Archive for the ‘Ceausescu’ Tag

Roots of Liberal Democracy, Part Four: Liberation & Democratic Transition in Hungary, 1988-2004.   1 comment

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Goodbye János Kádár!

By the end of 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev had clearly abandoned the ‘Brezhnev doctrine’ in terms of which the Soviet Union undertook to resort to military force in critical situations in the ‘eastern bloc’ countries. In other words, he intimated that the events of 1956 in Hungary, 1968 in Czechoslovakia and 1981 in Poland, where an invasion was only prevented by the announcement of martial law, would not be repeated. Kádár, the one-time pioneer of reforms in the bloc, was deeply disturbed by Gorbachev’s aspirations, for they now made any depth of reform possible, whereas the ones enacted up to 1985 in Hungary were the maximum he was willing to concede. It was rumoured among the broad segment of reformers in the party rank-and-file, whose expectations were heightened by Glasnost and Perestroika, that Gorbachev’s statements were being censored in Hungary as well as in the more rigid socialist countries. In the final stage of Kádár’s reforms in Hungary, ‘multiple candidacy’ was introduced for future general elections, allowing ‘independent’, non-party candidates to stand, resulting in ten per cent of the new parliament being composed of such deputies in 1985. Any further step in the opening up of the public sphere would have provided a fundamental challenge to the régime’s power base.

Supported by a faceless crowd of yes-men of his own age in the upper echelons of the party hierarchy, Kádár stubbornly denied any allegation that Hungary was in crisis. When he could no longer maintain this facade, in July 1987 he dropped his long-standing Prime Minister György Lázár, replacing him with one of the several vigorous, relatively young figures who were biding their time in the lower echelons. Károly Grósz was the most characteristic representative of the new technocratic cadres which were in favour of going forward with economic reforms without changing the political system. The policy of transition to a mixed economy based on mixed forms of property (state, co-operative and private) was therefore carried forward with the elimination of subsidised prices; the return, after four decades, of a two-level banking system and the introduction of a new tax system, including progressive personal income tax. Grósz also continued the ‘openness’ policy towards the West by abolishing all travel restrictions, winning Gorbachev’s confidence in the process. The Soviet leader had no objection to getting rid of Kádár, who was aged, sick and tired in every sense of the word. As he outlived his days, the stage was set for a succession struggle.

Besides Grósz, the main contenders included Nyers, the architect of the 1968 economic reforms and Imre Pozsgay, whose commitment to reform extended to the political sphere, in favour of democratisation. He was supported by a sizeable reform wing within the party, as well as by a group of social scientists who prepared, under his protection, a scenario for a transition to pluralism in 1986, Turning Point and Reform. In addition, Pozsgay communicated with a segment of the opposition led by ‘populist’ intellectuals. An investigation within the party and the expulsion of four prominent reformist intellectuals from the party in the spring of 1988 were intended by the ‘old guard’ to deter the opposition within the party, but the measure missed its target. Then on 22 May 1988, Kádár’s long rule came to an abrupt end: the party conference elevated him to the entirely impotent post of Party Chairman, electing Grósz as Party Secretary in his place and completely reshuffling the Political Committee. By this time the different opposition groups that had been germinating for a considerable period in the ‘secondary public sphere’ stepped forward into the primary one and started to develop as political parties, presenting the public with analyses of past and present communism, diagnoses of Hungary’s predicament, and antidotes to it, which proved to be more credible than the versions prevented by officialdom.

From its inception in the late 1970s, the opposition that arose as a viable political alternative a decade later was distinguishable from the post-1968 dissidents both by their ideological orientation and their strategy. Instead of grafting pluralism and democracy onto Marxism, which the experience of 1956 had shown to be futile, they drew on the liberal-democratic and Christian national traditions, and instead of the similarly futile effort to represent these endeavours in the ‘primary’ public sphere, whose organs and institutions were dominated by the party, they created and maintained autonomous organisations. At the outset, these initiatives were confined to a few dozen individuals, maintaining contacts with a few hundred others among the intellectuals of research institutes, university departments, editorial offices and student circles. Through these, their views started to infiltrate into the pages of literary and social science journals of the ‘primary’ sphere that were testing the limits of free speech. From the mid-1980s on, some of them also developed contacts with reformers within the party. Of course, the authorities continued to possess detailed and up-to-date information about the activities of opposition and the groups linked with them. But given the developing dialogue with the West and its increasing dependence on western loans, the régime could not afford to show its iron fist. Whenever the opposition made itself visible by coming out on the streets for alternative commemorations of the 1848 and 1956 Revolutions, up to 1988 arrests, detentions and beatings invariably followed. Otherwise, the régime contented itself with occasional harassment: sporadic searches, the confiscation of illegal publications, the rejection of travel permits, censorship of writers and replacement of editorial boards.

Far from being homogeneous, from the outset, there were clear divisions within the opposition, reflecting the old urban-populist divide, although they maintained a co-operative dialogue until the eve of the transition process. The ‘populists’ identified national ‘questions of fate’ as their main commitment, such as the conditions of Hungarian minorities in the neighbouring countries, types of social delinquency, demographic problems, the conditions of the Churches, the loosening of communal ties and the effects of communism on the national consciousness. The neglect of these issues by the government, especially the first, led to the beginning of these ‘populist’ nationalist trends, also at the end of the 1970s. From 1983 Sándor Csoóri became a dominant figure among the ‘populists’, with polemical writings combining the above-mentioned themes with a critique of the morally detrimental effects of socialism. New social service periodicals succeeded in outmaneuvering censorship and discussing in a more objective manner an extensive range of sensitive themes, not just Stalinism and the 1956 Revolution, but also anti-Semitism, the condition of the Roma minority, poverty and the anomalies of the social security system. Both liberal Democrats and populists established links with Hungarian emigré organisations in the West, benefiting in the shape of scholarships from the New York-based Open Society Foundation launched by the Hungarian-American businessman George Soros in 1982, which also opened a registered office in Budapest five years later.

In the first half of the 1980s, the endeavour of anti-communist cooperation dominated the relationship of the two camps of the opposition, so different in outlook. A conference was held at Monor in 1985 in June 1985, whose speakers addressed and analysed the most soaring issues of the then generalised crisis. As the transformation of the system responsible for it came on to the agenda, and programmes started to be worked out, the ways of ‘urbanists’ and ‘populists’ parted. In June 1987 the programme of the democratic opposition was published, entitled ‘Social Contract’. They were uncompromising in claiming that the current political leadership was unsuitable to guide the process. Their document concluded that Kádár must go. This was too radical for the populists, who envisaged a more gradual transition, with an active role for reform communists within it. As a result, the democratic opposition was not invited to the meeting of the ‘populist’ camp which took place at Lakitelek, near Kecskemét, where the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) was founded. This was a recognised movement with the goal of transforming into a political party and was formed in the presence of Pozsgay and other reform Communists, on 27 September 1987.

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The Young ‘Liberal’ Democrat, Viktor Orbán, speaking at the re-interment of Imre Nagy in June 1989. These days, neither Liberal Democracy nor Nagy’s Social Democracy are any more fashionable for Orbán and his now ultra-Conservative party and government.

The Alliance of Young Democrats (FIDESZ), established on 30 March 1988, originally as an alternative to the Communist Youth League, endeavoured to supersede the urbanist-populist divide and submitted a programme in which a mixed economy, human rights, political pluralism and national values were given equal emphasis. At the same time, it also identified itself as a radical liberal initiative, and for some time during the ‘Transition’, it remained the closest political ally of the former democratic opposition. The ‘urbanist’ counterpart of the MDF was the Network of Free Initiatives, launched on 1 May 1988 which then developed into the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) on 13 November that same year, after their hope of integrating most or all of the democratic opposition became thwarted by the mushroom-like growth of quasi-political organisations, together with professional associations and trade unions in the intervening six months. Shortly afterwards, the ‘historical parties’ reformed themselves: the Independent Smallholder Party re-emerged on 18 November 1988, followed by the Social Democrats in January and the Christian Democrats in April 1989.

