Romanian Revolution

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Romanian Revolution
Part of the Revolutions of 1989
Revolutia Bucuresti 1989 000.JPG
Date16–27 December 1989
Resulted inOverthrow of the Socialist Republic of Romania, capture and execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu
Parties to the civil conflict
Romania flag 1989 revolution.svg Anti-government protesters
Romania flag 1989 revolution.svg Romanian People's Army (After 22 December)
Romania flag 1989 revolution.svg National Salvation Front
Flag of PCR.svg Dissident members of the Romanian Communist Party
Lead figures
Death(s)689 [1] –1,290 [2]
Injuries3,321 [3]
Part of a series on the
History of Romania
Coat of arms of Romania.svg
Flag of Romania.svg Romaniaportal

The Romanian Revolution (Romanian : Revoluția Română) was a period of violent civil unrest in Romania during December 1989 as a part of the Revolutions of 1989 that occurred in several countries. [4] The Romanian Revolution started in the city of Timișoara and soon spread throughout the country, ultimately culminating in the show trial and execution of longtime Communist Party General Secretary Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena, and the end of 42 years of Communist rule in Romania. It was also the last removal of a Marxist-Leninist government in a Warsaw Pact country during the events of 1989, and the only one that violently overthrew a country's government and executed its leader.

Romanian language Romance language

Romanian is an Eastern Romance language spoken by approximately 24–26 million people as a native language, primarily in Romania and Moldova, and by another 4 million people as a second language. It is an official and national language of Romania and Moldova. In addition, it is also one of the official languages of the European Union.

Revolution fundamental change in power or organizational structures that takes place in a relatively short period of time

In political science, a revolution is a fundamental and relatively sudden change in political power and political organization which occurs when the population revolts against the government, typically due to perceived oppression or political incompetence. In book V of the Politics, the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle described two types of political revolution:

  1. Complete change from one constitution to another
  2. Modification of an existing constitution.
Socialist Republic of Romania 1947–1989 republic in Southeastern Europe

The Socialist Republic of Romania refers to Romania under Marxist-Leninist one-party communist rule that existed officially from 1947 to 1989. From 1947 to 1965, the state was known as the Romanian People's Republic. The country was a Soviet-aligned Eastern Bloc state with a dominant role for the Romanian Communist Party enshrined in its constitutions.


Early protests occurred in the city of Timișoara in mid-December on the part of the Hungarian minority in response to an attempt by the government to evict Hungarian Reformed church pastor László Tőkés. In response, Romanians sought revolution and a change in government in light of similar recent events in neighbouring nations. The country's ubiquitous secret police force, the Securitate, which was both one of the largest in the Eastern Bloc and for decades had been the main suppressor of popular dissension, frequently and violently quashing political disagreement, ultimately proved incapable of stopping the looming, and then highly fatal and successful revolt. [5] [6]

Hungarians in Romania ethnic minority

The Hungarian minority of Romania is the largest ethnic minority in Romania, consisting of 1,227,623 people and making up 6.1% of the total population, according to the 2011 census.

László Tőkés Romanian politician and bishop

László Tőkés is a Romanian-born Hungarian pastor and politician. He is a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for Hungary. He served as Vice President of the European Parliament from 2010 to 2012.

The term secret police refers to intelligence, security or police agencies that engage in covert operations against a government's political opponents and dissidents. Secret police organizations are characteristic of totalitarian regimes. Used to protect the political power of an individual dictator or an authoritarian regime, secret police often, but not always, operate outside the law and are used to repress dissidents and weaken the political opposition, frequently with violence, assassinations, and torture.

Social and economic malaise had been present in socialist Romania for quite some time, especially during the austerity years of the 1980s. The austerity measures were designed in part by Ceaușescu to repay foreign debts. [7] Shortly after a botched public speech by Ceaușescu in Bucharest (Romania's capital city) that was broadcast to millions of Romanians on state television, rank-and-file members of the military switched, almost unanimously, from supporting the dictator to backing the protesting population. [8] Riots, street violence and murder in several Romanian cities over the course of roughly a week led the Romanian leader to flee the capital city on 22 December with his wife, Deputy Prime Minister Elena Ceaușescu. Evading capture by hastily departing via helicopter effectively portrayed the couple as both fugitives and also acutely guilty of accused crimes. [9] Captured in Târgoviște, they were tried by a drumhead military tribunal on charges of genocide, damage to the national economy and abuse of power to execute military actions against the Romanian people. They were convicted on all charges, sentenced to death, and immediately executed on Christmas Day 1989, and to this day, are the last people to be condemned to death and executed in Romania.

1980s austerity policy in Romania

The 1980s austerity policy in Romania was imposed by Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu in order to pay out the external debt incurred by the state in the 1970s. Beginning in 1981, the austerity led to economic stagnation throughout the 1980s, being a "sui generis shock therapy" which lowered the competitiveness of the Romanian economy and decreased the amount of exports.

Ceaușescus final speech Final speech given by Nicolae Ceaușescu on 21 December 1989

Ceaușescu's final speech was a speech delivered by Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu on 21 December 1989. It was a pivotal moment in the Romanian Revolution.

