Of Communists and Kings:
Rules for Feeling History In Romania
One of the most interesting things to observe when I travel to “dark” places is how people behave. Of course, almost everything in the world has “dark” history, but there are some places in which the dark histories are well known and less contested. Some examples that come to mind are Auschwitz, Chernobyl, Hiroshima, the Killing Fields in Cambodia, etc. These are places that most of mainstream society would view as having dark histories. Interpretations of these histories may vary, but most U.S. citizens, for instance, would feel the need to be reverent or well-behaved while visiting the USS Arizona Memorial. Indeed, while visiting this memorial, I found that the the mood was sober and quiet among American tourists. The tourists were more subdued in ritualistic thoughtfulness. So too, tourists at Auschwitz were generally quiet, subdued, and again, ritually thoughtful. Tourists who deviate from this norm are sometimes shamed, as in the case of Yolocaust, a photography project wherein Jewish artist Shahak Shapira altered tourist selfie photos, placing them in historical Holocaust images. Holocaust history is certainly contested, but at least in mainstream Western society it is acknowledged as real and horrific, even if specific Western complicity in persecution of Jews or failure to act against these atrocities may not be part of that narrative. In both of these examples, most tourists follow social scripts of how to behave and express emotion. These norms are called “feeling rules” a sociological concept developed by Arlie Hochschild. There are socially prescribed ways to express feelings at work, school, weddings, funerals, parties, and the many other facets of life. Tourists also follow unwritten social guidelines of how to express emotion. The variation in these rules offers some insight to how history is interpreted. For instance, in September I paid a visit to Primaverii Palace, a residence of the Ceausescu family. The following day, I visited two Romanian castles, Bran Castle and Peles Castle. The tourists acted very differently at each of these sites.
An image from the Yolocaust photo series, which was used to draw attention to tourist behaviors at Holocaust memorials/historical sites. The site was later taken down and tourists featured in the images often removed their selfies and apologized after being shamed by the project.
Primaverii Palace was one of over 80 residences of the Ceausescu family. The house contains the bedrooms of the Ceausescu children, gifts from foreign dignitaries, a sauna, indoor swimming pool, articles of clothing, a private movie theater, and family photographs. Tourists were very quiet in the house and there was a marked absence of laughter, joking, admiration of the tilework or decor, or anything that might come off as overtly positive. Why? Well, the house belonged to a dead communist dictator who lived well while the people of Romania were cold and hungry. The house is not meant to be admired, it is meant to be a symbol of the contradictions and failures of communism, wherein those connected to state power enjoyed luxury while the masses lived leanly. The house represents the dark history of oppression. Of course, the mansion itself is fairly modest, as far as mansions go. I have visited many larger, more ornate mansions belonging to capitalists. However, these mansions are de-politicized. The inequality associated with capitalism is normal and expected. Therefore, visitors to THOSE mansions do not have to be quiet and respectful. They can be wowed by the woodwork or the gardens. Any Western visitor to the Ceausescu mansion with an inkling of Romanian history and iota of respect for the suffering of others, will probably behave respectfully at the mansion. The mansion is political. There are many reasons for this. One, Romania’s experience with communism is not “old” history. It happened within the lifetime and memory of many visitors, who like myself, may have seen images such as emaciated Romanian orphans on the news after the collapse of Romanian communism. Two, communist dictatorship is almost incontestably viewed as bad. There are few Western sympathizers with Ceausescu. I myself am a revolutionary socialists and while I can explain why things went so awry in the Soviet Union and subsequent communist countries, I have no affinity or apology for the Ceausescus. Communist Romania, like North Korea or Cambodia under Pol-Pot, is a country with what Goffman called a spoiled identity. In Goffman’s case, the term was applied to stigmatized individuals, but I would extend this concept to the notion that an entire countries can be stigmatized by the brutality of their government and resulting ostracism and isolation from the West. For political reasons, communist labelled countries are more stigmatized than similarly brutal of regimes that were supported by capitalist powers. A person who supports a particularly brutal regime, even critically, faces the risk of having their own identity spoiled by associating themselves with human rights violations and state repression. Thus, the feeling rules while visiting the home of a communist leader dictate that one should treat the visit with the respect owed to those who suffered under communism. Failure to do so might imply support of state repression or insensitivity to victims of communism, both of which threaten to spoil a tourist’s identity in the eyes of other tourists.
