Thursday, November 16, 2006

Mircea Eliade's fascism

One of the more disturbing things that I learned late in my career as a graduate student in religion was about the early fascist activities of one of the great 20th century figures in the study of religion, Mircea Eliade. As an article in the New Republic (by Joseph Frank) which has just been posted on line says: "Mircea Eliade, the much-admired historian of religion ... was chairman of the department of religion at the University of Chicago from 1957 until his death in 1986. Eliade had been a strong supporter of the Iron Guard movement, the Romanian equivalent of the Italian fascists and the German Nazis, but he attempted throughout his later career to conceal and deny his affiliation with its ideas and his service in the pro-Axis Romanian government of Marshal Ion Antonescu during the war."

In the mid-1930s he began to support the Iron Guard openly: "In 1936 he began openly to support the Iron Guard; but his aim was 'to provide its ideology with a more solid philosophical foundation.' One is reminded of Heidegger's attempt to provide Hitlerism with what the philosopher considered a worthier intellectual grounding. Eliade carries on a continual battle against the ideas of the Enlightenment and traces the degeneration of Romania to its attempt to adopt such alien notions: 'Being a foreign importation, the democratic regime concerns itself with matters that are not specifically Romanian--abstractions like the rights of man, the rights of minorities, and the liberty of conscience.' Far better a dictatorship like that of Mussolini, which is always preferable to a democracy because, if the latter goes to pieces, it will 'inevitably slide toward the left' and thus toward communism."

In 1938, the Iron Guard movement was suppressed in Romania, and Eliade left the country, to become the Romanian cultural attache in London. He was then transferred to Portugal, and spent four years in Lisbon, full of admiration for the dictatorship of Salazar.

Eliade never repented of his fascist involvements, although he concealed them after the war. He kept a notebook throughout the war that is now in the University of Chicago library.
It is an astonishing document, revealing a self-adulation merging on megalomania and a fervent commitment to the triumph of Hitler, Mussolini, and Antonescu over the "Anglo-Bolsheviks." Comparing himself with Goethe, whose genius he admired, Eliade concludes: "My intellectual horizons are vaster." Despite the consolation of such reflections, he was terribly depressed by the course of the war. After the defeat of the Germans and their Romanian allies at Stalingrad (which he called "a tragedy"), followed by the invasion of North Africa and the British victory over Rommel, Eliade was upset to such an extent that he notes: "Insomnias, nightmares, depression."

For him, the triumph of the Allies meant "the abandonment of Europe to the Asiatic hordes." Even though Jews were being slaughtered right and left in his homeland, not to mention elsewhere--and Eliade's diplomatic position kept him perfectly well informed--not a word about any such events appears in his pages. As the handwriting on the wall became more and more legible, he resolved not to return home, but to take another tack. "I have decided to 'penetrate' Europe more deeply and with more determination than I have done until now," he writes. Several months later, he sees himself operating as "a Trojan horse within the scientific arena," whose aim was "scientifically to validate the metaphysical significance of prehistoric life." This is exactly how he behaved after Antonescu was overthrown and he was discharged from his position at the Romanian embassy. He had influential scholarly connections in Paris, particularly the cultural historian Georges Dumézil, and he used this influence as well as others to obtain temporary teaching appointments. He had begun to write his Treatise on the History of Religions in 1944 and his influential The Myth of the Eternal Return a year later; both appeared in French in the immediate postwar years, and launched Eliade on his way to international fame and a permanent post in Chicago.
In my undergraduate and graduate classes in religion we were assigned books by Eliade, including The Myth of the Eternal Return, and I was always disturbed by his treatment of Judaism - which was not openly anti-semitic but nonetheless did not cast Judaism in a very favorable light.

