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The following post is by guest contributor Brendan Woldman.

Romania 1989: Ceaușescu goes down in blood - archive, 1989 | Romania | The Guardian

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Using media for revolutionary purposes is not unique to the modern era. From the English Revolution of the 17th century to the French and American Revolutions of the 18th century to the Russian and Chinese Revolutions of the 20th century, the use and distribution of media to spread revolutionary content have been commonplace. Since its invention, television has become an essential tool for political means. But in December 1989, television took on a much more critical and sinister role in Romania. Through this medium, the Romanian people witnessed the fall of their leader of over 20 years: Nicolae Ceaușescu. 

“Draculescu”: The Rise and Fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu

Nicolae Ceaușescu was more then the de facto ruler of Romania. He was a living God. Becoming General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party in 1965 and then elected as the first President of Romania in 1974, the cult of Ceaușescu’s personality controlled Romania’s political and cultural zeitgeist. Early in his reign, Ceaușescu was praised by his people and Western countries alike. Though a staunch communist, Ceaușescu was considered a “maverick” who publicly disagreed with Soviet foreign policy decisions, relaxed the rigid ideological thinking that had plagued other Warsaw Pact countries, and was considered a “realistic communist.” 

However, Ceaușescu’s reformist philosophy changed dramatically in 1971 after visiting his fellow communist nations, China and North Korea. Ceaușescu was fascinated with the complete control that Mao Zedong and Kim Il-sung had over their countries and believed that the only way for his country to become a world power was to implement this style of communist authoritarianism in Romania. The Khrushchevian liberal ideology that initially influenced Ceaușescu was replaced with Maoist, neo-Stalinist rule. Ceaușescu believed in communism and his own “exceptionalism” and used his hubris to restrict the personal freedoms of Romanians, expand his dictatorial powers, and strengthen his secret police force, known as the Securitate. For decades Ceaușescu’s grasp on power was seen as untouchable. That would all come crashing down in December 1989.

László Tőkés and the Beginning of the Romanian Revolution

1989 is considered one of the most consequential years in modern history. From East Germany to Mongolia, communist governments within the Soviet sphere of influence collapsed and were replaced with democratic ones through massive peaceful protests. The only country where blood would spill en masse in the name of revolution was Romania.

With peaceful democratic revolutions swallowing up the communist world, Ceaușescu remained steadfast in his control of Romanian. But things began to sour on December 15, 1989. A large group of people assembled in the western city of Timișoara to form a human chain outside the church and pastoral home of reformed minded Hungarian-Romanian Protestant pastor and critic to Ceaușescu, László Tőkés. Tired of his growing popularity and his constant attacks, the Ceaușescu regime announced that Tőkés would be removed from his parish and reassigned. Unsurprisingly, Tőkés refused to comply with the demands, and his congregation decided to stand with their pastor. When authorities arrived at Tőkés pastor home, the congregation protestors refused to allow the officers to take Tőkés. The police opened fire. 

The incident with Tőkés sparked the Romanian Revolution. Spontaneous mass demonstrations began to form in Timișoara, causing Ceaușescu to declare a “state of emergency” against the protestors. He went so far to suggest that Hungary, of which Tőkés is of ethnic descent, was threatening invasion and using Tőkés as a pawn to justify an attack. Thinking that his actions were enough, Ceaușescu left Romania on December 18 for a planned state visit to Iran. The dictator believed that, per usual, the Romanian people would follow his whims precisely and that only “hooligans on the payroll of foreign services” would participate in these fraudulent protests. 

The Revolution Will Be Televised

But Ceaușescu could not fathom that the winds of change that consumed the communist world would engulf Romania. Ceaușescu returned to his country filled with revolutionary fervor. In the few days, he was gone, protests spread all around Romania, and rumors that Western media like Radio Free Europe had reported on the Tőkés debacle led to Ceaușescu’s decision to broadcast a live speech on television to calm the rising tensions. As he had done many times before, Ceaușescu would address his people, and all would be fine.

On December 20, the dictator gave a televised speech from the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party building in Bucharest denouncing the uprising in Timișoara as the work of terrorists and foreign spies and called for a mass rally the next day where he would address the people. On December 21, Ceaușescu walked onto the balcony of the Central Committee building for his speech to condemn the “Hooligans’ actions in Timișoara” and give the allusion of a stable order. 

The speech was planned to be televised live between 11:59 am and 12:52 pm, with groups of “supporters” planted in the crowd to cheer for the dictator. Ceaușescu had mastered the use of televised propaganda and using the medium to show his strength and popularity had worked for decades. Ceaușescu began his speech like so many others by proclaiming the greatness of Romanian socialism and demonizing the protest movements of the past week. However, the small number of planted supporters in the first few rows could not outvoice the thousands of protestors who began to jeer and boo Ceaușescu. Minutes into the broadcast, the live feed was cut by television producers hoping that the crowd would calm down. When they did not, the broadcast resumed minutes later to the image of a visibly confused and anxious Ceaușescu as the crowd’s jeers grew louder and chants of “Timișoara” rang throughout the square. For the first time, the Romanian people were watching a display of anti-Ceaușescu rhetoric on television. 

