I recently finished Paul Kenyon’s Children of the Night: The Strange and Epic Story of Modern Romania, a gripping historical overview of the tumultuous century experienced by the country my wife hails from, the place where I once made my home.

Children of the Night: The Strange and Epic Story of Modern Romania by Paul Kenyon

Consider this: within the span of one century—from 1900 to 2000—Romania went from celebrating a monarchy, to sliding into a nationalist dictatorship, to fighting in WWII on the side of Germany before switching to fight on the side of the Allies, to deposing the monarch and installing a Communist regime, ending in a revolution that brought the birth pangs of freedom. From monarchy to fascism to Axis to Allies to Communism to free markets. All in one century.

My wife’s grandfather was drafted into WWII as a soldier who fought on the side of Hitler, but once the country switched allegiance, so did he, spending the last part of the war fighting on the side of the Allies—all the while despising both the remains of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the designs of the nascent Soviet Union that would darken the country by closing the drapes of the Iron Curtain. Whenever the war would come up in conversation, my wife tells me, her grandfather’s gentle, elderly exterior would fade away and he’d begin to curse, bitter at the circumstances that led to his country’s humiliation.

Paul Kenyon’s historical look at Romania begins in a familiar place, with Vlad Țepeș, the medieval leader whose legal rigidity and terrible punishments led to peace in the land, but at the cost of human decency. “Vlad the Impaler” became the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Gothic character Count Dracula, and Vlad’s residence (Bran Castle) the setting for Transylvanian horror.

From there, Kenyon’s narrative jumps forward to the 20th century, where he traces the arc of Romania’s history while featuring the personal stories and testimonies of ordinary people. In this way, the book never becomes a dry historical recitation of facts but instead helps the reader feel the promise and peril of the moment.

If there’s anyone who stands out as someone decent, whose leadership gave Romania its best opportunity at stability, it’s Queen Marie, the British-born granddaughter of Victoria, whose husband, Ferdinand, was the German-born King of Romania during WWI. Thanks to Marie’s tireless efforts in serving her people and advocating on their behalf, the territorial expansion known as Greater Romania came into existence.

Once Ferdinand is dead and Marie is only the Mother Queen, the country lurches toward the chaos of competing factions. No one is good. The evil of Corneliu Codreanu and his nationalistic zeal is cloaked in the spirituality of the Romanian Orthodox Church, until the drive for national pride and spiritual unity of the historic church are merged into a frightening picture of an evil “saint” whose cross joins with the swastika. At one point, the literal heart of the deceased Queen Marie is carried from one part of the country to another, in the same realm where Vlad Țepeș is said to be buried, as a way of tapping into the nation’s lifeblood.

By the time the Second World War arrives, Romania’s hatred of foreigners has snowballed into a vicious anti-Semitism that leads to complicity in the Holocaust. As Timothy Snyder points out in Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, European public opinion made it difficult to criticize the Soviet regime without seeming to endorse fascism, and vice versa. Hitler called all his enemies “Marxists,” and Stalin called all his  “fascists.”

Kenyon is wise to keep going back to ordinary people, victims of events beyond their control, so that you get a sense of what it would have been like to live through these times. As you read about the people with power, there’s nobody to root for. Never a good option.

You may long for a stronger monarchy to bring stability and courage to the country, but the embarrassment of King Carol II and his exploits at home and abroad put to rest the notion that a king could save the nation. You might admire the nationalistic zeal of Codreanu or Ion Antonescu, but then you’re confronted with the brutality, anti-Semitism, and string of high-profile assassinations. You may think the answer to fascism will be found in the oppressed, marginal movement of their archenemies—the young Communists—only to discover that, once in power, they were every bit as bad, if not worse, than the tyrants they displaced.

The biggest monster is saved for the latter part of the book—the rise of Nicolae Ceaușescu and his horrible wife, Elena, who managed to hoodwink the Americans and the British (or at least neutralize their human rights concerns) in exchange for seeking a measure of independence from the Soviets. Their dictatorship, which grew progressively worse as the years went by, turned the bad dream of Communist rule into a nightmare of the Securitate’s authoritarian tyranny.

Throughout Kenyon’s narrative, I couldn’t help but be reminded how fragile a gift is freedom. I pondered the ethical dilemmas faced by the common people at the time—the difficulty in distinguishing truth from propaganda, having to choose between fascists or Communists (or having to simply keep your head down once the “choice” was made for you), the swings from one form of evil to another, the rapidity with which the church can be co-opted by movements that express genuine concerns as a front for accomplishing evil aims, and the dissolution of character and statesmanship among the country’s leaders. I prayed God would preserve the United States in the future from this level of turmoil.

Romania is a different country today. In the years since I lived there, it has joined the European Union and there are signs of the nation recapturing the shimmer of its glorious past. Still, the wild history of this place once called “the breadbasket of Europe” surely stands as a striking example of a people caught between competing factions, where soundness of character is in short supply, and where the true church faces the ultimate price for remaining faithful.

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