On Dec. 22, 1989, Romania’s Communist President Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena fled Bucharest as revolutionaries stormed government headquarters. They were arrested later that day, and executed on Christmas Day after a quick trial.
Ceausescu Ousted From Power
Nicolae Ceausescu ruled Romania for 21 years, earning a reputation as a brutal dictator. During his reign he developed the largest network of spies in Eastern Europe, silenced his opposition with a secret police force known as the Securitate, and eventually threw the nation into tremendous debt and economic turmoil.
Ceausescu maintained an independence from the Soviet Union that was unparalleled in the Eastern Bloc. In the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries began to liberalize, Ceausescu maintained his hardline policies.
The Romanian Revolution was swifter and more violent than the other Eastern Bloc revolutions of 1989. It began on Dec. 15 in Timisoara, when demonstrations support of dissident priest Lazlo Tokes rapidly fomented widespread protest.
Ceausescu ordered the military and police to open fire on the demonstrators, about 100 of whom were killed. Their deaths incited further protests across the nation.
On Dec. 21, Ceausescu delivered a speech condemning the Timisoara demonstrations in front of over 100,000 people in Bucharest. During the speech, which was televised on state television, some in the crowd began chanting anti-government slogans and booing. Ceausescu became visibly frustrated, and his speech was cut short.
“It is as if, in that moment, everyday Romanian's saw the possibility, saw the reality of the weakness of Ceausescu’s regime,” according to the Center for History & New Media. “Those moments of Ceausescu’s weakness and the power of popular pressure explain why, a mere 48 hours later, Ceausescu was attempting to flee Romania, all power lost.”
The following day, violence erupted on the streets of Bucharest. Senior generals gave up their support for Ceausescu, and the remaining loyal sections of the army and Securitate were overrun. As crowds stormed Communist Party headquarters, senior officials directed the Ceausescus to escape by helicopter; the shaken couple was said to be carried aboard by bodyguards shortly after noon.
The helicopter was forced to land before it could reach its intended destination because of reports that the army would shoot it down. Two bodyguards hijacked a car and attempted to drive the couple to safety, but they were spotted near Tergoviste and arrested at about 3:30 p.m.
Violence continued in Bucharest over the next several days, as “terrorists,” said to be Ceausescu loyalists, continued to fire at revolutionaries. Over 1,100 people were killed during the revolution, most in the days after Ceausescu was ousted.
Trial and Execution
The Fall of Communism
- Fall of the Berlin Wall
- Lech Walesa and Solidarity in Poland
- “Baltic Way” Protest
- End of the Soviet Union
The Ceausescus were taken to a military base in Tergoviste and held for three days. In the chaos of Ceausescu’s ouster, the newly formed National Salvation Front, a loosely aligned organization of anti-Ceausescu forces, took control of the government with former Communist Party member Ion Iliescu as its leader.
On Dec. 24, NSF leaders met secretly in a Defense Ministry bathroom and decided to try the Ceausescus before a military court in Tergoviste on Christmas Day. “The verdict, though not stated, was clear, since the firing squad traveled in the same helicopters with the judges,” writes The New York Times.
After just a one-hour trial, with Iliescu present, the Ceausescus were found guilty of genocide and other crimes, and sentenced to death. They were placed against a wall and, before they could be blindfolded, shot multiple times by three soldiers. Others present would fire shots at the couple after the execution.
“They said they wanted to die together so we lined them up, took six paces back and simply opened fire,” described Octavian Gheorghiu, a member of the firing squad. “No one ordered us to start, we were just told to get it over with.”
The next day, the NSF released video of the trial and pictures of Ceausescus’ dead bodies. That same day, the lingering violence in Bucharest came to an end.
Ceausescu.org hosts an English translation of the Ceausescu trial.
Analysis: “Hijacked” Revolution
Sources in this Story
- The BBC: Romania's bloody revolution
- Center for History & New Media: Making the History of 1989: The Unique Experience of Romania
- The New York Times: Upheaval in the East: Dictator’s Flight
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Romania: Collapse of communism
- The New York Times: Romania's Revolution of 1989: An Enduring Enigma
- Reuters: Ghosts of Christmas past still haunt Romanians
- Financial Times: Who won the Romanian revolution?
- Presseurop: The confiscated revolution
- Country Studies/Area Handbook Series: Romania: The Ceausescu Succession
The NSF, which ruled Romania as a temporary government for the next six months, soon began to splinter as its leaders debated the future of post-Ceausescu Romania. “Those who favored the removal of all former communists from positions of authority and the rapid introduction of a free-market economy left the NSF,” explains Encyclopedia Britannica, “Those who remained—the majority of them former communists—transformed the NSF into a political party that showed little enthusiasm for Western economic practices.”
In the May 1990 elections, Iliescu and the NSF easily defeated its poorly organized opponents, cementing the party’s control. For many Romanians who had participated in the revolution, the new government bore too strong a resemblance to the Ceausescu government.
“I still consider the revolution was the work of providence but it is another question how it continued,” said Tokes in 2009. “It was hijacked. Yes, the free market and democracy have been introduced. But the actors are mainly the old ones. Former communists put the wind and force of the true revolution to move their own ship.”
Some in Romania believe that Ceausescu was forced out not by the revolutionaries but by members of his inner circle who were willing to sacrifice him to protect their own power. These conspirators encouraged violence in the city to create a climate of fear and legitimize its power.
“The conspiracy element emerged on 22 December, when it became apparent that Ceausescu could not remain in power,” says Romanian historian Marius Oprea. “That was when they started drawing up programmes and power combinations in a fever of activity in the palace. When Ion Iliescu arrived, everything had already been put in place. The conspirators had already taken control of television broadcasting. The rest was a matter of manipulation.”
The role of ex-Communists in Ceausescu’s ouster may also explain why Ceausescu did not receive a genuine trial. “Such a trial would have implicated many more people beyond the Ceausescus, including high ranking communists, army officers, and members of the Securitate,” explains the Center for History & New Media. “Protecting those who shared responsibility for the disastrous communist rule and for the violent repression of 1989 may have been one reason for the severely abbreviated justice.”
The government has done little to investigate the revolution and has refused to release many documents relating to it.
Key Player: Nicolae Ceausescu
Ceausescu first began consolidating his power in March of 1965 when he became PCR first secretary. One of Ceausescu’s primary focuses was to eliminate opposition and garner supporters. His work as an anti-Soviet crusader caused many Romanians to believe that Ceausescu was responsible for keeping the country from re-occupation by Soviet forces.
Ceausescu also garnered popularity by presenting himself as a reformer and populist, responsible for establishing freedom of the press. After consolidating his power fully, however, Ceausescu adopted “dynastic socialism.”
The Eleventh Communist Party Congress in 1974 signaled the official beginning of a regime based on Ceausescu’s socialist ideology. Freedom of expression and opposition to the government were made impossible and the country eventually sank into economic recessions worsened by Ceausescu’s flawed approach to debt-reduction. By the 1980s, Ceausescu’s dictatorial approach to governing was fully in place.