO Philip Ó Ceallaigh for a beautifully written and informative insight into Bellow’s work. No doubt Bellow did employ material from life, and his familiarity with Eliade’s complicated relationship with his past is real, but he wove this into a work of fiction. The accuracy of such fiction must be corroborated before it can be entertained as evidence for historical claims. Emotionally fraught accusations of antisemitism or racism can all too easily be taken as substantiated on what is otherwise entirely circular reasoning. Before Eliade is cast onto the midden of morally and intellectually bankrupt antisemites, incapable of producing any viable theory of religion due to this bias, the details must be closely considered.

Eliade’s relationship with the Romanian fascist movement, the Legion of the Archangel Michael, and its viciously antisemitic arm, the Iron Guard, has long been debated. There are those on both sides of the issue still — and that is a significant detail. There has not, over much time with much ink spilled, been any evidence clear enough to settle the debate. No quotation from Eliade has been produced to resolve the question of his putative antisemitism. Ó Ceallaigh is in the same situation, saying that Eliade’s “public expressions of anti-Semitism become more marked” but failing to adduce a single such expression.

In writing this response I was advised to substantiate my claims with ample quotations from Eliade’s writings of the 1930s and 1940s, but, like Ó Ceallaigh, I find myself in a difficult position — one can only quote what has been published. It is impossible to prove the absence of antisemitism and easy to imply its presence in the work of one who was, undoubtedly, well to the right of center, intellectually elitist, and fervently nationalist. We are now sharply aware of the dangers of elitism and nationalism, and credible suggestions have been made that nationalism is inherently antisemitic. This makes it very easy to follow the slippery slope from Eliade’s expressed admiration of Mussolini in 1936, to assume equal admiration of Adolf Hitler, and thus to antisemitism. It pains me, as a liberal of working-class origins, to defend anyone so far to the right, but before I can tacitly condone the association of Eliade with “Jewish corpses on meat-hooks in a slaughterhouse in the pogrom in Bucharest in 1941” by remaining silent, I must attempt a defense of the truth. (Despite Rudy Giuliani’s protest to the contrary, the truth is the truth.)

During 1937 and into early 1938, Eliade did give his written support to Romanian nationalism and the Legion, publishing eight to 10 articles in its favor. The Legion was, from its earliest inception, antisemitic, and Eliade did overlook that. But does that necessarily indicate his own antisemitism? Earlier he had written from what seems a much different perspective. In 1933, he had signed a protest against the return to barbarism portended by antisemitic persecutions in Hitler’s Germany. His article “Racism and the Cinema” [1] protested against “Aryan” racist apologetics glorifying the white race, and he explicitly rejected the confusion of nationalism and antisemitism in an article condemning the expulsion from Romania of the Jewish scholars Moses Gaster and Lazăr Şăineanu in 1885 and 1901 respectively. [2] In 1934, under the pseudonym “Ion Plăeşu,” he wrote “Against Left and Right,” an article arguing against the totalitarianism of both political extremes. [3]

In 1934, Mihail Sebastian, a Jewish friend of Eliade, published For Two Thousand Years (De două mii de ani), an autobiographical novel that addressed the position of Jewish intellectuals in Romanian society. It bore a preface by Nae Ionescu, professor to both Eliade and Sebastian and editor of the widely circulated review Cuvântul, to which both men had contributed regularly before its prohibition that same year. Ionescu’s preface was unquestionably antisemitic, but Sebastian retained it out of loyalty. Eliade responded in print, attempting to mediate between his friend and their professor and rejecting the latter’s antisemitism. [4]

In February 1937, Eliade wrote a “Meditation on the Burning of Cathedrals,” in which he pointed out “that under a Fascist dictatorship of a violent antisemite like Hitler, a synagogue nevertheless stands, proud and peaceful, in the heart of Berlin.” [5] He favored the German fascists over the Russian communists who, by that time, had already burned cathedrals and admitted to killing one and a half million counterrevolutionaries in Russia. In retrospect, the irony is excruciating. Kristallnacht was to take place in November 1938, demolishing Eliade’s argument, which, with the benefit of hindsight, appears to justify Sebastian’s diagnosis of his friend’s thinking: “catastrophic naïveté.”

