History is a witness that nearly every monarchy, dictatorship or any autocratic regime met its ignominious end all over the world in the 20th Century. Be it Hitler of Germany, Benito Mussolini of Italy, the Shahs of Iran or the Ottomans of Turkey. All of them had similar and deserving ends. Romania was not an exception to it; a similar fate was written for its leader Nicolae Ceaușescu. But, his end had charisma and uniqueness of its own, which forces us to shed some light on it. Seeking inspiration from the work of Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, this article highlights the decades-long Ceauşescu rule, his fall and the pillars sustaining any dictatorship but first, let's start with the never seen speech of any powerful leader in this world.
The Last Speech
Bucharest: On December 21, 1989, complement, Romanian President Nicolae Ceauşescu organised a mass rally in the centre of Bucharest to claim his power and to show the rest of the world that the majority of Romanians still loved him, or at least feared him. Ceaușescu, who had ruled Romania since 1965 believed that he could withstand even a tsunami, even though riots against his rule had erupted in Timisoara on 17th December 1989. The creaking party mobilised 80,000 people to fill the city’s central square, and citizens throughout Romania were instructed to stop all their activities and tune in to their radios and televisions, which happened every time he came to deliver his speeches. To the cheering of the seemingly enthusiastic crowd, Ceauşescu mounted the balcony overlooking the crowd, dressed in a black Persian lamb hat with a matching coat collar. Accompanied by his wife Elena, leading the party officials and bodyguards, Ceauşescu began delivering one of his trademark dreary speeches. "Dear Comrades and friends, citizens of the Capital of Socialist Romania. First, I desire to address you...the great participants of this great popular meeting, to all residents of Bucharest Municipality… warm greetings, revolutionary!...along with best wishes for success in all fields!…I want to also address thanks to the initiators and organizers of this great event from Bucharest considering it as a………". And then something mischievous happened, you can watch history in action on YouTube. He never completed this sentence. Somebody in the audience booed. People still argue today about who the first person who dared to boo was. And then another person booed, and another, and another, and within a few seconds, the masses began whistling, shouting abuse and calling out ‘Ti-mi-şoa-ra! Ti-mi-şoa-ra!’.
All this happened live on Romanian television, as three-quarters of the population sat glued to the screens, their hearts throbbing wildly. The secret police, Securitate immediately ordered the broadcast to be stopped, but the television crew disobeyed. The cameraman pointed the camera towards the sky so that viewers couldn’t see the panic among the party leaders on the balcony, but the soundman kept recording, and the technicians continued the transmission. The whole of Romania heard the crowd booing, shouting, while Ceauşescu yelled, ‘Hello! Hello! Hello!’ as if the problem were with the microphone. His wife Elena began scolding the audience, ‘Be quiet! Be quiet!’ until Ceauşescu turned and yelled at her to shut up first, live on television – ‘You be quiet!’ Ceauşescu then appealed to the excited crowds in the square desperately, ‘Comrades! Comrades! Be quiet, comrades!’ But the comrades were unwilling to be quiet. Socialist Romania collapsed when the 80,000 in the Bucharest Central Square realised that they were much stronger than the old man in the hat on the balcony. This was the never seen last speech of a powerful dictator in world history. This episode marks the end of Ceausescu, the long-standing leader of Romania and the collapse of Socialist rule. And just after 4 days, Ceauşescu and his wife Elena had become history.
Around 25 minutes after this speech, his mass rally drew to a close. Thousands of young people marched down the nearby central Magheru boulevard, chanting ″Down with Ceauşescu 3/8″, and calling for the ″libertate″ - or ″freedom″ - that was coming to them from their neighbouring countries. The next day, protests spread all over the country. Ceauşescu and his wife fled on a helicopter but were later captured that day as the army joined the protest. On Christmas Day, the trial lasted an hour and they both were found guilty of genocide and immediately sentenced to death. They were hauled and lined up against a wall, Nicolae shouted "I have the right to do what I want" and Elena shouted, "Don't tie us up and Don't offend us!" And then, both were shot dead by one of the paratroopers.
The Rise of Ceauşescu
When Gheorghiu-Dej, the then head of state died on 19 March 1965, Ceaușescu succeeded the leadership of Romania’s Communist Party as First Secretary (general secretary from July 1965); and with his assumption of the presidency of the State Council (December 1967), he became the head of state. After coming to power, he changed the name of the party from the Romanian Workers' Party back to the Communist Party of Romania and declared the country a socialist republic, rather than a people's republic. At first, he eased press restrictions, removed censorship and openly condemned the Warsaw Pact Invasion in his speech on 21st August 1968, which led to a surge in his popularity. However, this period of stability was short-lived as he soon turned to become the unquestionable leader of Socialist Romania. His government came out to be the most repressive in the eastern bloc of the region. His secret police 'Securitate' was responsible for mass surveillance and severe repression of opposition.
