I first met Ceausescu in October 1941 at the Jilava military prison, where we shared the same cell for almost two months. As young Communists we were arrested by the fascist government for anti-Nazi activities. Then we met again in 1942 at the Caransebes Special Penitentiary near Timisoara, where we worked together in the same shop, painting toys and other objects, until 1944, when he was transferred to the Tirgu Jiu concentration camp. Forced to live closely with him for so long, I learned much about this young peasant, who was unaccustomed to life in the city and who, although he claimed to be a shoemaker, seemed incapable of learning a trade. He was both primitive in mentality and manner and endowed with remarkable intelligence.

His most striking feature, though, was the deep hatred he showed his fellow inmates, even though they were fighting for the same cause at the risk of death. Not directed at any one person, this was a general and impersonal hatred, which seemed to consume him. It took the form of a free-floating anger and contempt for other people, particularly people his own age or in positions he considered inferior to his own. He could not bear losing any contest and I recall that when he lost a game of chess in prison he simply refused to speak to the winner. In his relations with the rest of us he seemed strangely empty of any normal human feelings.

The vicious side of his character, which was so clear to us young political prisoners, he somehow managed to hide from others, including Gheorghiu-Dej, the future leader of the Romanian Communist party and of the country, who himself was imprisoned at Caransebes during the war and then at Tirgu Jiu. In March 1965, before his death, Gheorghiu-Dej appointed Ceausescu as his successor. Ceausescu was then forty-seven, but he had not changed at all in twenty years.

Ceausescu’s rise to absolute power meant that a generalized hatred became embodied in Romanian institutions. The massacres of December 17 by the Securitate at Timisoara, which set off the revolution against him, revealed to the world the true face of this hatred. But the world was slow to grasp its other, less spectacular, consequences: a legalized genocide, resulting from widespread lack of food and heat, and the deterioration of medical services, including the refusal to treat many people, particularly the elderly. Added to this was the suffering caused by forcing women to give birth to unwanted children since birth control and abortion were made illegal. As a result the rate of infant mortality has increased. In no other East European country is the atmosphere so polluted or have so many villages been destroyed.

Food and medical treatment were not withheld out of necessity but because of Ceausescu’s cruel and deliberate schemes to pay off the country’s foreign debt and to control the population. Central to these schemes were the scorn and hatred that were part of Ceausescu’s character. The massacre of December 17 was merely a shocking demonstration of a genocide that for years has been quietly carried out against countless anonymous people.

Why did the Romanians tolerate such horrors? Why didn’t they revolt? Many times we asked ourselves such questions, and foreign experts on Romania have suggested a variety of answers. In a paper ironically titled “Why Doesn’t the ‘Mamaliga’ [Romanian polenta] Explode?” one expert explained that Romanians had an exaggerated fear of the Securitate. Today everyone realizes that the fear was not exaggerated. Gunneddown children, mutilated corpses, torture chambers, and torturers firing on large crowds—all expressions of Ceausescu’s despicable nature—show how the State terror apparatus was used to enslave an entire society to the will of one person. The dictator no longer merely dominated society, he managed to graft his own morbid psychology onto it.

On the other hand, this same efficient secret police force was unable to uncover the messages that circulated in December by word of mouth among thousands of students who were organizing against Ceausescu. How they accomplished this is a story that remains to be told, but the students were able to disrupt the huge demonstration in Bucharest that Ceausescu called on December 21. By doing so, they, more than anyone else, drove him from power. The secret police were also incapable of protecting the two Ceausescus, the members of their family, or their chief servants. The police failed both to prevent the couple’s arrest, which occurred on the same day they fled, and to help them to escape once they were arrested. The Securitate was able to kill thousands of innocent people, but not a single one of the prominent dissidents who had for months been under house arrest. By contrast with the murderous force it exercised, the Securitate turned out in the end to be quite amateurish so far as its political effectiveness was concerned.