Bucharest Capital of Romania

Bucharest is the capital and largest city of Romania, as well as its cultural, industrial, and financial centre. It is located in the southeast of the country, at 44°25′57″N26°06′14″E, on the banks of the Dâmbovița River, less than 60 km (37.3 mi) north of the Danube River and the Bulgarian border.

Present-day Romania has unfolded in the shadow of the Ceaușescus along with its communist past, and the tumultuous departure from it. [10] [11] The National Salvation Front quickly took power after Ceaușescu was toppled, promising free and fair elections within five months. Elected in a landslide the following May, the National Salvation Front, reconstituted as a political party, installed a series of economic and democratic reforms, [12] with further social policy changes being implemented by later governments. [13] [14] Since that point Romania has become far more integrated with the West than its former, albeit tepid, relations with Moscow. Romania became a member of NATO and the European Union in 2004 and 2007, respectively. Democratic reforms have proven to be moderately successful, [15] [16] [17] though issues with corruption remain. [18] Economic reforms continue, with Romania still possessing, for example, one of the highest child poverty rates in the developed world. [19] [20]

National Salvation Front (Romania) political party in Romania

The National Salvation Front is the name of a political organization that was the governing body of Romania in the first weeks after the Romanian Revolution in 1989. It subsequently became a political party, and won the 1990 election under the leadership of then-President Ion Iliescu.

1990 Romanian general election

General elections were held in Romania on 20 May 1990. They were the first elections held after the overthrow of the Communist regime six months earlier, and also the first public presidential elections. They were also the first free elections held in the country since 1937.

NATO Intergovernmental military alliance of Western states

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, also called the North Atlantic Alliance, is an intergovernmental military alliance between 29 North American and European countries. The organization implements the North Atlantic Treaty that was signed on 4 April 1949. NATO constitutes a system of collective defence whereby its independent member states agree to mutual defence in response to an attack by any external party. NATO's Headquarters are located in Haren, Brussels, Belgium, while the headquarters of Allied Command Operations is near Mons, Belgium.


In 1981 Ceaușescu began an austerity programme designed to enable Romania to liquidate its entire national debt ($10 billion). To achieve this, many basic goods—including gas, heat and food—were rationed, which drastically reduced the standard of living and increased malnutrition. The infant mortality rate also grew to be the highest in Europe. [21]

Government debt debt owed by a central government

Government debt contrasts to the annual government budget deficit, which is a flow variable that equals the difference between government receipts and spending in a single year. The debt is a stock variable, measured at a specific point in time, and it is the accumulation of all prior deficits.

An individual’s or a socioeconomic class’s standard of living is the level of wealth, comfort, material goods, and necessities available to them in a certain geographic area, usually a country. The standard of living includes factors such as income, quality and availability of employment, class disparity, poverty rate, quality and affordability of housing, hours of work required to purchase necessities, gross domestic product, inflation rate, amount of leisure time every year, affordable access to quality healthcare, quality and availability of education, life expectancy, incidence of disease, cost of goods and services, infrastructure, national economic growth, economic and political stability,freedom, environmental quality, climate and safety. The standard of living is closely related to quality of life.

Malnutrition Medical condition that results from eating too little, too much, or the wrong nutrients

Malnutrition is a condition that results from eating a diet in which one or more nutrients are either not enough or are too much such that the diet causes health problems. It may involve calories, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins or minerals. Not enough nutrients is called undernutrition or undernourishment while too much is called overnutrition. Malnutrition is often used to specifically refer to undernutrition where an individual is not getting enough calories, protein, or micronutrients. If undernutrition occurs during pregnancy, or before two years of age, it may result in permanent problems with physical and mental development. Extreme undernourishment, known as starvation, may have symptoms that include: a short height, thin body, very poor energy levels, and swollen legs and abdomen. People also often get infections and are frequently cold. The symptoms of micronutrient deficiencies depend on the micronutrient that is lacking.

The secret police, Securitate , had become so omnipresent that it made Romania essentially a police state. Free speech was limited and opinions that did not favour the Communist Party were forbidden. The large numbers of Securitate informers made organized dissent nearly impossible. The regime deliberately played on this sense that everyone was being watched to make it easier to bend the people to the Party's will. [22] Even by Soviet Bloc standards, the Securitate was exceptionally brutal. [23]

Securitate secret police agency of Communist Romania

The Securitate was the popular term for the Departamentul Securității Statului, the secret police agency of the Socialist Republic of Romania. Previously, before the communist regime, Romanian secret police was called Siguranța Statului. It was founded on 30 August 1948, with help from the Soviet NKVD, while Romania was practically under the Red Army's occupation. Following the overthrow of Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989, the DSS lived on until 1991, when Parliament approved a law reorganizing the DSS into various subdivisions.

Police state is a term denoting a government that exercises power arbitrarily through the power of the police force. Originally, the term designated a state regulated by a civil administration, but since the beginning of the 20th century it has "taken on an emotional and derogatory meaning" by describing an undesirable state of living characterized by the overbearing presence of the civil authorities. The inhabitants of a police state may experience restrictions on their mobility, or on their freedom to express or communicate political or other views, which are subject to police monitoring or enforcement. Political control may be exerted by means of a secret police force that operates outside the boundaries normally imposed by a constitutional state. Robert von Mohl, who first introduced the rule of law to German jurisprudence, contrasted the Rechtsstaat with the anti-aristocratic Polizeistaat.