Joseph Frank analyzes this quite astutely:
Nothing blatantly anti-Semitic can be found in Eliade's postwar writings, but the prejudice is transposed into a much more scholarly key in his theory of religion. One of the cornerstones of his doctrine was that archaic man lived in a world of cyclical time, whose recurrences were marked by festivals of one kind or another in which "sacred time," the time of religious experience, was re-created. The modern world has largely lost this ability to relive "sacred time" because the Hebrews (as Eliade now calls them) broke with the cyclical time of "the eternal return" by linking God with linear time. "The Hebrews," he writes, "were the first to discover the significance of history as the epiphany of God," and this discovery of history ultimately led to all the ills of the modern world. Daniel Dubuisson, a French analyst of Eliade's views on mythology, concludes that this summary notion of history "especially invents a new accusation against the Jews, that of an ontological crime, a capital crime and without doubt unpardonable." Eliade thus remained true to himself in this erudite disguise during his later years, when his worldwide fame reached its apogee and his death was mourned with sanctimonious reverence.
Once this information about Eliade started to come out (I think I first read about his history in an earlier article in TNR in August of 1991), there was at least one session at the AAR discussing him. I certainly hope that his books are no longer a mainstay of undergraduate religion courses. I actually threw out some of his books that I owned - I didn't want anyone else to be exposed to his dubious ideas on the history of religion.

19 comments:

  1. Have you seen this: http://www.iraniantruth.com/?p=873

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  2. No, I had not. It's repulsive.

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  3. 40 years ago I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. I had heard of Eliade from my roommates who were "into" such things. I even read a few pages of the Myth of Eternal Return. He had little contact with undergraduates, but one night he did give a lecture at the Hillel Foundation (the Jewish religious and cultural institution on many campuses worldwide), which I dutifully attended with the said roomates.

    I remember very little about the lecture or his theories, other than that they made little sense to me, but I am quite sure that during my years at Chicago, no one ever mentioned Eliade's fascist past.

    Of course the fact is that in the aftermath of the Great War (WWI), the vast majority of European Intellectuals gave up on liberalism (classical liberalism not the modern American watered down socialist theory that caries the same name) and embraced theories and movements that grew out of the theories of Sorel, including Bolshevism, Fascisim and Nazism.

    For some reason it was condsidered impolite to publicly discuss the backgrounds of the survivors who washed onto our shores. Eliade got a free pass, and so did Hannah Arendt, who had started out as Heidegger's girl friend.

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  4. Hey Rebecca,

    I don't think that Eliade's work has been tossed out yet.

    I remember Jon Levenson discussing his fascist past, but I never knew any specifics about it myself.

    You know, given the cyclical holiday schedule in Judaism, that whole line of thought in Eliade never made sense to me in Eliade's work.

    I think what is more true is that there is a tension between cyclical time and linear time and both are represented. That's the tension, for instance, that is picked up by Hegel when he describes the dialectic of religion.

    In any case, the "scientific validation [of] the metaphysical significance of prehistoric life" seems like such an arcane point for a Trojan Horse strategy at least in this day and age, given that there is no big disillusionment any more with the myth of indefinite progress. No one thinks it will stop wars or make us better, but we do think it will make life better. As far as I can tell, this fatalistic pessimism is no longer endemic in the University; and perhaps it was always a European proclivity in any case. So I don't think that Eliade succeeded.

    Though the pre-war atmosphere at the University of Bucharest in that TNR article you linked does make me think of Paris in the present day, unfortunately, with Jews needing police protection at some events.

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  5. Have you really read Eliade's work ?!

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  6. Hi
    Could someone please post the reference in NR that the article about Eliade was in ?

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  7. Hey Robert
    We were at the same talk !
    What class were you in at UC
    I was in the class of 70.
    Thanks
    Andrei

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  8. Did you know that fundamentalist Christians--especially in the 1980s--were taught to believe that all rock music was associated with satanism and then instructed to throw out their rock records and tapes, vowing never to listen to it again. Then there were the massive book burnings in Nazi Germany, all on ideological grounds. What's the point of not being a Nazi and not being a fundamentalist if one acts just like one. I, for one, hope Eliade continues to be read, along with his critics. To read only his critics would be anathema to education. To not read him at all would be to become ignorant of one's own field. Oh, right. The postmodern politics of anti-classicism don't care about diverse knowledge. They only care that the old is bad and the new is good.