Only three of Eliade’s “Legionary” articles mention Jews. His rhetoric is one of fervent, and now extremely suspect, nationalism. (One wonders to what extent that nationalism was influenced by his experiences in India from 1929 to 1931, when he witnessed the struggles of Gandhi’s Indian National Congress.) Yet he did not use the denigrating term for Jews, jidani (“yids”), as did so many of his contemporaries, and he continued to denounce antisemitism as intolerant and vulgar. In June 1936, he wrote another article in homage to Moses Gaster, who had made a large donation of old books and manuscripts to the Romanian Academy. [6] Thus, he actively opposed the antisemitism that resulted in Gaster’s expulsion as reductive of Romanian culture. While he seems naïvely ready to accept the xenophobia that would deny Jews, along with ethnic Germans (“Saxons”), Bulgarians, Ukrainians, and Hungarians, equal status with ethnic Romanians, Mac Linscott Ricketts, whom Ó Ceallaigh cites as the source of much of his material, argues that, for Eliade: “Anyone, regardless of race or creed, can be a Romanian, but if he turns against his country, he forfeits the right to use the country’s name and accept citizens’ benefits. Romanianism is, for him, a matter of ethics not ethnicity.” [7]

Eliade’s last article supportive of the Legion appeared in February 1938, shortly before the Legion’s proscription by the government. The Legionary leader, Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, was arrested in April and executed in November. Suspected of Legionary sympathy, Eliade spent four months, from July to November, in an internment camp, but he neither acknowledged membership in, nor made any declaration of separation from, the Legion. After his release, he ceased to publish any sympathies for the Legion. He was appointed — by the Royalist dictatorship that had executed Codreanu and some 250 Legionaries — to the Press Services of the Romanian Cultural Legation in London in April 1940.

That the Legion still had political influence became obvious in September 1940, when a “National Legionary State” was declared in Romania. In the legation in London, Eliade reportedly boasted of his earlier support for the Legion and his suffering on its behalf, but the National Legionary State lasted only four months. In February 1941, England broke diplomatic relations with Romania and Eliade was posted to neutral Portugal. During his tenure as a functionary of the Office of Press and Propaganda of a country allied to Nazi Germany and enforcing openly antisemitic policies, Eliade produced neither antisemitic nor pro-Nazi rhetoric (although he did write a glowing biography of the Portuguese dictator, Salazar). Eliade was to return to his beloved Romania only once more in his lifetime. After the war, he taught briefly at the Sorbonne, where students demonstrated against his connections to the fascist, Axis-affiliated government of wartime Romania. In that, of course, they were correct. In 1956, he came to the United States for the first time and began his rise in the global academy of religion. Little wonder that he was diffident about his past.

Eliade’s biography is complex and not particularly admirable. By turns he appears naïve, weak, self-serving, and gullible. He never did repudiate his support of the right. I wish he had. It would have been better had he disavowed any connection to the right and condemned the terrible atrocities for which the Iron Guard were responsible. Pointing out that the left — represented by the Soviet postwar occupation of Romania — was guilty of its own atrocities hardly lessens the severity of that omission. Still, none of this testifies to his antisemitism. There was ample opportunity for, but no evidence of, antisemitic polemics. Even with newly available information, uncovered by diligent scholars such as Moshe Idel and Liviu Bordaș, evidence remains lacking of anything other than a clear preference for nationalism over communism and the indecision and systemic prejudice to which so many of us fall prey.

Eliade did champion the Legion in 1937–’38 and no doubt any such support was contributory to the Legion’s crimes. Nonetheless, although they are often associated, there is a distinction between the prewar politics of the right and antisemitism. Regarding the genuinely sad deterioration of Eliade’s friendship with Mihail Sebastian, Ricketts makes a convincing case that it was due to other than political factors. [8] It is, I fear, one of the weakest points of Ó Ceallaigh’s article that his implicit criticism of Ricketts is unfair and largely ad hominem. That Ricketts was “a devoted pupil of Eliade’s” does not necessitate that his scholarship is biased. It is, in fact, remarkably scrupulous and fair, almost obsessively so. Ricketts has never been shown to misrepresent, mistranslate, or misinterpret the massive number of Romanian sources he employed. Yet Ó Ceallaigh casts further doubt on Ricketts’s scholarship, implying that he skates over the difficult questions of Eliade’s potential guilt, when in fact he spends a great deal of time and effort on those questions. Finally, pointing out that Ricketts does not mention the actual number of Romanian Jews murdered during the war again unfairly implies a tendency to omit salient points — but it raises the question: how was that number relevant to Eliade’s biography? In the end, there remains significant doubt that Eliade was antisemitic.

The slippage from historical complexity to fictional oversimplification and misrepresentation is perhaps best indicted by Ó Ceallaigh’s report (accurately derived from Ricketts) that Eliade “proclaims that Romania cannot assimilate foreigners as it did before because the peasantry was weakened by pellagra (from a change of diet), alcoholism, and syphilis — all, [Eliade] observes, due to foreign influence.” [9] This then appears, transformed, in the words of the fictional Grielescu — “the Jew-syphilis that infected the high civilization of the Balkans” — and is presented as accurately representative of Eliade’s position. Eliade had in fact repeatedly referred to the Romanian ability to welcome, absorb, and benefit from immigration.

