10 Key Facts About Ceausescu and the Romanian Revolution
The Romanian Revolution marked the end of 42 years of Communism in Romania and the bloody removal of one of the last Communist heads of state in Europe. Nicolae Ceaușescu had total control over Romania. Yet, through a succession of poor decisions, he lost it all in a week. Here, we detail the defining moments of the Romanian Revolution, as well as Ceaușescu’s rule.
#10. Ceaușescu Was Well-Liked By Western Powers in His Early Reign
The Romanian people were subjected to Nicolae Ceaușescu’s leadership for 24 years. He had taken over from the first Communist leader of Romania, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, who died of lung cancer in 1965.
Western powers had initially been optimistic that Ceaușescu could make a positive impact. He significantly impressed during a speech in 1968 that criticised the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslavakia, accompanied by Bulgaria, Poland, East Germany, and Hungary.
Ceaușescu was popular enough that his newfound friends agreed to lend Romania over $13 billion to sort out its economic crisis.
Unable to pay back the amount through conventional strategies, Ceaușescu relied increasingly on the extreme and inhumane, creating some of the darkest moments in the country’s history.
#9. Ceaușescu’s Austerity Measures Pushed Romania into Extreme Poverty
Ceaușescu’s final attempt at economic stability was to sacrifice the wellbeing of the general Romanian public. He introduced austerity measures that meant that food and utilities were rationed out in the extreme and whatever remained was only available at a highly inflated price.
Ceaușescu’s austerity measures were a success, in the sense that they accomplished what they set out to do. Romania finished repaying its debt in 1989, while Ceaușescu was still in power – ahead of schedule. The cost of the success was that the Romanian public were either cold and hungry, or, in some instances, dead. Also, the country had sold off pretty much anything that it was possible to sell, meaning economic problems still exist in Romania as a direct result of Ceaușescu’s short-sightedness.
Some of the most disturbing cuts happened in healthcare, where AIDS infection increased due to reuse of hypodermic needles and infant mortality increased to one of the highest rates in Europe. Random power cuts were par for the course in Romania, regardless of who it affected. Neonatal intensive care units were some of the grimmest places to work. Any time there were power cuts it meant a very real risk of death to the babies in incubators.
#8. The Securitate Secret Police Controlled Every Facet of the General Public’s Lives
Ceaușescu was in charge of an incredibly far-reaching secret police force, called the Securitate. In 1985, it had 11,000 direct employees and over half a million informants – meaning 1 in 44 of Romania’s 22 million inhabitants had ties to the Securitate. This meant that every time someone left their home, it was pretty much a given that people would watching them, listening to them, and assessing their day-to-day activity for anything suspicious. If you owned a phone, you were being listened to. By 1977, every new phone sold came complete with a hidden microphone in the receiver.
It was hard to stay in-line with the official Romanian policy. The Securitate had eyes and ears everywhere and a lot of reasons to arrest people. All outside media was banned. Television was limited to one state-run channel that only ran programmes deemed not in any way controversial or with the potential to dirty Ceaușescu’s reputation. The only way to watch a good film (i.e. not made in Ceaușescu’s Romania) was through illegal tape trading, as covered in the superb documentary film Chuck Norris vs. Communism.
When the birth-rate in Romania hit 6 per every 1,000 people in 1981, Ceaușescu taxed all couples aged 25 or above that were childless. Five years later, the legal abortion age was raised from 40 to 46, which in-turn led to an increase in back-alley abortions. Thus, the Securitate were stationed at every maternity hospital to make sure that no one was breaking the law.
#7. Ceaușescu Built One of the World’s Largest Palaces While the Country Starved
Ceaușescu’s disregard for the Romanian people is in direct contrast with his spending on himself and his wife. One of his most lavish projects was a giant palace, intended to be the new family home. In recent years, it has become known as the Palace of the Parliament and houses both the Romanian Senate and the Chamber of Deputies.
The regular power cuts that the Romanian people experienced no doubt helped to fund the Palace of the Parliament – a building which annually uses the equivalent power of a medium-sized city. It still ranks among the most extravagant buildings ever commissioned, being the second-largest administrative building in the world, behind only the Pentagon.
It’s believed around 3,000 people died during its construction. Important sites were demolished, such as hospitals, monasteries, factories, and the National Archives building. Furthermore, 40,000 people were relocated to make way for the palace.