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  9. re Eliade. Saul Bellow taught at the U of Chicago and was aware of Eliade's past. He wrote him into one of his later novels (Ravelstein?). Of course, it was an unflattering portrait just like Frank's article which is full of errors. Read Joachim Martillo's response to Frank's article in the comments box under the on-line version. Maybe Martillo is going by "Thors Provani" there, his Philip K. Dick inspired nome de plume. I don't recall, but I do recall Martillo (who is Jewish) pointing out to Frank the 48 years of "Judeo-Bolshevik" terror which followed that country's five years of fascism. Eliade was one of the greatest religious scholars of the 20th century. His chair in the Dept. of Comparative Religions (which he started and which was the first of it's kind in America) was to be taken over by Ioan Chulianu, a young Romanian double Ph.d from the Sorbonne. He was shot dead in a men's room on the Chicago campus by an unknown assassin with a single bullet. The Frank article and recent books about Eliade's brief association with the Romanian Legionary movement are smear jobs. In fact, much of the received history of Romania in WWII in the West has been a smear job written, for the most part, by ex-Communist "refugees" brought here by the state department.

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  10. Eliade's non-scientific work is beautiful, yet it is very tied to his 'scientific' views. If I deduct his `categorical` view - political position, his concern over a more linear, temporal view of God is something I can understand. I feel the same.

    I would definitely toss any book from a man that wrote, say " The Serpant".
    I would say, be more forgiving. Do not be so temporal in your judgment.

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  11. Many intellectuals and others supported fascism when it first appeared. Remember we weren't in their shoes, we have the benefit of hindsight. Hitler consulted, for example, with leaders of the American eugenics movement, which was huge around the turn of the century. It was then regarded as science. This resulted in the sterilization 0f 62,000 "unfit" Americans. There is much hidden history, even history as recent as WWII. Those who supported fascism saw it a bulwark against communism, atheism and chaos.

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  12. Many intellectuals and others also opposed fascism *at the time*. Don't be fooled by the idea that we in the present know so much more than people in the past and that our ethics are better than theirs. Many people at the time recognized the evils of fascism and Nazism. A recent book, "Hitlerland," is about Americans in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, especially journalists, and demonstrates that while some were taken in by the Nazi lies about the true nature of the Nazi regime, many saw through the lies and reported what was really going on (like William Shirer).

    And supporting fascism because it was supposedly a bulwark against communism, atheism, and chaos - how well did that turn out? Tens of millions were killed in Europe during the second world war, which was started by Germany. Why think that fascism was any better than communism? It wasn't, and Nazi Germany was more aggressive than Communist Russia.

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    1. 'Nazi Germany was more aggressive than Communist Russia'
      Whenever I see such arguments I cannot help but wonder how exactly people reach them and why so often discussions about totalitarian regimes (and/ or their supporters) end up in someone showing more support for one over the other, or lessening the evils of either of the two. Yes,the Nazi regime triggered the war, which does not mean that communist Russia was any less brutal in its actions (before, during or for the many decades after the war) or that it did not take full advantage of the war that was going on. Have a look at what was going on in Soviet Russia in the 1920s, long before it can be said that the Russian government was reacting to the fascist threat (I include here a simple, wiki link, but it's a telling example I think: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holodomor#cite_note-UN-25).
      Having said that, it's sad that Eliade never had enough courage to condemn his earlier views in public; I find it interesting to read that the author of the blog and other commentators find that anti-Jewish sentiment can be actually read between the lines in his work, and I'd be sincerely very interested to know more about this (I was aware of his views during his youth, but always thought he probably regretted them, like other Romanian intellectuals in his generation - see Emil Cioran); it would change matters for me personally to see arguments that he did not completely lose these views at a later stage.
      To throw his work to the garbage might however be too abrupt; in any case, I'd align with a previous commentator and argue that its' work should definitely be taken together with the critics.

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    2. I'm certainly not a supporter of the Communist regime, and don't wish to lessen the evil of either regime. The Nazi regime did not just "trigger the war" - it deliberately started it in 1939 and then invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. The Soviet regime was evil, but it did not seek to kill all the Jews within its borders.