Meanwhile, in November 1988, Grósz had passed over the premiership to Miklós Németh who, contrary to expectations, became one of the engineers of transition. He drew reinforcement from the successful manoeuvring of Pozsgay, who arose as an emblematic figure of reform Communist policies by sharpening the divisions within the party through a number of publicly made statements from late 1988 onwards. Pozsgay had avoided getting involved on either side in the 1956 Uprising because he was based in a provincial town at the time. He was an intellectual by instinct and training, who had worked his way up through the system until he and his fellow reformers had been strong enough to vote Kádár, who had once referred to him as ‘impertinent’, out of power in May 1988. It was then that Pozsgay became a member of the Politburo and it was soon after that he, not Grosz, had emerged as the dominant figure in the party leadership. Most notably, his announcements had included breaking the taboo of 1956: the redefinition of the ‘counter-revolution’ was as a ‘popular uprising’, and the urging of the introduction of a multi-party system. This was ratified by the legislature on 11 January, and acknowledged by the party on February 11, 1989. Through a cabinet reshuffle in May 1989, the followers of Grósz were replaced in most posts by pragmatic reformers like Németh himself. This did much to undermine hard-liner positions in the party and to push it to disintegration. The founder of the party did not live to see it. In early May 1989, Kádár was relieved of his offices, and died on 6 July, the same day that Imre Nagy was officially rehabilitated.

Even before his total removal from power, it was already being openly said that the Kádár period had come to an end. What had come into existence under his aegis was now in ruins economically. The attempts of the régime at reform had won excessive, flattering judgements in the West, making it more suspect within the Eastern Bloc. But the end of the third decade of Kádár’s rule was overshadowed by the previously whispered, but later admitted, information that Hungary had accumulated a foreign debt of twenty billion dollars, most of it in a couple of years of recklessness. This was where the contradictory, limited national consensus had ended up, in a cul-de-sac of national bankruptcy; this was what the divergence of production of production and consumption, the maintenance of a tolerable standard of living, and the erroneous use of the loans received had amounted to. The heavy interest burden on these debts alone was to have its effects for decades, crippling many early attempts at renewal.

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By July 1989, Hungary had become a de facto multi-party democracy again. Although these parties, new or old, were not mass parties with large numbers of activists, they were able to show that Grósz was wrong to suggest, as he once did at the end of 1988, that the streets belong to us. There were few mass demonstrations during this period, but those that did take place were organised by the opposition and were effective in conveying clear messages. They included mass protests over Ceausescu’s treatment of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania, reminding the Communists of their neglect of nationalist issues, and against the proposed construction of the hydro-electric dam system on the Danube Bend, which called attention to the ecological spoliation of communism. On 15 March, the anniversary of the 1848 Revolution, there was a keen competition to dominate the commemorative events in which the opposition scored a sweeping triumph; its main message was that the hundred-and-forty years of demands for civil liberty and representative government was still on the national agenda.

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Above: The Danube Bend at Visegrád, where the river, hemmed in by the Börzöny and Pilis Hills, meanders beneath the castle at Visegrád. After the foundation of the Hungarian State, Visegrád was one of the first ecclesiastical centres, as well as being a royal estate and a county seat. After the Turkish Conquest in the sixteenth century. the ‘Hungarian Versailles’ was laid low and almost completely raised to the ground. In the 1980s the area was again brought to the forefront of public attention. Czechoslovakia and Hungary long ago planned the building of a dam, of which the main Slovak installation would be at Bős and the main Hungarian installation at Nagymaros, north of Visegrád, in close proximity to the Royal castle and palace. But in East Central Europe during the 1980s growing political dissatisfaction and civic opposition found an object of focus in this gigantic project. In this, ecological and environmental considerations played a major part, with national and international ramifications.  The Hungarian domestic opposition had two main areas of activity: the publication and distribution of pamphlets and the struggle against the Danube dam. In response to this, the new Hungarian government elected in 1990 stopped all construction work on its side of the river and started to restore the bank to its natural state. Later, the ‘Visegrád’ group of four neighbouring countries was formed at the palace.   

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The most dramatic of all the public demonstrations was the official re-burial of the remains of Imre Nagy and his fellow ‘martyrs’ on the anniversary of their execution, 16 June 1989, which amounted to a public confession that in its origins the régime was built on terror and injustice. Nagy’s body, along with the others executed in 1958 was found in the waste ground at the Újköztemető (cemetery), wrapped in tar paper. After its exhumation, Nagy’s coffin lay in state in Heroes’ Square before being formally reburied. Over three hundred thousand citizens paid their respects to the martyrs of 1956, together with the tributes of government ministers. The fact that only a year beforehand police had used force to disperse a group of a few hundred demonstrators commemorating the martyrdom illustrates the rapid erosion of the régime’s authority and the simultaneous occupation of the public space by the opposition by the middle of 1989.

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The Hole in the Curtain:

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At last Hungary had come to terms with its past. Its future was determined by a decision taken by the Central Committee of the HSWP, to put the rapidly developing multi-party system on an official basis. Pozsgay’s own position had often seemed closer to that of the opposition Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) than to that of his own party. In the midst of these preparations for a peaceful transition of power and democratic elections, Kádár’s successors surprised the world at large. The summer of the annus mirabilis continued with its internationally most immediately conspicuous achievement: the dismantling of the ‘iron curtain’, the barbed-wire fence on the Austrian frontier, a process which had begun in May. On 23 August, the Foreign Minister Gyula Horn spent a sleepless night worrying about the changes going on around him and the irritated reactions of Hungary’s Warsaw Pact allies to them. He had been telephoned by the East German Foreign Minister, determined to know what was happening to Hungary’s border with Austria. He had assured him that sections had been removed for repair and would shortly be replaced.

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Again at Pozsgay’s instigation, the border gates were opened to allow for a ‘pan-European picnic’ in the woods on the Austrian side, which several hundred East Germans (‘holidaying’ at Lake Balaton) were able to stream through (pictured above). Hungarian citizens already had the right to visa-free travel to the West, but thousands of disenchanted East Germans, hearing from compatriots of the ‘hole’ in the curtain, had been making their way into Hungary via Czechoslovakia to escape from their own unpopular hard-line régime. Hungary had signed a treaty with East Germany in 1968 pledging not to allow East Germans to leave for the West through its territory. Horn sounded out Moscow as for a reaction as to whether the Soviet leadership would object if Hungary abandoned this undertaking. This was an urgent practical problem for the Hungarians, as about twenty thousand citizens from the DDR were seeking refuge at the FRG Embassy in Budapest. The Soviets did not object, so Horn resolved to open the main border crossings on the roads to the West. He said later that…

… It was quite obvious to me that this would be the first step in a landslide-like series of events. 

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Above: (left) Demonstrators in Budapest keep up the momentum; (right and below) East Germans, holidaying in Hungary, cross the border and head West, to the fury of their government, and to their own freedom.

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On 10 September, despite strenuous objections from the East German government, Hungary’s border with Austria was opened to the East German refugees. Within three days, thirteen thousand East Germans, mostly young couples with children, had fled west. This was the biggest exodus across the ‘iron curtain’ since the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, and it was only the beginning. Eschewing its erstwhile role as ‘gendarme’, still expected of it within the Eastern camp, Hungary decided to let the refugees go West without exit visas, thereby playing the role of catalyst in the disintegration of the whole Soviet bloc. Over the next few months the international situation was transformed. Liberalisation in Hungary had led directly to the collapse of the Húsak régime in Prague and the breaching of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Writing in 1990, the historian István Lázár commented:

Naturally, all this can, or should, be seen in connection with the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, even if in history questions of cause and effect are not entirely settled. However the question of what went before and what happened afterwards is constantly debated in history. Hungary, desperate and euphoric at the same time, turning away from the road followed for almost a half century and hardly able to see the path of the future … took  state, national and political risks with some of its decisions in 1989 in a context of a rather uncertain international situation which was not moving towards stability. This is how we arrived at the 1990s. 

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Queues on the road to Sopron and the border, with cardboard Trabants and boxes.

Tradition and Transition:

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Simultaneously, the scenario worked out by the opposition and Németh’s pragmatists to facilitate an orderly transition was launched. Between June and September 1989, representatives of the HSWP, the Opposition ‘Round Table’ (established in March by eight organisations) and the ‘third side’ (the Patriotic Popular Front and the trade unions) discussed the central issues of the transition process at national meetings. By the time President Bush visited Budapest in July (11-13), Hungary had effectively ceased to be a Communist country or a Soviet satellite state. I have written elsewhere on this site about this first ever visit by a US President, its importance and its outcomes. John Simpson, the BBC’s correspondent was standing on the balcony of a flat overlooking Kossúth Square where the President was due to make a speech. The owner of the flat was an Anglophile in his mid-forties from a wealthy background. There were English touches on the walls: mementoes of visits by at least two generations of the family. From his balcony they looked down on the enthusiastic crowds that were starting to gather:

“These little Communists of ours are acting like real politicians”, he said; “they’re giving people what they want, instead of what they ought to want. The trouble is, they can never give us so much that we can forget that they are Communists”. …

… He was right about the fundamental unpopularity of the Party. I went to see Imre Pozsgay a few days later and asked him whether he and his colleagues would really be the beneficiaries of the changes they were introducing.