Romanian Communist Party communist party in Romania (1921 - 1989)

The Romanian Communist Party was a communist party in Romania. Successor to the pro-Bolshevik wing of the Socialist Party of Romania, it gave ideological endorsement to a communist revolution to overthrow the Kingdom of Romania. The PCR was a minor and illegal grouping for much of the interwar period, and submitted to direct Comintern control. During the 1930s, most of its activists were imprisoned or took refuge in the Soviet Union, which led to the creation of separate and competing factions until the 1950s. The Communist Party emerged as a powerful actor on the Romanian political scene in August 1944, when it became involved in the royal coup that toppled the pro-Nazi government of Ion Antonescu. With support from Soviet occupational forces, the PCR was able to force King Michael I into exile, and establish undisguised Communist rule in 1948.

Ceaușescu created a cult of personality, with weekly shows in stadiums or on streets in different cities dedicated to him, his wife and the Communist Party. There were several megalomaniac projects, such as the construction of the grandiose House of the Republic (today the Palace of the Parliament)—the biggest palace in the world—the adjacent Centrul Civic and a never-completed museum dedicated to communism and Ceaușescu, today the Casa Radio. These and similar projects drained the country's finances and aggravated the already dire economic situation. Thousands of Bucharest residents were evicted from their homes, which were subsequently demolished to make room for the huge structures. [24]

Unlike the other Warsaw Pact leaders, Ceaușescu had not been slavishly pro-Soviet but rather had pursued an "independent" foreign policy; Romanian forces did not join its Warsaw Pact allies in putting an end to the Prague Spring—an invasion Ceaușescu openly denounced—while Romanian athletes competed at the Soviet-boycotted 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles (receiving a standing ovation at the opening ceremonies and proceeding to win 53 medals, trailing only the US and West Germany in the overall count). [25] [26] Conversely, while Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev spoke of reform, Ceaușescu maintained a hard political line and cult of personality. [27]

The austerity programme started in 1981 and the widespread poverty it introduced made the Communist regime very unpopular. The austerity programmes were met with little resistance among Romanians and there were only a few strikes and labour disputes, of which the Jiu Valley miners' strike of 1977 and the Brașov Rebellion of November 1987 at the truck manufacturer Steagul Roșu were the most notable. In March 1989 several leading activists of the Romanian Communist Party (PCR) criticised Ceaușescu's economic policies in a letter, but shortly thereafter he achieved a significant political victory: Romania paid off its external debt of about US $11 billion several months before the time that even the Romanian dictator expected. However, in months following the austerity program and a shortage of goods remained the same as before.

It initially appeared that Ceaușescu would weather the wave of revolution sweeping across Eastern Europe. He was formally re-elected for another five-year term as General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party on 24 November at the party's XIV Congress. On the same day, Ceaușescu's counterpart in Czechoslovakia, Miloš Jakeš, resigned along with the entire Communist leadership, effectively ending Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. On 11 November 1989, before the party congress, on Bucharest's Brezoianu Street and Cogălniceanu Boulevard students from Cluj-Napoca and Bucharest demonstrated with placards saying, "We want reforms against Ceaușescu government."[ clarification needed ]

The students—including Mihnea Paraschivescu, Grațian Vulpe and the economist Dan Căprariu-Schlachter from Cluj—were detained and investigated by the Securitate at the Rahova Penitentiary on suspicion of propaganda against the socialist society. They were released on 22 December 1989 at 14:00. There were other letters and attempts to draw attention to the economic, cultural and spiritual oppression of Romanians, but they served only to intensify the activity of the police and Securitate. [ citation needed ]

Timișoara uprising

Demonstration in Timisoara 1989 December 16. sugarut es a Tudor Vladimirescu ut keresztezodese. Fortepan 31892.jpg
Demonstration in Timișoara

On 16 December 1989 the Hungarian minority in Timișoara held a public protest in response to an attempt by the government to evict Hungarian Reformed church Pastor László Tőkés. In July of that year Tőkés had criticised the regime's Systematisation policy [28] in an interview with Hungarian television, [29] and complained that Romanians did not even know their human rights. As Tőkés described it later, the interview, which had been seen in the border areas and was then spread all over Romania, had "a shock effect upon the Romanians, the Securitate as well, on the people of Romania. […] [I]t had an unexpected effect upon the public atmosphere in Romania." [30]

The government then alleged that Tőkés was inciting ethnic hatred.[ citation needed ] At the behest of the government, his bishop removed him from his post, thereby depriving him of the right to use the apartment to which he was entitled as a pastor, and assigned him to be a pastor in the countryside. For some time his parishioners gathered around his home to protect him from harassment and eviction. Many passersby spontaneously joined in. As it became clear that the crowd would not disperse, the mayor, Petre Moț, made remarks suggesting that he had overturned the decision to evict Tőkés. Meanwhile, the crowd had grown impatient and, when Moț declined to confirm his statement against the planned eviction in writing, the crowd started to chant anti-communist slogans. Subsequently, police and Securitate forces showed up at the scene. By 19:30 the protest had spread and the original cause became largely irrelevant.

