#RivetingReviews: Max Easterman reviews CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT: THE STRANGE AND EPIC STORY OF MODERN ROMANIA by Paul Kenyon

Romania has long been an ‘outlier’ in Europe, a Romance-language island in a sea of Slavonic, peculiarly vulnerable to the political whims of foreign powers – the Ottomans, Austro-Hungarians, and, in the last century especially, the Germans and Russians (not to mention the British and French); a country blessed with some rich economic advantages – oil and ready access to the sea, but too often failing to exploit them to its own advantage. And Neville Chamberlain’s opinion of Czechoslovakia – ‘a faraway country … of whom we know nothing’ could equally have applied to Romania. 

What is important about Romania? What do we know of King Ferdinand and his English wife, Queen Marie? General Ion Antonescu? Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej? Corneliu Codreanu? King Carol? These are the people whose ideologies – or lack of them – and activities shaped modern Romania, yet I’m fairly sure the only names many people associate with the country are Dracula and Ceaușescu, both of whom did, of course, leave their indelible mark on its history. The latter was probably the nastiest of a very nasty bunch of European communist leaders, who virtually destroyed the economy; the former, in spite of all, is a national hero, who fought for independence. 

Given that this is a history of modern Romania, Paul Kenyon might have been expected to begin his story with the event modern readers would most remember: the day Nicolae Ceaușescu was overthrown – 17th December, 1989 – in the only truly violent revolution of that revolutionary year. I well remember my feelings of amazement (and excitement) watching it happen ‘live’ on TV in a BBC World Service studio whilst presenting Twenty-Four Hours, as the conducātor was booed off the balcony of the Central Committee building in Bucharest. Kenyon, however, opens this history in 15th-century Gallipoli, where Dracula – or to give him his full name, Vlad Draculea, Vlad Tepeș – Vlad the Impaler – was held hostage to ensure his father’s loyalty to the Ottoman Empire. There is a good reason for Kenyon to have started here, because Vlad’s fate was to become emblematic of Romania’s fate across the centuries: to be hostage to the plots and warring stratagems of its neighbours, and having to resort to stratagems and plots of its own in order to keep them at bay. 

But the prominence here of Dracula, underlined by quotes from Bram Stoker’s book at the head of several chapters, is bound to irritate many Romanians, who want the world to know there is life beyond the fictitious vampire and that the country has a rich history of novelists, poets, composers and artists – as witnessed by the recent festival, Romania Rocks 2. And that’s not to mention that the country has some of the finest churches and castles in eastern Europe, which somehow managed to survive even the foulest of Ceaușescu’s depredations. To be fair to Kenyon, he moves briskly to the nineteenth century, where he takes up the story of modern Romania, which forms the body of the book. His research efforts in this respect cannot be faulted: the chapters dealing with independence in 1878, the relatively benign constitutional rule of King Ferdinand, his belated decision to support the Allies in the Great War, the growth of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s under the indecisive King Carol II, the full-blooded alliance with Hitler in World War Two and, finally, the emergence of the Communist state in the 1940s, are all narrated in fine detail and with great verve. There are murderers, rapists, enigmatic but inspirational leaders, false gods, human traffickers and plain-and-simple bloody dictators, the dramatis personae of what was to be, until relatively recently, a terrible tragedy for ordinary Romanians. The descriptions of their exploits and internecine squabbling, of their political and economic pillage, are all based on memoirs and interviews with the participants in this grandiose, epic tale. 

There was Corneliu Codreanu, ‘a Caesar … a God descended among mortals …’ who appeared in villages ‘dressed in virginal white … on a white horse’ with a ‘childlike sincere smile’; yet this mystic, devout Christian was a raving anti-Semite, an arch-patriot who murdered for his cause, the Iron Guard. There was King Carol, obsessed with building the most spectacular of palaces and holding ‘over-elaborate military parades … with a chest of saucer-sized medals’, but equally obsessed with getting rid of Codreanu, whose friendship with Hitler was a threat to his rule. His murder of Codreanu and his poorly executed attempts to play France and Britain off against Hitler and Stalin eventually led to Romania losing a third of its territories and entering the war on the German side. The wartime leader, General Ion Antonescu, ‘made a call to Hitler, asking for a German military mission’, which effectively became an army of occupation; he also passed a series of anti-Semitic laws, which led to Romania killing more Jews than any Axis state except Germany. There was Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, who, in spite of preferring ‘to sit at home, dismantling electrical appliances … a cup of sweet coffee by his side’ emerged as Communist leader with Moscow’s support, then ‘unleashed a massive industrialisation programme that was entirely unsuitable for Romania’s predominantly agrarian economy’. He also stamped down hard on religion – he replaced Father Christmas with ‘Father Frost’ – and presided over the creation of the notorious Securitate that would make Romania under Ceaușescu the most repressive Soviet Bloc régime. 

The roles of all these people and many more are meticulously documented by Kenyon, revealing a twentieth-century history that is bloodier than most in Europe, but at the same time more surreal: the Iron Guard exhuming Codreanu’s body in order to worship his spirit; Ceaușescu’s wife, Elena, elevated to the directorship of the Central Institute of Chemical Research, based on nothing more than a bogus thesis; and the policy of selling Romanian Jews to Israel to fund agricultural development – begun by Gheorghiu-Dej and continued by Ceaușescu. 

And yet there are some strange gaps in the story: much is made of the Romanians’ pride at being the ‘true’ descendants of Rome and therefore the defenders of Roman civilisation, yet the background to this is entirely missing. How did this claim become so central to the Romanian psyche? Is it anything more than a crude justification for rampant nationalism? The importance of the country’s oil exports, especially in wartime, is underlined, but there’s no explanation of why, by the time Ceaușescu was in control, Romania was no longer able to produce enough even for itself, let alone for export. If Gheorghiu-Dej was so successful in stamping out religion, how were priests so active in bringing about Ceaușescu’s downfall? 

Perhaps most importantly, that’s where the story this book relates ends. A brief epilogue tells us that since then: ‘Romania has moved into a new and exciting phase … full of smart, young graduates working for … companies such as Microsoft, IBM … as well as Amazon…’. I wanted to know how this political basket case had gone about creating a democracy; and how successful was this transition? Was it protecting human rights against, for example, a highly militarised and violent police force? Is economic success any guarantee of freedom and wealth creation for ordinary Romanians? It needs more than just an epilogue to explain why Romanians may at last be on the brink of a national success story – or whether they will be the targets of yet another international invasion.

Reviewed by Max Easterman


by Paul Kenyon

Published by Head of Zeus (2021)

November 2021 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.

Max Easterman is a journalist – he spent 35 years as a senior broadcaster with the BBC – university lecturer, translator, media trainer with ‘Sounds Right’, jazz musician and writer.

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Category: ReviewsNovember 2021 – Romania


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