His short visioned, brutal and repressive policies caused major havoc on the people of Romania and its economy. As he often stated in all his speeches, his main aim as a leader was to make Romania a world power, and all of his economic, foreign and demographic policies were meant to achieve the ultimate goal: turning Romania into one of the world's great powers. In October 1966, Ceaușescu banned abortion and contraception and brought in one of the world's harshest anti-abortion laws, leading to a large spike in the number of Romanian infants abandoned to pathetic conditions in the country's orphanages. Mothers with at least five children were entitled to receive significant benefits, while mothers of at least ten children were declared "heroine mothers" by the Romanian state. Few women ever sought to receive this status. Instead, the average Romanian family had two to three children during this period. To implement anti-abortion laws more rigorously, his govt made divorce more difficult, it was decreed that marriages could only be dissolved in exceptional cases.
To increase the rate of reproduction, encouraging measures like financial motivations for families who bore children, guaranteed maternity leave, and childcare support for mothers who returned to work, work protection for women, and extensive access to medical control in all stages of pregnancy, as well as after it was implemented. Medical measures were seen as one of the most productive effects of the law, since all women who became pregnant were under the care of a qualified medical practitioner, even in rural areas. In some cases, if a woman was unable to visit a medical office, a doctor would visit her home. By the late 1960s, the population began to surge, and this rapid demographic change resulted in creating a problem of child abandonment, which enlarged the orphanage population. This subsequent generation of children is known as generația nefericită (generation unfortunate) in Romania.
Not only did his measures severely affect the demography of Romania, but the economy also collapsed under Ceauşescu’s rule. Economic mismanagement due to failed oil ventures during the 1970s led to skyrocketing foreign debts in Romania. To come out of this crisis, he exported much of Romania's agricultural and industrial products to repay loans in 1982. This resulted in the drastic shortage of produce within the country; significantly lowering the living standards, heavy rationing of food, water, oil, heat, medicine and power cuts. The situation worsened after he appointed his wife Elena as deputy Prime Minister. Moreover, foreign debts were largely the result of Nicolae Ceausescu's overreaching industrial and infrastructural projects. One of the projects that he sought to carry was to destroy dozens of Romanian villages with bulldozers and convert them into agrotech equipped centres.
Furthermore, his wife Elena also played a crucial role in Socialist Romania as its First lady. But to the people of the country, she is remembered as Romania's lying, thieving and hated First Lady. With puppet machinery and the system in her husband’s hands, she entered the Romania Academy and earned a PhD degree in Chemistry and other scholarly honours. Years later, it was found that her work had been done by other researchers. In her party, she was referred to as "comrade academician doctor engineer Elena Ceausescu, a brilliant politician and patriotic scholar of broad international renown". With this glossy, highly appreciating introduction of her, it is important to revisit the famous thievery of the Ceauşescu couple. During a state visit to France in early 1978, the couple reportedly raided their official accommodation. It led to France's then President, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, to warn Queen Elizabeth II ahead of the Ceaușescus’ visit to Britain months later, to hide the valuables at Buckingham Palace.
These extremely unjust policies, abuse of human rights and severe repression led to great unrest in Romania. As a result, an anti-government protest erupted in Timişoara in 1989. These demonstrations initiated the Romanian Revolution, the only violent overthrow of a communist government in the turn of the revolutions of 1989. After his last speech, Ceaușescu and his wife Elena fled the capital in a helicopter, but they were captured by the military after the armed forces defected. On Christmas, 25 December 1989, they were tried and convicted for economic sabotage and genocide. They were immediately executed by a firing squad, and Ceaușescu was succeeded as President by Ion Iliescu, who had played a major part in the revolution.
