We won’t die!
The end of World War II coincided with the installation of the communist regime in Romania.
With the Soviet army in Romania, many Romanians – out of opportunism or fear – joined the Communist Party massively, contributing to its development. Mass demonstrations against „fascism and imperialism” and in favour of „the liberating Soviet army” became common facts. The communist leaders (Emil Bodnăraş, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, Nicolae Ceauşescu etc), who had been in the underground movement, became public political figures all of a sudden.
King Michael I, the initiator of Romania’s change of military position against Germany in August 1944, could hardly imagine that the end of the Romanian monarchy was so close. But this happened at the end of 1947, when the king was forced to abdicate. The People’s Republic of Romania was proclaimed, while communist slogans spread like wildfire.
Topping the planned production (on the Soviet model), especially in the mining industry, became one of the favourite means of propaganda of the regime. Another means was fighting against „the kulaks’ sabotage”, in fact, the independent farmers’ refusal to accept the nationalization of private property. The arts also developed in the service of the new regime.
Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej, one of the Romanian communist leaders, became a prominent figure due to his manner of eliminating – sometimes literally – his enemies and his devotion to Stalin. The Soviet leader’s death, in 1953, offered Dej the opportunity to start an anti-Soviet policy, while still remaining Stalinist. The following years witnessed Nicolae Ceauşescu’s ascension – a man who had been Dej’s protegé for a long time. A former shoemaker’s apprentice, arrogant to those inferior to him and servile to those in a superior position, he shot to success, even if, during his last years, Dej started to dislike him. Dej’s death, in 1965, was Ceauşescu’s chance to replace him at the head of the party and the state. Although he hadn’t been nominated by Dej himself as his successor, he became the new Romanian communist leader as a result of a few clever machinations.
Continuing in the same spirit as his predecessor, taking a distance from Romania’s eastern neighbour, Ceauşescu tried to get closer to the West, presenting himself as the „good communist”. In 1968, when the Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia to annihilate the revolution, Ceauşescu was not only the sole communist leader of a Warsaw pact signing country not to offer military support to the Soviet Union, but he also criticized, in an official, energetic manner, the gesture of his „communist brother”. The immediate outcome was an increase in domestic credibility and more popularity with the western leaders:
- 1968 – the president of the French Republic, Charles de Gaulle, visited Bucharest;
- 1969 – The American president Richard Nixon came to Romania;
- 1970 – Ceauşescu was received in Washington;
- Many other visits throughout the world followed.
The visits to China and North Korea in 1971 meant the beginning of the nightmare for the Romanians. Surprised and pleased by the results of their „cultural revolution”, upon his return, Ceauşescu drew the principles of a mini-cultural revolution, with a strong focus on the cult of his personality. This was the beginning of his ever-growing megalomania.
The same megalomania urged him to the so-called systematization of villages and towns, in the early 80s. This initiative entailed the demolition of lodgings, churches and historical monuments and their replacement with blocks of flats.
Determined to pay off Romania’s external debts, apart from the systematization, Ceauşescu introduced the monthly „allowances” for major food items, which were then to be constantly diminished. In the late 80s, in some regions, the individual food allowance had been reduced to: 1 kg sugar, 1 kg flour, 500 g margarine, five eggs. To obtain these monthly allowances, people queued up in the streets for hours, any other food supplies in the shops being virtually inexistent.
In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev, an adept of reform, became the leader of the Soviet Union. As a result of his position, the Warsaw Treaty signing states were preparing for a democratic political life. Communism therefore collapsed in 1989:
- Hungary embraced the idea of political pluralism;
- in Poland, the leaders of the Solidarity movement took over;
- Czechoslovakia abolished the leading role of the communist party;
- in Bulgaria, the communist party leadership was taken over by a reformist group;
- in China, the cruel repression of the students’ demonstration in the Tien-An-Men Square shocked the West;
- the Berlin Wall collapsed in Eastern Germany;
- in early December, the presidents of the Soviet Union and the United States of America met in Malta, which put an end to the „Cold War”.
Nicolae Ceauşescu, however, didn’t seem willing to give up power. At the 14th Congress of the Romanian Communist Party, in November 1989, he was re-elected as head of the party, as a result of a fraud Romanians were already used to.
All over the country, the unrest was growing. Especially in the western part of Romania, where people could watch the Hungarian and Yugoslavian televisions and listen to the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe, the population was familiar with the changes that were taking place in the South-East of Europe.