Some of the protesters attempted to burn down the building that housed the district committee of the Romanian Communist Party (PCR). The Securitate responded with tear gas and water jets, while police beat up rioters and arrested many of them. Around 21:00 the rioters withdrew. They regrouped eventually around the Romanian Orthodox Cathedral and started a protest march around the city, but again they were confronted by the security forces.


People detained after December 22, 1989 in Timisoara Romania, Transylvania, Timisoara Fortepan 31879.jpg
People detained after December 22, 1989 in Timișoara

Riots and protests resumed the following day, 17 December. The rioters broke into the district committee building and threw party documents, propaganda brochures, Ceaușescu's writings and other symbols of communist power out of the windows. [31]

The military were sent in to control the riots because the situation was too large for the Securitate and conventional police to handle. The significance of the army presence in the streets was an ominous one: It meant that they had received their orders from the highest level of the command chain, presumably from Ceaușescu himself. The army failed to establish order; and chaos ensued including gunfire, fights, casualties and burned cars. Transportor Amfibiu Blindat (TAB) armoured personnel carriers and tanks were called in. [31]

After 20:00, from Piața Libertății (Liberty Square) to the Opera there was wild shooting, including the area of Decebal bridge, Calea Lipovei (Lipovei Avenue) and Calea Girocului (Girocului Avenue). Tanks, trucks and TABs blocked the accesses into the city while helicopters hovered overhead. After midnight the protests calmed down. Ion Coman, Ilie Matei and Ștefan Gușă (Chief of the Romanian General Staff) inspected the city. Some areas looked like the aftermath of a war: destruction, rubble and blood. [31]

T-55 tank in front of Opera House Roman Nemzeti Szinhaz es Operahaz, T-55 harckocsi. Romaniai forradalom. Fortepan 31905.jpg
T-55 tank in front of Opera House

On the morning of 18 December the centre was being guarded by soldiers and Securitate agents in plainclothes. Mayor Moț ordered a party gathering to take place at the university, with the purpose of condemning the "vandalism" of the previous days. He also declared martial law, prohibiting people from going about in groups of larger than two. [31]

Defying the curfew, a group of 30 young men headed for the Orthodox cathedral, where they stopped and waved a Romanian flag from which they had removed the Romanian Communist coat of arms leaving a distinctive hole, in a manner similar to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Expecting that they would be fired upon, they started to sing "Deșteaptă-te, române!" ("Awaken thee, Romanian!"), an earlier patriotic song that had been banned since 1947. They were, indeed, fired upon; some died and others were seriously injured, while the lucky ones were able to escape. [31]

On 19 December Radu Bălan and Ștefan Gușă visited workers in the city's factories, but failed to get them to resume work. On 20 December massive columns of workers entered the city. About 100,000 protesters occupied Piața Operei (Opera Square – today Piața Victoriei, Victory Square) and chanted anti-government slogans: "Noi suntem poporul!" ("We are the people!"), "Armata e cu noi!" ("The army is on our side!"), "Nu vă fie frică, Ceaușescu pică!" ("Have no fear, Ceaușescu is falling!") [31]

Meanwhile, Emil Bobu (Secretary to the Central Committee) and Prime Minister Constantin Dăscălescu were sent by Elena Ceaușescu (Nicolae being at that time in Iran) to resolve the situation. They met with a delegation of the protesters and agreed to free the majority of the arrested protesters. However, they refused to comply with the protesters' main demand (resignation of Ceaușescu) and the situation remained essentially unchanged. [31]

The next day trains loaded with workers from factories in Oltenia arrived in Timișoara. The regime was attempting to use them to repress the mass protests, but after a brief encounter they ended up joining the protests. One worker explained, "Yesterday our factory boss and a party official rounded us up in the yard, handed us wooden clubs and told us that Hungarians and 'hooligans' were devastating Timișoara and that it is our duty to go there and help crush the riots. But I realised that wasn't the truth." [31]

On 18 December Ceaușescu had departed for a visit to Iran, leaving the duty of crushing the Timișoara revolt to his subordinates and his wife. Upon his return on the evening of 20 December the situation became even more tense, and he gave a televised speech from the TV studio inside the Central Committee Building (CC Building) in which he spoke about the events at Timișoara in terms of an "interference of foreign forces in Romania's internal affairs" and an "external aggression on Romania's sovereignty." [31]

The country, which had no information about the Timișoara events from the national media, heard about the Timișoara revolt from Western radio stations like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, and by word of mouth. A mass meeting was staged for the next day, 21 December, which, according to the official media, was presented as a "spontaneous movement of support for Ceaușescu," emulating the 1968 meeting in which Ceaușescu had spoken against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces. [31]

Revolution spreads

Ceaușescu's speech

On the morning of 21 December, Ceaușescu addressed an assembly of approximately 100,000 people to condemn the uprising in Timișoara. Party officials took great pains to make it appear that Ceaușescu was still immensely popular. Several busloads of workers, under threat of being fired, arrived in Bucharest's Piața Palatului (Palace Square, now Piața Revoluției – Revolution Square) and were given red flags, banners and large pictures of Ceaușescu. They were augmented by bystanders who were rounded up on Calea Victoriei. [22]

The balcony where Ceausescu delivered his last speech, taken over by the crowd during the Romanian Revolution of 1989 Revolutie Bucuresti1.JPG
The balcony where Ceaușescu delivered his last speech, taken over by the crowd during the Romanian Revolution of 1989

