The Fall And Execution Of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu
Nestled in the heart of Bucharest, a vast neoclassical palace stands as a striking testament to a bygone era. Despite its imposing facade, this architectural marvel did not grace the cityscape for centuries; rather, it was meticulously constructed in the 1980s under the iron-fisted directive of Nicolae Ceaușescu, the Romanian dictator. Today, this colossal structure serves as a poignant and highly visible reminder of one of Eastern Europe's most oppressive communist regimes.
Hailing from the small village of Scornicești in southern Romania, Ceaușescu, one of nine children, escaped his overbearing and abusive family to seek refuge in Bucharest at the tender age of eleven. His journey led him to an apprenticeship as a shoemaker under the fervently communist Alexandru Săndulescu, propelling Ceaușescu into the fervent folds of the communist cause. Despite the illegality of Communist Party membership in 1930s Romania, Ceaușescu faced frequent imprisonment. His path serendipitously intertwined with Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, Romania's first postwar communist leader, and upon Gheorghiu-Dej's death in 1965, Ceaușescu ascended to the pinnacle of power, becoming the general secretary of the Communist Party and the country's leader, maintaining an unyielding grip for twenty-four tumultuous years.
Unlike his counterparts in the rest of the Warsaw Pact, Ceaușescu’s bold ambition was for Romania to become a world power and not shut itself off from the rest of the world. Romania was the first Soviet Bloc country to recognise the legitimacy of West Germany; it joined the International Monetary Fund; it had an open policy of friendship towards the United States and even entered into trading agreements with the European Economic Community. This made Romania unique among the Eastern Bloc countries, all of which remained hostile to the West right up until the end of the 1980s.
Sadly, Ceaușescu’s relaxed attitude to press freedom and his distancing his country from the totalitarianism of other Warsaw Pact countries was not to last. By the mid-1970s, an increasingly authoritarian Ceaușescu began to rely more and more on one of the most fearsome secret police forces in the world – the Securitate. The Securitate were charged with stamping out all forms of dissent in Romania, and they took to the job with relish.
The Securitate set about sewing division among the populace, turning neighbour against neighbour, friend against friend, family member against family member. Midnight arrests and confessions obtained through torture were commonplace; opponents of the regime were assassinated; almost every phone in the country was tapped and a vast network of informants kept everybody looking over their shoulders. Any serious attempt to build a resistance movement proved impossible.
The Securitate were utterly ruthless. When, for example, a miner’s strike brought the country to a halt in 1977, it was noted that many of the miners’ union leaders soon began dying early. It was later revealed that the Securitate had subjected the leaders to five-minute chest X-rays which encouraged the growth of cancers. By the end of the 1970s, Romania was one of the most oppressive states in the world.
Ceaușescu used a massive earthquake that caused huge amounts of damage to Bucharest in 1977 as an excuse to carry out one of the most destructive remodelings of a city in peacetime ever undertaken. No lover of Bucharest’s charming cobbled streets and wealth of grand public and ecclesiastical buildings, the dictator envisioned a modern city to rival Kim Il Sung’s Pyongyang with wide sweeping boulevards and rows of uniform apartment blocks.
To achieve his goal, Ceaușescu ordered the demolition of a huge area of the city centre. This involved the levelling of the Văcărești hill and the moving of an ancient monastery that had stood on it since the 16th Century, alongside the bulldozing of whole neighbourhoods, in particular the historic and beautiful Uranus district at the heart of the city center. Down came some of Bucharest’s most alluring churches and monasteries along with ancient ruins, sports stadiums, theatres, army barracks, hospitals, schools and hundreds of dwellings.
In their place, the dictator built depressing rows of concrete apartment buildings, dreary public buildings that were a shadow of those they replaced, an enormous, tree-lined boulevard that cut straight through the heart of the historic city and a colossal palace at the centre of it all. This gigantic building – the heaviest in the world – was to be the beating heart of Ceaușescu’s new Bucharest, with 1,100 rooms, many opulently and expensively decorated with the finest materials while people outside queued up for hours to buy basic essentials.