Timişoara. The main city of the Banat region. God wanted this region to begin the revolution against Ceauşescu, with the help of a Reformed vicar. Laszlo Tokes had conflicts with the secret services and the hierarchy of the Reformed community, full of individuals who were serving the regime. His motivation was simple: the priest was fighting for the rights of the minority group he belonged to. As a result of his insubordination, after several failed attempts of the Reformed bishop to make him obey the orders, Tokes was informed that he would be arbitrarily moved to a parish in Sălaj county. As he refused to obey this decision, the Bishop had him evicted from the parish house. The trial was won by the Bishop and the decision was to be carried out on December 15 1989. Arpad Gazda, a friend of vicar Tokes, declared: „On December 10, during the religious service, Tokes shared this decision with the community and asked them to come and witness his eviction. That morning, many people gathered outside the house. First there were three or four, who didn’t dare to come closer to the vicarage because of the uniformed policemen who were patrolling. They walked around the area, went into the chemist’s shop, then into the grocer’s. I arrived during the afternoon. There were already 200 of them in front of the house. I asked for 20 candles from a friend and gave them to the people.” In the evening, the mayor of Timişoara, Petre Moţ, arrived, asking Tokes to invite the people to go home, promising he would solve the vicar’s problems the next day. A friend of the parson informed the people about Moţ’s promise, telling them to return the next day to check if the mayor had kept his word.
The following day, the people gathered again in front of the parish house. Some of the citizens who were walking in the Maria Square at that time stopped to see what was happening. The number of the people gathered outside the house increased. Now the majority were people of all ethnic origins and persuasions, the Reformed community being only a minority. The mayor returned to assure the people that he would solve all the problems. But the crowd was no longer willing to trust him.
The afternoon witnessed the unavoidable: around 4-5 p.m. 400 people were waiting in front of the vicarage. Two trams were stopped. A group of youngsters climbed on them and shouted „Down with Ceauşescu!” for the first time. After a moment of confusion, the crowd joined them: „Down with Ceauşescu!”
The afternoon of December 16: the beginning of the Revolution. Some of the people went to other areas of the city to urge the citizens to join the demonstration. A group walked to the students’ campus. From here, some headed for the industrial area, while others went to the district headquarters of the communist party. The first clash with the authorities took place here. The first arrests followed. The crowd returned, in increased numbers, to the Maria Square. The troops were waiting there to arrest more people. After a short while, most people headed for the Opera Square, the civic centre of the town. From there, the demonstrators walked towards the most crowded neighbourhoods. People chanted: „Down with Ceauşescu!”, „Down with the shoemaker!”, „Romanians, join us!”, the Revolution flag was produced ad hoc: Romania’s traditional flag without the communist arms in the middle. The demonstrators destroyed all the communist propaganda banners they found in their way. The troops increased, with policemen, military and armed civilians. Despite their opposition, the demonstrators were forced to withdraw. Some managed to get back home. Many others were, however, arrested, beaten and locked up in the cells of the local Militia or in the local prison. Others tried to get back to the city centre. Close to the Opera Square, they were surrounded and another spate of arrests and violence followed. It was already the morning of December 17.
That day, the whole city of Timişoara was roaring. The people were discussing the events in a loud voice. Everything was vandalized in the streets. Shop windows had been smashed where the demonstrators had faced the authorities.
As a display of power, the military brass band started to march in the city centre. The demonstrators still there started to boo. Around noon, the demonstrators gathered in the Opera Square, decided to go to the District Council to talk to the authorities. They started to sing popular national songs like the „Union Hora”, „Wake up, Romanians” and to chant slogans like „The army is on our side”, „We are the people”, „Who are you protecting?”, „Down with Ceauşescu!”, „Down with the dictatorship!”, „We want freedom!”, „We want food for our children!”, „We want our prisoners back!”, „Today in Timişoara, tomorrow all over the country!”, „We want free elections!”, „Freedom!”, „No more violence!”, „Romanians, join us!”. In front of the District Council, the demonstrators were expected by military troops, shields and water tanks. The demonstrators were victorious in the clash that followed. The troops withdrew. Other secret services troops forced the people to walk back, to other areas of the city, where new clashes took place.
Worried by what was happening in Timişoara, Ceauşescu organized a hasty teleconference with the local authorities. He ordered unconditional fire against the civilian population. His order was carried out and the first victims fell in Timişoara during that afternoon. As the victims would later declare, the shots came from military and secret services members.
On the morning of the 18th, Timişoara was a war-stricken city: burnt shops, broken windows, patrols and armed troops were marching in the streets, blood stains were visible on the pavements, the families of the dead and the wounded were desperately trying to obtain their relatives’ bodies, the long-distance connections were all cut off.