      I think Eliade's anti-Jewish sentiment can be seen in his book "The Myth of Eternal Return" in his depiction of Judaism. Go take a look at it and see what you think. It's not blatant but he certainly traffics in well-worn Christian anti-Jewish stereotypes of Judaism.

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  13. I think that you should not concider this the final truth of the story about Eliade being a fascist mystic. This man proclaimed the humanism in the upcoming century. I don't see how a man with such believes can support such a movement. Than again, i had been astounded with the anti-semitic views of my friends, who i concidered really open-minded. Still i don't think that Eliade should be dissed so easily.

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  14. Amazing how people cannot face up to the facts on Eliade's fascism. What is it about his noxious comments on the defeat of the Axis Armies to the Allies that is so hard to understand. Either Eliade supported the Iron Guard or he didn't. He did, it is on record.

    It is worth remarking though that Eliade also won fame for his Shamanism: Archaic Techniques in Ecstasy. It is considered the first fairly comprehensive overview of world-wide shamanism, and its dynamics, first published in the early '50s when he was in Paris. I have a copy and it is an impressive work, although of course our knowledge of shamanism has advanced since then. There is very little on Judaism there as you would expect, yet what little there is, is actually positive. In occult and parapsychological circles,Eliade is far better known for his Shamanism book than his writings on religion as a whole.

    Eliade is actually no worse, and of course no better, than many of today's intellectuals, where horrible anti-Semitism is disturbingly fashionable, it's just that its guise and garb have changed...

    This is not to defend Eliade at all, he was a fascist plain and simple. Just that such fascism among prominent intellectuals is hardly isolated to the past, only the jargon changes. As far as Eliade's writings on religion are concerned, his writings on Judaism cannot be taken seriously, but that doesn't mean we should dismiss the rest. Hardly. I actually recommend his Shamanism for one, it is a masterpiece, even as our ideas here have obviously evolved over the more recent decades.

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  15. First of all, Eliade was a fascist, at least for a long period of his life. Fascism is a morally repulsive ideology and, from my point of view, there's nothing to argue about that.

    On the other hand, Eliade is also one of my favourite thinkers, I think his work is wide, complex and serious enough to let the reader make her own choices. I've read every essay of Eliade that is published in Spanish, and I frankly don't consider that his work is anti-semitic. Judaism is treated with great respect and interest in his History of religious ideas and in The myth of Eternal return he atributes to judeochristianism the invention of linear time and of the modern concept of history, but he in any moment postulates that this new conception of time is worse from a moral point of view.

    Anyway, if Eliade's philofascism causes you moral issues go and throw his books away. Then go back to your bookshelves; have any Plato's dialogues? Plato was an enemy of democracy, a classist and a racist, you might have to throw away those too. Of course, as someone mentioned, Heidegger doesn't have a space there either. What about Oscar Wilde? Theres evidence of him having hired the services of young teenanger working class prostitutes, this one goes away too. Forget about Celine novels, he also was an anti-semitic. Dali, fascist. Daniel Defoe, racist and radical rightist. Rudyard Kipling, colonialist. Jung, close to nazism. Schopenhauer, extremely sexist, and in general an awfull person. Nietzsche, xenophobic. Even Marx has antisemitic quotes (a curious paradox). Etcetera.

    Is by understanding how other people think, how you will develope your own free thinking and moral. Throwing their books away will only make you more ignorant.

    P.s. sorry for my English, it's not my mother tongue.

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  16. Thank you, Senor Tejon - this is a very interesting response to my post. I agree about Plato - he certainly was an enemy of democracy. On the other hand, I wouldn't throw away his books. Actually, Marx wrote an entire antisemitic essay on the Jews, where he identified the god of the Jews as money.

    As for Eliade - I'll have to look at the book in more detail, but The Myth of Eternal Return does not portray Judaism in a very accurate way. There is no such religion as "Judeochristianism," at least from the Jewish point of view. Judaism and Christianity are not the same.

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  17. Thank you for an informative discussion - very helpful. I too Thank you Senor Tejon.

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