Making the History of 1989
The December 1989 revolution in Romania has been the subject of scholarly discussions, passionate debates, conspiracy theories, and political struggles. In 2004, for instance, an Institute for the study of the Romanian Revolution of December 1989 (IRRD) was founded in Bucharest, headed by then President Ion Iliescu whose term in office was soon to expire. The Institute’s publications have resisted a plurality of interpretations about the revolution as well as the blind peer-review process.
Some analysts of the 1989 “events” question whether these constituted a proper revolution since many people who rose to power after Ceauşescu’s fall were not new faces but had been high-ranking communists. The handful of dissident revolutionaries, such as the poets Mircea Dinescu and Ana Blandiana, Reformed pastor Lászlo Tőkés, and professor Doina Cornea, quickly grew suspicious of the National Salvation Front (NSF), resigned their positions in it, and accused the Front of betraying the popular revolution. Some analysts and critics of the NSF claim that the NSF staged a civil war, in which people were shot at and died, in the days after December 22 in order to justify the summary execution of the first couple on December 25, and to permit the new political leaders to appear as true saviors of the nation after a heroic armed struggle. Others have claimed that the KGB, or the CIA, or both were involved in the change of regime in 1989.
Debates have also revolved around responsibility for the violence in December 1989, and around the identity of the “terrorists” who shot at civilians in Bucharest and elsewhere. Andrew Hall, a CIA analyst, has argued that the Special Unit for Anti-terrorist Warfare (USLA) of the Securitate (Romania’s security police) used dum-dum bullets, which explode inside the target and can shatter organs, skulls, and bones, causing great damage. This type of ammunition was outlawed by the Geneva Convention. He also believes that the USLA troops were the terrorists rumored in late December 1989 to be defending the Ceauşescu regime and sniping at unarmed civilians.
Political scientists and other writers have pondered the reasons for and the timing of the upheaval. During the last decade of communist rule, the Romanian population experienced rising levels of poverty as the regime rushed to repay its foreign debts so as to become impermeable to pressures in the area of human rights from its trading partners, as well as to mask the failures of the regime’s economic policies behind the achievement of financial independence. Drastic food and energy shortages were coupled with grandiose construction schemes, pervasive surveillance, and an extravagant cult of personality focused on Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife, Elena. Both politically and economically Romanians were worse off than most other Soviet bloc countries.
The Ceauşescu dictatorship also evinced hostility to Mikhail Gorbachev’s democratizing policies of glasnost and perestroika, although it also tried to bring the USSR to the side of stemming the tide of reform. Since Soviet troops had withdrawn from Romania in 1958, Gorbachev had less leverage here than in other bloc countries where Soviet military bases still existed. Gorbachev warned entrenched communist leaders throughout Europe that Soviet troops would not support them against popular insurgencies.
Gorbachev’s liberal policies had emboldened democratic movements in the USSR and bloc countries, and he had persuaded some communist leaders to negotiate with their oppositions. In Romania, however, open opposition to the regime was almost non-existent. Previous instances of resistance had been crushed easily, leading Ceauşescu to presume the regime’s invincibility, despite the wave of anti-communist revolutions rolling through the Soviet bloc. The Romanian dictatorship was thus bent on using violence to attempt to hold on to power at any price: the army, police and Securitate forces brutally shot at unarmed demonstrators. However, the represssion met with unexpected resistance. The violent struggle in turn shaped the new government that emerged in its wake.
The Romanian revolution began in Timişoara, located in western Timiş County and in the former Habsburg province of Banat, close to the Yugoslav and Hungarian borders. Although postwar Romania is ethnically quite homogeneous, most of its minorities live in Banat and Transylvania. Since the 1970s, the regime had built a modicum of popularity by manipulating ethnic nationalism. Jews, Germans and Hungarians were allowed to emigrate as the government strove for national homogeneity. On the eve of the 1989 revolution Hungarians were the second largest group in Timişoara after Romanians, followed by Germans and Serbs. The city’s residents could follow the freer Yugoslav and Hungarian broadcast media and they were more easily swept up in the mounting wave of revolutions. As countries all over Eastern Europe confronted uprisings in 1989, the power of information and example cannot be discounted in the story of the Romanian revolution.