Timişoara seemed defeated. But the silence was only apparent. The citizens were more determined than ever not to give up. The slogan „We can’t go back home over our dead people’s bodies” was on every man and woman’s lips.
People started to gather in the city centre. More and more armed secret service officers in civilian clothes appeared in the streets. The signs of the battle to come were becoming more and more conspicuous. At around 4.30 p.m., a group of children and young people gathered on the stairs of the Orthodox Cathedral. They started to chant: „Down with Ceauşescu!”, „We want a free country!”, „Freedom!”. All of a sudden, a moving tank shot at the youngsters and killed some of them. The others took refuge inside the Cathedral or in the parks around. This cruel and absurd action enraged the citizens even more. Some neighbourhoods witnessed the beginning of a genuine guerrilla against the supporters of the compromised regime. Stones and bottles were thrown at the cars and tanks which were shooting at the demonstrators.
In an attempt to erase all traces, during the night of December 18/19, the bodies of the victims were removed from the District Hospital. They were transported to Bucharest, where they were burnt at the Crematorium. The victims’ families were to be informed that their relatives had run away abroad.
On the morning of December 19, the workers of Timişoara went on strike. No one worked any more in factories like ELBA, Electromotor, or Electrotimiş. People were chanting against communism, against Ceauşescu, demanding that the dead bodies should be given back to their families. The troops shot again, mercilessly, at the demonstrators, making more and more victims.
On the 20th, the entire city was in the streets. The workers in the industrial area on Calea Buziaşului organized themselves, the factories joining the demonstration one by one. At 9.30 a.m., the Optical Factory joined the Electrotimiş and AEM. The last pro-Ceauşescu banners were removed and the crowd was waving the national flag without the communist arms, accompanied by black scarves as they approached the Banat factory, the car factory, the detergent factory, Azur, the metal factory, the Progress factory and Guban. A human avalanche was flooding in the streets. People started to sing „Wake up, Romanians!”. The demonstrators went to the Consulate of Yugoslavia, demanding the envoys to inform the western public opinion about what was happening in Timişoara. The demonstrators were assured that their demands would be taken into consideration. From the Consulate, the crowd reached the ELBA factory, where they joined those of Electromotor and the railway employees. Then the demonstrators returned to the city centre, chanting „No more violence!”, „The army is on our side!”, „We are the people!”, „Down with the dictatorship!”, „Down with the dynasty!”, „Down with Ceauşescu!”, „We want free elections!”, „Democracy!”, „Freedom!”, „Where are the dead?”. The military troops ceased all opposition. Some of the demonstrators went to the local branch of the communist party, attempting a dialogue with the authorities. The party envoys were Radu Bălan (the party’s district prime-secretary) and Constantin Dăscălescu (the Prime Minister), sent from Bucharest to report on the situation in Timişoara. A committee was organized ad hoc and sent by the demonstrators inside the building to negotiate about the following:
- Ceauşescu’s resignation;
- The government’s resignation;
- Free elections;
- An investigation squad for the recent events;
- The prosecution of those responsible for the violent clashes between the demonstrators and the authorities;
- The immediate liberation of political prisoners;
- The victims’ families’ right to have access to their relatives’ bodies;
- Ceauşescu going public about the real situation in Timişoara;
- The freedom of the written press, the television and the radio;
- The reformation of education.
All these demands made up a genuine manifesto of the Revolution, presented to Romania by the citizens of Timişoara.
On the same evening, most of those who had been imprisoned during the events were released. Many of them were taken to the city centre, where they were expected by the demonstrators.
On the evening of December 20, Ceauşescu went public on television. But the people’s request that the president should inform the public opinion about what had really happened in Timişoara was not taken into consideration. The inhabitants of Timişoara were called a gang of hooligans and fascists.
During the night of December 20/21, workers from several towns in the region of Oltenia (Craiova, Calafat, Caracal, Băileşti, etc.) were expected at the end of the night shift, dressed up in civilian patriotic guards’ uniforms, put on special trains and sent to Timişoara to defeat the movement of the so-called „Hungarian hooligans”. Armed with clubs and starving, they arrived in Timişoara on the morning of December 21. A group of demonstrators was waiting for them in the main station. They were taken to the Opera Square to see what was really happening. They were given food and some of them were put up in the students’ campus. The others returned home, spreading word about the real situation of Timişoara.
On December 20, the town of Lugoj, near Timişoara, stood up against the regime to support Timişoara. The authorities ordered fire and the order was carried out. Other victims fell.
