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Construction of Identity in Romania in Relation to its Past: the Case of the Shoah in History Textbooks in Secondary Education

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Teaching about the Holocaust and the role of the Romanian state in these events is still a recent happening in Romania: the process has followed a tortuous path, between denial and distortion. In 2004 an official change to school syllabuses and the publication of a report by the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania aimed to improve teaching about the Shoah in Romanian schools. This article aims to determine to what extent the national identity of Romania is built in relation to its past, especially to the Holocaust. The research focuses on four Romanian history textbooks used in the tenth class (ages sixteen to seventeen at secondary school). Our research analyses the discursive strategies used in history textbooks published since 2004. It concentrates on the roles assigned to different actors involved in these events. Who are the victims? Who are those responsible? How are their actions depicted? Are they underplayed or exaggerated?



The process recognizing the Romanian state’s involvement in the events linked to the Shoah began in 2003, when Ion Iliescu, then the President of the Republic of Romania, founded the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania. This institute aimed to investigate the facts related to the Holocaust in Romania and subsequently to publish a report on the subject, which was to include recommendations on how to better educate the public on this topic (Friling, Ioanid and Ionescu 2005). Teaching about the Shoah had been officially included in the syllabuses since 1998; however, until 2004 the facts were presented in an incomplete and distorted way and anti-Semitism was hardly mentioned (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance 2014). The majority of textbooks followed the earlier, communist line of teaching, which had avoided the subject of the Holocaust (Livezeanu 2002, 936).

Certain authors have shown that revisionist currents existed among the Romanian elite and academic circles (Geissbuhler 2012, 128), and have made a connection between these attitudes and school education (Padeanu 2012). The link existing between education and the construction of identity is crucial, insofar as historians, and by extension history teachers, hold a special place in society, and are often seen as the bearers of historical truth (Anderson 2007, 277). The processes of producing and teaching historical knowledge can then be influenced by the visions of these researchers and teachers, so creating a double hierarchy – production and transmission (Anderson 2007, 286); this double hierarchy is coupled with a lack of critical thought on the part of pupils when receiving content, often encouraged by their teachers (Anderson 2007, 285).

This research belongs to the constructivist approach. Our readings on the themes of memory and historical narrative both place the accent on the changing (Hodgkin and Radstone 2003, 23) and created character of memory and narrative (Gillis 1994, 169), as well as on the central role of memory in the building of historical narratives of identity (Hodgkin and Radstone 2003, 169). Because of this, national identities are ideological constructs taken from the historical processes of nationhood (Billig 1995, 24). By national identity, we understand a way of conceiving of one’s own nation, one’s own group, in a particular way, opposed to that of conceiving of foreigners and elements outside this nation or group (Billig 1995, 61). Henry Tajfel has shown that stereotypes, that is, cultural descriptions pertaining to social groups, are used to distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them’, and so define the unique character of a group of reference – or, in our case, of the nation (Tajfel et al. 1964, 192). These conceptions of foreign elements are formed historically and socially, passed on to individual members and shared through social channels of influence (Tajfel 1982, 42). And so the notion of identity ought then to be understood as the product, perpetually changing, of a collective action, and not as a fixed and immutable concept (Brubaker 1994, 9).

Romania is no exception to this process of national construction. Starting from the 18th century, the Romanian national identity forged itself insisting on several elements, such as rurality, its Latin roots, the direct link with Dacians, the common origins of Romanian citizens and, as a consequence, the homogeneity of the Romanian nation (Mihailescu 1991, 82; Capelle-Pogacean 2000, 105). This construction proceeded under the union of Greater Romania,1 and in the following years, the element of ethnic purity was added to a centralizing logic (Mihailescu 1991, 106–7). The communist regime reinforced these trends of national union, homogenization and centralization, while institutionalizing Romanian nationalism – via a classification of ethnic citizenship (Brubaker 1998, 286). The latter was used in favour or, on the contrary, against some groups, such as Jews or Roma (Brubaker 1998, 287). Under Nicolae Ceauşescu (1965–89, as ruler of Romania), we can even talk about a ‘State folklorism’ (Thiesse 1999, 282), as the ruler developed the themes of tradition, national unity and the undisputable Dacian origin of Romanians, as well as using a romanticized version of the founding peasantry (Capelle-Pogacean 2000, 109). During the communist years in Romania, the nation found itself at the centre of an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy (Verdery 1993, 195, 197). Moreover, the Romanian national historiographies stressed the narratives presenting Romanians as being the victims of other nations (Verdery 1993, 195) – a victimization process that prevented collective accountability (Capelle-Pogacean 2000, 113).