The speech was typical of most of Ceaușescu's speeches over the years. Making liberal use of Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, he delivered a litany of the achievements of the "socialist revolution" and Romanian "multi-laterally developed socialist society". He blamed the Timișoara uprising on "fascist agitators". However, Ceaușescu was out of touch with his people and completely misread the crowd's mood. The people remained unresponsive, and only the front rows supported Ceaușescu with cheers and applause. About two minutes into the speech, some in the crowd actually began to jeer, boo, whistle and yell insults at him, a reaction unthinkable for most of his rule. Workers from a Bucharest power plant started chanting "Ti-mi-șoa-ra! Ti-mi-șoa-ra!", which was soon picked up by others in the crowd. In response, Ceaușescu raised his right hand in hopes of silencing the crowd; his stunned expression remains one of the defining moments of the end of Communism in Eastern Europe. He then tried to placate the crowd by offering to raise workers' salaries by 200 lei per month (about 9 U.S. dollars at the time, yet a 5%–10% raise for a modest salary) and student scholarships from 100 to 110 lei while continuing to praise the achievements of the Socialist Revolution. However, a revolution was brewing right in front of his eyes. [22]

As Ceaușescu was addressing the crowd from the balcony of the Central Committee building, sudden movement came from the outskirts of the massed assembly, as did the sound of (what various sources have reported as) fireworks, bombs or guns, which together caused the assembly to break into chaos. Initially frightened, the crowds tried to disperse. Bullhorns then began to spread the news that the Securitate was firing on the crowd and that a "revolution" was unfolding. This persuaded people in the assembly to join in. The rally turned into a protest demonstration.

Protesters in Cluj-Napoca on the morning of 21 December. This photo was taken by Razvan Rotta after security forces opened fire. PozeRevolutia1989clujByRazvanRotta13.jpg
Protesters in Cluj-Napoca on the morning of 21 December. This photo was taken by Răzvan Rotta after security forces opened fire.

The entire speech was being broadcast live nationwide. Censors attempted to cut the live video feed and replace it with Communist propaganda songs and video praising the Ceaușescu regime, but parts of the riots had already been broadcast and most of the Romanian people realised that something unusual was in progress. Ceaușescu and his wife, as well as other officials and CPEx members, panicked; Ceaușescu's bodyguard hustled him back inside the building.

The jeers and whistles soon erupted into a riot; the crowd took to the streets, placing the capital, like Timișoara, in turmoil. Members of the crowd spontaneously began shouting anti-Ceaușescu slogans, which spread and became chants: "Jos dictatorul!" ("Down with the dictator"), "Moarte criminalului!" ("Death to the criminal"), "Noi suntem poporul, jos cu dictatorul!" ("We are the People, down with the dictator"), "Ceaușescu cine ești?/Criminal din Scornicești" ("Ceaușescu, who are you? A criminal from Scornicești"). [31]

Protesters eventually flooded the city centre area, from Piața Kogălniceanu to Piața Unirii, Piața Rosetti and Piața Romană. In one notable scene from the event, a young man waved a tricolour with the Communist coat of arms torn out of its centre while perched on the statue of Mihai Viteazul on Boulevard Mihail Cogălniceanu in the University Square. Many others began to emulate the young protester, and the waving and displaying of the Romanian flag with the Communist insignia cut out quickly became widespread. [31]

Street confrontations

As the hours passed many more people took to the streets. Later, observers claimed that even at this point, had Ceaușescu been willing to talk, he might have been able to salvage something. Instead, he decided on force. [22] Soon the protesters—unarmed and unorganised—were confronted by soldiers, tanks, APCs, USLA troops (Unitatea Specială pentru Lupta Antiteroristă, anti-terrorist special squads) and armed plainclothes Securitate officers. The crowd was soon being shot at from various buildings, side streets and tanks. [31]

There were many casualties, including deaths, as victims were shot, clubbed to death, stabbed and crushed by armoured vehicles. One APC drove into the crowd around the InterContinental Hotel, crushing people. A French journalist, Jean-Louis Calderon, was killed. A street near University Square was later named after him, as well as a high school in Timișoara. Belgian journalist Danny Huwé was shot and killed on 23 or 24 December 1989. [32] [33] [34]

An ABI armoured car used by the USLA in December 1989 ABI100 KingFerdinandMuseum.jpg
An ABI armoured car used by the USLA in December 1989

Firefighters hit the demonstrators with powerful water jets, and the police continued to beat and arrest people. Protesters managed to build a defensible barricade in front of the Dunărea ("Danube") restaurant, which stood until after midnight, but was finally torn apart by government forces. Intense shooting continued until after 03:00, by which time the survivors had fled the streets. [31]

Records of the fighting that day include footage shot from helicopters that were sent to raid the area and record evidence for eventual reprisals, as well as by tourists in the high tower of the centrally located InterContinental Hotel, next to the National Theatre and across the street from the university.

