The teaching of Romanian history, between truth and denial: an interview with Emanuel-Marius Grec

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Sarah Coolican, Research Associate at LSE IDEAS, has interviewed Emanuel–Marius Grec, a PhD Researcher in History at the University of Heidelberg and winner of the 2021 Ratiu Forum History Award.

Sarah Coolican: What has been your experience of the teaching of history in Romania? Both as a student and as a researcher looking for answers? 

Emanuel Grec: For me, the idea of teaching has been very personal throughout my career. Both my parents are teachers of history, and I have followed in their footsteps. This has continued to shape who I am, from primary school to today. At the professional level I have experienced both the good and bad side of the Romanian teaching system, as most researchers have. On the bad side, a key issue in the Romanian school system is the focus on the memory of information and facts, as opposed to seeking to stimulate students’ creativity and nurture their specific interests. It was not until I began my BA in History, that I felt such a departure in the teaching style I had been used to throughout school. My BA changed my perspective, I was able to focus my interests much more, and I shifted more towards analysing sources and historical events.

After leaving Romania and completing my MA, at an American university, what struck me was the stark difference in teaching approaches. Under the Romanian system of education, I was used to a hierarchical system of study. Moving to Budapest and studying at the Central European University, opened my eyes to a system that was much more horizontal in its approach to teaching.

I am sure that the Romanian experience of Communism has changed the perspective of teaching and has undoubtedly shaped it into what we see today. In the end, I would say it was not so much the cultural shock of leaving the Romanian teaching system for a more American one, but it was experiencing the way students were taught to interact with one another in the latter system. I think the teaching system in Romania is not shaped by policies that are intended exclusively to target Romanian education, but rather by the whole of Romanian society’s view of how students should interact with each other and how hierarchy should prevail.

Reform must move in line with the dynamics in wider society. And true change cannot occur within the education system in Romania until we learn to create a more egalitarian society that reflects certain values.

Sarah: In your essay you speak about the Odessa Massacre of 1941; what are your thoughts on why it is so important to take proactive steps to unveil the real implications and dimensions of the pogroms against the Romanian Jewish community? 

Emanuel: I wrote an article last year in Holocaust Studies and Research Journal, on this very issue of the collective memory formation in post-war Romania. There are many key issues you raise here, and while I cannot hope to cover all of them in this interview, I will try to talk to some of the main points.

Even today in the public sphere, there is confusion between history and collective memory. Most people see them as the same thing. More specifically, people often view statues, street names and various public manifestations involving historical figures as ‘history’. This is not true. These symbols and ceremonies are an expression of the memory we have chosen to celebrate from a time in history. This indicates a presence of nationalism in society, and the failure to differentiate this nationalism from historical truth. Whilst not endemic to only Romania, it has undeniably affected the teaching system I have experienced.

On the issue of Romania, the Communist regime had a huge role to play in the formation of a post-war collective memory. First and foremost, the Communist regime simply did not discuss the genocide of the Jews, Roma and others labelled as undesirables. This was done both to appear strong as a nation, and also because in the 1970’s nationalism exploded in Romania and rehabilitation of fascist figures started appearing. After 1989, this silence of historical truths turned into a very loud negation. The main issue affecting Romanian society today, is with the post-1989 collective memory formation process.

Romanian anti-Communism, for example, has been hijacked by Romanian Fascist anti-Communism. Communism is seen as the unmatched evil against the Romanian people, and Romanian fascists from the interwar period are presented as national heroes. The view of the Romanian interwar period as a holy era in our national history, started gaining traction after 1989 and all the figures associated with this, especially those of the Iron Guard, have become key figures celebrated in Romania’s post-Communist society. The post-1989 collective memory crisis has seen fascists from the 1930s discussed in terms of their ‘anti-Communist’ belief. With this being the most admirable and notable factor about their historical role. For many, anti-Communist fascists became the lesser of two evils.

In present day, this has presented many problems for collective memory. If the Holocaust in Romania is mentioned, for example, one very common response is ‘but what about the crimes against the Romanian people?’ This response comes from a lack of historical knowledge, and from the 1930s-style nationalism I mentioned before. The main issue I see in the post-1989 memory, is the ‘bundling together’ of democratic anti-Communists, such as Iuliu Maniu, with the 1930s fascist anti-Communists, like Gavrila Ogoranu and the Iron Guard. That truly is a tragedy for post-1989 Romanian memory.