In a panic, Ceaușescu began promising reforms such as raising workers’ wages, but it was far too late. The protestors listening to the speech started to revolt, and those watching at home bore witness to the lack of control Ceaușescu had on Romania. Riots consumed Bucharest as violent clashes across Romania intensified between them and the Romanian Army. The following day, protestors overtook the Central Committee building and the headquarters of Romanian television. The protestors that took over the television studios began broadcasting the newly dubbed “Live Romanian Revolution” and declared live that Ceaușescu and his government were no longer in power. From then on, the Romanian populace watching the revolution on television was on the protestors’ side. 

Control quickly slipped from Ceaușescu’s hands, and he and his wife Elena decided to flee the city via helicopter. The final blow came when Ceaușescu and his regime were accused of murder for the death of defense minister Vasile Milea. Milea’s cause of death is still debated, but his death effectively caused foot soldiers to turn their guns against Ceaușescu and support the revolution. Ceaușescu was all alone.

The Trial and Execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu 

Soon after they attempted to flee, Nicolae and Elena were arrested and handed over to the army. On Christmas, the new Romanian government created a military tribunal and brought Nicolae and Elena to a closed trial for crimes against the Romanian people. The tribunal also decided to film the trial for future broadcasts. Among the charges included attempted genocide for killing upwards of 60,000 people during their reign, the subversion of state power, the destruction of public property, undermining the national economy, and trying to flee the country by using $1 billion worth of funds deposited in foreign banks. Nicolae refused to recognize the tribunal’s legitimacy, declaring, “I only recognize the Grand National Assembly. I will only speak in front of it… I do not recognize this court.”

Nevertheless, the trial continued and lasted for less than an hour. Though Ceaușescu repeatedly pleaded his innocence, stating that he did not give orders to shoot the protestors, the prosecutors would not hear it. The “kangaroo court’s” decision was already made even before Nicolae and Elena had been brought before them. For the revolution to survive, both Ceaușescus must die. One of the tribunal’s prosecutors concluded: 

Esteemed Mr. Chairman, I have been one of those who, as a lawyer, would have liked to oppose the death sentence, because it is inhuman. But we are not talking about people. I would not call for the death sentence, but it would be incomprehensible for the Romanian people to have to go on suffering this great misery and not to have it ended by sentencing the two Ceaușescus to death. The crimes against the people grew year by year. They were only busy enslaving the people and building up an apparatus of power. They were not really interested in the people.

The judgment was clear. Nicolae and Elena were immediately escorted to a nearby room and held up against a wall. A firing squad raised their weapons and fired on Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu. Nicolae Ceaușescus, the man who had ruled Romania with an iron fist for over 20 years, was dead.

Upon hearing the news of Ceaușescu’s death, a Bucharest radio host said, “The anti-Christ died. Oh, what wonderful news.” To prove the death of Nicolae and Elena, the new Romanian government broadcasted parts of the trial and the execution of the Ceaușescus. The video showed the couple being taken out of a car under arrest and then cuts to a doctor examining the former dictator. The lengthy scenes of the trial showed both Nicolae and Elena refusing to cooperate with the tribunal. It then showed Nicolae defiantly stating, “You can shoot us if you like but we do not recognize you as a court.” Those who could access a television screen could see the once fearsome Ceaușescus couple slumped dead next to a wall filled with bullets as blood gushed onto the floor. 

Several countries criticized the actions of the new Romanian government, believing that the hurried and secretive trial went against democratic ideals. The United States was one of the most vocal critics of the shocking events, with an official statement noting, “We regret the trial did not take place in an open and public fashion.” A new birth of freedom in Romania could not begin in bloodshed and then gruesomely televised. Britain, however, was far more understanding, with a Foreign Office spokesman noting, “It was a civil war situation and the normally accepted standards of legality hardly obtained at the time. Although one may regret a secret trial, at the time it was not really surprising.” While the reaction to Ceaușescu’s execution varied, one thing was clear: It was a gruesome end to a gruesome regime, and it was broadcasted live.  