It is likely that in the early hours of 22 December the Ceaușescus made their second mistake. Instead of fleeing the city under cover of night, they decided to wait until morning to leave. Ceaușescu must have thought that his desperate attempts to crush the protests had succeeded, because he apparently called another meeting for the next morning. However, before 07:00, his wife Elena received the news that large columns of workers from many industrial platforms (large communist-era factories or groups of factories concentrated into industrial zones) were heading towards the city centre of Bucharest to join the protests. The police barricades that were meant to block access to Piața Universității (University Square) and Palace Square proved useless. By 09:30 University Square was jammed with protesters. Security forces (army, police and others) re-entered the area, only to join with the protesters. [31]

By 10:00, as the radio broadcast was announcing the introduction of martial law and a ban on groups larger than five persons, hundreds of thousands of people were gathering for the first time, spontaneously, in central Bucharest (the previous day's crowd had come together at Ceaușescu's orders). Ceaușescu attempted to address the crowd from the balcony of the Central Committee of the Communist Party building, but his attempt was met with a wave of disapproval and anger. Helicopters spread manifestos (which did not reach the crowd, due to unfavourable winds) instructing people not to fall victim to the latest "diversion attempts," but to go home instead and enjoy the Christmas feast. This order, which drew unfavourable comparisons to Marie Antoinette's haughty (but apocryphal) "Let them eat cake", further infuriated the people who did read the manifestos; many at that time had trouble procuring such basic foodstuffs as cooking oil. [31]

Military defection and Ceaușescu's fall

At approximately 09:30 on the morning of 22 December Vasile Milea, Ceaușescu's minister of defence, died under suspicious circumstances. A communiqué by Ceaușescu stated that Milea had been sacked for treason, and that he had committed suicide after his treason was revealed. [31] The most widespread opinion at the time was that Milea hesitated to follow Ceaușescu's orders to fire on the demonstrators, even though tanks had been dispatched to downtown Bucharest that morning. Milea was already in severe disfavour with Ceaușescu for initially sending soldiers to Timișoara without live ammunition. Rank-and-file soldiers believed that Milea had actually been murdered and went over virtually en masse to the revolution. Senior commanders wrote off Ceaușescu as a lost cause and made no effort to keep their men loyal to the regime. This effectively ended any chance of Ceaușescu staying in power. [22]

Accounts differ about how Milea died. His family and several junior officers believed he had been shot in his own office by the Securitate, while another group of officers believed he had committed suicide. [22] In 2005 an investigation concluded that the minister killed himself by shooting at his heart, but the bullet missed the heart, hit a nearby artery and led to his death shortly afterward.[ citation needed ]

Upon learning of Milea's death, Ceaușescu appointed Victor Stănculescu minister of defence. He accepted after a brief hesitation. Stănculescu, however, ordered the troops back to their quarters without Ceaușescu's knowledge, and also persuaded Ceaușescu to leave by helicopter, thus making the dictator a fugitive. At that same moment angry protesters began storming the Communist Party headquarters; Stănculescu and the soldiers under his command did not oppose them. [31]

By refusing to carry out Ceaușescu's orders (he was still technically commander-in-chief of the army), Stănculescu played a central role in the overthrow of the dictatorship. "I had the prospect of two execution squads: Ceaușescu's and the revolutionary one!" confessed Stănculescu later. In the afternoon, Stănculescu "chose" Ion Iliescu's political group from among others that were striving for power in the aftermath of the recent events. [31]

Helicopter extraction

Following Ceaușescu's second failed attempt to address the crowd, he and Elena fled into a lift (elevator) headed for the roof. A group of protesters managed to force their way into the building, overpower Ceaușescu's bodyguards and make their way through his office before heading onto the balcony. They didn't know it, but they were only a few metres from Ceaușescu. The lift's electricity failed just before it reached the top floor, and Ceaușescu's bodyguards forced it open and ushered the couple onto the roof. [22]

At 11:20 on 22 December 1989, Ceaușescu's personal pilot, Lt. Col. Vasile Maluțan, received instructions from Lt. Gen. Opruta to proceed to Palace Square to pick up the president. As he flew over Palace Square he saw it was impossible to land there. Maluțan landed his white Dauphin, #203, on the terrace at 11:44. A man brandishing a white net curtain from one of the windows waved him down. [35]

Maluțan said, "Then Stelica, the co-pilot, came to me and said that there were demonstrators coming to the terrace. Then the Ceaușescus came out, both practically carried by their bodyguards . . . They looked as if they were fainting. They were white with terror. Manea Mănescu [one of the vice-presidents] and Emil Bobu were running behind them. Mănescu, Bobu, Neagoe and another Securitate officer scrambled to the four seats in the back . . . As I pulled Ceaușescu in, I saw the demonstrators running across the terrace . . . There wasn't enough space, Elena Ceaușescu and I were squeezed in between the chairs and the door . . . We were only supposed to carry four passengers . . . We had six." [35]

According to Maluțan, it was 12:08 when they left for Snagov. After they arrived there, Ceaușescu took Maluțan into the presidential suite and ordered him to get two helicopters filled with soldiers for an armed guard, and a further Dauphin to come to Snagov. Maluțan's unit commander replied on the phone, "There has been a revolution . . . You are on your own . . . Good luck!". Maluțan then said to Ceaușescu that the second motor was now warmed up and they needed to leave soon but he could only take four people, not six. Mănescu and Bobu stayed behind. Ceaușescu ordered Maluțan to head for Titu. Near Titu, Maluțan says that he made the helicopter dip up and down. He lied to Ceaușescu, saying that this was to avoid anti-aircraft fire, since they would now be in range. Ceaușescu panicked and told him to land. [36]