The fall of the communist regime led to a loss of identity reference points, and opened the way for the use of myths about origins, of the Romanian national memory (Mihailescu 1995, 85), as well as to the rise of nationalism and anti-Semitic trends (Florian 1997, 67). Indeed, the political discourse in post-communist Romania seems to still be focused on the nation and its characteristics (Capelle-Pogacean 2000, 111). Nationalist and revisionist discourses have been, and still are, declaimed rather freely, especially those presenting Romania’s leader Ion Antonescu, from 1940 to 1944, as a saviour and a national hero, contrary to what is argued in studies dealing with the Shoah in Romania (Florian 2011, 19). Indeed, in Romania it was portrayed that the Holocaust was only a result of external causes and not inherent to the Romanian state; a concept deeply linked to the nationalistic communism in Romania, whereby all problems had foreign causes (Florian 2011, 19).

In contemporary Romania, the denial of the Holocaust still occupies an important part of public belief (Florian 2011, 20). This denial is visible in mass-media and TV shows (Eskenazy 2011, 10), but also in more subtle ways. For instance, when young producers are denied the funds for projects dealing with the Holocaust in Romania, the refusal comes from well-regarded institutions and organizations – including the Romanian Television (Eskenazy 2011, 11). Generally, it is hard to measure the impact of shows or documentaries about the Shoah on the public (Eskenazy 2011, 12). Historian Victor Eskenazy argues that this constant denial can be attributed to three factors. First, anti-Semitic attitudes are still deeply rooted in Romanian society – historian Andrei Oisteanu published a detailed study of the stereotypes attributed to Jews in Romanian, some of which are still in use today (Oisteanu 2012). Secondly, the enduring refusal of popular intellectuals to take part in debates on television, when it comes to the Shoah; when they do take part however, the trend is to question any proven historical piece of information. Thirdly, the limited access to books on this topic as well as their high cost for the average citizen impede the spread of new information (Eskenazy 2011, 10–12).

As regards history teaching in Romania, several studies have also been carried out linking the teaching of history and identity. Catalina Mihalache and Speranta Nalin have examined the teaching of history in Romania. The former notes that the teaching method encourages pupils to conform to the official historical truths (Mihalache 2012, 1975–77). The latter examines the problems linked to educational reforms and school syllabuses for the teaching of history. She shows what impact the centralization of the educational system can have on the presentation of historical facts in textbooks (Dumitru Nalin 2002, 40–46). Thomas Misco has studied how the Shoah is taught in Romania, as well as the relationship between this teaching and the construction of a Romanian national identity. He highlights the teacher’s freedom when it comes to choosing which textbooks to use, as well as what issues to study. Beyond the optional courses that are solely focused on the Holocaust, Misco argues that it is hard for a history teacher to discuss in detail all the aspects and implications of the Shoah, considering their short time frame (Misco 2008, 6–20).

Training sessions for teachers are held in Romania, by the Ministry of Education (Ziarul de Garda 2014) as well as by the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania (Elie Wiesel ... 2016). However, figures show that the number of teachers attending such training sessions is low, compared to the total number of history teachers – around 10 per cent (Misco 2007, 4). Moreover, some teachers are still in denial about the Holocaust, which affects the sources they choose and the way they teach. Social scientist Thomas Misco concludes that a tool for measuring pupils’ knowledge of the Holocaust does not yet exist, and that the way in which the contents are taught suffers from the influence of the communist period (Misco 2008, 6–20). However, statements about how to teach about the Holocaust do exist. One of them includes practical aspects – how to create a positive teaching environment, why and how to use direct testimonies, etc. – and theoretical aspects as well – how to define the Holocaust in the first place (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance). Yet, this statement is notably a general one and does not go into detail about how the state is addressing its past, in relation to the Shoah.

Given that changes happen over time, we wish to study how the Romanian ‘we’ is built when placed in relationship to its past, and more particularly to the episode of the Shoah. Our research question is defined as follows: ‘How is the Romanian identity of today defined by its relationship to its past, through the specific case of the Shoah?’