This respect and quiet were not expected at the two castles that I visited. Peles Castle was an expansive estate tucked in the Carpathian Mountains. It was shrouded in a misty forest of dark pines. The immediate reaction of the tourists is that it looked like a fairy tale. Inside, the castle was richly decorated with gold leaf and walnut, for a rustic look. The castles contains 30 toilets and 170 rooms. In contrast, Ceausescu’s palace contained 80 rooms. The castle was built by Carol I, though really it was “built” by nameless laborers who made the furniture, rugs, rooms, stairways, gardens, plumbing, electricity, and so on. The grandeur of a castle is not framed as an expression of the oppression of others. The castle is apolitical. Yet, visitors could be quiet and thoughtful as they consider the inequality of wealth under feudalism and capitalism or the thousands of workers whose labor is rendered invisible in the splendor of the castle. How did Romanians live under the rule of Carol I and his successors? What wars were they sent to fight in? For what purpose? Where did all of Carol I’s wealth come from? A king should very well be as loathed as any communist dictator. Kings represent a system of benefits based upon heredity. Carol I was from the German Hohenzollern family and when he came to power in Romania in 1866, 38% of the arable land was owned by 2000 individual landowners. Serfdom was abolished in 1746 in Wallachia and 1749 in Moldavia. In Transylvania in 1848, landlords tried to privatize wood, which had been traditionally an item of the commons which peasants could use for building, fires, charcoal, barrels, etc. In this sense, Romania was in a process of transitioning to capitalism, though still mostly rural and agrarian. Under Carol I’s rule, Romania was a constitutional monarchy, but the king maintained the power to dissolve the parliament, controlled the military, make treaties, appoint ministers and government personnel, approve laws, etc. There is nothing progressive about monarchy, which concentrates state power among wealthy men whose qualification to rule is hereditary. Yet, on Trip Advisor, the castle is described as charming, wonderful, historic, a gem, fabulous, and beautiful. It could just as easily be described as an icon for the oppression of women (who were not allowed to be monarchical rulers and even ruling class women were breeders at best) or an atrocious waste of resources that could have gone towards the benefit of Romanian peasants. The castle itself was built by 400 workers, by some accounts (it seems that a cursory internet search doesn’t yield a wealth of information on the actual working conditions or workers who built the castle) and that these workers spoke up to 14 languages. Workers included some imported skilled laborers, but also Albanians, Turks, and Romani who were presumably less skilled or at least not noted as skilled in the scant descriptions of the workers. Considering the long history of oppression and marginalization in Romanian society, it is hard to imagine that Romani workers were anything but hyper-exploited. Slavery was abolished in Romania between the 1840s and 1850s and Roma made up the vast majority of Romanian slaves. In 1859 there were 250,000 emancipated slaves in Romania. Thus, when construction of Peles castle began in 1873, Roma laborers would have less than two decades of freedom from six hundred years of slavery. The castle, therefore, might also be looked upon as a monument to the oppression of Roma. Of course, tourists do not see this when they see the castle. There are no feeling rules that dictate quiet contemplation or soberness. Monarchy is taken for granted unless notoriously cruel (such as King Leopold II of Belgium) and there is a sense that monarchs can be good, bad, or neutral unlike communist dictators which tend to be framed as some shade of bad. Perhaps these feeling rules would be different in a different era wherein the struggle against monarchy or the spread of capitalism was still in its infancy or this history was more contemporary. Unfortunately, monarchy is depoliticized, so visitors to Peles or that matter Versailles or Russia’s Winter Palace, are unlikely to seethe with anger at the excesses of monarchs, take joy in the violent mass uprisings against such inequalities, or quietly reflect on the lot of peasants or those less fortunate.
Finally, I visited Bran Castle. The mood here was different from Peles castle and from the Ceausescu mansion. It was one of whim, fantasy, and dubious history. Although Bran castle has little to do with the history of Vlad the Impaler or vampires, it was marketed as Dracula’s castle, where one could purchase an array of Dracula themed souvenirs and foods. A tourist could even take a Dracula tour or attend a large Halloween party hosted there each year. The castle is famous because it is similar to the castle described by Bram Stoker in Dracula. While the story of Carol I is made bland by the slow taming of monarchy, Vlad the Impaler was a thoroughly brutal ruler who by some historical accounts killed 90% of the boyars to replace them by a new ruling class that would be loyal to him, abused and murdered his mistresses, and impaled over 20,000 Turks at the Night Attack at Targoviste. It is debatable if his cruelty was uniquely terrible by the moral standards of monarchs of the 1400s. Because his atrocities are several hundred years old, he is a character that can be looked upon with dark fascination or even historical neutrality. Unlike Ceausescu, who is very real, Vlad the Impaler, although historical, is mythological in his association with vampirism. Thus, a visit to Bran Castle (which was not associated with him) is not governed by feeling rules that require respect for death and suffering. In contrast, the castle is marketed to celebrate death, the supernatural, and spookiness. If anything, the castle is disappointingly normal in that it really doesn’t have a particularly dark history, as far as castles go. Again, the celebration of Dracula and Vlad the Impaler represents an extreme depoliticization of the excesses of monarchy. One of the only overtly political marker in the castle is the story of various Romanian monarchs and how the castle was appropriated by the communist state. After the collapse of communism, Bran castle was returned to the Romanian royal family (who had been exiled in 1948). This is supposed to be viewed as right and just. The right of monarchs to the property is not questioned and is simply a matter of the order of things. The remnant Hapsburgs who own the castle have since refurbished it and opened it to the public. Their generosity and stewardship is to be celebrated.
In a world where tourists should feel reflective and subdued in the face of communist atrocities, I feel that the same standards should be applied to those of feudalism and capitalism. The double standard seems disingenuous, as if suffering matters, then all suffering is worth consideration. The world is imbued with inequality, injustice, and pain. In some cases, this is obvious to a tourist. This has to do with how history is understood and felt. The rules of feeling and understanding history are political. I have visited many castles, but in almost all of them, the suffering is invisible and there is no questioning of inequality or wealth. A castle is often nothing more than a pretty object to be stunned by. When it isn’t, it is perhaps a ruin or a damp remnant of some fantastic and distant time. Politics should be returned to these buildings so that tourists can remain alert for the contradictions and misery making inequalities of the world. Excess and luxury should be fought against, whether it is the excess of communist rulers or the excess of kings. Both represent the theft of wealth from the land and from labor and lives of ordinary people. Almost everything should make us angry, disgusted, or sad. At the very least, feeling rules should be considered as they indicate norms of historical interpretation.