He did so in a field next to the old road that led to Pitești. Maluțan then told his four passengers that he could do nothing more. The Securitate men ran to the roadside and began to flag down passing cars. Two cars stopped, one of them driven by a forestry official and one a red Dacia driven by a local doctor. However, the doctor was not happy about getting involved and, after a short time driving the Ceaușescus, faked engine trouble. A car of a bicycle repair man was then flagged down and he took them to Târgoviște. The driver of the car, Nicolae Petrișor, convinced them that they could hide successfully in an agricultural technical institute on the edge of town. When they arrived, the director guided the Ceaușescus into a room and then locked them in. They were arrested by local police at about 15:30, then after some wandering around transported to the Târgoviște garrison's military compound and held captive for several days until their trial. [37] [31]

Trial and execution

On 24 December Ion Iliescu, head of the newly formed Council of the National Salvation Front, signed a decree establishing the Extraordinary Military Tribunal, a drumhead court-martial to try the Ceaușescus for genocide and other crimes. The trial was held on 25 December, lasted for about two hours and delivered death sentences to the couple. Although nominally the Ceaușescus had a right of appeal, their execution followed immediately, just outside the improvised courtroom, being carried out by three paratroopers with their service rifles.

Footage of the trial and of the executed Ceaușescus was promptly released in Romania and to the rest of the world. The actual moment of execution was not filmed since the cameraman was too slow, and he managed to get into the courtyard just as the shooting ended. [38]

In footage of the trial, Nicolae Ceaușescu is seen answering the ad hoc tribunal judging him and referring to some of its members—among them Army Gen. Victor Atanasie Stănculescu and future Romanian Secret Service head Virgil Măgureanu—as "traitors". In this same video Ceaușescu dismisses the "tribunal" as illegitimate and demands his constitutional rights to answer to charges in front of a legitimate tribunal.

New government

Ion Iliescu at the Romanian Television during the Romanian Revolution of 1989 1989 Iliescu television.jpg
Ion Iliescu at the Romanian Television during the Romanian Revolution of 1989

After Ceaușescu left, the crowds in Palace Square entered a celebratory mood, perhaps even more intense than in the other former Eastern Bloc countries because of the recent violence. People cried, shouted and gave each other gifts mainly because it was also close to Christmas Day, which was a long suppressed holiday in Romania. The occupation of the Central Committee building continued. [31]

People threw Ceaușescu's writings, official portraits and propaganda books out the windows, intending to burn them. They also promptly ripped off the giant letters from the roof making up the word "comunist" ("communist") in the slogan: "Trăiască Partidul Comunist Român!" ("Long live the Communist Party of Romania!"). A young woman appeared on the rooftop and waved a flag with the coat of arms torn out. [31]

At that time fierce fights were underway at Bucharest Otopeni International Airport between troops sent against each other under claims that they were going to confront terrorists. Early in the morning troops sent to reinforce the airport were fired upon. [39] These troops were from the UM 0865 Campina military base, and were summoned there by Gen. Ion Rus, the commander of the Romanian Air Force. [39] The confrontation resulted in the deaths of 40 soldiers as well as eight civilians. [39] The military trucks were allowed entrance into the airport's perimeter, passing several checkpoints. [39] However, after passing the last checkpoint, being on their way to the airport, they were fired upon from different directions. [39] A civilian bus was also fired upon during the firefight. [39] After the firefight the surviving soldiers were taken prisoner by the troops guarding the airport, who seemed to think that they were loyal to Ceausescu's regime. [39]

Petre Roman speaking to the crowd in Bucharest. Revolutia Bucuresti 1989 019.JPG
Petre Roman speaking to the crowd in Bucharest.

However, the seizure of power by the new political structure National Salvation Front (FSN), which "emanated" from the second tier of the Communist Party leadership with help of the plotting generals, was not yet complete. Forces considered to be loyal to the old regime (spontaneously nicknamed "terrorists") opened fire on the crowd and attacked vital points of socio-political life: the television, radio and telephone buildings, as well as Casa Scânteii (the centre of the nation's print media, which serves a similar role today under the name Casa Presei Libere, "House of the Free Press") and the post office in the district of Drumul Taberei; Palace Square (site of the Central Committee building, but also of the Central University Library, the national art museum in the former Royal Palace, and the Ateneul Român (Romanian Athaeneum), Bucharest's leading concert hall); the university and the adjoining University Square (one of the city's main intersections); Otopeni and Băneasa airports; hospitals and the Ministry of Defence. [31]

During the night of 22–23 December Bucharest residents remained on the streets, especially in the attacked zones, fighting (and ultimately winning, even at the cost of many lives) a battle with an elusive and dangerous enemy. With the military confused by contradictory orders, true battles ensued with many real casualties. At 21:00 on 23 December, tanks and a few paramilitary units arrived to protect the Palace of the Republic. [31] Meanwhile, messages of support were flooding in from all over the world: France (President François Mitterrand) ; the Soviet (General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev); Hungary (the Hungarian Socialist Party); the new East German government (at that time the two German states were not yet formally reunited); Bulgaria (Petar Mladenov, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Bulgaria); Czechoslovakia (Ladislav Adamec, leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and Václav Havel, the dissident writer, revolution leader and future president of the Republic); China (the Minister of Foreign Affairs); the United States (President George H.W. Bush); Canada (Prime Minister Brian Mulroney); West Germany (Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher); NATO (Secretary General Manfred Wörner); the United Kingdom (Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher); Spain; Austria; the Netherlands; Italy; Portugal; Japan (the Japanese Communist Party); SFR Yugoslavia government and Moldavia. [31]

USAF C-130 Hercules unloads medical supplies at the Bucharest airport on 31 December. C-130 unloading at Bucharest 1989.JPEG
USAF C-130 Hercules unloads medical supplies at the Bucharest airport on 31 December.