All our great creators, absolutely all of them, flung themselves with a wild desire after foreign values, in order to assimilate them, in order to test their strength in the Romanian spiritual economy they wanted to establish […] And precisely because they didn’t avoid the “contact” and nourishment of foreign cultures — precisely for that reason they are so “Romanian” in their works. [10]

Eliade very much regretted the failure of that ability — and he did not attribute syphilis to the Jews but, in fact, to “the Austrians in Transylvania and ‘culture’ in the Principalities.”

While Bellow’s novel may have been inspired by reality, it remains fiction, and cannot be used to corroborate historical claims before historical evidence can be used to corroborate its portrayal. Of course, the same can be said of Eliade’s own recently published novels, Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent and Gaudeamus (Istros Books, 2016 and 2018). Nonetheless, fiction written by Eliade in the 1920s and ’30s seems more likely to provide accurate insight into his motivations than is fiction written by Bellow 70 years after the fact.

In Gaudeamus, another Jewish friend, Marcu (Mircea Mărculescu), stops coming to see the author after hearing of his involvement with a Christian Student Association. He assumes that Eliade has joined a typical nationalistic, antisemitic group. Marcu says:

“Radu told me that you’d become an antisemite, that you’d opened your house to a Christian student association, and that you were hatching demonstrations and conspiracies…”

We laughed, and laughed.

“Naturally, Radu had said nothing of the sort […] It’s true that my attic was the headquarters of the club for two months. Many of the students were antisemitic […] But you know me: I’ve never been antisemitic.”

Later, an antisemitic student tells him that without being against Jews, “you can’t be a Christian […] your duty is to be an antisemite.” Eliade replies that he doesn’t take sides on the question, that he hasn’t studied it, and that he can’t study it in the present atmosphere when Christian students are beating up Jewish students. The antisemite accuses him of cowardice, to which Eliade rejoins: “I have much more courage than you suspect. I have the courage to wait. My duty is to balance and illuminate my consciousness.” In view of these accusations of antisemitism against Eliade so many years later, it is important that these episodes from Gaudeamus be weighed in the balance. No one at the time (except his few Jewish friends) would have faulted Eliade for expressing antisemitic sentiments, not in a country that, as Hannah Arendt pointed out in Eichmann in Jerusalem, was the most antisemitic country in the world, Germany not excepted. His denial, under those circumstances, is significant.


Philip Ó Ceallaigh Responds to Bryan Rennie:

Mihail Sebastian’s autobiographical novel For Two Thousand Years is about coming of age in Romania between the wars. The climax of the novel is, oddly, a calm conversation between two friends in the countryside outside Bucharest. The narrator, who is Jewish, is asked by a friend why he never visits the city any more. He replies that he is weary of hearing agitators at every street corner calling for the death of the Jews. What follows is worth quoting at length:

He reflected for a moment, hesitating, a little embarrassed, as though he wished to change the subject. Then, probably after brief private deliberation, he addressed me in that determined manner people have when they want to get something off their chests.

“You’re right. Yet there is a Jewish problem, and it needs to be solved. One million eight hundred thousand Jews is intolerable. If it was up to me, I’d try to eliminate several hundred thousand.”

I was startled. I think I failed to hide my surprise. The one person I had believed utterly incapable of anti-Semitism was he — Mircea Vieru. So, him too. He noticed my distress and hurried to explain.

“Let’s be clear. I’m not anti-Semitic. I’ve told you that before and abide by that. But I’m Romanian. And, all that is opposed to me as a Romanian I regard as a dangerous. There is a corrosive Jewish spirit. I must defend myself against it. In the press, in finance, in the army ― I feel it exerting its influence everywhere. If the body of our state were strong, it would hardly bother me. But it’s not strong. It’s sinful, corruptible and weak. And this is why I must fight against the agents of corruption.”

I said nothing for a few seconds, which was not what he had expected. I could have responded, out of politeness, to keep the conversation going, but I failed to.

“Do I surprise you?”

“No, you depress me. You see, I know two kinds of anti-Semites. Ordinary anti-Semites — and anti-Semites with arguments. I manage to get along with the first kind, because everything between us is clear-cut. But with the other kind it’s hard.”

In my article on Saul Bellow (LARB, August 11) I referred to Mircea Eliade’s antisemitism. Renowned Eliade scholar Bryan Rennie argues that there is no evidence that Eliade was ever an antisemite. In this, I think we are doing no more than repeating the conversation quoted above, which registers as clear a presentiment of the extermination of Europe’s Jews as any I know. If the fictional Mircea Vieru is not an antisemite, as he contends, then Mircea Eliade might not be either.