One of Romania’s few dissidents, Lászlo Tőkés, a pastor in the Hungarian Reformed (Calvinist) Church, used his Timişoara pulpit to condemn the regime’s “systematization” campaign designed to level thousands of villages, put the land into cultivation, and move villagers into new agro-industrial complexes. For his outspokenness Tőkés was to be evicted from his church in December 1989, but Hungarian parishioners surrounded the church to prevent his removal. Soon joined by ethnic Romanians (of traditionally Orthodox faith), the picketers grew in number and broadened their focus to the hated dictatorial regime. The extended vigil, which began on December 15, engendered a sense of popular power and solidarity, unprecedented in communist Romania. Hungarians and Romanians together sang the 19th century nationalist anthem “Awaken, thee Romanian!” meaning, in this context, citizens of Romania. Given the xenophobia of communist officials, they had failed to imagine the possibility of inter-ethnic solidarity. The song was heard often during the following weeks.
Soon all of Timişoara was on strike, while protesters tried to outwit tanks and armored vehicles. A frequent slogan during these street scenes was “Without Violence!” Between December 16 and 19 over sixty people were killed in Timişoara, and more than 700 were arrested, but the insurgents stood their ground. Some corpses were lugubriously transported to Bucharest to suppress evidence of the crime. This in turn fed rumors of wildly exaggerated numbers of dead. Another chant, “Azi în Timişoara, mîine-n toată ţara!” (Today in Timişoara, tomorrow in the whole country)” was prophetic.
Ceauşescu portrayed the disturbance in Western Romania as the work of foreign agents, but he also attempted to minimize the crisis by flying to Iran on a state visit. On his return, in televised speeches on December 20 and 21, he called for national unity in defending Romania’s sovereignty against foreign foes. By then, however, the popular anti-government mobilization had spread beyond Timişoara. In Bucharest, the authorities organized a noontime rally on December 21. Thousands of people were bussed to the Communist Party Central Committee (CPCC) plaza to show their support and thus legitimize the harsh repression in Timişoara. The event was choreographed by the Securitate and the capital’s communist organizations. On descending into the square, presumably docile demonstrators received banners and portraits with familiar propaganda slogans and the Ceauşescus’ portraits.
The rally was broadcast on national television, but when Ceauşescu addressed the crowd from the CPCC balcony, unscripted moments followed. An unprecedented commotion, heckling, and hissing began. Radio and TV feeds were cut as cameras panned to the sky, but not before images of the distressed Ceauşescu and his wife trying to shush down the crowd were captured on camera. The dictator appeared shaken, unable to comprehend that the masses he expected to behave the part of adoring citizens had their own minds. Although order was temporarily restored and Ceauşescu announced raises and subsidies for workers, mothers, and pensioners, the partly televised incident had made Romanians realize the fragility of the dictatorship. The very same day spontaneous demonstrations broke out in other parts of Bucharest. Among their slogans were: “Freedom,” “Timişoara,” and “We Want Free Elections.”
Twenty-four hours later, unable to reestablish control, the Ceauşescus fled by helicopter from the rooftop of the Communist Party headquarters. Their flight was surprisingly disorganized and ineffective considering the total control the regime had exercised until days before. The couple was caught the same day riding in a car they had commandeered.
Celebratory demonstrations continued in the whole country with young people in particular expressing both joy and fury. The musical rhymed slogan that typified many late December street demonstrations was “Olé, olé, Ceauşescu nu mai e!” (Olé, olé, Ceauşescu is no more). In various locations people cut out the communist coat of arms at the center of the country’s red, yellow, blue flags stripped from government buildings and army vehicles. Soon the army went over to the revolution and the Securitate submitted to army command, although deadly shooting continued for several days. The identity of the “terrorists” that fired at civilians and various buildings has remained a mystery.
