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Vlad the Impaler

US poster of Jess Franco’s Count Dracula (1970). Public domain.

“We’re fighting against barbarians who want to demolish our liberty and our traditions and everything we hold dear.” These are some of the words that Donald Trump addressed to a group of “freedom-loving patriots” in a prerecorded message on May 5th. These patriots, who, according to Trump, will defend “Western civilization,” were not gathered in the United States. They were listening to the former US president’s message in Budapest, as the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a guiding light for the Republican Party, took place for the second time in Hungary.This is one of the latest installments of the recent obsession among American conservatives      with Eastern and Central Europe. Many commentators on this phenomenon have focused on Hungary’s strong connections to the GOP, built through extensive coalitional efforts on both sides of the Atlantic. American conservatives as prominent as Trump or former Fox News talk show host Tucker Carlson have praised and established personal connections with right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, while writer and editor Rod Dreher, a central figure in developing these relations, permanently relocated to Budapest in 2022. Republicans have not however ignored the countries in the region who still lack this sort of developed, institutionalized network: Poland’s reactionary government and its anti-abortion and homophobic legislation, for example, serve as “proof of concept” for American right-wing policy-making. From the “No Woke Zone” at CPAC in Budapest to Poland’s LGBT-free areas, American conservatives have turned to Central and Eastern Europe for examples of how state power can be used to shape and enforce a new wave of reactionary social order.

Andrej Babiš speaking at CPAC Hungary, May 4, 2023. Photographer Elekes Andor. Permitted under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Even outside of countries with entrenched conservative governments such as Fidesz in Hungary and PiS in Poland, the American right is supporting organized, local right-wing movements. In Romania, this was very visible during the 2018 referendum organized by the “Coalition for the Family.” Although it ultimately failed, this attempt to redefine the family in the Romanian     constitution as being solely between a man and a woman would not have been possible without American funding, support, and inspiration. Explicit discursive engagement with Romania from the US right have, however, only been fleeting so far.

A recent article in The American Conservative, a magazine that Dreher edited for 12 years and where he is still editor-at-large, is a particularly noteworthy and somewhat curious iteration of this trend. In “Learning from Vlad the Impaler,” Auguste Meyrat, an English teacher, and editor and writer for different conservative media, argues that contemporary conservatives can find ways to fight the left by turning to the historical example of the 15th-century Wallachian ruler Vlad Țepeș (known in English as the Impaler), famous for impaling his enemies (hence his monicker) and for being the inspiration of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Frustrated with Republican inaction in the face of “faulty indictments and legal double-standards” such as those faced by Donald Trump, Meyrat calls on conservative politicians to step up against this intimidation and “fight fire with fire,” because, “like Vlad, they will find that these leftists are not as powerful as they seem.” This comparison between Donald Trump and Vlad the Impaler went moderately viral on Twitter, where it created much bemusement. Ridiculous as it may sound, the article is worth reading and putting in historiographical context as it demonstrates not only how the American right is trying to build international bridges, but also how susceptible Romanian nationalism is, whether in its banal as much as in its organized right-wing forms, to being drawn into this global movement.

Left: Ambras Castle portrait of Vlad Tepes circa 1560. Public domain. Right: Woodcut from a 1499 pamphlet published by Markus Ayrer in Nuremburg depicting Vlad III dining among the impaled corpses of his victims. Public domain.

While American progressives might find the historical invocation of a famously bloodthirsty tyrant (plus alleged vampire) laughable, many Romanians would not bat an eye. Vlad the Impaler has been a constant symbol in Romanian right-wing politics for a long time. One of Romania’s interwar far-right movements called itself the “Vlad the Impaler League.” 90 years later in 2016, the short-lived nationalist United Romania Party sported Vlad’s portrait on its logo and created a “defense” group called the “Vlad the Impaler Patrol.” While obviously an easily adoptable figure for the far right, Vlad’s memory has been used by others as well. Early Romanian communist historiography presented the famous voivode as an anti-boyar hero and even a precursor of central economic planning. Later the emphasis shifted to his victories against the Ottomans and Vlad took his place in the pantheon of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s nationalist-communist mythology,  even as the figure of Dracula was invoked as a parody of the Party’s leader in folk music.    