“Who can say? Naturally I hope so. That’s why we’re doing these things. But to be honest with you, there’s nothing else we can do. Even if others win the elections, there’s no serious alternative to doing what we have done”.

On 18 September, an agreement was signed which emphasised a mutual commitment to the creation of the legal and political conditions under which a multi-party democracy could be established and the rule of law upheld. In addition, it put forward plans for surmounting the ongoing economic crisis. It required the amending of the communist constitution of 1949, the establishment of a constitutional court and the re-regulation of the order of national elections, legislation on the operation and finances of political parties and the amendment of the penal code. The two ‘liberal’ parties, the SZDSZ and FIDESZ refused to sign the agreement because it stipulated the election of a head of state before the elections, which they thought would benefit the only obvious candidate and most popular reform-politician, Imre Pozsgay. They also hoped to drive a wedge between the reform Communists and the MDF by insisting on a referendum on the issue, the result of which went in their favour. It was a sure sign of what was to come the following spring.

On 6 October, Gorbachev began a two-day visit to East Germany to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the German Democratic Republic (DDR). The government there, led for almost half of its life by the now seventy-four-year-old Erich Honecker, remained perhaps the most repressive régime in Eastern Europe. Only four days earlier, it had sealed its border with Czechoslovakia to prevent its people from voting with their feet and flooding to the West through Hungary. When Gorbachev suggested that a more permanent solution might be for the DDR to introduce a version of perestroika to satisfy people’s material needs and demands, Honecker refused to listen. He pointed out that on his last visit to Moscow, he had been shocked by the empty shops. How dare Gorbachev tell the leader of what many believed was the most prosperous country in the socialist world how he should run his economy! But Gorbachev persisted, telling a large rally that East Germany should introduce Soviet-style reforms, adding that the country’s policies should, however, be determined “not in Moscow, but in Berlin”. Two days after he left, Honecker was ousted within the DDR’s Politburo and replaced by Egon Krenz, who represented himself as the East German Gorbachev.

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The crowds outside the Parliament welcoming the proclamation of the institution of a Liberal Democratic Constitution for the new ‘Republic of Hungary’, October 1989.

Meanwhile, meeting in Budapest, the Fourteenth Congress of the HSWP also proved to be its last. It officially abandoned Leninism. On the 7th, the vast majority of its deputies voted in favour of creating a new Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), which defined its aims in terms akin to those of Western European socialist parties. Out of seven hundred thousand Communist Party members, only fifty thousand transferred their membership to the new Socialist Party, before the first free elections of March 1990. Shortly after the dissolution of the HSWP, the party’s paramilitary organisation, the Workers’ Guard was also disbanded. In another ‘gesture’ to the memory of 1956, reparation payments were authorized by Parliament to those imprisoned after the Uprising. On the anniversary of Uprising, 23 October, Acting President Mátyás Szűrös proclaimed the new “Republic of Hungary” on the thirty-third anniversary of the Revolution. The “People’s Republic” created forty years earlier, had ceased to exist.

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Parliament had changed eighty per cent of the 1949 constitution in the interim one that replaced it. It defined the peaceful transition to a market economy and the rule of law as the goal of the state. Its fundamental principles were defined as ‘civil democracy’ and ‘democratic socialism’. It guaranteed civil and human rights, declared the establishment of a multi-party system, not only eliminating the clause referring to the leading role of the Marxist-Leninist party of the working class but also outlawed the exercise of power by any single party. It was the first time that a ruling Communist Party anywhere had rejected its ideological faith and authorised a shift to liberal democracy and capitalism. Shortly after the promulgation and proclamation of the new constitution both inside and outside parliament (see the picture below), the red star was removed from the top of the building, demonstrating the end of the system of state socialism.

Yet now the full vulnerability of the economy was already being revealed, and the necessary decrease in consumption had to be forced on a society which was expecting a contrary shift. The past, both the pre-1949 and the post-1958 periods, began to be viewed with nostalgia, as ‘old-new’ ideas resurfaced alongside ‘brand-new’ ones. On the political scene, in both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary spheres, a faltering democracy continued to develop amidst struggles of bitter and frequently depressing content and form. In the meantime, both Eastern and Western visitors to Hungary at the beginning of the 1990s found the country more affluent and resourceful than did its own citizens, who saw it being forced into worrying straits. Eastern visitors were influenced by their own, often more miserable position, while Westerners found things better than their out-dated stereotypes of life behind the iron curtain would have led them to expect. This was Hungary’s paradox: almost every outside observer values the apparent dynamism of the country greatly, but unless they became inhabitants themselves, as some of us did, did they begin to see the burdens of ‘the changes’ born by ‘ordinary’ Hungarians and understood their caution and pessimism.

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Above: The famous MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) poster from the 1990 Election Campaign: Comrades Go Home!

On 2 November, as Minister of State, Imre Pozsgay met President Bush in Washington to discuss Hungary’s transition to democracy, a week before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The following January, Hungary announced its withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, at the same time as Czechoslovakia and Poland, at a meeting of Foreign Ministers in Budapest, with effect from 1 July. In February, the United States signed an agreement providing for a Peace Corps Program in Hungary, to begin the following September. In March, the Soviet Union reached an agreement to remove all Soviet troops from Hungary by July 1991, two-thirds of them by the end of 1991. John Simpson’s friend in Budapest had promised his father that he would not drink the bottle of Bell’s Scotch Whisky he had placed in the cupboard in 1947 until the day the Soviet troops left Budapest. That day was now approaching. When the final round of elections took place on 8 April 1990, the reform Communists won only eight per cent of the seats, and Pozsgay and his colleagues were out of office. A centre-right government came to power, led by the MDF. They had won 164 out of the 386 seats. Looking back from later in 1990, John Simpson commented:

As in 1918, Hungary had emerged from and empire and found itself on its own; though this time, unlike the violence and destruction which followed the abortive Communist republic of Béla Kun in 1919, the transition was peaceable and relaxed. Hungary’s economy and environment had been horribly damaged by thirty-three years of Marxism-Leninism; but now, at least, it had shown the way to the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. There are dozens of men and women … who had a part in encouraging the revolutions (which followed) … But the stout figure of Imre Pozgay, who now stays at home and cooks for his family while he tries to work out what to do next, is one of the more important of them.

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Rather than bringing stability and calm, however, the 1990s in Hungary were a time of intensive movement across the political spectrum from right to left and back again, with a minority persisting on both extremes and an undercurrent of the old ‘populist-urbanist’ divide surfacing from time to time to emphasise patriotism over cosmopolitanism. Of the sixty-five parties formed in 1988-89, only twelve could run a national list at the elections of March-April 1990, and the four per cent ‘threshold’ required to make it into parliament eliminated half of them. Of the six parties that surpassed this, the highest-scoring MDF invited the Smallholders and the Christian Democrats to form a centre-right coalition. József Antall, a historian and museum curator who had become President of the MDF the previous year, became Hungary’s first prime minister in the new democratic era. Pledging itself to uphold Christian and national values besides democracy and the market economy, the coalition enjoyed a comfortable sixty per cent majority. The opposition consisted of the two liberal parties, the SZDSZ, which came second in the elections, and FIDESZ. The Socialists struggled hard to emerge from the isolation the past had thrown them into. Based on a ‘pact’ between Antall and the SZDSZ leadership, the prominent writer, translator and victim of the 1956 reprisals, Árpád Göncz, was elected by parliament as its Speaker and the President of the Republic. Over the next four years, he made periodic use of his limited powers to act as a counterweight to governmental power. He was re-elected in 1995.

As a result of the first free elections after the fall of state socialism, there was a comprehensive change in the highest echelons of the political élite: ninety-five per cent of the MPs were new in that position. Nearly as dramatic was the change in their social and cultural backgrounds. The first setback for the coalition government came in the municipal elections of the autumn of 1990. In the larger settlements, the two liberal parties scored much better than the government parties. The prominent SZDSZ politician, Gábor Demszky became Mayor of Budapest and was subsequently re-elected four times, becoming the most successful politician in post-1989 Hungary.  Following a protracted illness in late 1993, József Antall died. His funeral, in December 1993, was attended by world leaders including US Vice President Albert Gore. He was replaced by Peter Boross, his Minister of the Interior. With Antall’s untimely death, the MDF lost a politician whose stature was unparalleled among its inexperienced ranks.