If armed repression precluded a peaceful transition to post-communism, violence also replaced due process for the Ceauşescu couple; they met with a perfunctory trial and summary execution on December 25. A deliberate, legal, and public judicial procedure might have helped Romanians come to terms with the record of criminal policies and injustices of the late communist government. It also could have marked the turning over of a new juridical leaf. Such a trial would have implicated many more people beyond the Ceauşescus, including high ranking communists, army officers, and members of the Securitate. 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 Ceauşescus received after they were captured. But another reason for quick, revolutionary justice was deemed by some observers as necessary in order to damp down the violent struggle still being waged by “terrorists.”
After Romania’s traumatic exit from communism, many unresolved issues remained. People wondered what had happened to the dreaded Securitate, as they continued to see neighbors and colleagues known as its agents prosper under the post-communist order. The NSF leadership that took power featured mostly former communists. Ion Iliescu himself had been part of Ceauşescu’s inner circle before falling out of favor in the 1970s and more definitively in 1984. Although the Front was only supposed to be a transitional governing body, it ran and won—in quite a landslide—in the first free elections of May 1990. The NSF promised some continuity and less uncertainty than the myriad parties—some historic, some brand new—that had sprung up in the new year.
The first electoral campaign and especially the election’s outcome elicited renewed anger and street protests both in Timişoara and in the capital. The Timişoara Proclamation in March and the University Square protests in Bucharest in April-June were important landmarks of opposition to what many saw as neo-communist NSF rule. Street demonstrators and the authors of the Proclamation expressed their wrath at having the revolution for which many had sacrificed their lives “hijacked.” They shouted “Down with Iliescu” but also “Who shot at us after the 22nd [of December]?” The extended sit-in and hunger strike in University Square was finally dispersed in June with the brutal assistance of miners brought to Bucharest from the Jiu Valley.
With accession into the European Union in 2007 and—until the recent global downturn—a growing economy, Romania’s integration into a pluralist and prosperous Europe seemed assured. Questions about the 1989 Revolution have remained unanswered but they have receded into the past as Romanians try to look to the future.
- Andrei Codrescu, The Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile’s Story of Return and Revolution (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1991).
Readable, compelling, personal account by a Romanian-born poet, literature professor, writer, and commentator on National Public Radio. While this book is more journalistic than scholarly, Codrescu has done some research and a lot of interviews and the book came out soon after the events. It reads very “fresh” and captures the atmosphere of 1989-90..
- Richard Andrew Hall, “The Uses of Absurdity: The Staged War Theory and the Romanian Revolution of December 1989,” East European Politics and Societies vol. 13, no. 3 (1999): 510-542.
Hall is a CIA analyst. The article tackles issues of interpretation of the 1989 revolution by political scientists, historians and journalists. Hall argues against the “staged war” conspiracy theory. He claims that the “terrorists” responsible for fighting on in late December were members of the Securitate, and he shows that Securitate accounts are responsible for spreading rumors that the violence in December was staged in order to create the myth of a heroic revolutionary origin for the National Salvation Front that had merely staged a palace coup in deposing Ceauşescu..
- Nestor Ratesh, Romania: The Entangled Revolution (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1991).
Written soon after the events by the former head of Radio Free Europe’s Romanian Broadcasting Department, Ratesh relies on published and broadcast sources as well as interviews. His knowledge of Romanian language sources is superb. This is a very clear and readable account by a Romanian émigré who combines research and analysis with a “feel” for Romania’s politics and personalities..
- Steven D. Roper, ‘The Romanian Revolution from a Theoretical Perspective’. Communist and Post Communist Studies vol. 27, no. 4 (1994): pp. 401-410.
Roper measures the Romanian revolution against various theories of what a revolution is. The article is useful in putting the Romanian events in comparative perspective..
- Peter Siani-Davies, The Romanian Revolution of December 1989 (Ithaca: Cornell 2005).
A scholarly account of the revolution by a British political scientist who did years of research in Romanian language archives and publications. It is a nuanced and full account benefiting from the time elapsed since 1989. Siani-Davies deals not only with the events, but also with the perceptions of and myths about the events..