The Unquestionable Leader: Contour of a Dictator
Nicolae Ceaușescu was a cult and strong personality, which is preliminary to any dictator in the world. But other factors make their rule decades long. Prof Christoph Stefes says that dictatorships are sustained by repression, legitimation and cooptation. He has analyzed every absolute monarchy, military regime, one-party state, as well as a multi-party system in which the winner is already decided before elections. He says that there are three pillars sustaining any autocratic rule:
First, repression; that is suppressing all divergent opinions and emptying all space for the opposition. Stefes regards it as a strong instrument in increasing the life expectancy of any dictatorship. Ceauşescu imposed strict regulations on the media; censoring the press and implementing methods that were considered to be the most severe and harsh in the world. His secret police 'Securitate' repressed all kinds of anti-government protest, abused human rights and was responsible for mass surveillance. This is evident from the Timişoara protest that erupted on 17th December 1989, where he ordered the military forces to open fire on protesters. One journalist said, " It was a war zone, there was bloodshed, violence everywhere, the bloodiest revolution of Romania". Ceauşescu had left no room for any dissent and opposition. If anything was found mischievous to his rule, it was repressed with brutal tactics. And on his birthday 26th January, every person was forced to watch his TV show- highly saturated with praise and appreciation of him. According to historian Victor Sebestyen, it was one of the few days of the year when the average Romanian put on a happy face since appearing miserable on this day was too risky.
Second, legitimation; that is legitimizing the rule and all actions of the government. In a democracy, it is legitimized by free and fair election, whereas in a dictatorship, the leader develops his legitimation. Stefes writes that one way of doing this is to touch national instincts; like former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, or to evoke an ideology of communism, socialism etcetera. Another way of doing this is to promise economic prosperity. Ceauşescu, the leader of Socialist Romania had the legitimacy of his own. His main aim as a leader was to make Romania a world power. Any leader must touch the national instincts as a way to influence people and consolidate power. He also created a pervasive personality cult, giving himself such titles as "Conducător" ("Leader") and "Geniul din Carpați" ("The Genius of the Carpathians"), with inspiration from Proletarian Culture (Proletkult). Imperative in this context is the last sentence that he spoke, "I have the right to do what I want". Even in his last breath, he had the legitimacy of his own, the unquestionable personality; but this time he was lacking the greatest element, that is power.
Third, cooptation means incorporating people by securing their participation. They are allowed to be a part of the system and benefit from it. However, cooptation is the weakest of the links and has the least influence on the stability of any authoritarian regime. Ceauşescu used to organise mass rallies, deliver speeches and greet the people as great people of great Romania. As we can see in his speech, he remarked: "...First I address you the great participants of this great popular meeting". With this tone, he wanted to incorporate people to create a degree of solidarity as a gesture to strengthen his rule and to claim his power.
How Dictatorships Fall
According to Stefes, a dictatorship continues to function as long as the three "pillars" remain stable and in equilibrium. Its days are numbered when the people rise against repression; or when cooptation no longer helps participants achieve power, but only encourages corruption; or when a dictator dies suddenly and it is completely unclear who will succeed him. Here in Romania, Ceauşescu’s rule fell when people realised that they are much stronger than the old man. Romanians rose above the repression of Ceauşescu’s rule and finally checkmated the Socialist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu. It was a happy Christmas after a very long time, a time for celebration and peace for most of the Romanians.
The Romanian Revolution was unique in its own; from questioning the unquestionable leader, bloodshed and violence, to the hasty trial of the Ceauşescu couple. Nicu Teodorescu, the prominent lawyer, was appointed as the Counsel for defence by the National Salvation Front. Citing it as an 'interesting challenge', he met the couple for the very first time in the courtroom, where he was given ten minutes to consult with his clients before trial. With so little time to prepare any defence, he tried to explain to them that their best hope of avoiding the death sentence was to plead insanity. Ceauşescu rejected his help, terming it as a deep insult. Before the legal proceedings began, General Victor Stănculescu had already selected the spot where the execution would take place along one side of the wall in the barracks' square. It would take place in an open and public fashion. Ceaușescu was the last person to be executed in Romania, capital punishment was abolished thereafter on January 7, 1990.
Valentin Ceauşescu, elder son of Ceauşescu argued in 2009 that trial wasn't needed; his parents could have been shot when they were captured on December 22. Ion Iliescu clarified in this regard, stating that it was "quite shameful but necessary." However, several countries criticised the constitutionality of the execution, the United States being the most prominent critic of the trial saying, “We regret the trial did not take place in an open and public fashion”. However, to most Romanians, the trial had vindication and legitimation of its own that could best compliment the pervasive and cult personality of Nicolae Ceaușescu. At last, the Ceauşescu rule met its ignominious end.
By Aaliya Zaidi
Aaliya is a member at the Symposium Society. She is pursuing her bachelor's in Physics, 3rd year from Hindu College, Delhi University. Aaliya is an optimist and a keen learner. She carries many dreams in her heart. She has an interest in writing cultural, historical and societal pieces. She is a social worker, writer and loves to engage in talks with like-minded people.