We cannot begin to comprehend the phenomenon that is the Holocaust if we limit the term “antisemite” only to those who felt violent, irrational hatred for the Jews and took satisfaction in expressing it through threats. There is a desire to simplify the problem of understanding violence by quarantining the “evil” and its obvious perpetrators in this way, just as we wish to put psychopaths behind bars so that ordinary decent folk can go about their business. It is too easy to use “antisemite” as a brand that distinguishes the evildoer, whom we then banish from further consideration. But if we do that, the word is no longer fit for purpose — and by purpose I mean an aid to understanding the series of events by which the extermination of an entire people could become the “rational” solution to a problem. The Holocaust was made possible by a set of violent circumstances, but in partnership with an ideology. That ideology was embraced by people who were in all respects reasonable and intelligent. They were people who could discuss matters without raising their voices, and they had Jewish friends and neighbors. Many of the ideologists of antisemitism in the 1930s were humanists and intellectuals, and this is particularly true of Romania. There is no convenient boundary between the rational and the mass-psychosis that is the phenomenon of antisemitism. Jean Ancel, in The History of the Holocaust in Romania:

[A] feature which distinguished the antisemitic-fascist movement in Romania from similar movements in Europe at the time is that their main ideologues were themselves intellectuals (professors of medicine, law, history, and economics) as well as philosophers and poets. These intellectuals were able to speak in the name of Romanian values, which they, and to a certain extent, public opinion, believed expressed continuity with the past and with the Romanian reality, as against the parting with tradition that the new thinking represented.

Let us remember: Not even Hitler argued for the extermination of the Jews in the 1930s. His rhetoric focused relentlessly on the threat their existence posed to the state — to all national states — and he proposed methods of reducing their influence on the state and reducing their numbers by pressuring them to emigrate. Because these were the issues that the reasonable people he was addressing could agree upon. The fictional Mircea Vieru and the real life Mircea Eliade entertained the view that Jews were a problem and the health of the nation required a solution.

Being decent people, they hoped this would be a humane solution, though obviously this would be hard to guarantee. And so the stage was set for the Jews to become collateral damage in the process of purifying the nation-state.


“Eliade’s relationship with the Romanian fascist movement, the Legion of the Archangel Michael, and its viciously antisemitic arm, the Iron Guard, has long been debated,” writes Professor Bryan Rennie.

Professor Rennie seems to misunderstand both the nature of the Iron Guard and Mircea Eliade’s relationship to it during the years of antisemitic psychosis.

Firstly, the Iron Guard was not a “wing” of The Legion of the Archangel Michael. The two terms refer to the same organization. The Legion of the Archangel Michael was established in 1927 and changed its name to the Iron Guard on April 12, 1930 (though it would continue be referred to as the Legion also). The Legion was not a solely anti-Marxist or nationalist (the Romanian Communist Party was then an insignificant force) or the result of territorial losses (the post–World War I treaties left Romania with its territory and population doubled). Professor Rennie’s contention that “there is a distinction between the prewar politics of the right and antisemitism” is true of Italy. It is certainly not true of Romania. Antisemitism was the very life-blood of Romanian fascism, taking as its starting point resentment of the Minorities Treaty of 1919, which obliged Romania to grant citizenship to its minorities, including Jews, in return for recognition by the major powers of a generous territorial settlement. In other words, if you want a country huge enough to encompass minorities, we require you to behave as a modern, democratic state where all are equal.

This unacceptable foreign interference in the Romanian way of doing things is the context for Mircea Eliade’s embrace of the Iron Guard. Romania at the time had the third largest Jewish population in Europe (after the Soviet Union and Poland). Though they made up only four percent of the country’s population, it was they — and not, say, the Bulgarian minority — who in the eyes of the Guard Jews were undermining the Romanian state from both within and without. For the fascists, democracy was the means by which the Jew exerted his influence and only by the violent overthrow of the liberal democratic state could the Jew be vanquished. “If there was ever a good idea that had fatal consequences for a nation, it is, in the case of Romania, democracy,” wrote Eliade in an article in 1937. And the same year: “Can the Romanian people end its days […] wasted by poverty and syphilis, invaded by Jews and torn apart by foreigners? […] The Legionary revolution has the people’s salvation as its supreme goal.”

Mac Linscott Ricketts, Eliade’s biographer, identifies as many as 14 explicitly pro-Legionary articles written by Eliade between January 1937 and February 1938. But it was at dinnertime that Mircea really let himself go. Mihail Sebastian dined with him in March 1937 and records some of the banter:

I can’t deny that it was entertaining. In his opinion, the students who carved up Traian Bratu last night in Iasi weren’t Guardists […] As Regards Gogu Radulescu […] the liberal student who was beaten with wet ropes at the Iron Guard headquarters, that was all well and good. It’s what should be done to traitors. He, Mircea Eliade, would not have been content with that; he’d have pulled his eyes out as well. All who are not Iron Guardists, all who engage in any other kind of politics, are national traitors and deserve the same fate.

One day, I may reread these lines and feel unable to believe that they summarize [Mircea’s words]. So it is well if I say again that I have done no more than record his very words — so that they aren’t somehow forgotten.