Footnotes

  1. Dana Mustata, “The Revolution Has Been Televised… Television as Historical Agent in the Romanian Revolution,” Journal of Modern European History 10, no. 1 (2012): pp. 76-97, https://doi.org/10.17104/1611-8944_2012_1_76, 76-77.
  2. Vladimir Tismaneanu, “The Revival of Politics in Romania,” Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science 38, no. 1 (1991): pp. 85-99, https://doi.org/10.2307/1173815, 85.
  3. Ibid., 85-86.
  4. Catalin Augustin Stoica, “Romania’s Failed Attempt at a Revolutionary Myth: Performances and Rituals of Degradation in Ceausescus’ Trial,” Polish Sociological Review 128 (1999): pp. 461-483, 463, Tismaneanu, “The Revival of Politics in Romania,” 85.
  5. Cezar Stanciu, “Nicolae Ceauşescu and the Rigins of Eurocommunism,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 48, no. 1 (March 2015): pp. 83-95, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.postcomstud.2015.01.006, 85, Tismaneanu, “The Revival of Politics in Romania,” 85-87.
  6. “Revolutions of 1989,” New World Encyclopedia (New World Encyclopedia, n.d.), https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Revolutions_of_1989
  7. Carmen Paun, “Thirty Years after Romanian Revolution, Questions Remain,” POLITICO (POLITICO, December 25, 2019), https://www.politico.eu/article/thirty-years-after-romanian-revolution-questions-remain-death-of-nicolae-ceausescu/
  8. Stoica, “Romania’s Failed Attempt at a Revolutionary Myth,” 463.
  9. Stoica, “Romania’s Failed Attempt at a Revolutionary Myth,”463, Tismaneanu, “The Revival of Politics in Romania,” 89.
  10. Paun, “Thirty Years after Romanian Revolution, Questions Remain,” https://www.politico.eu/article/thirty-years-after-romanian-revolution-questions-remain-death-of-nicolae-ceausescu/ 
  11. Stoica, “Romania’s Failed Attempt at a Revolutionary Myth,” 463.
  12. Tismaneanu, “The Revival of Politics in Romania,” 89.
  13. Mustata, “The Revolution Has Been Televised,” 79.
  14. Mustata, “The Revolution Has Been Televised,” 79-80, Stoica, “Romania’s Failed Attempt at a Revolutionary Myth,” 463.
  15. Kelly Presutti, “Picturing Revolution in the Middle Voice,” Thresholds 41 (2013): pp. 172-185, https://doi.org/10.1162/thld_a_00108, 172, Stoica, “Romania’s Failed Attempt at a Revolutionary Myth,” 463.
  16. Stoica, “Romania’s Failed Attempt at a Revolutionary Myth,” 463, Presutti, “Picturing Revolution in the Middle Voice,” 172.
  17. Mustata, “The Revolution Has Been Televised,” 80.
  18. Ibid., 80.
  19. Ibid., 80.
  20. Tismaneanu, “The Revival of Politics in Romania,” 89.
  21. Mustata, “The Revolution Has Been Televised,” 80.
  22. Stoica, “Romania’s Failed Attempt at a Revolutionary Myth,” 464.
  23. Mustata, “The Revolution Has Been Televised,” 80.
  24. Stoica, “Romania’s Failed Attempt at a Revolutionary Myth,” 464.
  25. Alex Kozinski, “Death, Lies & VIDEOTAPE: The Ceausescu Show Trial and the Future of Romania,” American Bar Association 77, no. 1 (January 1991): pp. 70-73, 71-73.
  26. “TRANSCRIPT OF THE CLOSED TRIAL OF NICOLAE AND ELENA CEAUSESCU.” Washington D.C.: The Washington Post, n.d., https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1989/12/29/transcript-of-the-closed-trial-of-nicolae-and-elena-ceausescu/8ae8f002-1f19-487c-a7aa-ed4334f74af6/, Kozinski, “Death, Lies & VIDEOTAPE,” 71. 
  27. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, “25 Years After Death, A Dictator Still Casts A Shadow in Romania,” NPR (NPR, December 24, 2014), https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2014/12/24/369593135/25-years-after-death-a-dictator-still-casts-a-shadow-in-romania
  28. “TRANSCRIPT OF THE CLOSED TRIAL OF NICOLAE AND ELENA CEAUSESCU.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1989/12/29/transcript-of-the-closed-trial-of-nicolae-and-elena-ceausescu/8ae8f002-1f19-487c-a7aa-ed4334f74af6/ 
  29. Kozinski, “Death, Lies & VIDEOTAPE,” 73.
  30. “TRANSCRIPT OF THE CLOSED TRIAL OF NICOLAE AND ELENA CEAUSESCU.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1989/12/29/transcript-of-the-closed-trial-of-nicolae-and-elena-ceausescu/8ae8f002-1f19-487c-a7aa-ed4334f74af6/ 
  31. “Television Shows Last Hours of the ‘Anti-Christ’,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, December 27, 1989), https://www.theguardian.com/century/1980-1989/Story/0,,110504,00.html
  32. Ibid., 
  33. Ibid.,
  34. Ibid., 
  35. Blaine Harden, “Romanian Broadcast Shows Dead Dictator,” The Washington Post (WP Company, December 27, 1989), https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1989/12/27/romanian-broadcast-shows-dead-dictator/f3fe0948-87ed-4eda-8fa3-d95e04c05cd9/
  36. “Television Shows Last Hours of the ‘Anti-Christ’,” https://www.theguardian.com/century/1980-1989/Story/0,,110504,00.html 

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