Public anger at the inhumanity and injustice of the Ceausescu regime also helps to explain why Romania’s revolution was so violent. Whereas the first shots against the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square brought to an end the democracy movement in China, shooting at the crowds gathered in Timisoara on December 17 served to strengthen the movement in the following days, and to cause it to spread to the capital. As the violence of the repression became more and more apparent to the Romanians, the population became more and more willing to resist it. Romanians by the thousands preferred to die fighting Ceausescu’s tyranny than to continue living under his rule. The man who hated virtually everyone was now hated by everyone. After years of suffering in silence, the power of the people’s wrath was explosive.

The decrepit old man who had poisoned their lives feared not only death but old age. Everywhere in the country were his portraits showing him thirty years younger. He had his speeches typed in giant letters so that he could avoid wearing glasses. He even changed the name of a famous medieval military commander, Mircea the Old, to Mircea the Great. In spite of their coarseness and their transparency, these subterfuges had the strange effect of reinforcing an obscure fear that Ceausescu was immortal. After all, his parents both lived to be well over ninety. Little by little the population’s obsession with his ubiquitous presence turned into an obsession with his death. During his trips abroad people dreamed about the fatal airplane accident of General Zia of Pakistan. People scrutinized Ceausescu’s face, his voice, his movements on the television for signs of an ardently hoped for incurable disease. And when people at home among friends gave a toast, the Romanian “Cheers” had now become “To his Death.”

People hated Ceausescu not only because he was in himself odious and had made their lives miserable, but also because he claimed he was “the most loved son of the people,” and he declared his reign “the golden age” of Romanian history. Public life was degraded by such hypocrisy, which a large part of the population outwardly accepted as an unchangeable fact of life. But there were many others who were not willing to tolerate such false acts of piety: in 1987 workers demonstrating in Brasov burned portraits of the dictator, and in December during the uprising people in Timisoara threw portraits of him into the Bega river; and an old man was shown on television spitting at an effigy of the dictator. Three hundred soldiers volunteered to take part in Ceausescu’s execution.

For a long time the apparently docile behavior of the Romanians had concealed a deeply rebellious spirit, which was violently demonstrated in December. The violence sprang not only from a desire for revenge against Ceausescu but from a sense of humiliation for having passively accepted from him so much that was humiliating. If the transition to a new government had been better prepared, there might have been less violence. Because we were unable to voice our general frustration through political opposition, much blood was shed.

Several events precipitated the downfall of Ceausescu:

a) the open letter by the six former party officials, who, in March 1989, drew up a list of charges accusing Ceausescu’s policies of lowering living standards and depriving the people of food;

b) increased activity among dissident intellectuals—among them the poets Ana Blandiana, Mircea Dinescu, and Dan Desliu—including the circulation of letters and protests, which gained more and more support from their colleagues and from other parts of society;

c) the announcement by the government last spring that no improvements in living standards would follow the reimbursement of all external debt, so that the people realized that they would not benefit from the sacrifices they were forced to make, and became more disheartened;

d) the XIV Party Congress commencing on November 20, a few days after Ceausescu’s former European allies—Jakés of Czechoslovakia, Honecker of East Germany, and Zhivkov of Bulgaria—were overthrown. A secret group calling itself the Front for National Salvation circulated a manifesto in September—which was broadcast on Radio Free Europe—asking delegates to the Congress not to reelect Ceausescu to the post of general secretary.1 A similar letter was circulated by the dissident philosopher from Yassy, Dan Petrescu, and signed by some ten others. There was a short period of hope which quickly vanished when the 3,308 delegates unanimously reelected Ceausescu on November 25. Three weeks later the revolution broke out and exactly one month later, on December 25, the Ceausescus were tried and condemned to death.

The revolution began in Timisoara, a village located in the western part of the country, with a multinational population of over 300,000 people, including Romanians, Hungarians, Germans, and Serbs. The immediate pretext for the demonstration was the refusal of Laszlo Tokes, a Protestant minister of Hungarian origin, to obey the orders of the Communist authorities to leave his church and house. Several townspeople gathered at the church on December 16 hoping to help the minister. Two points seem particularly worth making about what happened next.