Eliade was the acknowledged intellectual leader of his generation. Among the intellectuals who supported the Guard, he was the brightest star. By 1937, he was involved in the Guard at an organizational level.


Professor Rennie is incorrect in stating that Eliade’s passion for fascism had burned itself out by 1938. The tricky aspect of agitating for a Jew-crushing dictatorship is you might not get exactly the one you want, and Eliade’s spell of imprisonment in 1938 under the Royal dictatorship certainly cooled him down for a spell. But at that point the ideology he espoused had prevailed, and it was a question simply of which rightist faction would dominate; the repression of Jews was fully underway under Hitlerist-Guardist lines. Eliade was appointed cultural attaché to the Romanian Embassy in London in April 1940, a position he retained when the Guard came to power in September 1940 in alliance with the Romanian Army (the National Legionary State), and even after Antonescu repressed the Guard in January 1941. Eliade was transferred to the Romanian embassy in Lisbon in February 1941.

Romanian fascists shared the Nazi narrative that the war against the Soviet Union was a war against the Jews, who had succeeded in overturning the Russian Empire, just as they had succeeded in infesting the Hapsburg Empire (hollowing it out like termites, as Hitler would have it) and forcing its collapse. Nations, were they to have any hope of survival, would have to be as ruthless as the Jews/communists had been. Mihail Sebastian records on June 24, 1941 — the week of the outbreak of the war in the East — the appearance of propaganda posters in the capital that asked, “Who are the masters of Bolshevism?” above a cartoon of the guilty party: “[A] Jew in a red gown, with side curls, skull cap, and beard, holding a hammer in one hand and a sickle in the other. Concealed beneath his coat are three Soviet soldiers. I have heard that the posters were put up by police sergeants.” The presumption was that Romanian Jews were Soviet sympathizers and were treated accordingly. The war began with an order to “cleanse” the area behind the front. As many as 14,000 Jews were killed in the city of Iasi in the very first days of war. Legionary elements in Iasi — used as agitators by the Romanian secret services — had circulated rumors that Jews were signaling to the Soviet air force or staging attacks on the Romanian army. (Though Antonescu had suppressed the Iron Guard as an organization, many of its supporters had been absorbed into the state.)

Had there remained any doubt that war had been declared against the Jews, an official communiqué, reprinted in all the Bucharest newspapers on July 2, 1941, would have dispelled it:

In recent days there have been incidents of hostile alien elements opposed to our interests opening fire on German and Romanian soldiers. Any attempt to repeat these vile attacks will be ruthlessly crushed. For each German or Romanian warrior, fifty Judeo-Communists will be executed.

It was a promise kept when the city of Odessa was taken in October 1941 when Antonescu retaliated for the stiff resistance by “Jewish commissars” by slaughtering the Jewish civilian population.

Eliade was not a minor diplomat. The purpose of his job was propaganda and he served as a personal contact between Portuguese dictator Salazar and the top reaches of the Romanian government. When he visited Bucharest in the summer of 1942 he met personally with Foreign Minister Mihai Antonescu (no relative of Ion Antonescu), the man who had proclaimed that his policy toward the Jews would be that of Titus, the Roman commander, later emperor, who subjugated Judea and destroyed the Second Temple. And there is little doubt, knowing Eliade’s support for political violence and his championing of a Romanian victim-narrative, that he thought Romania was fulfilling its destiny to save civilization. “Mircea Eliade wanted this war,” wrote Sebastian in his diary in December 1943. “He waited for it, wished for it, believed in it, still believes in it — but he is in Lisbon.” Indeed he was, and busy theorizing on the racial destiny of the Romanian people. Though Sebastian may not have been aware, Eliade had published a slim volume in Portuguese earlier that year in which he explained how Romania had performed an inestimable service to Europe by guarding the continent’s fringes for centuries against barbarian hordes. In the present war against Russia, he argued, Romania’s role was no different, and was in defense of “European Christian values.” There is nothing particularly extraordinary about this assertion, even as the regime was doing its best to kill 50 Jews for every Romanian soldier, and only failed because there were soon no Jews left in the area of Ukraine under its control — it was one of the banalities of the time. Back in Bucharest, patriarch Nicodim of the Romanian Orthodox Church put a more firmly theological spin on matters; he termed the war a “holy Crusade,” describing the Bolsheviks as “despicable lackeys of Satan, who are mainly […] the people that has brought a divine curse on itself ever since it crucified the son of God.”