It was not only a shift in political sympathies among a considerable proportion of voters that started well before the parliamentary elections of 1994, the outcome of which astounded many people from more than one point of view. A recasting of roles and ideological commitments accompanied a realignment of partnerships among the parties from roughly halfway through the electoral cycle. The MDF had first emerged as a grassroots democratic movement and had advocated a ‘third way’ between capitalism and communism. It had also been open towards ‘democratic socialism’. In government, it had adjusted itself to the personality of Antall, a ‘conservative liberal’, and had had to work hard to purge itself of its radical nationalist right-wing, which seceded in 1993 as the Party of Hungarian Justice and Life (MIÉP) led by the writer István Csurka. After its 1990 electoral victory, the MDF had indulged in militantly anti-communist rhetoric. This contrasted with the trajectory of the SZDSZ, which had initially tried to undermine the MDF’s credibility with allegations of collaboration with the former communists. Following the ‘media war’ which broke out between the two major parties, while the SZDSZ refused to abandon its core liberal values of upholding human rights, civil liberties and multi-culturalism, it re-evaluated its policies towards the left. This enabled the MSZP to re-emerge from the shadows and paved the way for the Democratic Charter, an initiative by intellectuals from both parties to counter the tide of radical nationalism that was threatening to engulf Hungarian political life.

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Viktor Orbán in the mid-1990s, looking Right.

In these circumstances, the earlier affinity and sometimes close collaboration between the SZDSZ and FIDESZ began to unravel as the inherent differences between them became ever more obvious. Of FIDESZ’s initial platform – anti-communism, youth culture and political liberalism – only the first was entirely preserved, while the second was quickly abandoned and the third was increasingly modified by an emphasis on Christian values, conservative traditions and strong central government. By 1994, FIDESZ had thus redefined itself as a party of the centre-right, with the ambition to become the dominant and integrative force of that segment of the political spectrum. This process was cemented in the public eye by the addition of the title Hungarian Civic Party (MPP) to its name. In 1999, it resigned from the ‘Liberal International’ and joined the ‘European People’s Party’, the conservative-Christian Democrat alliance in the EU. But in 1994, there was a general recovery in the fortunes of European socialists and social democrats, and the pledges of the MSZP to the values of social democracy looked credible enough to earn it widespread respectability in Europe and admission to the ‘Socialist International’. Its pragmatism and its emphasis on modernisation and technological development won it a landslide victory in an election which showed that the country was tired of ideological strife and disappointed with the lack of progress in the economic transition. Although the Socialists won over fifty per cent of the seats in parliament, the SZDSZ accepted the offer of Gyula Horn, MSZP chairman, to join a coalition. The other four parties of the previous parliament constituted the opposition. The Socialist-Liberal coalition government faced urgent economic tasks.

In the early to mid-nineties, Western corporations and investors came to Hungary hoping, in the long run, for a strong revival from the Hungarian economy. They procrastinated over possible investment, however, due to the threat of uncontrolled inflation. In an economy which was rapidly polarising society, with increasing unemployment and poverty while the rich got visibly richer, Hungarian citizens were already gloomy when they looked around themselves. According to the journalist Paul Lendvai, between 1988 and 1993 GDP fell by twenty per cent, twelve per cent alone in 1991; in 1990-91 real wages fell by twelve per cent, while inflation was thirty-five per cent in 1991, twenty-three per cent in 1992 and only sank below twenty per cent in 1993. Unemployment had risen sharply as thousands of firms were liquidated and half a million jobs disappeared. If they contemplated, beyond the borders, a crisis-ridden Eastern Europe beset by nationality problems and compelled to starve before the much-promised economic upturn, they were gloomier still. As Lázár commented:

Looking at the recent changes, perhaps ungratefully, this is how we stand in East Central Europe in the middle of Carpathian Basin, before the 1100th anniversary of the Hungarian Conquest, which, in five years time, will be followed by the opening of the third millennium…

In spite of the differences in their fundamental values, socialist and liberal, the MSZP and SZDSZ had similar policies on a number of pressing transitional tasks, such as Hungary’s Euro-Atlantic integration and monetarist reform, providing a wide scope for collaboration between them. In both of these priorities, they were successful, but none of these did much to assuage the resentment many voters felt towards the post-1989 politicians in general. In addition, many SZDSZ supporters were puzzled by the party’s reconciliation with the Socialists which they felt had robbed the party of its original liberal character. In the light of this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the SZDSZ followed the other great party of the 1990 régime change, the MDF, into relative obscurity following the 1998 general election. The remodelled FIDESZ-MPP attracted growing support during the second part of the election cycle, capitalising on mistakes made by the Socialists. While the latter maintained much of their popularity, FIDESZ-MPP won the election narrowly on the platform of a ‘civic Hungary’ in which the post-communist heritage would be forever buried while the state would accept greater responsibility in supporting the growth of a broad middle-class following Christian-nationalist values.

To obtain a secure parliamentary majority, the FIDESZ chairman and new PM, Viktor Orbán, formed a coalition with the MDF and the Independent Smallholder Party (FKGP). While the historic FKGP had a respectable place in the liberal democratic endeavour in post-1945 Hungary, its reincarnation was an anti-élitist, populist force, notorious throughout the 1990s for its stormy internal relations. In addition, although not part of the government, the radical-nationalist MIÉP – anti-communist, anti-capitalist, anti-liberal, anti-globalist and anti-Semitic, frequently lent its support to the first Orbán government. On the other extreme of the political palette, the radical remnant of the HSWP, the Workers’ Party, openly cherished the heritage of the Kádár era and remained a part of the extra-parliamentary opposition throughout the post-1989 period. Whereas a fairly constant proportion of the electorate has supported a traditional conservative-liberal line with national and Christian commitments, in whichever of the pirouetting parties it appeared at any given election, the values and endeavours of the Socialists also continued to break through until recent elections. On the other hand, those associated with the Liberals fell to a level equal to the radical Right, a picture not very different from some Western European countries.

With regard to European integration, all significant political forces except MIÉP were in favour of it. Although the Council of Europe responded to the Hungarian application as early as November 1990, and Hungary became an associate member in December 1991, the ensuing process was considerably longer than optimistically hoped for. Alongside the Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland and Slovenia, Hungary gained full membership of the European Union on 1 May 2004. By this time, public opinion in the West was increasingly sceptical about both the broadening and deepening of the EU. I have written extensively about Hungary’s more rapid progression into NATO membership elsewhere on this site, but its involvement in peacekeeping in former Yugoslavia, from 1994-1999, undoubtedly aided its process of accession to the EU. In an atmosphere of growing anxiety for global safety, neither the requirements concerning border security nor other developments caused a further postponement.

(to be continued…)

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Moments of Régime Change, Budapest (2009): Volt Produkció.

Posted January 2, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in anti-Communist, anti-Semitism, Austerity, Austria-Hungary, Balkan Crises, Brussels, Castles, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Co-operativism, Communism, Compromise, Conservative Party, democracy, Discourse Analysis, Education, Egalitarianism, Empire, Europe, European Economic Community, European Union, German Reunification, Germany, Gorbachev, History, Humanism, Humanitarianism, Humanities, Hungarian History, Hungary, Immigration, Integration, Iraq, liberal democracy, liberalism, Marxism, Migration, monetarism, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, NATO, Population, populism, Poverty, privatization, Proletariat, Racism, Reconciliation, Refugees, Respectability, Revolution, Serbia, Statehood, Uncategorized, Yugoslavia

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Death of the Dictator: The Romanian Revolution of December 1989   Leave a comment

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The Rebellion in Timisoara and the Revolution in Bucharest had not just taken Ceausescu and his ruling clique by surprise, but the whole world outside Romania, including journalists and news media. John Simpson flew to Belgrade on 22 December and drove the short distance to the Romanian border with three other BBC crew, plus a French reporter and his photographer, in convoy. When they arrived at the border, they expected to be met by Securitate, since they were a long way from Bucharest:

We braked sharply. Three men stood motionless in our headlights, not even blinking. They formed a weird tableau in the dark. I assumed they were part of a Securitate roadblock and braced myself for a bullet. Nothing happened. They held flags over their heads and their hands, grasping the wooden staffs, remained intertwined. There was something strange about the flags: the Communist emblem in the centre had been roughly hacked out of them. These were not Securitate men, they were revolutionaries. The three unsmiling peasants, their lined faces as white as the painted tree trunks in the headlights, and heard that the mutilated flag was the symbol of their revolution. Word had radiated out from Bucharest until it had reached even this obscure place, four hundred miles away. They did not speak to us. They merely watched us uncomprehendingly as we circled round them, filming. We climbed back into our cars and drove off, leaving them still standing there in the darkness… In the nearby villages, unlit except for the statutory forty watt light bulb per dwelling, people turned out to cheer us and dance in the light of our camera.