Construction was such a monumental task that Ceaușescu did not live to see its completion. In fact, to this day, it’s not really finished. Only 400 of the 1,100 rooms have found uses. The rest are naked reminders of Ceaușescu’s illogical vision and the needless suffering of the Romanian people.
#6. The Timișoara Massacre Was the Inciting Incident of the Revolution
The trigger of revolution can be traced back to the harassment of László Tőkés by the Romanian government. Tőkés provided vocal opposition to Ceaușescu’s policy of systematisation – which essentially is a posh word for large-scale demolition and rebuilding.
Systematisation was enacted so broadly that entire towns and cities were affected. The main humanitarian problem with Ceaușescu’s policy was that the people living in these areas marked for redevelopment had no say whether they wanted any of the changes to happen. They also had little to no assurance that they would be adequately taken care of during a transitional period.
Tőkés, a Hungarian Reformed Church pastor, was a constant thorn in the side of Ceaușescu, preaching to his congregation in Timișoara about the failings of the Romanian government and systematisation in particular. In July, 1989, he took part in an interview on Hungarian television, spreading a message to Hungarians and Romanians alike not to lay down their rights to Ceaușescu.
Usage of media for anything other than praise of the Ceaușescus effectively meant signing your own death warrant. However, Tőkés was in a rare position of power and thus could not be dealt with as swiftly as other dissenters. When Tőkés received his eviction notice on 20th October 1989, he refused to leave and was supported by members of his congregation.
In December of that year, members of the Securitate came to take Tőkés away. In response, a human blockade was formed, making the Securitate’s orders impossible to enact without force. As the protest continued, the crowd grew – meaning the Securitate didn’t feel comfortable enough to take action for another two days, when they made the catastrophic decision to fire into the crowd.
It was an order given by Ceaușescu himself, having told his executive committee, “They have got to kill hooligans not just beat them.” It’s believed around 100 people died in Timișoara during the protest. They did not lose their lives in vain. News of their uprising spread across Romania, lighting a fire that steadily oxygenated.
#5. Botched Speech Sent the Entire Country into Revolt
On the 21st December 1989, in an effort to disrupt the growing unrest in the country after the Timișoara uprising, Ceaușescu gave a speech from Palace Square, Bucharest. In the lead-up, Ceaușescu had factory workers brought in to the capital, telling his underlings, “Any worker who dares to object, fire him. If he still objects, arrest him … I want Palace Square jammed with thousands of loyal factory workers. They will not be able to applaud loud enough or often enough.”
In charge of the rest of the crowd were the Securitate and various other state militia groups. There was no way to control the massing public though. They had reached their breaking point. Also, sensing the changing tide, many of the crowd plants had mustered up enough courage to switch sides and join the revolt by the speech’s end.
It makes for compelling viewing. Initially, the crowd are relatively quiet. Perhaps assessing how safe it would be to voice displeasure. Yet a couple of minutes in, there is audible disdain, which steadily builds, peppered with chants of “Timișoara” and “Down with Ceaușescu”.
The speech was televised to the entirety of Romania and for the first time Ceaușescu appeared frail, bewildered, and incompetent. It’s been suggested that perhaps this has been exaggerated as part of the aggrandised story of the revolution. There had been gunfire in the crowd and some people were fleeing, fearing for their lives, which is potentially why Ceaușescu halted his speech and appealed for calm.
Regardless of how Ceaușescu actually assessed the crowd’s behavior during his speech, it’s indisputable that his perceived reaction and the crowd’s voice had a huge impact on the revolution. It instilled in the Romanian public a belief that Ceaușescu was weak and that those in opposition were strong enough to end his reign.
#4. The Defense Minister’s Suspicious Death Caused the Romanian Military to Defect Over to the Revolution
It is often argued that Ceaușescu still could have held onto power after his botched speech and the general revolt that followed, if only he had managed to keep the military on his side. Vasile Milea’s defection, in particular, proved catastrophic.
Milea was Ceaușescu’s minister of defense and as such, was one of the first ports of call to organise military suppression of the public. He had become increasingly out of favour with Ceaușescu during the week’s events – initially sending unarmed troops to Timișoara to extinguish the uprising, against Ceaușescu’s wish for armament.
Again, following his botched speech in Bucharest, Ceaușescu had informed Milea he wanted his troops to fire into the crowd of demonstrators. Milea flatly refused, leading to his official firing and branding as a traitor.