First, while the police were breaking up the small group of people who were trying to protect the pastor, a fairly large number of citizens—who were completely ignorant of what the dispute over Pastor Tokes was about—spontaneously joined in. At first they simply protested the brutality of the police, but soon cries of “Down with Ceausescu” were heard. In an explosion of popular feeling, the crowd passed from defending the pastor of a minority sect to one of the most serious possible acts of defiance in Romania: a march on the headquarters of the Party. At a time while Ceausescu and his officials were doing all they could to encourage Romanian xenophobia, the protesting population of Timisoara was ignoring longstanding ethnic differences and uniting against the regime. The Romanians can take some pride in the fact that their democratic revolution began with the defense of a Hungarian Protestant pastor.

Two years earlier, on November 15, 1987, again on a Sunday, a demonstration took place in Brasov that was fundamentally similar to the one at Timisoara. Confronted by the same kind of rebellion in both instances, Ceausescu reacted quite differently in each case: in Brasov he had his forces stand back and tolerate the same sort of popular rage that caused the military forces to open fire in Timisoara. Obviously, firing on the crowd in Timisoara was an excessive use of force; and in any case Timisoara is geographically far from the center of power and the incidents could not themselves have threatened the state. For the last quarter of a century, moreover, Ceausescu’s strategy was to minimize the drama surrounding moments of tension. At Timisoara, he took the opposite tack, deciding to overdramatize an incident that might have remained marginal.

This reversal of policy, in my view, can only be explained by the relative success of the repression in China and the collapse of power in East European countries where repression did not become bloody. The lack of severe reprisals in the East European countries, above all in neighboring Bulgaria, put the Romanian opponents of reform in a position where they saw themselves as encircled by reformers. The first shots fired in Timisoara carried an unequivocal message: the forces rejecting reform were ready to defend themselves at any price, including widespread killing. And Ceausescu’s statement that foreign countries were responsible for violence in Romania, coupled with his claims in early 1989 that Romania was capable of producing atomic weapons, suggested that he was drawn to the possibility of war if necessary.

The bloody character of the Romanian revolution therefore has large international implications. On the one hand it sends a signal, particularly to the Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe, of the possible costs of any attempt to restore conservatives to power. And on the other hand it warns those who are nostalgic for the old system of control how resolute people have become in rejecting them.

The most powerful dictatorship in Europe collapsed in four days. The sequence of events by which it did so was so compressed that it is worth examining day by day.

On Sunday, December 17, Ceausescu ordered the army to fire on the demonstrators in Timisoara. The soldiers obeyed, and killed many people. They did so, we now know, with reluctance. But the killings produced a palpable state of tension in Timisoara that spread to other parts of Romania.

Nevertheless, sticking to his schedule, Ceausescu left on December 18 for Tehran, where he was received with the usual public ceremony. That trip was an act of defiance and a demonstration of his confidence both in his invulnerability and in the ability of himself and his wife to exercise total power. At the same time the trip offered the officials with whom he had surrounded himself an unexpected chance to throw Ceausescu out of power. By doing nothing, they sealed their fate and the possibility of a palace revolution came to nothing.

On Wednesday, December 20, Ceausescu returned to Bucharest and on the same day, in a speech broadcast on radio and television, he offered the population his explanation of events. This was unprecedented. He had not given such a speech when the miners struck in 1977 or when protest demonstrations took place in Brasov in 1987. The speech left no doubt about his intransigence. Applauded by the officials of the Party presidium assembled to show support for him, he took personal responsibility for the massacre. “Hooligans” and “fascists” incited by “foreign powers” had tried, he said, to disturb the public order; and to stop them, he had, as supreme commander of the armed forces, given the order for the army to intervene. The warning was clear: any attempt to carry out public protests would be suppressed by force. (Ceausescu made the same argument, in exactly the same words, five days later, when he was brought before the military tribunal.)

Ceausescu then ordered that a huge public meeting be organized in the Palace Square in Bucharest on the next day, December 21. His evident aim was to demonstrate the support of the masses for the repression with which they had just been threatened. This decision revealed the extent of his isolation from reality. His police officials were apparently of no help in warning him of the danger he faced, either because they preferred to misinform him or because he ignored their advice.