From the time he settled in the United States in 1956 until his death 30 years later, Eliade was a philosopher and historian of religions. He had nothing to say about his fascist past. Silence meanwhile prevailed in communist Romania, where there was an official policy of Holocaust denial, or rather, Holocaust non-discussion. It was as though it had never happened. E. M. Cioran, who was every bit as compromised as Eliade, and living after the war in Paris, adopted a similar strategy of silence, and even claimed that Antonescu had “saved” Romania’s Jews from Hitler. In 1936, he had written “the Jew is not our fellow man, our kind,” and “if I were a Jew, I would instantly kill myself.” Yet his writings are suffused with remorse and attack the folly of belief in any ideology or system. Toward the end of his life, senile, he would revert to speaking Romanian and clutch at the sleeves of friends and protest: “I am not an antisemite!”

We can safely assume that Eliade, in Chicago, was not an antisemite any more than Cioran was in Paris. You can’t take the antisemitism out of Romanian fascism, but you can take the Romanian fascist out of Romania, and deprived of the environment that aggravates his illness, his symptoms no longer manifest themselves. He is to all appearances a healthy man; his mouth no longer runs away with him at dinnertime. He is now a man of letters, a philosopher, and there is no point digging up a past that the people around you will have no hope of understanding.

Bryan Rennie fears that if the antisemitic label sticks to Eliade, he will be “cast onto the midden of morally and intellectually bankrupt antisemites, incapable of producing any viable theory of religion.” This is unlikely, and in any case a nonsensical basis for discussing the facts of the case.

Coming to Eliade from his work as a philosopher and historian of religions, it is not surprising that Bryan Rennie is incredulous that Eliade can really have meant what he meant in his political writings and comments, where his identification with the narrative of Romanian greatness makes him seem unhinged. It is hard to read a basic Eliade text such as The Sacred and the Profane, with its clarity of vision and lucidity of exposition, and accept that the same man thought that the Iron Guard, even in the years when it tortured and murdered — including two prime ministers — was a movement of spiritual regeneration.

Mihail Sebastian tried to maintain his friendship with Eliade even into 1936, when the latter was writing for the antisemitic Vremea. “Will I lose Mircea for no more reason than that? Can I forget everything about him that is exceptional, his generosity, his vital strength, his humanity, his affectionate disposition, all that is youthful, childlike, and sincere in him?”

It is hard to reconcile the many facets that made up Mircea Eliade’s life and thinking. Sebastian struggled to do it in the 1930s, Bellow in the 1990s. Professor Bryan Rennie finds himself in excellent company.


Bryan Rennie Responds to Philip Ó Ceallaigh:

I have read Philip Ó Ceallaigh’s reply with care and with gratitude and I am further grateful to both Philip and the editor of LARB for the chance to respond in turn. I am indeed honored to find myself in such excellent company as Mihail Sebastian and Saul Bellow (and Gershom Scholem, as we will see). I apologize for my error in referring to the Iron Guard as an “arm” of the Legion of the Archangel Michael rather than just another name for precisely the same thing. Philip Ó Ceallaigh states his case extremely well — but I remain unconvinced. The opening quotation from Mihail Sebastian’s autobiographical novel, attributed to the fictional Mircea Vieru, implies that Eliade was “an antisemite with arguments,” but it is precisely my point that, if this were so, why can no one produce those arguments? Once again, Ó Ceallaigh quotes more from other sources than from Eliade. It was Cioran, not Eliade, who said, “the Jew is not our fellow man, our kind.” It was an official communiqué, not Eliade, which said that 50 “Judeo-Communists” should be executed for every one German or Romanian soldier killed. Where are Eliade’s antisemitic arguments? Why quote other sources to demonstrate Eliade’s position?

Ó Ceallaigh does adduce one quotation: “Can the Romanian people end its days […] wasted by poverty and syphilis, invaded by Jews and torn apart by foreigners?” This is indeed damning, distasteful, and grotesquely nationalistic, but its source is questionable. This is a verbatim quotation from the English edition of Sebastian’s Journal (translated by Patrick Camiller), which gives the original source as an article under Eliade’s name in the journal Buna Vestire. [11] Eliade denied having written this article, or ever having contributed in writing to that journal. In a letter of 1972 [12] to the historian of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, Eliade explains that the article was probably based on an oral response to an inquiry, which was then interpreted and “edited” by the interviewer and attributed to Eliade. Three of six pieces appearing under Eliade’s name in Buna Vestire explicitly say that they are the result of such interviews. This is why Ricketts in fact identifies “eight or ten explicitly pro-Legionary articles” (Romanian Roots), not 14, as Ó Ceallaigh states. There are 14 given in a Romanian collection, [13] but these were not all accepted as genuine by Ricketts, who argues that Eliade’s denial of authorship of the article in question is borne out by the fact that its style is not characteristic of Eliade (Romanian Roots). As we have seen, Eliade occasionally wrote under a pseudonym and others apparently felt free to write as if on his behalf. These may well not be Eliade’s words but a paraphrase of the interviewer’s understanding of Eliade’s other articles. In fact, it appears to be a somewhat exaggerated interpretation of the “Blind Pilots” article mentioned earlier. Of course, some will protest that Eliade was bound to disown these words, but that argument leads to the condemnation of all who protest their innocence. He did not deny writing any other articles. Proof is needed before assuming that Eliade’s denial is false.

