Michael Meyer: Death of Ceausescu, 20 Years On

Roundup: Talking About History

[Michael Meyer is author of “The Year That Changed the World.” © Project Syndicate.]

Nicolae Ceausescu liked to hunt bears. With his retinue, he would retreat to a lodge in Transylvania and sally forth, locked and loaded. He was accustomed to good fortune, for his huntsmen took precautions. They would chain some poor beast to a tree, drug it to keep it still and conceal themselves around the blind from which the great man would shoot.

One day, they did their job haphazardly. Ceausescu took aim, and then fell backward when the bear, inadequately sedated, reared on its hind legs as if to attack. His shot flew into the treetops, even as three bullets entered the bear’s heart from the snipers who guaranteed the dictator’s marksmanship. I was told by a forester who claimed to have witnessed the incident that Ceausescu did not acknowledge the applause of his retainers.

This could be the story of the Romanian revolution, 20 years ago. The bear is the country’s enslaved people. They rise up from slumber. The emperor, alarmed, fires wildly and misses his mark. The sharpshooters hidden in the forest take aim and fire, only this time their target is not the bear, but Ceausescu himself. Twenty years ago on Friday — on Christmas Day — Ceausescu and his wife were executed by a firing squad consisting of elite paratroopers.

Just as the glory of the French Revolution ended in the Reign of Terror, so Eastern Europe’s miracle year of 1989 ended in blood. Elsewhere, Communist regimes seemed almost to run from power. The people who deposed them celebrated largely painless victories. Not so in Romania. There, the country’s Communist masters ordered the security forces to fire on the people, and the officers obeyed. A civil war was fought, albeit briefly. Revolution transmuted into a crypto-coup d’etat.

It began in mid-December in the gritty industrial town of Timisoara, close to the Hungarian border. When Ceausescu ordered the military to stage a show of force against those who dared to oppose him, commanders took him literally. They put on a parade, complete with a marching band. Farce quickly turned to tragedy in the face of the dictator’s rage. “I meant tanks, you fool!” he yelled to General Iulian Vlad, threatening to put him in front of a firing squad if he did not comply. That night, roughly 100 Romanian citizens died in the streets and hundreds more were wounded.

The rest is well-known history. On the morning of Dec. 21, Ceausescu stepped onto the balcony of the Central Committee in the heart of Bucharest to address the people. Cadres of state workers assembled, as was customary, to cheer on cue. But something went wrong. From the rear of the huge crowd came shouts: “Ti-mi-soara!

Ti-mi-soara!” Then came the fateful call, shouted by perhaps one or two people but soon picked up by others: “Down with Ceausescu!”

Never had Ceausescu heard anything like it. His face sagged. Flustered, he stopped speaking, waved his arms in timid bewilderment — the weak and ineffectual gestures of an imposter. This moment of truth lasted only a few seconds, but it was enough. He stood revealed. Everyone on the square and everyone watching on national television saw clearly. The emperor had no clothes...

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