On Christmas Day 1989, Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were sentenced to death in a trial that lasted a few hours and can hardly be called anything other than a pro forma trial. The death penalty they received was given in advance. Soon after the trial, they were taken to a brick wall to be shot. The world followed the dramatic days in Romania. In this blog, I do not decide whether this was a revolution or a coup. It was probably both. But I will try to tell a little about what and why this happened.
The discontent that led to revolution
We are in 1989. Just after communism has lost to democratic forces in Poland and just after the very symbol of the Soviet Union’s backyard, the Berlin Wall was torn down and Germany united. In Romania, Nicolae Ceusescu ruled the country with great brutality. The people were fed up and demanded reforms. The economy in Romania was also miserable, the construction of the presidential palace in Bucharest drained the country of large sums. The palace was a symbol of a megalomaniacal president. Romania used 30% of the national budget for the construction of what became the world’s second largest government building (after the Pentagon).
Nicolae Ceausescu had gone through the ranks in the Communist Party. In 1965 he became Romania’s president. In the early years he was popular. He opposed Moscow several times, including not sending soldiers to Czechoslovakia to put down the rebellion there in 1968. But he increasingly developed authoritarian traits. Put friends and families in important positions and developed a security police (Securitate) that made it almost impossible for any opposition in Romania. Along with his megalomania, his use of the security police to suppress criticism and his installation of friends in key positions, he became increasingly unpopular with most people.
It started in Timisoara
The priest László Tőkés hardly showed what consequences his interview with Hungarian TV would have. László Tőkés belonged to the Hungarian minority in Romania and came from Timisoara. In the interview, Tőkés said, among other things, that most Romanians do not understand what rights they have as human beings and that the message was also that the population of Romania did not need to support the dictatorship and dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The interview had an unexpected effect. Foreign TV was not allowed to be watched in Romania, yet there were many who secretly watched foreign TV by those who lived along the borders of other countries. The interview was shown on Hungarian TV and many along the border with Hungary saw it. The interview was recorded on tape and disseminated further around Romania.
The protests in Timisoara started when the bishop, under pressure from the government, removed László Tőkés from his position because he had acted unethically in connection with the interview. This was on 16 December 1989. The people of the city took to the streets to protest. The authorities deployed the security police and many people were killed.
But the protests are spreading to the whole of Romania and to the capital, Bucharest. Nicolae Ceausescu did not understand what was happening at first. He used the security police actively and an estimated several thousand were shot and killed. The president tried to calm tempers by giving a speech on a balcony. In his speech, he promised higher wages for public servants. But the protests had created a wave that was impossible to stop the fall of the dictatorship.
Palace of Nicolae Ceausescu
I have been to Romania a couple of times to see the palace that the dictator built. 30% of the national budget agreed to the enormous building where nothing was spared. The palace is 84 meters high and has a floor area of 365,000 square meters. The building is the second largest public building in the world after the Pentagon.
The building was started in 1984. When the revolution was over in December 1989, everything above ground was finished. Some floors below ground were also completed, but no one knows for sure what the building would actually look like below ground. All drawings for the architects were removed before Ceausescu’s fall.
The area on which the building is located is no less than 7 square km. 40,000 people lived in the area. These were forcibly relocated. In addition, several factories were demolished, a hospital was demolished, a monastery. During the work, between 20 and 100,000 people worked on the building.
When I was in Romania, I learned that there had been a discussion in the period after the revolution about what to do with the palace, which for many was the very symbol of a dictatorship. In the end, it was decided that the building should remain and be a kind of symbol of a dictator and his bigoted madness. Today, the parliament is in a small part of the huge building.