Once again, I must question whether even that quotation proves Eliade’s antisemitism or his fascism. The quotation is used to great effect to suggest that it does by combining it with another statement from Eliade that democracy was a good idea, but one that would have fatal consequences for Romania, and combining that with Ó Ceallaigh’s observation that “for the fascists, democracy was the means by which the Jew exerted his influence and only by the violent overthrow of the liberal democratic state could the Jew be vanquished.” The slippage should be obvious here. This might indicate that for “the Romanian fascist” democracy is a tool of “the Jew” so, here, antisemitism and the opposition to democracy are inseparable. Such generalization does not, however, prove anything for any specific case. We have no indication that Eliade regarded democracy as a weapon of Jewish people, or Jewish people as responsible for democracy. It is a recognized informal fallacy (the fallacy of division) to assume that what is true of the whole must be true of every part of that whole. Ó Ceallaigh’s argument is dependent on indicating that for Romanian fascists antisemitism was unavoidable and on the fallacious assumption that Eliade was a typical Romanian fascist. Ó Ceallaigh allows that there may be a distinction between the prewar politics of the right and antisemitism, for example in Italy, but goes on to argue that this was not (ever?) the case in Romania. Even allowing that Eliade’s nationalism makes him a part of the fascist movement, there is, as we have seen, considerable evidence showing that Eliade was not typical. This must be given full consideration. Nationalism may oppose the democracy and egalitarianism that I cherish and see as the best hope for the contemporary world — but equating all ethnicities and ideologies that threaten national security cannot be accurately identified as antisemitism. There is no indication that Eliade regarded Jews as any more inclined to be “national traitors” than others.

The support that Eliade gave in writing for Romanian Jews goes unrecognized and unanswered in Ó Ceallaigh’s reply, as does Eliade’s attitude to immigration as beneficial when properly integrated, and the question raised by the lack of written expressions of antisemitism in a context so conducive to them. The worst that Ó Ceallaigh can say about Eliade’s writing after 1938 is that he argues that “Romania had performed an inestimable service to Europe by guarding the continent’s fringes for centuries against barbarian hordes,” which supports, rather than contests, that point. In the same letter to Scholem, Eliade describes the objective of his Portuguese book, Os Romenos, latinos do Oriente (The Romanians, Latins of the East), and his book on Salazar as being “the rapprochement of Romania and Portugal, the two most distant Latin nations.” Neither book expresses explicitly pro-Nazi, antisemitic, or anti-immigrant attitudes. Opposing armed military invasion — as Romania did — is quite a different matter from opposing the peaceful settlement of minorities — as Romania also did. Am I wrong that “Eliade’s passion for fascism had burned itself out by 1938”? I cannot see how the series of events that Ó Ceallaigh then describes indicates a continuing “passion for fascism.” Had Eliade been possessed by such a passion, why does it not show itself in his writings of the period?

The documentary evidence available from Eliade’s diplomatic service is inconclusive and that is significant evidence in his favor. British Foreign Office records of the period, when wartime surveillance and paranoia were intense, express conflicting opinions. Eliade was “the most Nazi member of the Legation” according to one naval officer. In 1940, the historian R. W. Seton-Watson argued that Eliade “is not only Anglophil, [sic] but exceedingly well-read, and has translated into Romanian, among other things, T. E. Lawrence’s Arabian book […] he tried to convince me that the Iron Guard has its idealistic as well as its terrorist side.” Another British diplomat states that, “there is considerable disagreement as to [Eliade’s] sympathies, and a minute has just reached us from the P.I.D. urging that he is a man who might be useful to us.” Eliade’s status as a diplomat in Britain is unclear. Several documents refer to him as nothing more than a “hanger-on.” Seton-Watson said that “as a civil servant Mirca [sic] Eliade ranks far below all other Roumanians attached to the legation in London.” A document dated October 1940 showed Eliade to be fifth-highest paid of 10 Romanians listed as diplomats in active service of the Legation, receiving almost exactly their average salary. He was not appointed press attaché until his transfer to Lisbon in 1941 — the year of the Bucharest pogrom — and records indicate that he had no such status in London where his position was called an “admittedly vague connexion” to the Legation. Evidently, in 1940, he did still believe that the Guard was something other than irredeemably evil, and, evidently, he was wrong. The question is, what are we to make of that?