We proceed in a deductive fashion, by first setting out our hypotheses before applying them to our case study. On the basis of our first observations, carried out during exploratory readings on the links between the construction of identity and education in the post-communist period, we establish as a first hypothesis that the Shoah is hardly or not mentioned at all in secondary school history textbooks in Romania. Where it is mentioned, our second hypothesis is this: ‘The link to the past presented in Romanian history textbooks shows how present-day Romanian identity is beset by conflict in relation to the episode of the Shoah in Romania.’ This conflict is reflected, on the one hand, by acknowledging and accepting responsibility attached to the Shoah, and, on the other hand, underplaying the Shoah in Romania and the responsibility of Romanian society in these happenings. Thus the way Romanian identity has been constructed can either integrate this episode into its history, or, on the contrary, show a tendency to hide it. Our hypotheses establish from these facts a link between the representation of past events – here, the Shoah – and the construction of the identity of the Romanian nation, which does not appear in the studies and exploratory readings that we had consulted beforehand.



In order to answer our research question, we chose to apply a method inspired by authors who use critical discourse analysis (CDA) approaches – and by Ruth Wodak in particular (Wodak 2001, 63–94). CDA, with its focus on a problem, and in the case of this article, using a discourse-historical approach, allows several elements to be shown, such as the creation, preservation and change of contextual constraints – like dominance, power or ethnocentrism within a discourse (Van Dijk 1985, 5). These discourses are interpreted historically, and placed spatially and temporally. As for the structures of domination, they are justified by the ideologies of the most influential groups (Wodak 2001, 3). In our present case study, we identify these influential groups as the authors of textbooks, who are often teachers within the secondary or higher education system, and therefore keepers of knowledge. We adopt the definition of the discourse established by Ruth Wodak, who explains it in these terms: ‘a complex bundle of simultaneous and sequential interrelated linguistic acts, which manifest themselves within and across the social fields of action as thematically interrelated semiotic, oral or written tokens, very often as “texts” that belong to specific semiotic types, i.e. genres’ (Wodak 2001, 21–22); we include the texts of school textbooks within this definition. We can further state that knowledge and the control of knowledge shape our interpretation of the world (Van Dijk 1993, 258). This justifies our wish to analyse the discourses found in the textbooks, which have as their main purpose the construction of this knowledge and its transmission to pupils.

We apply this method to a corpus of four textbooks of Romanian history for secondary schools (clasa a X-a [tenth year – ages sixteen to seventeen]), published in or after 2004. Three of them are meant for general teaching (Balutoiu 2007; Barnea et al. 2008; Selevet et al. 2008), whereas the fourth (Petrescu 2007) has been specially designed for an optional course on the Holocaust (Ministry of National Education and Scientific Research 2004, 2), and published on the initiative of the Ronald S. Lauder Romanian Foundation (Lauder Reut Educational Complex 2014). In these four textbooks we want to analyse how the Holocaust is represented, concentrating on the discursive strategies used by the authors to present the facts relating to the Shoah in Romania. By discursive strategy we mean what Ruth Wodak defines as ‘a more or less accurate and more or less intentional plan of practices (including discursive practices) adopted to achieve a particular social, political, psychological or linguistic aim’ (Wodak 2001, 73). Specifically, we analyse which decisive events are mentioned or concealed: who is held to be responsible for these events and how their actions are presented – exaggerated or understated; how the victims are presented, and whether they are portrayed as an integral or separate part of the Romanian nation.



While the events studied are the same in each of these textbooks, there are considerable variations as to how they are presented, through the syntactical structures, the importance given to certain protagonists and the inclusion or exclusion of the victims of the Romanian nation. We have been able to identify four elements common to all four textbooks.

First, with few exceptions, all present the same events, generally in chronological order – anti-Jewish legislation (1940–42), policy of Romanianization2 and national homogenization (1940–44), the pogroms of Dorohoi (July 1940) and Iasi (June 1941), deportation, extermination in Transnistria, the case of the Jews of Transylvania, etc. However, the way in which these events are presented differs. For example, only one textbook – that is intended for use within the special optional course – mentions the policy of Romanianization in its entirety (Petrescu 2007, 78–81), while two others focus only on the economic aspect of this policy (Balutoiu 2007, 114; Barnea et al. 2008, 108). The fourth textbook does not mention this policy at all (Selevet et al. 2008, 98–99). Moreover, only one of the textbooks intended for general teaching makes a reference to the Bucharest pogrom of January 1941 (Balutoiu 2007, 114), although the context in which this pogrom took place is mentioned in all three general textbooks (Selevet et al. 2008, 98; Barnea et al. 2008, 108; Balutoiu 2007, 114). Only the textbook for the optional course deals with this topic and includes photographs of it (Petrescu 2007, 78–79), but the involvement of a certain number of Bucharest citizens in this event is not mentioned. The way in which the events are presented is equally varied when it comes to the case of Transylvania. Three of the textbooks refer to it in a neutral and somewhat superficial way. However, one of the textbooks meant for general teaching makes a clear distinction between the Romanian and Hungarian situations at the time, emphasizing the difficulties that the Romanian state had to face: ‘While the Romanian army found itself in a difficult situation at Stalingrad, and while Romania was suffering heavy human and material losses, Hungary had only part of its army engaged in the war against the USSR and was guarding Transylvania’ (Balutoiu 2007, 115).