On Thursday morning, in his cureless megalomania, Ceauşescu ordered a large mass demonstration in front of the communist party headquarters in Bucharest, to support him. However, this idea was fatal to him. All the inhabitants of the capital city of Romania knew what had happened in Timişoara. During the dictator’s speech, the people started to chant anti- Ceauşescu slogans, shyly at first, then more vigorously. The initially pro-Ceauşescu rally soon became an anti- Ceauşescu demonstration and coincided with the beginning of the Revolution in Bucharest.
Many of Ceauşescu’s supporters had not yet realized that the end of the communist regime in Romania was near. They carried out the leader’s orders to shoot at the demonstrators in Bucharest, to arrest them, to crush them under their tanks. But it was too late. The Romanians could no longer be defeated.
Mass demonstrations started all over the country that day. Practically, the entire country had stood up against a totalitarian regime that had lasted for much too long. Cluj, Sibiu, Braşov, Arad… in all these cities, the authorities carried out the dictator’s orders to shoot at the demonstrators.
With the whole nation against him, Ceauşescu realized he had no chance to remain the leader of Romania. On December 22 1989, at noon, a week after the uprising had transformed itself into a revolution in Timişoara, the desperate dictator, together with his wife, Elena Ceauşescu, took off from the communist party headquarters in a helicopter, being caught a few hours later. Then, the nation understood they had won. All the Romanians, irrespective of their ethnic origin, were embracing and kissing in the streets, crying with joy, chanting, singing and dancing: Romania was victorious!
Confusion followed. What was going to happen? Who would fill in the void of authority that had thus been created? Who would have the courage to take over in such complex, unpredictable moments? The Revolution was victorious, but who were its victors?
Under these circumstances, the inferior ranks of the Communist Party apparatus took over, assisted by several former dissidents. There were actually several nuclei that wanted to get in charge. The first to arrive at the Romanian Television, the ultimate promoter of the Revolution, were poet Mircea Dinescu and actor Ion Caramitru and their group. They announced Ceauşescu’s defeat and tried to conceive a national proclamation. In another studio, Petre Roman, accompanied by army representatives, also read out a proclamation after he had addressed the crowd from the balcony of the communist party headquarters. In the streets, around the television headquarters or in the Palace Square, various other power nuclei were formed ad hoc, sending their own representatives to the television studios to communicate their manifestos to the nation. At a certain moment, Ion Iliescu, the manager of a major publisher then, appeared. Gradually, until the evening of December 22, the only influential nucleus remaining was that formed around Ion Iliescu, supported by Petre Roman, Mircea Dinescu, Nicolae Militaru, Victor Atanasie Stănculescu, Mihai Chiţac, Silviu Brucan, Ştefan Guşe etc.
The void of authority had disappeared, but the Romanians were still faced with a mysterious and absurd phenomenon: the terrorists. Starting from the evening of December 22, in various cities, still unidentified persons shot at both the civilian population and the army who had joined the cause of the Revolution. At a given moment, difficult to pinpoint, the „terrorists” finished their mission, disappearing without trace. But the psychosis remained, causing panic, havoc, and leading to meaningless crimes. Some ignorant people spread false rumours about would-be terrorists heading for the television headquarters, the Ministry of National Defense, the airport, etc. At the same time, special Militia or Army troops were sent to defend these sites. They were mistaken for the reported terrorists. Consequently, the defenders of the institutions were shooting at the troops outside and viceversa. In most cases, no one realized the confusion, and members of these special troops were killed, being then declared as „terrorists” and becoming the victims of public contempt. The truth came out only much later.
The fear of terrorists was used as an excuse for the hasty trial of Ceauşescu and his wife, on the very Christmas Day of 1989. After a trial that lasted for no more than a few minutes, both defendants were sentenced to death, and the couple was put to death at once. This was undoubtedly unfair and a disgrace for the democracy Romania was aspiring to.
By the end of the year, Romania had got rid of the tyranny and had a leadership promising free elections, but the sacrifice had been immense. The simplest statistics are a modest indicator of the Romanians’ martyrdom of December 1989, as well as evidence of the absurdity of the crimes:
1,104 dead people:
- 543 in Bucharest;
- 162 before December 22;
- 942 after December 22;
3,352 wounded people:
- 1,879 in Bucharest;
- 1,107 before December 22;
- 2,245 after December 22;
- The Ministry of National Defense gave its toll of 260 dead men and 545 wounded men;
- The Ministry of Domestic Affairs gave its toll of 65 dead men and 73 wounded men;
- 333 dead people and 648 wounded people were the result of the actions taken by the Ministry of National Defense staff;
- 63 dead people resulted from the actions of the Ministry of Domestic Affairs staff.
The Timişoara Revolution Memorial,