Science and Ethnicity II: Biopolitics and Eugenics in Romania, 1920-1944

Starting with March 2019, at the Nicolae Minovici Museum

Science and Ethnicity II: Biopolitics and Eugenics in Romania, 1920-1944

This exhibition documents the complex biopolitical and eugenic programmes devised to create a new Romanian family and nation through individual and collective scientific management. Between 1920 and 1944 biopolitics and eugenics received official endorsement in Romania, as elsewhere in Europe and the USA. From the outset, however, the eugenic ambition to nurture a healthy Romanian population was placed within a broader biopolitical quest for nation-building and national protectionism. It is this quest that we explore in this exhibition.

The intertwined relationship between biopolitics and eugenics not only transformed the individual and the community into an object of scientific supervision; it also placed eugenics at the centre of Romanian nationalism. The significant corollary to this transformation was the representation of the Romanian nation in physical terms, needing ‘improvement’, ‘protection’, and ultimately ‘purification’. As will be shown here, biopolitics and eugenics connected the growth and progress of the Romanian nation to a specifically scientific agenda, one preoccupied equally with the protection of the ‘biological quality of the Romanian population’ and with the ‘removal’ of ‘unwanted’ individuals and ethnic groups. Translated unto the geo-political environment of the interwar and World War II periods, this scientific agenda created a certain eugenic worldview. Biopolitical anxieties about the future of the Romanian nation were intimately associated with demographic and territorial concerns prompted, on the one hand, by fears of external annexation by neighbouring states (some, such as the Soviet Union, politically and numerically stronger) and, on the other, by the internal disruption from the potentially detrimental impact of growing enclaves of domestic ethnic minorities.

If eugenic ideas of national rebirth provided the framework for the biologisation of national belonging, as it developed during the 1920s, racist fantasies proved inspirational to those who wished to see Romania complete its ethnic transformation into a homogeneous nation state during the early 1940s. Yet, as this exhibition clearly suggests, the support for biopolitics and eugenics displayed by Romanian elites was not merely a symptom of their racism and anti-Semitism (although some were notorious racist and anti-Semitic); but predominantly it was the expression of their desire to protect the national body through controlling its biological and social functions. Ideas for an ethnically homogeneous Romanian state had, of course, been voiced since the beginning of the twentieth century but they only became politically encoded during Ion Antonescu’s regime and as such shaped the ideological reasoning behind the extermination of Jews and Roma during 1941 and 1942. The focus thus shifted from the eugenic improvement and protection of the Romanian family to the very survival and future of the Romanian nation. Maintaining the nation’s racial potential became of prime political importance. Whoever endangered that process was marked as an enemy of the state. This radical form of ethnicity was promoted alongside the intense politicization and total subordination of scientific institutions to the Romanian government.

Using material previously unseen by the general public this exhibition illustrates the extent to which national agenda re-defined scientific projects in Romania. The popularity of biopolitics and eugenics during the interwar and World War II periods is beyond question, but its wider national impact remains to be examined. Ultimately the exhibition encourages the general public and specialists alike to reflect on these ideas critically, whilst, at the same time, unhesitatingly acknowledging the central role biopolitics and eugenics played in shaping Romanian history between 1920 and 1944.

Curator: Marius Turda (Oxford Brookes University)

Organisers: Muzeul Municipiului Bucuresti and the Centre for Medical Humanities, Oxford Brookes University