Secondly, we would like to underscore an important point. The choice of language and grammatical structure plays an important role in the presentation of historical facts. We have found in all the textbooks that sentences are constructed actively for those responsible, and passively when talking of the victims; these constructions tend, on the one hand, to accentuate the responsibility of the guilty, and, on the other, to accentuate the victim status of the deported. For example, it is written that the Jews ‘were evacuated’, ‘were deported’, ‘were killed’, whereas in the case of the protagonists of these acts the language is different: ‘Antonescu and his legionnaires began the removal of Jews from the economic structures of the state’ (Barnea et al. 2008, 108) and the Iron Guard ‘conducted an anti-Semitic policy, encouraged street violence, rewoke the animosity of the Romanians against the Jewish population’ (Selevet et al. 2008, 98).

Thirdly, we have also found in the textbooks that quotation marks are used extensively, distancing the authors from the statements or actions cited. For example, when reference is made to the ‘reforms’ initiated by Antonescu during the process of Romanianization (Petrescu 2007, 79); when the authors mention the ‘cleansing of the land’ carried out during the years 1941–42 (Barnea et al. 2008, 108); or again when they cite the ‘arguments’ advanced by Romania to justify its policy (Balutoiu 2007, 114).

Fourthly, all the textbooks analysed make reference to the positive actions of the Romanian people, leading some of them to receive the title of Righteous among the Nations. However, the way in which these actions are presented differs from one textbook to another. In the textbook for the special optional course, a whole chapter is devoted to Romanian individuals who helped save Jews, in a detailed and unbiased way. In the three textbooks meant for general teaching, these people are mentioned briefly – five lines more or less for them all (Barnea et al. 2008, 109; Balutoiu 2007, 105; Selevet et al. 2008, 98). Valentin Balutoiu’s book is explicitly positive in referring to these actions, when he writes, ‘In such difficult times during the war, many Romanians proved their great humanity and compassion towards the Jewish population. For this reason, some of them received the title of “Righteous among the Nations”’ (Balutoiu 2007, 115). It is important to stress this, given that only one of the three textbooks intended for general teaching refers to the negative actions perpetrated by Romanian civilians during the pogroms and/or massacres (Barnea et al. 2008, 108) – in addition to the special option textbook (Petrescu 2007, 83). Implicitly, the textbooks that do not deal with this subject reject the notion of individual responsibility. One of the textbooks in particular insists several times that it is impossible to hold a nation responsible for the events that unfolded during the Shoah, so exonerating the Romanian nation and preventing all debate upon the subject: ‘the responsibility cannot be attributed to a people, but must be charged to the state apparatus and to those who conceived and applied the plan of extermination’ (Selevet et al. 2008, 98–99). The affirmative and imperative tone of this sentence leaves no room for either reflection or debate on questions of responsibility, particularly for those episodes where it has been claimed that part of the civilian population of different countries is guilty of crimes against the Jews (Dean 2004, 120–40). Paradoxically, the only textbook that invites pupils to reflect on this notion of responsibility – national, state – is precisely the one among them that makes no mention of the involvement of Romanian civilians (Balutoiu 2007, 116). It is in the same textbook that the syntactical separation between the Jews and the Romanian nation is most evident. In the other textbooks, the integration of the Jewish victims in the nation is ambivalent, by the more or less regular use of phrases or adjectives that link them, such as ‘Romanian Jews’ ‘Jews of Romania’ or again ‘Romanian citizens of Jewish race’.

As regards the integration of victims in the nation, the three general textbooks, without exception, marginalize the Roma people, their deportation and extermination, literally and figuratively. Only about one to four lines are given to what happened to the Roma people during the Second World War. Only one textbook includes the description of the events in the main text (Selevet et al. 2008, 99); another places the description of the happenings in the margin of the page (Balutoiu 2007, 114), while in the third textbook of general history, the paragraph devoted to the Roma people is separated from the main body of the text by an exercise (Barnea et al. 2008, 109). Only the textbook for the optional course gives them a larger place in the presentation of the facts by including extracts about them, which are nonexistent in the other three textbooks. The selected extracts include a history of their population in Romania, photographs and a final exercise referring exclusively to the Roma people (Petrescu 2007, 105–7, 113–17).