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The journalists drove on to Timisoara, arriving there at eleven o’clock, finding the town in total darkness and hysterical crowds on the streets. Groups of people emerged from the shadows, demanding to see their accreditation before waving them on to the next batch of guardians of the street, often only ten yards further on. Mass delusion had set in, with the self-appointed roadblocks telling them to turn their lights of, as the Air Force was threatening to bomb the town. At first they complied, but soon the claim seemed implausible. They switched their lights back on, and people shouted at them, but took no action. Some claimed that the Securitate had poisoned the water. They drove fast through Timisoara, glad to leave its hallucinations behind. The serious action now lay ahead in Bucharest.

At first, the focus of the revolution in Bucharest was the Central Committee building. The insurgents had fought their way into Ceausescu’s office, with its ante-room leading out onto the balcony, and took it over as their headquarters. None of them knew each other; they had been brought together by their courage, and were an unlikely bunch of revolutionaries: among them an ordinary soldier who could scarcely write, a cinema stunt man, a sculptor, a couple of would-be politicians, a hostess from the InterContinental Hotel, a witty and worldly-wise sociologist who was hoping to write an account of the group dynamics of creating a revolution, and Adrian Donea, a taxi driver who had started his career as a designer but had switched to driving a taxi because there was more money in it.

The Army was extremely anxious to take over the revolution in its early stages and restore order. It was several days later that John Simpson spoke to one of the soldiers who had been involved from these early stages, taking the whole thing very seriously:

I first found out that the Army had gone over to the side of the people by listening to the radio. Our commanders ordered us to go into action. We were the very first soldiers to take up position here at the Central Committee building. I was very moved when the people embraced us and chanted: ‘The Army is with us! You are our sons, our brothers. You must help us!’

Simpson and his BBC crew arrived in Bucharest at dawn on Saturday 24 December, Christmas Eve. The Army, having declared for the revolution, was rumbling its tanks into the city centre to protect it.

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By Christmas morning the fighting in Bucharest was over. The revolution was accomplished and the counter-revolution had been defeated. It had taken three days. The Square (pictured below) was a depressing sight. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers were skewed around the middle of it, and exhausted soldiers lay on them in a muddle of uniforms. The dome of the University Library was a smoking skeleton the windows blackened by fire. The ground below was covered with black ashes from the books that had been burned. Every frontage in the Square had been splattered by pointless gunfire. The old Royal Palace was a terrible sight, the grand rooms a mess of charred beams and burned furniture. Fire was still licking the walls and the roof of the block of flats opposite the Central Committee building. These were the flats where the senior officers of the Securitate lived, and they had been built with the thought of possible counter-subversion in mind. The windows of the expensive shops which had sold chocolate and jewellery had been smashed by rifle fire.

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It was the first Christmas many Romanians had been permitted to celebrate. This was a society where even Father Christmas had been forbidden. Now there were decorations everywhere, and people were still dragging Christmas trees home that evening. On television there was an announcement that there was a new national flag, just the country’s blue, yellow and red. It was accompanied on-screen by Christmas decorations, a bowl filled with ornaments, just the usual balls of coloured glass that would have been part of the fixtures and fittings of any Western European TV studio, but in Romania they were a symbol of revolution.

In the Square people had been camping out all night round fires of rubbish. At first they had sung their new revolutionary songs, cooking whatever food they could find. It was like the field of some great battle after the fighting was over. Suddenly and terrifyingly there was a wild burst of shooting from a wing of the Central Committee building nearby. In the panic people flung themselves to the ground or ran through the camp fires looking for cover. The soldiers had discovered a small group of Securitate hiding out in one of the first floor rooms. They were captured and taken away for questioning, which consisting of searching them for Securitate documents. Those who were found in possession of these were taken down to the cellars and shot in the back of the head,their bodies taken away in trucks before dawn on each of the following mornings. This was also the fate of the three black labradors, two of them gifts to the Ceausescu family from HM the Queen, which had had the misfortune to be discovered in the Central Committee building, abandoned by their fleeing owners.

There was a kind of revolutionary insanity in the air. Sudden myths swept through the revolutionaries’ camps: Two of Ceausescu’s doubles had been sighted; Ceausescu had escaped and was in China/Iran/East Germany/Albania; Securitate paratroopers had been dropped on Timisoara; that Colonel Gaddafi had sent troops to support the counter-revolutionaries, etc… These myths could be self-defeating. The revolutionaries found the flat where a Securitate sniper had been hiding. It was empty, but a few minutes later a man in a fur hat slipped out of a side entrance and calmly got into his car. It refused to start, he was spotted and pulled out. The crowd treated him roughly, someone punching him in the face. They discovered a pistol on him, but he remained perfectly calm, though his face moved quickly round the circle of faces, searching out the people he had to convince. When they looked through his pockets they failed to find any Securitate documents. He explained coolly that he was an ordinary policeman, off duty, and that he had kept his gun with him to help in the search for Securitate snipers. The crowd liked that, and he gave them some advice about where to search for the snipers in the building. They were, in any case, expecting to find Libyans. They clapped him on the back and went back with him to his car. It still wouldn’t start, so they pushed it for him. As they waved him off, John Simpson suggested to one of the self-appointed commanders of the group that they had let the real sniper get away. He laughed, and said that he thought Simpson was right, adding, but you’ve seen these people; how could I change their minds? What heightened the atmosphere of paranoia in Romania during those first days of the revolution, was that the Securitate really were everywhere.

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Above: A still from the BBC coverage of the tunnels underneath the Central Committee building. Adrian Donea, the taxi driver who became a leading revolutionary, holds a gun to the head of a suspected Securitate man who they have arrested. The tunnels went on for miles under the city, and were stocked with supplies for a long siege.

That Christmas morning, it was bitterly cold. Outside the Central Committee building a hundred or more people were queuing for a free hand out of bread and a watery light brown soup. Each person who received a ration began wolfing it down then and there. Behind them the queue bunched up and the process slowed.  Those waiting shouted angrily, but those eating didn’t stop. Inside the building, Ceausescu’s office was as big as a football pitch. Until two days before he had sat at the enormous desk in the far corner while his ministers std in the circular pattern in the middle of the carpet and called over their business to him. Now there was even more calling over of business: The crew had taken over the admiral’s cabin and there was points were emphasised with revolvers or Kalashnikovs. This was the heart of the powerfully anti-Communist emotions which had welled up and overthrown Ceausescu. There were still Securitate men still at large inside the maze of tunnels under the building. It was also true that a group of special agents had been detailed to infiltrate the revolutionaries in case of a coup.

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Above: Ceausecu’s office in the Central Committee building, under new management. The desk with the typewriter on it is his desk.; so is the choice of paintings. Behind the fierce characters with guns is the door leading to his private apartment. 

Meanwhile, Vaughan Smith, a freelance photographer who had also worked in Afghanistan, had followed the trail of the infamous couple for days after their helicopter had lifted off from the roof of the Central Committee building, meeting and interviewing the people who had come across them on their way to arrest and execution.  The helicopter pilot, Lt-Col Vasile Malutanu (pictured below), explained how he had rescued the Ceausescus and the others in their party from the jammed lift in the building, flying them the short distance to their villa by the lake at Snagov.

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They had arrived at Snagov around 12.30, the staff there knowing nothing of the morning’s events in Bucharest. The chief of security at the villa, Sergeant-Major Lalescu, heard the helicopter’s engines and went out nervously to meet them:

Elena and Nicolae Ceaucescu got out of the helicopter and started running. They ran along the path to the back of the house and went up to their apartment on the first floor. There they went searching through all the cupboards, emptied the drawers and turned over the mattresses. They put everything into two big blue bags. On the top I could see blankets and loaves of bread. I’ve got no idea what was under them. Then they made a couple of calls.

The first of these calls was to the military base at Otatoi, where they could catch a plane to take them out of the country. The other was to a Party secretary in the mountains of the north. It took them three-quarters of an hour for them to pack the bags and make the phone-calls before they hurried back to the waiting helicopter. By this time, the two unwanted passengers, Emil Bobu the prime minister and his deputy, had headed off by car, leaving the Ceausescus and their bodyguards, including General Neagoe. The pilot, Lt-Col Malutanu, had been in contact with his superior officers at Otatoi. They had told him that they had refused Ceausescu’s request for a helicopter escort, but he agreed to follow Ceausescu’s orders:

The bodyguards were very nervous. They kept their machine-pistols pointed at me. On my headphones I could hear my commanding officer saying, ‘Vasile, listen to the radio – this is the revolution!’ After that, Ceausescu ordered me to cut all radio contact with my base. I wanted to persuade him to let us land so he could be captured, but I was on my own, cut off from the world. I deliberately flew into the range of air traffic control radar so they could track our helicopter.