It was at this meeting that the Ceausescu regime broke apart, and in a few moments. The crowd had been organized by the innumerable official committees that were to be found in the factories, offices, and other workplaces. It was essentially the same crowd that had been assembled to acclaim Ceausescu when he was elected secretary general on November 25.

After the rituals of introductory praise, Ceausescu began his speech from a balcony of the Central Committee headquarters. At first the audience, which was under the surveillance of many police in civilian clothes and included a good many agents charged with leading the cheers for Ceausescu, reacted according to the longstanding conditioned reflex of the Romanian public: it cheered Ceausescu and waved flags and pictures of the dictator and his wife. But within only a few moments, this ritual was interrupted by groups of students in the square who, instead of shouting the usual slogan, “Ceausescu and the People”—“Ceausescu si Poporul“—transformed it into “Ceausescu Dictatorul.” Suddenly their chanting of the defiant new slogan dominated the square. It produced a moment of shock in which the police and the government cheerleaders looked petrified, while the rest of the people in the crowd became silent for an instant—and then joined in shouting “Ceausescu Dictatorul” along with the students. The ritual and the fear that sustained it were suddenly broken once and for all.

Seeing the crowd had turned against him Ceausescu immediately left the balcony; he fled by helicopter and only reappeared four days later when he was brought before the military tribunal. If he had stayed on the balcony, he might have tried to recapture the attention of the crowd, but he had nothing to say that had the smallest chance of appeasing its anger. Or he might have left the balcony and, instead of fleeing, tried to deal with the new situation facing him by, for example, proposing meetings with the students or with the former Communist officials who wrote an open letter to him last March, as well as with others in the opposition. But to do that he would have had to leave his familiar world, in which an apparently abject people performed automatic rituals celebrating him, for a different world, one that he blindly hated, a world of dispute and competition. Such a transition was successfully made by General Jaruzelski in Poland but it was beyond Ceausescu’s capacity to do so. Whereas Jaruzelski opened the way for a solution based on round-table talks, Ceausescu could only open the way to a blood bath.

If Ceausescu’s apparently enormous power collapsed with surprising suddenness when he was faced with the prospect of dealing politically with opponents, this is because his power had never really been political, but had come to depend on archaic forms of coercion embodied in state ritual. When he could no longer exact recognition of himself as the “Genius of the Carpathians,” Ceausescu could not change. He had come to depend on people who made a show of obeying him, and when they refused to continue doing so, they were for him no longer people but, as he came to say during his trial, a disloyal band manipulated from abroad, while the trained assassins of the Securitate became for him the true people, now fighting for a just cause.

The Romanians in the square and in towns across the country not only stopped playing their old parts but immediately took on new ones. Ten minutes after Ceausescu left the balcony, the palatial headquarters of the Party Central Committee were invaded and taken over by the students and other young people of Bucharest.2 A few hours later, after he had left his helicopter, he and his wife, in circumstances that remain to be clarified, were captured by the army. The decision of the army not to support him and to fight the Securitate confirmed that he had no chance of recovering power.

The army placed the Ceausescus in a heavily armored vehicle and for three days and three nights drove them around Bucharest, oblivious to the security agents who were acting out their rage to kill in the same streets. The military officers in charge made sure that the dictator had his daily injections of insulin. When it is said that Ceausescu’s trial was hastily held, it is well to recall that the commander of the army, General Vasile Milea, was executed by the Securitate without any trial whatever for having refused to order a massacre and to transform the plaza in front of the palace into a European Tiananmen Square.

The long nightmare has come to an end and Romania has returned to Europe. With what future? History does not suggest that the Romanians have a particular gift for democracy, but the price they have just paid offers the hope that they will be particularly protective of any democratic institutions they may create. In abolishing both the death penalty and the security police and in promising free elections, the provisional government has made a hopeful beginning.

January 3, 1990

This Issue

February 1, 1990