The needless destruction of Bucharest was carried out between 1983 and 1988. By the end of the program, what had been known as ‘the Little Paris of the East’ had been wiped off the face of the earth. Some of the city’s churches were mercifully saved by digging out their foundations and rolling them on rails to new locations, but most are now sadly hidden behind drab concrete apartment blocks, removed from their cultural and historical context.
While all this destruction was taking place, the country’s finances were in meltdown. Ceaușescu had borrowed huge sums from foreign banks to fund an oil refinery building program that was no way near completion nor profitable by the time the loans needed paying back.
Rather than defaulting on the loans, Ceaușescu decided he would pay them back as quickly as possible. To achieve this, he introduced a crippling austerity program that included exporting almost everything the country produced including food and industrial products. This led to hardship across the country as food prices soared. Queues for household goods became an everyday occurrence, and discontent grew across the country. The Securitate had its work cut out crushing dissent, and many people were arrested, tortured and murdered in the austerity years of the 1980s.
As the decade ground on and the harsh austerity regime led to frequent power cuts, fuel shortages and an escalation in poverty while vast sums were being ploughed into the needless destruction and remodelling of cities such as Bucharest, it was inevitable that something would eventually snap.
The spark that lit the flame occurred in the town of Timisoara. A small protest against the eviction of a dissident Hungarian pastor from his church-owned flat quickly escalated into a huge anti-government demonstration. Ceaușescu allowed the police, the armed forces and the Securitate to open fire on the crowds and many men, women and children were killed or injured.
When dissenting voices began to be heard across the country about the Timisoara massacre and who was ultimately to blame for it, Ceaușescu realised he had made an error. He held an open-air meeting in Bucharest three days after the massacre, blaming anti-Romanian troublemakers for the uprising. The crowd was having none of it, and what was meant to be a pro-Ceaușescu rally soon turned into an anti-Ceaușescu demonstration as the crowd began to boo and shout abuse at the stunned dictator. Realising he was in very real danger of being lynched, Ceaușescu ducked into a nearby government building as Bucharest exploded into riots.
The next day, with protests breaking out across the country, one of Romania’s senior military leaders, Vasile Milea, committed suicide. The rumour that he had actually been assassinated on the orders of Ceaușescu spread through the military like wildfire. The dictator’s previously loyal armed forces turned on him, now siding with the protesters. With no hope of regaining control, and with an angry mob encircling the Romanian parliament, Ceaușescu and his wife Elena made a dramatic rooftop escape by helicopter. However, after the Romanian army threatened to take the helicopter down with a surface-to-air missile, the couple were forced to land and they were quickly taken into custody. A show trial was hastily arranged for the following day - the 25th of December.
The trial of the Ceaușescus was swift and the verdict was a forgone conclusion. The Ceaușescus were charged with carrying out genocide in Timișoara, with embezzling millions in secret bank accounts and with causing extensive damage to public property during the revolution. Throughout the one-hour trial, Ceaușescu refused to recognise the legitimacy of the court. The court sentenced the dictator and his wife to death.
The soldiers who had been drafted in to carry out the death sentence didn’t waste any time. Nicolae and Elsa were marched outside straight after their sentences were handed down. As Ceaușescu sang The Internationale and Elsa shrieked and swore at the assembled firing squad, the soldiers opened fire, peppering the couple with bullets from their automatic weapons. The couple slumped to the ground. Nicolai Ceaușescu’s reign of terror was at an end.
Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu were the last individuals to be executed by the Romanian state. The death penalty, along with the oppressive regime they had ruled over for twenty-four years, was abolished in the great wave of revolutions and reforms that swept across central and eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s.
Today, Romania stands as a fully functioning democracy, a member of NATO and the European Union. Yet, remnants of the oppressive past linger. The colossal palace in Bucharest, the heaviest building in the world, remains as an enduring symbol of Ceaușescu's iron-fisted rule, etched in stone for generations to contemplate amidst the city's reconstructed landscape.