Malutanu was ordered to fly to Pitesti, but protested that he did not have enough fuel, that they were being tracked and that if he didn’t put down, the anti-aircraft defences would shoot them down. None of this was true, but Ceausescu had little choice. They landed next to a country road, but the fleeing president did not want to leave the helicopter, so the pilot pushed him out. As he prepared to take off again, Ceausescu asked him why he was abandoning the cause like this. What cause? he replied. The bodyguards commandeered two cars, one belonging to a local doctor, Nicolae Deca, and the other to a forestry official who had been watching the helicopter land from a nearby farmhouse. Neagoe got into the doctor’s red Dacia with the Ceausescus, and the other bodyguard, Ivan Martin, drove off in the other car, after telling the Ceausescus he would follow them. In fact, he was deserting them, and drove off in the other direction, back towards Bucharest. Dr Deca, a stout man in his mid-fifties was extremely scared, especially as Neagroe was pointing a gun at him, but he was able to make a shred assessment of his passengers:

They were completely dumbfounded by the situation they were in. There was disbelief written all over their faces. I think they were terrified and close to despair. They seemed to get smaller and smaller as they sat in the car. We continued down the next road… Ceausescu asked me if I knew what had happened. I replied that I had been on duty at the hospital all night and had no idea. He said, ‘there was a coup’, and lapsed into silence. Later he turned to me and said, ‘we’re going to organise the resistance. Are you coming with us?’ …I ended up by saying, ‘Anyway I’m not even a Party member.’ That seemed to come as a real blow to him. He went white and refused to say any more.

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Above: BBC crew member, Tira,  with Dr Deca, who later came under suspicion of having been a Securitate supporter; no doubt it was untrue, but in the hysterical atmosphere of the time the fact that he had been forced to drive the Ceausescus was used as evidence against him. 

Ceausescu probably thought the Army had seized power. He had always been afraid of that, and had been particularly anxious about Soviet control over his high command, ever since his resistance to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Later, he seems to have believed that Gorbachev was planning to overthrow him. The idea of a mass rebellion by the ordinary people of the country doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind. Having initially been told by Marian that he was taking his passengers to the militia headquarters in Gaesti,  Neagoe now told Dr Deca to turn in the direction of Tergoviste.  Deca told them that the car was breaking down and pulled over when he saw a friend washing his car by the side of the road, to ask him for help. Neagoe told this man, Nikolae Petrisor, to get into his car and take the three of them with him. Throughout the journey, Elena Ceausescu held a gun to the back of his neck. Her husband asked him if there was a good place for them to hide, possibly in a village. Petrisor replied that, by now, everyone knew the couple was in the locality. General Neagoe suggested going to a steel works at Tergoviste, because he knew the security people there. On the outskirts, they ran into a group of workers who were on strike. They recognised Ceausescu and started throwing stones at the car. Elena told her husband to take of his coat and they hunched down in the seats and hid their faces. A little further on, Neagoe got out to check directions, but some children recognised them and Elena told Petrisor to drive on, leaving the general on the roadside.

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Above: Nikolae Petrisor and the car in which he drove the Ceausecus to eventual capture and imprisonment.

After that they tried to take refuge in a nunnery, but the nuns refused, hardly surprising given Ceausescu’s persecution of the churches. Even a hotel for Communist Party officials told them there was no room. Finally, their unwilling driver, Nikolae Petrisor, turned into the driveway of an agricultural institute just outside Tergoviste, where he knew the staff. It was 3 p.m. The director of the institute, Victor Seinescu, was watching the reports on the TV, including the latest one that the Ceausescus had been arrested in Tergoviste. Seinescu had been a member of the Communist Party, but had been thrown out a decade earlier. Suddenly, Petrisor burst into the room and announced, I’ve got the Ceausescus in the back of my car! The director told Petrisor to bring them in, which he did. Seinescu then got on the phone to his boss, who told him to hang on until the police got there. They arrived at 3.20 p.m. and took the couple to the old cavalry school near the railway station which had become an army barracks. This was where the Ceausescus were held for the next two days and nights.

On Christmas Eve the Securitate troops finally worked out where the Ceausescus were being held, and took up positions around the base. Soon after darkness fell they opened fire. You can still see the bullet marks on the front and sides of the headquarters building: there are several hundred of them. The captured couple were hurried out and put for safety into an armoured personnel carrier, which parked in as sheltered a place as possible. They spent the night there and the following morning they were driven back to the headquarters building and taken to a room which was used as a lecture room. The tables ad chairs had been arranged to form a rudimentary court, with a dock formed by two desks and chairs in one corner. A prominent lawyer in his late fifties, Nicu Teodorescu, was sent from Bucharest the ninety miles to Tergoviste by military escort, to represent the Ceausescus. He arrived to find them already sitting in the makeshift courtroom. There were five judges, all senior army officers in uniform, two prosecutors, a junior to help Teodorescu with the defence and a young officer with a video camera, whose job it was to record the proceedings but not show any of the participants except for the defendants themselves. There were no witnesses. The couple had been examined by a doctor and he had pronounced them fit to stand trial. Teodorescu told them their only hope was to plead insanity. Not surprisingly, they were deeply insulted by this suggestion.

001On the left is the still from the official video of them at their court-martial for crimes against their own people. Nicolae places his hand on Elena’s. It was probably less from affection than from a desire to stop her getting into an unprofitable argument with their accusers, but they always showed their affection for each other.

They refused to accept the legality of the military tribunal. After a hasty trial, their end was shabby and terrible. The Ceausescus’ hands were tied behind their backs. Elena wept, but then swore at the soldier tying her up. They were led down the corridor and out onto the yard of the barracks. The Ceausescus apparently had no idea that they were to be executed immediately. On the parade ground, fifty yards away, they could see the helicopter which had brought two members of the National Salvation Front from Bucharest to attend the trial. Assuming that they were to be taken somewhere in it, the Ceausescus headed towards it. Lt-Col. Mares gently but firmly directed them down another path that led to the yard. The entire complement of the base, soldiers and civilians, had been drawn up in a large semi-circle to watch. The television cameraman who had filmed the trial had some difficulty with his equipment, and failed to record anything except the last few seconds of the execution. Nevertheless, pictures of their bodies were shown on Romanian television and throughout the world soon afterwards.

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By Christmas Night, the Romanian television staff hadn’t slept in a bed for three nights. One of them, a woman in her fifties, fell asleep while speaking to the co-ordinators of the satellite in Geneva. Ten minutes before the BBC link to London was due, the Romanian announcer began reading a statement live on air. Everyone in the control room was standing, silent and shocked. The list of charges for which the Ceausescus were to be tried – the murder of sixty thousand people, sabotaging the national economy and corruption – had just been read out. The newsreader continued:

For these serious crimes committed against the Romanian people and Romania, the accused, Nicolae Ceausescu and Elena Ceausescu, were sentenced to death and confiscation. The sentences were final and were carried out.

The tired men and women of Romanian Television broke into spontaneous applause. John Simpson threw away most of what he had written and rapidly sketched out a portrait of a man and woman corrupted by absolute power. With a minute to go to the BBC’s satellite broadcast, he finished, sat back and looked down. He had written Ceausescu’s obituary with the pen he had been ‘given’ in their private apartment, which had been presented to the dictator by the British Labour Party, though they later denied having any record of its presentation.

That night the mild weather which had made the revolution possible came to an end. It froze, then snowed hard. Later on Christmas night the television station showed an edited version of the Ceausescu’s trial, and of their bodies lying in the snow. People all over the world competed with each other to condemn the couple: even those – especially those – who had given them gifts. No one wanted to think of the ghastly museum in Bucharest which housed the trophies from his good relations with the outside world: with, in pride of place, the insignia of an honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath which the British government had insisted that the Queen should give him (against her will) in 1978. The museum was shut. It must have been a relief to a good many politicians and civil servants who watched their televisions in Western Europe that night that it was impossible to provide pictures of the honours they had showered on him little more than a decade before.

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The Ceausescus’ bodies were flown back by helicopter to Bucharest and the next day, the day of St Stephen the Martyr, 26 December, they were taken to a cemetery on the outskirts of the capital where they were buried a hundred metres apart, with rough wooden crosses marking the graves. With them was buried the socialist republic of Romania. Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania had turned from a Marxist-Leninist state into an expression of the personality of its leader, more like Mussolini’s Italy, rather than an ideological entity. Unlike in Prague, there was no Dubcek, no Good King Wenceslas to step back into his own footsteps on the Feast of Stephen. With the leader’s death, the socialist facade in Romania crumbled away almost immediately and left scarcely a trace behind itself. Apart from the borrowing of a few words from Russian and a few props and symbols, it was, to all intents and purposes, a fascist state. As writer and sociologist, a gypsy by birth, commented to John Simpson as they walked down the marble staircase at the Central Committee building:

We Romanians will always suffer as a result of Ceausescu. He made everyone afraid of everybody else, and he made it impossible for any of us to take our own decisions, to think or act for ourselves. Ceausescu is inside every one of us, and we haven’t killed him yet. If we had given him a proper trial, we might have dealt with him. Now we can’t. That is his revenge on all of us.