The role that Vlad’s image plays in reactionary organizing is borrowed from everyday discourse in Romania. Vlad’s symbolic power is built on two related mythologizations of his historical actions. The first is his role as an alleged defender of Christianity, part of the bulwark that supposedly protected Western Europe from the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. Romania is by far not the only state to appeal to this heritage in order to legitimize its position within Europe. The contemporary continuation of this role even became more than a metaphor with the so-called refugee “crisis,” when new or potential admittees to the European Union were called upon to prove the strengths of their borders and, through it, their racialized deservedness of being included in the West.

Flag of the United Romania Party. Haisollokopas. Permitted use under the GNU Free Documentation License.

In his article, Meyrat tells us that he realized that the contemporary US situation “closely mirrors that of 15th-century Romania” while “reading historian Raymond Ibrahim’s new book, Defenders of the West: The Christian Heroes Who Stood Against Islam,” the latest in a series documenting the Islamic “war” and “persecution” against Christianity. Ibrahim paints rosy portraits of a panoply of medieval saintly but feisty heroes, from the French crusader Godfrey de Bouillon to Vlad the Impaler. Ibrahim spends many pages salvaging the medieval ruler from libelous accusations and recuperating his role in protecting Europe from heathen invaders. Vlad may have been “immensely cruel,” Ibrahim concedes, but we need to appreciate him “as a fallible man who, like so many Europeans before him, did what he could, fighting fire with fire, to keep his tiny Christian kingdom safe from invading jihad.”

This is the “context,” according to Ibrahim, that the “fake news” has ignored about the 15th-century Wallachian voivode in order “to demonize Western elements” by “above all, expunging and demonizing their Christian aspects, while leaving aggressive Islam out of the equation.” If his terminology was not transparent enough, Ibrahim also throws in an analogy with “Americans today” who are “hammered” for slavery. But those doing the hammering ignore the actual historical context “that everyone engaged in slavery, and often on a much worse scale than Americans.”

Ibrahim’s book is written with explicit stakes in contemporary political debates. And while his intervention is in the American context, the symbolic usage of Vlad fits perfectly with his Romanian reception as well. Islamophobic defense narratives are still one of the main deployments of Vlad’s image in Romanian politics. The leader of the United Romania Party wrote in 2016 that “Muslim immigrants attack in packs” and a protest against the building of a mosque in Bucharest that the party organized featured a placard depicting Vlad towering over Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Even the throwaway reference to slavery is more relevant than it might seem, as Romanian institutions have refused to apologize or pay reparations for centuries of Roma enslavement. The Orthodox Church that Vlad was defending was one of the country’s largest enslavers, as was the Wallachian voivodeship. But this is barely known to Romanians and maybe to Ibrahim as well, whose book’s only references to slavery are about Christians enslaved by the Porte.

For Meyrat, however, the second central thread that runs through Vlad’s legacy seems to be more important: his cruel but supposedly just and efficient internal politics. His rehashing of Ibrahim’s book is a preamble for a series of bold analogies that explicate the comparison between 15th-century Wallachia and the 21st-century United States. In a direct transposition of medieval conflicts to the political landscape drawn up by conservatives, the Ottomans are “leftist globalist elites”; the boyars who “caved to the demands of the sultan” (and whom Vlad had killed) are “almost every large institution today” caving to the elites’ demands; and the slander against “the populist Dracula” is nothing else but the demonization of “the populist Trump.”

As the voivode impaled both external enemies and internal traitors, Trump rejects “the current system of leftist intimidation and elite privilege.” Meyrat’s allegorical reading of Romanian history once again strikes painfully close to home. By bringing in Vlad’s executions of the Wallachian nobility, he weaves Islamophobia with anti-corruption. For Romanians, the Impaler has also become a mythological figure who, to borrow American language, could drain the swamp. Mihai Eminescu, Romania’s national poet and a conservative, anti-semitic political thinker, provided the prototypical imagery of this trope in a 19th-century poem that is still studied in school today and which Ibrahim partly quotes:

Where art thou, old prince, Vlad Ţepes, on them all to lay thy hands,

Treating them as rogues and madmen, to divide them into bands,

Throw them into two big houses, as with others thou didst whilom,

Setting fire unto the prison, and the lunatic asylum.