Shortly after being relieved from duty, Milea died. It’s been ruled as a suicide, although it remains somewhat of a mystery. Many people, including members of Milea’s family, contend that Ceaușescu ordered him killed. A later post-mortem of Milea’s body established a third theory that he had attempted to incapacitate himself with a flesh wound, to enable his absence from the ensuing carnage. Whatever the intent, the bullet ruptured an artery, causing Milea to bleed out.
Milea’s firing and questionable death sealed Ceaușescu’s fate. The entire military, loyal to Milea and wanting to be on the right side of history, defected over to the revolution. Thus, Ceaușescu’s last hope of saving his own life and consolidating his power died with Milea.
#3. The Ceaușescus Escaped Revolutionaries by Helicopter
The day after the botched Bucharest speech and following the firing and public discrediting of Milea, the Ceaușescus were sitting ducks. By the time the crowds had forced open the doors of the Central Committee building, which was housing the Ceaușescus, little to no state resistance was felt. Revolutionaries charged through the building, easily overpowering any loyalists.
Finally realising the severity of the situation, the Ceaușescus took an elevator to the rooftop of the building and a waiting helicopter. The elevator was faulty, meaning that those accompanying the Ceaușescus had to spend precious time prizing its doors open to get out. So close were they to capture at this point that they watched a mass of people pour onto the rooftop as their helicopter flew away.
The pilot of the helicopter was Colonel Malutan. He was being held at gunpoint and forced to aid the Ceaușescus, who at this point were pretty much the worst people on Earth to be seen helping.
Fearing for his own safety in the event of capture, Malutan told the Ceaușescus that they had been picked up on the radar and there was a good chance they’d be shot down. The Ceaușescus ordered the helicopter to land and Malutan was off the hook.
The Ceaușescus continued their mad dash for freedom on the ground. The first car that they flagged down could only take them so far, suspiciously failing – most likely for similar reasons to those that caused Malutan to land. The second car they flagged down took them to Târgoviște, where they stayed for a short period, before being arrested by local soldiers.
#2. The Ceaușescus Were Immediately Executed, Following a Slapdash Trial
On Christmas Day 1989, the Ceaușescus were subjected to an incredibly poorly run trial, where the outcome was predetermined. The Ceaușescus had to be executed. No argument could change that.
The court appointed lawyer for the Ceaușescus was given ten minutes to talk with them before the trial began, in which time he suggested that to avoid the death penalty their best bet was to plead insanity. It was a suggestion that caused great offense and lead to the lawyer’s dismissal. The Ceaușescus would march to their deaths unapologetically, still clinging to an image of infallibility.
It was not an image that any Romanian in power was willing to go along with any longer, though. Their trial lasted a mere hour. They were found guilty of every charge thrown at them – a lot of which were greatly inflated. After hearing the court’s findings, an exasperated Nicolae Ceaușescu said, “We could have been shot without having this masquerade.” A fair point, on reflection.
The argument for the trial is largely based around the sense of justice and closure that Romania needed. The entire trial had been video recorded, to this end. There is a painful catharsis attached to seeing the once great Ceaușescus tipped from their pedestals.
The execution of the Ceaușescus was also intended to be recorded. However, the shootings were carried out with such haste that the Ceaușescus were already dead by the time the cameraman had rushed outside. In order to get the footage required, several more bullets were fired into the Ceaușescus, creating the illusion of the point of execution being captured.
The cameraman then approached for a close-up of both Ceaușescus. Their lifeless images were broadcast across Romania that evening, offering reassurance that their reign was truly over.
#1. Fighting Continued After Overthrowing Ceaușescu, As the National Salvation Front Consolidated Power
There was no immediate peace after the removal of the Ceaușescus. The party that eventually took power was the National Salvation Front, headed by Ion Iliescu. He served as President of Romania until 1996, and then again from 2000 to 2004.
The days following the execution were deeply confusing, as revolutionaries fought an ideologically unknown enemy, whose leaders have never fully revealed themselves. They must have been loyalists to Ceaușescu or revolutionaries that were not ready to go along with the National Salvation Front’s vision of power consolidation.
Indeed, many Romanians rue the missed opportunity not to have gone further. Not only were Romanians sick of Ceaușescu, they were sick of a lot of the Communist politicians that operated underneath him. Many of these people went unpunished and continued to thrive in the new Romania – exposing their own duplicity by denouncing Communism and Ceaușescu.
Furthermore, the Romanian people’s suffering continues to this day. Infant mortality rates are the highest in Europe. Some people are so downtrodden that they miss the old regime. It is not uncommon to see people visit Ceaușescu’s grave to pay their respects.