In addition, all the textbooks analysed point to the responsibility of the state and the personal responsibility of Ion Antonescu for the events unfolding during the Shoah. Two of the textbooks focus almost exclusively upon this aspect; this is evident in the presentation of facts in the main text – they either emphasize and demonize him or underplay the will of the leader in eliminating certain categories of the population: ‘Antonescu’s regime made use of the army, the militia, the police and public functionaries to initiate the Holocaust and put it into practice’ (Selevet et al. 2008, 99), ‘the Romanian authorities, Ion Antonescu in particular, are considered guilty of the death of between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews’ (Balutoiu 2007, 114). Antonescu often appears as the subject of phrases given in these textbooks that reinforce his guilt. The choice of the extracts reproduced in these books – which more or less put forward Antonescu’s responsibility – is another component of the prominence, or not, of Antonescu. All these textbooks underplay the civilians’ role.

Three of the four textbooks also cite and/or include extracts of the report published by the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania (Selevet et al. 2008, 99; Barnea et al. 2008, 107–8; Petrescu 2007, 104) – in the margins or in the main body of the text, for example, when it is written that ‘the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania confirms that a holocaust took place in Romania; the Antonescu regime and extremist groups were responsible for these crimes’ (Selevet et al. 2008, 99). Clearly all the textbooks follow the conclusions made by the same commission concerning the principal actors responsible for the events taking place during the Holocaust, namely the Romanian authorities and the leader Ion Antonescu (Friling, Ioanid and Ionescu 2005, 381). The report of the commission does, however, present the facts relative to the involvement of civilians (Friling, Ioanid and Ionescu 2005, 383), which some of the textbooks conceal, as we have already mentioned.



Following our analyses and comparisons, we can say that, as for our first hypothesis, the Shoah is indeed mentioned in the history textbooks in Romania. In fact, each of the four textbooks analysed includes three to four pages on the Holocaust in Europe and in Romania – two whole chapters in the case of the optional textbook. The Romanian history textbooks reveal an ambivalence in the construction of present-day Romanian identity in relation to the episode of the Shoah in Romania. While all the textbooks tackle the Holocaust, we have been able to show that the presentation of the facts varies, between distancing, concealing or giving an unbiased view as possible. A conflict in the construction of Romanian identity is clear: on one side, there’s a recognition and acceptance of these events and the responsibility attached to them, and, on the other, the Shoah in Romania and the responsibility of Romanian society in the events is underplayed. We have shown in this article that this construction of identity can either integrate or conceal the episode of the Shoah in Romanian history. Our results can fit into the existing literature on the study of the formation of identity through education and school textbooks, in a general sense, as well as those that focus on the study of the Shoah in Romania. Earlier analyses, like that of Waldman (Waldman 2010), have studied the representation of the Holocaust in Romanian school textbooks, marking a difference between the periods before and after 2004, the year in which the government’s attitude officially changed towards these events. This is when the Romanian school syllabuses were changed, with the aim of giving greater importance to the study of the Shoah in the classroom. Other studies have analysed the way in which the Shoah is presented and studied in Romanian classrooms: Thomas Misco’s 2007 ethnographic study (Misco 2007) showed the poor level of knowledge, of both pupils and teachers, on this subject. However, no study, to our knowledge, links these elements to the construction of a national identity in Romania, as we have proposed to do in the body of this paper. Our article allows us to bring to light the differing representations existing within a sample of Romanian school textbooks as well as linking these to the construction of Romanian identity.

Our article allows us to establish that ambivalences exist in the way facts linked to the Romanian past, in particular the Shoah, are presented and as a result the way the facts are transmitted and taught to Romanian secondary school pupils. We have aslo made evident the interconnections between teaching, school textbooks and the construction of a national identity. This allows us to state that these different representations and ambivalences are assimilated by Romanian pupils during their education, and that this assimilation becomes an integral part of their identity as Romanian nationals.

Translated from French into English by Ailsa Campbell



Maria-Philippa Wieckowski

Maria-Philippa Wieckowski was born in 1992. She graduated with a MA in Political Science, specializing in the politics and society of Central Europe, Russia and the Caucasus. Her centres of interest include the construction of identity and the relation to memory and the past in Romania after 1989. She divides her time between France and Romania.




1 Process of unification that began in 1859 and ended in 1918. Greater Romania existed until 1940.

2 ‘Policy followed by the Romanian authorities between 1940 and 1944, consisting of dispossessing Jews and eliminating them from Romanian society’ (Petrescu 2007, 174).

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