In the midst of the presidential elections, and with feelings running high, Romania’s historical community has been rocked by a bitter debate over the involvement of fascist prisoners in the regime of torture that took place at Piteşti prison between 1949 and 1951. Historians at the centre of the controversy have received death threats from their critics on the far right and the discussions have revealed deep cleavages around the memory of fascism and communism.
The ‘Piteşti Experiment’, in which roughly 1,000 prisoners were forced to torture each other into insanity – and sometimes to death, – has become the quintessential example of the evil of Romanian communism. Led by Alexandru Bogdanovici and Eugen Ţurcanu, who had been imprisoned for their involvement in the fascist Legion of the Archangel Michael, prisoners incarcerated at Suceava apparently volunteered to run a ‘reeducation’ program for themselves and other prisoners. They formed the Organization of Prisoners with Communist Convictions (ODCC), confessed their past crimes and beliefs, studied communist literature, and persuaded other prisoners to do the same.
Ţurcanu was transferred to Piteşti prison in December 1949 and given use of Hospital Room No. 4. Here he and other members of the ODCC began an ‘experiment’ on other legionary prisoners. Torture would begin suddenly and brutally, lasting day and night for weeks on end. They would regularly beat the victims with clubs and whips, force them to eat and drink their own feces, crucify them, sodomize them while screaming blasphemies and jump on victims until they died. When prisoners begged to join the ODCC, Ţurcanu made them confess their anti-communist thoughts and actions before others, accuse themselves of immorality and then join him in torturing other prisoners.
The victims of Piteşti are seen today as anti-communist martyrs. Individuals tortured in other communist prisons, including people incarcerated as fascists, are even widely regarded as saints because of the unique spiritual experiences they had in prison.
The details of the Piteşti Experiment are well known and have been the subject of a number of books and research articles. The vast majority of studies are based on survivor testimonies and the public trials of the perpetrators. The files of the Securitate, the secret police who ran the prisons, are now available for researchers but need to be treated with caution because they often deliberately misrepresent evidence and include testimonies produced under torture.
Mihai Demetriade, a researcher at the National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives (CNSAS), is an expert on these files. He has authored a number of detailed studies on reeducation within communist prisons, making extensive use of Securitate records. Demetriade reevaluated the Piteşti experiment in a long and detailed journal article published in 2017 but his research went unnoticed until he gave an interview about it on Radio France Internationale (RFI) on 29 October 2019.
Demetriade pointed out that the Securitate’s primary goal was to extract information from prisoners, not to brainwash them, that the repertoires of torture used at Piteşti had been used by legionaries against other legionaries in the Nazi concentration camp at Rostok during the Second World War and that the survivor testimonies were written by people who were themselves former fascists. Moreover, he showed that factionalism within the Legion during the late 1940s had been heavily influenced by the mass incarceration and torture of legionaries by the Securitate. Legionary internal politics, that is, was in part a product of Securitate violence.
By arguing that the victims of Piteşti might not have been entirely innocent and that legionaries had their own reasons for attacking other legionaries, Demetriade questioned the sacred cow of the public memory of state socialism – that the Piteşti Experiment was a uniquely evil example of communist atrocities perpetrated against innocent victims.
Demetriade’s interview was widely denounced. Comments on the radio’s website insisted that he be sent to prison for his opinions and he received anonymous online threats calling him a ‘Bolshevik’, ‘trash’, and making obscene comments about what they will do to his mother. The interviewer, William Totok, received a death threat signed by ‘the sons of Avram Iancu’, a nationalist organization created by the Securitate during the Cold War to intimidate Romanians in exile who they thought besmirched the country’s honour.
Radu Preda, a nationalist theologian and the director of the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes in Romania (IICCMER), condemned Demetriade’s claims in a press release as ‘an act of intellectual vandalism’, stating that ‘it is sad and revolting to realize that people who have researched the archives of the dictatorship of the proletariat have not understood anything from the drama that took place in the prison system’. Radu himself has never published research on the history of fascism or on communist prisons.
Two other senior figures in IICCMER have condemned Preda’s press release, claiming that they were not consulted before it was issued. As Alexandru Florian, the director of the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania, points out ‘this is not the first time [Radu Preda] has publicly supported the memory of the interwar extreme right’. In 2015 five leading scholars – including William Totok – resigned from the IICCMER’s scientific board in protest against Preda’s appointment because of his pro-fascist statements.
Constantin Buchet, the president of CNSAS and Demetriade’s employer, immediately announced that the claims of Demetriade and his colleague, Mădălin Hodor, ‘are offensive to those who suffered in communist prisons and they severely harm the reputation of CNSAS by their association with it’. CNSAS is run by a council of experts, however, three of whom have said that Buchet’s announcement was never discussed with the council and does not represent the opinion of the organization. ‘Documents from the Council’s archive should support authentic scientific debate’, they write, ‘and not hagiographies or propagandistic mythologies’.
Passionate debates about what can and cannot be said about the Piteşti Experiment continue on social media and in the press. They are increasingly divided along political lines, exposing raw wounds exacerbated by the presidential elections. The discussion shows how deeply memories about fascism and communism shape Romanian identity and party politics. Sadly, despite the amount of ink that has been spilt on this topic it is still not clear whether anyone has actually read the 173-page study that sits at the centre of the controversy.