Ó Ceallaigh finds it nonsensical as a basis for discussion that I fear the inaccurate judgment and dismissal of Eliade’s philosophy of religion on the grounds of his putative antisemitism. He is correct in several respects — I do fear that outcome, and such a fear would be nonsensical as a basis for discussion. The facts are the basis for discussion. I simply plead with the reader not to make a premature decision, based on quotations from other sources, fictionalizations of autobiographical reminiscences, and inconclusive wartime suspicions, to neglect Eliade’s analysis of religion. In 1993, Daniel Dubuisson argued that Eliade’s analysis is vitiated by an inherently antisemitic ontology (Mythologies du XXe Siècle). In 1999, Steven Wasserstrom said that it “stands on a pile of corpses” (Religion after Religion). By 2009, this had led to such gross misrepresentations and oversimplifications as: “Eliade was a Romanian diplomat who supported the brutality of the Iron Guard, notorious for literally butchering Jews as they hung, still alive, from meat hooks.” [14] Eliade’s history of religion is not debilitated by antisemitic ontology or ideology. It does not rest on the corpses of the terrible Romanian Holocaust. There is no evidence that he supported such butchery, and he is something quite other than a disgraced Romanian diplomat. His understanding of religion develops from his exposure to Romanian Orthodoxy and to the religion of the Indian subcontinent, from his considerable erudition, and from his “clarity of vision and stunning lucidity of exposition.” It is remarkably coherent, humanistic, pluralistic, and egalitarian. The fact that accusations of antisemitism and fascist involvement are so difficult to substantiate should go some way to reconciling the Eliade of the “Blind Pilots” with the Eliade of his later, and much more salutary, work. In the end, are we required to make such a reconciliation? No. But we do need to consider the facts carefully, and the various facets of his oeuvre on their own merits.


Bryan Rennie is a British historian of religions and the Vira I. Heinz Professor of Religion at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.

Philip Ó Ceallaigh is short story writer as well as a translator. In 2006, he won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. His two short story collections, Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse and The Pleasant Light of Day, were short-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He lives in Bucharest. 


[1] “Racism și cinematograf,” Cuvântul, 7 September 1933: 1.

[2] “O convertire la românism” (“A Conversion to Romanianism”), Cuvântul, 22 September 1933: 1.

[3] “Contra drept și contra stâgei,” Credința, 14 February 1934: 3.

[4] “Judaism și antisemitism: preliminarii la o discuție,” (“Judaism and anti-Semitism: Preliminary to a discussion”) Vremea, 22 July 1934: 5.

[5] “Meditație asupra arderii categralor,”Vremea, 7 February 1937: 3. Reprinted in Rennie, Mircea Eliade: A Critical Reader, 419–422.

[6] “Doctorul Gaster” (“Doctor Gaster”), Vremea, 21 June 1936: 9.

[7] Mircea Eliade: The Romanian Roots, 628. Ricketts bases his conclusion largely on two articles, “Romani care nu pot fi Români” (“Romanians Who Cannot Be Romanians”), Cuvântul, 23 August 1933: 1, and “Nu ne trebuie intelectuali” (“We Don’t Need Intellectuals”), Cuvântul, 8 October 1933:1. Ó Ceallaigh’s accusation that Eliade’s writing as an intellectual of the day was a significant contributing factor of the Romanian Holocaust is also ironic given that one of Eliade’s most bitter complaints at that time was that the mass movements of both left and right simply dismissed intellectuals.

[8] Ricketts, Formers Friends and Forgotten Facts (Norcross, GA: Criterion Publishing, 2003). And see my own 2002 review of Sebastian’s Journal in Religion 32/2: 172–175.

[9] Referring to “Piloții orbi,” (“Blind Pilots”) Vremea, 19 September 1937: 3. Reprinted in Rennie, Mircea Eliade: A Critical Reader: 412–418.

[10] “București, centru viril” (“Bucharest, Virile Center”), Vremea 12 May 1935: 10. Quoted in Ricketts, 907.

[11] “De ce cred în biruința Mișcarii Legionare” (“Why I Believe in the Victory of the Legionary Movement”), Buna Vestire 1 no. 244, 17 December 1937: 1–2.

[12] Available in Scholem, Briefe III Munich: C. H. Beck Verlag, 1999.

[13] Textele “Legionare” și despre “Românism” (“Legionary” and “Romanianist” Writings) edited by Radu Mareș.

[14] Philo Hutcheson, “It Wasn’t the Academy’s Finest Hour,” a review of The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower: Complicity and Conflict on American Campuses by Stephen H. Norwood, The NEA Higher Education Journal (Fall 2009): 175–177.

LARB Contributors

Bryan Rennie is a British historian of religions and the Vira I. Heinz Professor of Religion at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. Known for his works on Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade, Rennie was awarded the Mircea Eliade Centennial Jubilee Medal for contributions to the History of Religions by then-President of Romania Traian Băsescu in 2006.

Philip Ó Ceallaigh is short story writer as well as a translator. In 2006, he won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. His two short story collections, Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse and The Pleasant Light of Day, were short-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He lives in Bucharest. [Photograph by Johannes Kruse.]


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