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Above: Ceausescu in one of his many games rooms

John Simpson’s obituary concluded:

The Ceausescus were evil and vicious. An entire nation was imprisoned, went hungry, and lived in the half-light because of them. Yet their lives and deaths weren’t small or squalid. Nicolae Ceausescu was a tragic hero along the lines that some grand, out of date Shakespearian scholar… would have recognised. It was the heroic Ceausescu, the man who stood on his balcony and defied the Russians when they invaded Czechoslovakia, whom the Western world praised and rewarded… the single tragic fault that turned noble defiance into savagery… was Ceausescu’s vanity… fed by an assumption that he was invulnerable.

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Above: The Securitate commanders of Timisoara on trial. The similarity with Nuremberg was deliberate

At the beginning of 1989 the Iron Curtain still divided Europe, as it had done for more than forty years. By the end of the year, the leaders of every Eastern European nation except Bulgaria, which soon followed suit, had been ousted by popular uprisings; in every case the will of the people had prevailed and, except in Romania, hardly a drop of blood had been spilt. With dizzying speed, the Soviet Union’s European empire, the buffer zone ruthlessly built up by Stalin and maintained with brutal force when necessary by his successors, had collapsed like a house of cards. Truly, 1989 was an annus mirabilis. 

Sources:

Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Transworld Publications.

John Simpson (1990), Dispatches from the Barricades: An Eye-Witness Account of the Revolutions that Shook the World, 1989-90. London: Hutchinson.

   

 

The Fall of Herod the Great: Twenty-Five Years on from The Romanian Revolution.   Leave a comment

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The Last Stalinist

At the end of the events of 1989, there was one last, grim, twist. The only Eastern European nation still ruled by an old-school Communist was Romania. The tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu had run the country with a rod of iron since 1965, turning it into a police state. The Securitate, the secret police, terrorised the people into submission while Ceausecu imposed his Stalinist will over the nation and its economy.  At the meeting of the Warsaw Pact leaders in Moscow the day after Gorbachev returned from the Malta summit with President Bush, Ceausescu was the sole Eastern European Communist boss still in office since the last Warsaw Pact summit, only five months before. Gorbachev spoke of eliminating the Cold War, while Ceausescu said the West was out to liquidate socialism. He called for the building up of the Warsaw Pact  against the common danger of NATO. The other Eastern European heads of government ignored him. They went on to support a Czech resolution condemning the Soviet invasion of 1968 which Ceausescu refused to sign. After a frank exchange of opinions with Gorbachev, the Romanian leader flew home in a bad temper.

Two weeks later the Securitate opened fire on protestors who had gathered in the traditionally dissident Transylvanian city of Timisoara in western Romania. For several days the shootings continued, but still people came out onto the streets in ever-growing numbers.  On 21 December, Ceausescu gave a prepared speech from the balcony of his presidential palace in Bucharest to a huge, specially assembled crowd. He intended to show he still had the supporters to restore order, and it was carried live on television. But Romanians had had enough of him.

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Leonid Brezhnev made a historic visit to Romania in November 1976 (above), only too conscious that the government of Nicolae Ceausescu was being courted in the seventies by western politicians who should have known better. For a time it had been useful to them, since they erroneously believed that his independent policies were turning Romania into a Trojan horse within the Warsaw Pact. He had kept his links with Israel and China, when the rest of the Soviet bloc had severed theirs. He advocated the reduction of short-range nuclear weapons in Europe and ways of relaxing tension between the two power groupings. But as soon as Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in March 1985,  Ceausescu’s usefulness to the West dropped away.

It was no secret that Ceausescu’s regime was responsible for serious infringements of human rights. For its size, Romania had the highest number of secret policemen in the entire Soviet bloc: the Securitate had almost a hundred thousand full-time members. One third of the population, it was said, were informers. Every Romanian who talked to a foreigner was required to report the conversation to the Securitate within twenty-four hours. Securitate officers had the right people’s houses under any number of pretexts and confiscate ‘illegal’ possessions.  The illicit goods Law of 1974 declared the ownership of rare metals and precious stones a state monopoly. A supposed shortage of paper meant that writers were not allowed to publish more than one book a year.

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By the mid-eighties, Ceausescu himself had become a parody of a dictator. The newspapers, radio and television were mostly devoted to his and his family’s doings. In June 1978 the Queen had been obliged, much against her own better judgement, by the then Prime Minister James Callaghan, and his Foreign Secretary, David Owen, to invite Ceausescu to Buckingham Palace. The Labour government was beset with problems at home, and anxious to prove its worth in international diplomacy in relieving the Cold War tensions between the superpowers. Elena Ceausescu, riding in State with Prince Philip along the Mall, enjoyed herself immensely.

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The Queen’s face, however, seemed to show a lack of amusement as she travelled alongside the President. However, back at the Palace, which ‘inspired’ the Romanian couple to plan their own palace in Bucharest, the Queen was both amused and annoyed by the Ceausescu’s assumption that his rooms were bugged. Every morning he would go for a walk, with all his ministers in attendance, around the gardens of the Palace in order to avoid the microphones which he supposed were everywhere. One of his other obsessions was that the Soviets might try to poison him by secreting a radioactive isotope near him, as he believed they had done with his predecessor, who had died of cancer. The Queen gave him two English-bred Labradors, who lived far better than most ordinary Romanians. They had their own limousines, which drove down the centre of lane in the main streets of Bucharest, and they were fed only the best lean steak. Government ministers were expected to address them as ‘Comrades’, and it was a not very funny joke that their master was thinking of giving them seats in the Senate.

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Western politicians of all persuasions were prepared to overlooking his increasing madness and megalomania, together with his government’s treatment of his own people, because they felt that his was an independent voice within the Warsaw Pact. After meeting the dictator on his visit to Britain in June 1978,  the then leader of the Opposition commented,

I was impressed by the personality of President Ceausescu… Romania is making sustained efforts for consolidating peace and understanding, in particular by means of numerous direct contacts leading to the development of bilateral collaboration.

In August 1978, Ceausescu won approval from the Chinese, as their premier, Hua Guo-Feng visited Romania:

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As late as 1988,  Harold Wilson (above), Britain’s PM in much of the 1960s an 1970s sent the dictator a telegram which read: You have raised the Romanian nation to a unique role in the world. By this time,  Ceausecu’s wild extravagance was making Romania’s economic situation far worse. He decided to build a boulevard through Bucharest longer than the Champs-Elysées, lined with shops and mansions. At the head of it was to be a presidential palace larger than Buckingham Palace. It was to contain more than a thousand rooms, and cost more than a billion US dollars, though most of the labour was supplied by the army. Whole regiments were deployed in building what was to be called The House of the Republic (pictured below), and was scheduled for completion in January 1990.

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He had declared that he would pay off Romania’s foreign debt by the middle of 1989, which meant a disturbing programme of austerity for the ordinary Romanians while they could see the extravagance of the building programme in front of their eyes. This was all happening in a country which had been kept short of food and consumer goods since the early 1970s.

Romania had once been called the bread-basket of the Balkans: By the end of the 1980s it was an economic ‘basket case’, exporting ninety per cent of its of its food produce. Eggs became a form of currency, changing hands perhaps a dozen times before they were actually eaten. Westerners who stayed in the foreign currency hotels of Bucharest were unto find ordinary Romanians watching hungrily through the street-level windows while they ate. In the largely Hungarian-speaking area of Transylvania, rationing was intensified to five eggs, a kilo of flour, a kilo of sugar and a kilo of cheese per person per month. Conditions were not much better in Bucharest, and for the country as a whole the rationing was worse than it had been during the Second World War. With Ceausescu, there were scarcely any policies which he could not force on the country. The so-called systematisation of the rural areas, for instance, was something only Stalin or Mao Tse-dong had tried to introduce before him. Its origins lay, as Mao’s reorganisation of the Chinese countryside had done, in a desire to reduce the disparities of wealth and opportunity between country and town. As early as 1967 Ceausescu had announced a policy of homeginisation between the two, but the first projects were not begun until un 1979.  Poor villages were to be demolished and their inhabitants relocated in agro-industrial centres; 558 villages were selected for this process. Naturally, this was deeply unpopular, and even the Communist Party bureaucracy opposed it, with local Party secretaries using every available tactic to delay its implementation. Various Western journalists claimed to have seen or filmed this process, particularly in Transylvania, where it became mixed up with the issue of ethnic Hungarian rights. In the end, only five villages, all in the Bucharest area and all on the route of the President’s motorcade route to one of his country houses, were seriously affected. However, the policy, together with the austerity measures, represented a dangerous attack on the values of a largely agrarian society by an increasingly power-crazed dictator.

