by Rebecca M. Lesses
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November 16, 2006
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.