The Archive of the Romanian Revolution of December 1989

A Catch-22 December 1989, Groundhog-Day Production. Presenting the Personal Research & Scholarship of Richard Andrew Hall, Ph.D.

15 decembrie 1989: Timisoara, inceputul sfirsitului

Posted by romanianrevolutionofdecember1989 on December 15, 2009

An excerpt from

A chapter from my Ph.D. Dissertation at Indiana University: Richard Andrew Hall, Rewriting the Revolution: Authoritarian Regime-State Relations and the Triumph of Securitate Revisionism in Post-Ceausescu Romania (defended 16 December 1996). This is the original chapter as it appeared then and thus has not been revised in any form.

Chapter Five

The Beginning of the End: Timisoara, 15-17 December 1989

A week after the mysterious attack by the masked intruders, all of the windows of the parochial residence and nearby buildings were smashed. Interestingly, the report drawn up for Bucharest by the Timisoara Securitate attempted to argue that “workers” from the Timisoara Mechanical Enterprise, offended by pastor Tokes’ behavior, had broken the windows. According to Puspoki, the use of a propaganda-like description was not accidental: the local Securitate was trying to present the incident as evidence of “the dissatisfaction of the working people of Timisoara” in the hope that it would finally prompt Ceausescu into approving definitive measures against Tokes.[42]

Was Ceausescu responsible for the fact that the Tokes case dragged on without resolution? Support for such a conclusion comes from the comments of Securitate officers Colonel Filip Teodorescu and Major Radu Tinu. Teodorescu was dispatched to Timisoara with sixty other Securitate information officers in order to “verify” the request of the local Securitate that proceedings for treason be initiated against Tokes.[43] Teodorescu laments:

Unfortunately, as in other situations…Nicolae Ceausescu did not agree because he didn’t want to further muddy relations with Hungary. Moreover, groundlessly, he hoped to avoid the criticisms of “Western democracies” by taking administrative measures against the pastor through the Reformed Church to which [Tokes] belonged.[44]

Major Radu Tinu suggests that Ceausescu’s approval was necessary in the case of Securitate arrests and that the local Securitate remained “stupefied” that after having worked so long and hard in gathering information with which to charge Tokes with the crime of treason, Ceausescu rejected the request.[45] Tinu speculates that Ceausescu “did not want to create problems at the international level.”

Because former Securitate officers rarely pass up the opportunity to absolve themselves of blame, and it would appear both easier and more advantageous to blame the deceased Ceausescu for being too unyielding in the Tokes affair, these allegations seem plausible. Thus, it would appear that because Nicolae Ceausescu was skittish of further damaging Romania’s already deteriorating relations with the international community, and the Tokes case was a high-profile one, he refrained from approving visible, definitive action against the pastor. The Securitate’s attempt to goad Ceausescu to bolder action would appear to confirm Ghita Ionescu’s suggestion that where the security apparatus comes to dominate regime affairs it attempts to impose its institutional prerogatives upon political superiors. Ceausescu and the Securitate appear then to have had sometimes conflicting views over how to resolve the Tokes affair in the quickest and most efficient fashion.

By December 1989, a huge group of Securitate officers were working on the Tokes case: the entire branch of the First Directorate for Timis county, the special division charged with combatting Hungarian espionage, high-ranking members of the First Directorate and Independent Service “D” (responsible for disinformation) from Bucharest, and members of the division charged with “Surveillance and Investigation.”[46] Puspoki describes Timisoara at this late hour as follows:

Day and night, the telex machines on the top floor of the [County Militia] “Inspectorate” incessantly banged out communications, while the telephones never stopped ringing. Minister Postelnicu yelled on the phone, Colonel Sima yelled through the offices and the hallways. The officers ran, as if out of their minds, after information, besieged neighbors of the pastor, and dispatched in his direction–what they call–”informers with possibilities.”[47]

Yet the case lingered on. On Sunday, 10 December 1989, Pastor Tokes announced to his congregation that he had received a rejection of his most recent appeal: the regime would make good on its threat to evict him on Friday, 15 December. He termed this an “illegal act” and suggested that the authorities would probably use force since he would not go willingly. He appealed for people to come and attend as “peaceful witnesses.”[48] They came.

The Evolution of the Timisoara Protests: Securitate Complicity or Tactical Miscalculation?

From the morning of Friday, 15 December until the afternoon of Sunday, 17 December 1989, regime forces were unable to halt the expansion of the street protests which began with the intention of preventing the eviction of pastor Tokes. Regime forces appear to have had several opportunities to intervene and put an end to these demonstrations, and either chose not to do so, or did so remarkably ineffectively. Indeed, at certain key moments, regime forces seem to have disappeared or ceded control of the streets to the demonstrators for extended periods of time. Moreover, eyewitnesses suggest that there were many plainclothes Securitate operatives among the crowds. Even if the Securitate had not intended for the scheduled eviction of Tokes to spark anti-regime demonstrations, had a faction from within it attempted to exploit this unexpected opportunity?