In 2021, this poem was recited in the Romanian Parliament. The author of this not-so-veiled threat against corrupt political elites was senator Diana Șoșoacă. Șoșoacă is a former member of the Alliance for the Union of Romanians, a far-right parliamentary party who draws directly on interwar fascism. Her unwillingness to toe the party line got her expelled, but Șoșoacă’s ability to cause controversy has kept her on the front pages. On one scandal-mongering occasion, her Covid denialism slipped into Islamophobia. Donning the cloak of a defender of Christianity in addition to that of an anti-corruption crusader, she accused the head of Romania’s Department of Emergency Situations, a Syrian-born doctor, of gathering an army of “90,000 Afghans and other migrants” to administer mandatory vaccinations.

Beyond fascist movements, Vlad is ever-present in Romanian political discourse’s bellicose focus on corruption. Traian Băsescu, a neoliberal politician and the enforcer of post-2008 austerity measures as president, ran his campaign on the “promise to ‘impale’ corrupt state officials (i.e. rival party leaders).” The same message was turned against him during the massive 2012 anti-austerity protests, when at a demonstration in Cluj-Napoca signs saying “Down with Băsescu” were shown next to one saying “Vlad the Impaler for President” – a slogan which some Romanians seem to take quite literally. In an effort to bring the message home, at a 2017 demonstration against proposed modifications of laws concerning abuse of power, a person dressed in a costume based on Vlad’s portrait, recognizable to any Romanian, held a placard that said “Did you miss me?”

The use of Vlad’s image at protests, however, does not turn him into an anticapitalist symbol. Romania’s long campaign against corruption, be it in courts or in the streets, has only increased the power of capital and antidemocratic state institutions. The folklore that has formed around Vlad’s sense of justice also leans more toward direct state violence than toward people’s empowerment. The famous story about a golden chalice that was used at a public fountain in Wallachia’s capital and was not stolen for as long as Vlad lived is quaint enough. But other fables tell of how the voivode executed the poor and beggars en masse and even impaled a woman for being lazy. This heritage is chilling in light of contemporary anti-corruption discourse in Romania. Its targets include corrupt politicians, but generally ignore the capitalists who use this corruption to make profits. More than anything, however, benefit recipients and the supposed abuse of the welfare state are portrayed as the reason for Romania’s failure to catch up with the West economically.

Meyrat, then, is spot on in his appropriation of Vlad as a populist icon for “Americans who have families, do real work, and actually love their country.” In both the Romanian and American case, the dog whistles could not be louder. Islamophobia and anti-corruption come together in the fascist desire to cleanse the social body of external threats and internal freeloaders. Vlad’s reputation as a merciless but just warrior focuses this desire onto a real historical figure. Meyrat calls for “figurative” impalements, but the violence is not always metaphorical: the manifesto of the Norwegian far-right mass shooter Anders Breivik idolized Vlad as a defender of Europe.

In 2011, an optimistic commentator hoped that Vlad’s presence in Breivik’s manifesto would trigger a reckoning with the dangers lurking in the normalization of Romanian nationalism. The creation of patrols bearing the voivode’s name and the scapegoating of (imaginary) immigrants show that this has not been the case. Vlad’s symbol as an anti-corruption vigilante is slightly more sanitized, but still anchored in the same fantasy of violent purification. His heroization permeates Romanian consciousness to such an extent that Vlad’s travels as a political symbol through far-right and centrist movements cause no alarm for the latter, even when the bloodshed that accompanies it is not in a distant past, but in contemporary Europe. Portrayals such as those found in Meyrat’s article and in Breivik’s manifesto are not at odds with the Romanian imaginary; they build on it and show how even peripheral nationalisms are part of a larger movement that is becoming more and more organized.Two days before the start of the Budapest CPAC there was a brief woke-free zone in Bucharest as well, as Jordan Peterson gave a talk at one of the city’s main event venues. Speaking to 4,000 people, Peterson expressed a similar hope to Trump’s: that Western values, currently under attack, will survive in Eastern Europe, and that his audience will soon start to act to ensure this survival. Vlad the Impaler is one of the fulcrums of Romania’s claim to a place in the  bulwark protecting a racialized, heteropatriarchal order against its contemporary foes. But this claim is structured by violence, which  has been masked by the banal nationalism of everyday Romanians, but to which the actors of the new global right are finely attuned.

Andrei Belibou is a Romanian PhD student in Berlin, where he is also involved in housing and migrant organizing.