In the following days, moral support was followed by material support. Large quantities of food, medicine, clothing, medical equipment, and other humanitarian aid were sent to Romania. Around the world, the press dedicated entire pages and sometimes even complete issues to the Romanian revolution and its leaders. [31]

On 24 December Bucharest was a city at war. Tanks, APCs and trucks continued to patrol the city and surround trouble spots in order to protect them. At intersections near strategic objectives, roadblocks were built; automatic gunfire continued in and around University Square, the Gara de Nord (the city's main railroad station) and Palace Square. Yet amid the chaos, some people were seen clutching makeshift Christmas trees. "Terrorist activities" continued until 27 December, when they abruptly stopped. Nobody ever found out who conducted them, or who ordered their termination. [31]


The total number of deaths in the Romanian Revolution was 1,104, of which 162 were in the protests that led to the overthrow of Nicolae Ceaușescu (16–22 December 1989) and 942 in the fighting that occurred after the seizure of power by the new political structure National Salvation Front (FSN). The number of wounded was 3,352, of which 1,107 occurred while Ceaușescu was still in power and 2,245 after the FSN took power. [40] [41] Official figures place the death toll of the revolution at 689 people, many of whom were civilians. [1]

Burning of the Central University Library

The Central University Library was burned down in uncertain circumstances and over 500,000 books, along with about 3,700 manuscripts, were destroyed. [42] [43]


Political changes

The Revolution brought Romania vast attention from the outside world. Initially, much of the world's sympathy went to the National Salvation Front government under Ion Iliescu, a former member of the Communist Party leadership and a Ceaușescu ally prior to falling into the dictator's disfavour in the early 1980s. The National Salvation Front, composed mainly of former members of the second echelon of the Communist Party, immediately assumed control over the state institutions, including the main media outlets such as the national radio and television networks. They used their control of the media in order to launch attacks against their political opponents, newly created political parties that claimed to be successors to those existing before 1948.

Much of that sympathy was squandered during the Mineriad. Massive protests erupted in downtown Bucharest as political rallies organised by the opposition parties during the presidential elections, with a small part of the protesters deciding to stand ground even after Iliescu was re-elected with an overwhelming majority of 85%. Attempts by police to evacuate the remaining protesters resulted in attacks on state institutions, prompting Iliescu to appeal to the country's workers for help. Infiltrated and instigated by former Securitate agents, in the following days a large mass of workers, mainly miners, entered Bucharest and attacked and fought with anti-government protesters and gathered bystanders. [44] [45]

On the eve of the first free post-communist elections day (20 May 1990), Silviu Brucan—who was part of the National Salvation Front (FSN)--argued that the 1989 Revolution was not anti-communist, being only against Ceauşescu. He stated that Ion Iliescu made a "monumental" mistake in "conceding to the crowd" and banning the Romanian Communist Party. [46]

Iliescu remained the central figure in Romanian politics for more than a decade, losing the presidency in 1996 before regaining it in 2000; he retired for good in 2004.

While other former ruling Communist parties in the Soviet bloc reconfigured themselves into social democratic or democratic socialist parties, the PCR melted away in the wake of the revolution. However, a number of former PCR politicians remain prominent on Romania's political scene; until the election of Klaus Iohannis in 2014, every post-1989 president was a former PCR member.[ citation needed ]

Economic reforms

The National Salvation Front chose between the two economic models that political elites claimed were available to post-Communist Eastern European countries: shock therapy or gradual reforms. The NSF chose the latter, slower reforms, because it would have not been possible to convince the people who were already "exhausted" after Ceaușescu's austerity to undergo further sacrifices. [47]

Nevertheless, the neoliberal reforms were implemented, although not all at once: by the end of 1990, the prices were liberalised and a free currency exchange rate, devaluing the leu by 60%. The land of the state-owned collective farms was distributed to private owners [48] and a list of 708 large state-owned enterprises to be privatised was devised. [49]

In 1991 Romania signed an agreement with the IMF and began the privatisation of state-owned enterprises, with the first privatisation law being passed in 1991. [50] In 1992, the Stolojan government began an austerity plan, limiting wages and further liberalising prices. The economic situation deteriorated and inflation as well as unemployment increased substantially. [51] The austerity measures, which by 1995 included a decrease in social spending, led to an increase in poverty. [52]

The neoliberal reforms were accelerated after the Democratic Convention won the 1996 elections, the government using its prerogatives to pass a package of laws, removing subsidies, passing reforms on unemployment benefits and greatly increasing the number of privatised companies. [53]

See also

< Communist Romania | History of Romania | Present Romania >

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Further reading