The memory process for post-1989 Romania should involve democratic anti-Communists, and those who opposed regimes like Communism from a democratic standpoint. It should not acknowledge those who challenge violent regimes with even more violence. In this sense, the correct teaching of the Holocaust in Romania will be the most important aspect to reforming the Romanian education system. The problem remains, however, that as a subject in school, it does not really exist. Only one third of Romanians acknowledge that the Holocaust took place in Romania, whilst the rest deny it outright. This latent anti-Semitism which sits in Romanian society cannot be eradicated without very strong proactive steps being taken. Eradicating hate and indifference will not occur simply by ‘responding’.

Sarah: In your opinion, what steps should teachers and students of history be taking to ensure a true Romanian collective memory is taught in schools? In other words, how do you think teachers can find the balance between teaching the horrors of Communism, while also teaching a true account of the holocaust in Romania?

Emanuel: Regarding the steps I mentioned about reforming the curriculum in Romania; I believe the Holocaust should become one of the centrepieces of the Romanian educational system. It should be mandatory to study the Holocaust at all levels. When I was in high school, I cannot recall learning about the Holocaust. There are some optional courses, but these are not promoted nor are they popular.

I think we should abandon this nationalist perspective of teaching history and stop seeing the evil things done by the Romanian state in the past, as an attack on the Romanian nation. Trying instead to see these things as a historical wrong and seek to learn from it to change for the better. We should focus less on Romanian history as a tale of historical figures, and more on how Romanian culture interacts with other communities across the wider region.

Regarding memory? Well, collective memory is about the present, while history is about the past. Statues, street names, and the public commemorations that we see today regarding historical figures are not about the past, but rather about formulating a memory based on who we, today, choose to commemorate. This speaks about us and our actions and who we want to be, and not about history itself.

History is the serious study of the past. It is a critical and scientific one that involves data and the aim of objectivity. History is studied in schools and universities, it has a curricular, it is a science. As Sir Richard Evans once said, ‘history is not a collection of supposedly patriotic facts that must be crammed into students’ heads to engender them to love their country. It is a discipline, with its own rules and procedures.’ In my view, history should shape our memory and the ideas we have today. Ideas which should involve openness, democracy, multiculturalism, and acceptance of the past.

Afterall, Romania created its own Holocaust against the ‘undesirables’ and it must be taught as such. You can teach about Communism and Fascism, and all that happened in between, without juxtaposing them. The victimhood competition which has formed in the Romanian collective memory post-1989 has flawed us. You can acknowledge the past without ignoring the victimhood you have experienced. It should be noted, however, that this is not exclusive to Romania and happens in Lithuania, Hungary and many post-Soviet states. The study of the Holocaust in Romania should be integrated into the curricular and should be a pillar of historical teaching. This was one of the pivotal moments of the 20th century, and genocide has become a pillar for the study of societies across Europe.

Sarah: Through your own research and in collaboration with the Ratiu Forum’s Teaching of History workshops, what are some of your long-term goals for the teaching and learning of history throughout Romania and the wider region? 

Emanuel: I think that young researchers should insist as much as possible on challenging the existing narratives within historiography. The reason institutions such as the Ratiu Foundation and the Ratiu Democracy Center exist, is to support researchers through these workshops and initiatives. Researchers and scholars on the Holocaust need a platform and a voice, which these institutions can help provide. I personally look forward to cooperating with all institutions that focus on the collective memory and the teaching of the Holocaust. I plan to be involved in as many projects as possible, whilst completing my PhD at Heidelberg University in Germany. Now, I am currently conducting archival work in Romania, and after my PhD I intended to remain involved in Holocaust research, both at the academic and international organisations level.

The region of Eastern Europe has a lot to develop in terms of studying the Holocaust in the East. It is an emerging field benefitting form the perspective of many talented scholars. Teaching and research are inseparable when it comes to this field, specifically because history has implications on memory, and it is vital that researchers do not remain in their ivory tower of academia. Historians, especially young historians, should reach out with their research, especially those working in an area that is haunted by a revival of nationalism and authoritarianism in collective memory.

You can read Emanuel’s award-winning essay here, and learn more about the Ratiu Forum Teaching of History workshops here.

Emanuel–Marius Grec is a PhD Researcher in History at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. ELES Research Fellow until September 2021 and Saul Kagan Fellow in Advanced Shoah Studies from September 2021. His research areas include the Holocaust in Romania, transitional justice, and the History of Eastern European Jews. Emanuel holds a BA in History from Vasile Goldiș University of Arad, an MA in Comparative History from Central European University in Budapest, and an MA in Jewish Studies from Hochschule für Jüdische Studien in Heidelberg.