Uncovering the history of racism and eugenics in Romania

Professor Marius Turda

Professor Marius Turda’s painstaking work to uncover Romania’s suppressed history of racism and eugenics is at the heart of this story. His research into previously unknown - and highly controversial - events in Romania’s history has fuelled debate and challenged public perceptions of contemporary racism.

His work was also central to the first-ever law in Romania combating racism towards the Roma community. The same year of 2020 saw a Centre for the History of Racism and Eugenics being set up in Cluj as a national focal point for educators and students.  

Two exhibitions

The story of how Marius broadened public awareness was key to these changes. In 2017, Marius was invited to Bucharest to discuss his research findings - an event that was streamed online to a wide audience.

His pioneering research over many years had focused on eugenics movements in East-Central Europe. He investigated the different eugenic and racist traditions leading to the Holocaust, and the intention to ‘cleanse’ the country of ‘undesired’ individuals from ethnic minority groups including the Jewish and Roma communities.

Prompted by the lack of awareness amongst younger people and the general public, Marius curated two exhibitions, running from 2018 to 2020. Using historical evidence, he showed the history of different ethnic groups in the early 20th century, including Hungarians, Germans, Jews and Roma, alongside national policies of the Romanian state: social marginalisation, exclusion and ultimately ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Both exhibitions attracted huge interest, both within Bucharest and in other cities where they were displayed. In Bucharest, almost 3,000 visited the first exhibition up to July 2018, while in Cluj over 2,000 visited up to May 2019. Feedback from visitors showed that many had never engaged with these topics at school or university.

Helping young people to understand the past was central. Marius worked with teachers in high schools across Romania to translate visual materials from the exhibition into classroom activities. As one teacher explained, it was a powerful tool to ‘awaken the civic consciousness’ about ‘the real traumas that such ideas inflicted on people.’ Many students worked on their own projects: one group of high school students in Bucharest made a documentary about racial discrimination. 

Extracting the ‘true history’ from archives

Receiving widespread media coverage via TV, radio and the press, the exhibitions were a focus for current debates on racism in Romania. On visiting the second exhibition, the President of the Jewish Community in Bucharest, an Auschwitz survivor, noted the courage being shown by Marius ‘to extract from the archives the true history in the interest of political leaders in Romania, Europe and the entire world.’

Marius spoke at public lectures in Bucharest using his research to challenge anti-Roma attitudes. In November 2019, the Director of the National Centre of Romani Culture described his talk as ‘a reference moment in the history of this minority’ - the first time a non-Roma scholar had addressed public reticence about anti-Roma racism and Romania’s past. 

“A reference moment in the history of this minority.”

Director of the National Centre of Romani Culture

Old poster promoting eugenics

Changing the law

Marius’s work was instrumental in a new law tackling anti-Roma racism. During the pandemic, anti-Roma racist arguments were being revived to target the community. After attending his exhibitions, two Roma MPs proposed an anti-racist law, drawing on Marius’s research and academic reputation in their supporting evidence. It led to Romania’s first-ever law to combat anti-Roma racism, passed on 15 December 2020.

Beyond Romania

Marius’s research has also shaped broader debates about racism and eugenics in Britain. BBC4’s Eugenics: Science’s Greatest Scandal which aired in November 2019, drew on his findings. In June 2020, he gave a talk on anti-racism to civil servants in the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. He also launched The Eugenics Podcast series on the history of eugenics to audiences on Spotify, Apple and YouTube.

Along with London and Rome hosting his exhibitions, Marius has integrated his research into a major exhibition on the global legacies of eugenics which opened in London in September 2021 and in Bucharest in October 2021.

Podcasts

The History and Legacies of Eugenics (Spotify):

Eugenics, Queer Bodies and LGBTQ (Spotify):

REE 'In Conversation' with Marius Turda (SoundCloud):

Learning from history

By heightening awareness of Romania’s history of racism and eugenics, Marius’s research has had a profound effect on the understanding of the public, civic organisations, educators and policy-makers across Romania. By shining a light on the past, his work has been instrumental in driving positive action to address contemporary racism both in Romania and beyond.


Related links


Image credits:

"Big Romania map made ​​from students" by Cost3l is licensed under CC BY 2.0