On the morning of Friday, 15 December 1989, the scheduled day of pastor Tokes’ eviction, small groups of three to four people from his congregation began gathering in front of the parochial residence at Piata Maria. The crowd gradually grew to number in the hundreds. At this stage, most demonstrators were still ethnic Hungarians. By evening, however, many Romanians had joined the crowd. The crowd now exceeded one thousand people. Interestingly, many of these Romanians were members of the Romanian Baptist and Pentecostal communities in Timisoara. Earlier that week, a senior member of Tokes’ congregation had informed these religious communities of the scheduled eviction and they had turned out in support of Tokes. By the evening of Saturday, 16 December 1989, the crowd had been swelled by the addition of high school and university students, and its radicalized contingents decided to march on the principal regime buildings in the city.[49]

Three factors which favored the genesis of these demonstrations deserve mention here. Timisoara, located less than fifty miles from both the Hungarian and Yugoslav (Serb) borders, has an uncharacteristically cosmopolitan climate for this part of the world. Through the years, majority Romanians and minorities of Hungarians, Germans, and Serbs have lived in relative harmony. The traditional absence of inter-ethnic tensions clearly strengthened the chances for protest to bridge ethnic boundaries. That the initial core of the Timisoara demonstrations was provided by members of religious communities–and especially religious communities which were persecuted because of their identification with a particular ethnic group or because they lay outside the mainstream (Orthodox Christian in Romania)–was also vital. Throughout the communist world, after an initial period of attempting to extinguish religious institutions, communist regimes had grudgingly come to tolerate their existence (if under strict control) and even to see them as a beneficial vehicle for absorbing popular dissatisfaction with the regime.

But in a country such as Romania–where almost every other societal institution (no matter how small or seemingly innocuous) had been destroyed, outlawed, or denied local autonomy–at the grassroots level religious institutions served as a unique hub for association and resistance. Thus, Hungarian religious institutions came to be viewed as vehicles for the defense of Hungarian ethnic identity even among secular Hungarians. The sense of community among those religious institutions most persecuted by the regime provided the basis by which a demonstration of a small number of Hungarians could transform into a large crowd in which Romanians were the majority. Finally, Timisoara’s proximity to Hungary and Yugoslavia, which enabled residents to pick up Hungarian and Yugoslav television broadcasts (the latter of which ran taped CNN broadcasts at night at the time), likely meant that the population of Timisoara was better informed than others in Romania about the collapse of communism elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

How had a protest of several dozen timid parishioners evolved into a radicalized crowd of thousands in less than thirty-six hours? The answer appears to lie in the cliched image of a totalitarian regime, so overconfident of its own control and endurance, and so drunk with its own propaganda, that it is caught off-guard by the slightest expression of open dissidence and misjudges the potential for further trouble. Such regimes are prone less to an impulsive, bloody crackdown against demonstrators, than to a confused mix of violence and concessions which reflects the regime’s own confusion and hesitation. The unclear message sent by such a confused response appears to have backfired in this case and emboldened the Timisoara protesters who, perhaps after what had happened elsewhere in Eastern Europe, had come to believe that anything was possible.

After what Tokes describes as an initial “half-hearted attempt to impose control” on the morning of 15 December, around midday the Securitate and Militia men at the scene suddenly withdrew. Guards who had been posted in front of the Tokes residence for weeks disappeared. They even took with them the vehicles they had warmed themselves in during their surveillance operations. That this was merely a tactical retreat is made clear by what happened later that evening. At approximately 10:30 p.m., with about one thousand protesters blocking the entrance to the parochial residence, the authorities finally reappeared.

Mayor Petre Mot and a small delegation of officials arrived on the scene. Mot feigned ignorance of the orders for Tokes’ eviction. Nevertheless, he pledged that he would arrange a temporary civil residency permit for Tokes; that Tokes’ pregnant wife, who was quite ill, would be able to see a doctor; and that the windows–so mysteriously smashed weeks earlier and now allowing the winter air to fill the apartment–would be repaired immediately. The proposed concessions achieved their goal and the crowd began to break up. Only about 150 people stayed to stand vigil through the night. Plainclothes Securitate men then moved in with clubs and dispersed these remaining demonstrators. On this first day, the regime’s carrot-and-stick approach succeeded. It was reminiscent of what had happened in Motru in 1981 and Brasov in 1987. The targets of popular hatred–the Securitate and Militia–had disappeared merely until the setting was more to their advantage.[50]

[42].. Puspoki, “Piramida Umbrelor (III).”

[43].. Teodorescu, Un Risc Asumat, 45-46.

[44].. Ibid., 90.

[45].. Bacescu, Din Nou in Calea, 78.

[46].. Puspoki, “Piramida Umbrelor (II).”

[47].. Ibid.

[48].. Tokes, With God, for the People, 1-4.

[49].. For information on the evolution of events on the 15 December see ibid., 1-20.

[50].. Ibid.


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