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John Simpson, the BBC TV reporter and foreign correspondent was in Romania in the spring of 1989, where a young woman betrayed his crew to the local Securitate in Cluj. He summed up the mood at the time:

As for the woman who had reported us… it was impossible to blame her. Only a handful of Romanians had the moral courage to speak out against the conditions Ceausescu imposed on them. Once they had put their heads above the parapet they could expect to be badly treated. Most people were prepared to put up with the unrelenting hardships of everyday life in silence rather than endure that. She could not have known that we would be allowed to go free; but a regime like Ceausescu’s induces and rewards selfishness and inaction. Later, no doubt, she was embarrassed at what she had done.  But in the spring of 1989 there was no reason whatever to suppose that Ceausescu and his wife would be overthrown before the end of the year. At that time, the regime looked as if it would last forever.  

Arriving in Bucharest, they went out to film the Boulevard with the enormous, elegant and absurdly expensive House of the Republic at its end. By 1989, Ceausescu had become so obsessed with the project that he paid ninety-nine visits to it over the course of the year before his death, examining every little detail. He told the men and women in charge of building it to remember that it was to last for five hundred to a thousand years. The Ceausescu’s were influenced in their choice of interior design, as with the exterior, by their stay with the Queen in 1978. The president’s office, only completed after the dictator’s death, was more than a hundred feet long, with a huge patterned carpet. A little man with skilfully built up shoes, Ceausescu needed imposing circumstances to seem imposing himself.

Rebellion in Transylvania and Revolution in Bucharest

On 20 November 1989, the regime which Nicolae Ceaucescu had run since 1964 seemed to be coup-proof. It was a text-book example of a Marxist-Leninist state. Scientific Socialism,  Ceaucescu had explained to the Congress,  is in absolutely no danger.  They applauded him to the echo, gave him more than forty standing ovations, and re-elected him as President for a further five years. The autocracies of central and eastern Europe might be like dominoes in a circle all around Romania’s borders, but Romania itself was safe for Stalinism. Then, in mid-December in Timisoara, a city in Transylvania with a majority Hungarian-speaking population  (Temesvár in Magyar),the Securitate came to arrest a Reformed Church pastor, László Tökés, for speaking to the Western media. Many of his flock gathered around his manse to protect him. They drove off the Securitate and in the days that followed what had begun as a religious and cultural dispute became broader, as ethnic Romanians joined in. It became an uprising against the government. The tanks were summoned and many people died, but the troops were beaten off. Now the Army’s loyalty was in question, as a little local incident had turned into a full-scale rebellion, the most serious threat that the dictator had faced in a quarter of a century.

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Ceaucesu was not given the full facts about the Timisoara Rebellion. The Securitate kept some of the worst details from him, fearing that it would be blamed for allowing the situation to get out of hand.  As a result, the president had no real idea of the intensity of the feeling against him, or the extent of the uprising he already faced. His response to what he was told was to call a public rally in the main square of the capital. He would address it and the people would listen respectfully, as they always had done. Some of his ministers tried to suggest a television broadcast instead, but he he ignored their concerns. The Securitate sent its men to the factories and offices to instruct fifty people from each workplace to turn out or face being sacked. Loyal party members were to take up their positions at the front of the crowd, and the pleasant winter sunshine encouraged people to turn out in sufficient numbers to provide anonymity for everyone else there. The loyalists at the front held up their long red banners which spoke of Socialist progress and their leader’s heroism. Above their heads, portraits of a much younger Ceausescu were waved. They clapped in unison as Romanian TV broadcast live. As it turned out, that was a serious error of judgement.

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The Great Dictator stood on the balcony overlooking the Square and surveyed his people. In his black Astrakhan hat and his coat with matching collar, he looked very presidential, standing on an unseen box to make him look taller. Beside him were his wife Elena and assorted courtiers, together with his personal head of security, Neagoe, a large man in a fedora hat. Shortly, a few words from him would help change the course of Romanian history. But for the time being, each time each time the president paused, there was more clapping in unison. He waved back,  in a way that was perhaps intended to show humility, but actually made him look more imperious to most of the crowd beyond the loyal front ranks whom he was thanking for organising the rally.

Suddenly, there was a low groan from a section of the crowd, which quickly grew louder and higher and then erupted into booing, whistling and cat-calls.

018It was a total surprise to Ceausescu. He had been reading his speech in his hoarse, old man’s voice, his eyes on the sheet of paper in front of him. As the sound of the booing gradually penetrated him, he looked over to his right, where it was loudest. But he went on pumping out the bland words for a much more slowly now, not thinking what they meant, but trying to think instead about the booing. At his words faded altogether, and he stopped. It was a laughable and shocking moment: a tyrant coming face to face with the hatred of his people:  Macbeth watching the wood begin to move. He put up his right hand, trying to order the crowd to be silent, but it looked as if he was warding off the noise of the booing  and what it meant. One of the group of ministers to his right must have offered some advice, off-mike, because he waved him away angrily. Then, from the right of the screen, the head of the President’s personal bodyguard, Neagoe, came into shot, walking swiftly towards Ceausescu. He paused behind him for an instant, and the microphones picked up his voice and boomed it out over the Square:

They’re getting in.

The general headed for the big French window behind Ceausescu, holding his coat open as though he had a gun in a shoulder holster and would soon pull it out. Elena Ceausescu’s thin, harsh voice was also picked up by the microphone:

Stay calm, please.

Her instincts were right. The crowd wasn’t getting in. There was no plot, no coup. no insurrection, but simply booing, the reaction from years of repression. At that point someone at the television station decided to cut the transmission. The evidence that Ceausescu could be threatened was therefore transmitted live to every home and workplace where the television was switched on, throughout the country. He was vulnerable, after all. However, the moment swiftly passed, when it became obvious that the crowd was not breaking into the Central Committee building and that the rally was continuing, the television cut back to the President.  Ceausescu was continuing with his prepared speech as though nothing had happened, warning about the consequences of the rioting in Timisoara. But it was too late. There were thousands of people out on the streets that afternoon and evening with the same sense of burning grievance. They had realised that the regime was momentarily weakened and that it might just be overthrown if they all stuck together and kept their nerve. They chanted, we want free elections and Don’t leave the streets. They were rewarded by many more, who had been watching the live broadcast, coming out onto the streets, from all over the city, as the Securitate forces hesitated to break up the existing dissenting crowds from the rally.  A full-scale rebellion was taking shape.

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As night fell, the Securitate received orders to shoot to kill.  The crowds built barricades and set fire to cars, as street-fighting became general. The insurgents had no guns or bullets with which to answer the fire of the Securitate, but they made use of Molotov cocktails and the cover of darkness. By dawn on 22 December the outcome was clear, as the crowds had taken control of the main avenue and squares with the Securitate troops having melted away. The insurgents had demonstrated the power of numbers and determination.  The key to their eventual success now lay with the Army, who had so far refused to support the Securitate troops.  At this point the defence minister, General Vasili Milea was shot by Ceausecu’s bodyguard for refusing to pass on the orders for the Army to fire on the insurgents. When the news of this  was broadcast on the TV, the Army was infuriated, and began to change sides,  thus bringing about a revolutionary situation. Ceasescu tried to make one last appeal to the the crowds in the Square, but this time there were no plain clothes Securitate among them, and the crowd hurled stones at him, so that his bodyguard had to quickly bundle him back into the building. This time, the the insurgents did break into the building, and many of those defending it gave up their weapons to them. However, there was just enough resistance from the Securitate troops to enable the  dictator and his wife to escape by helicopter from the roof. A National Salvation Front was declared and , consisting of former Ceausescu aides and a few prominent dissidents. The Army transferred its allegiance to the new government. There was sporadic fighting between soldiers and the remaining Securitate, but by Christmas Day the fighting in Bucharest was over and the revolution had succeeded. Only the fate of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu remained to be decided.

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Top left: A couple of volunteers carrying water to the pro-revolutionary troops are stranded in no-man’s land.

Top right: 22 December – a casualty of the sniping. The building in the centre of the picture is a block of where the Securitate men lived.

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Above: The poet, Mircea Dinescu, newly free, declaims to camera at the studios of Romanian Television on 22 December.

Fourth Day of Christmas: Holy Innocents: The Killing of the Children and the Escape to Egypt   2 comments

Massacre of the Innocents (1565-7), Royal Coll...

Massacre of the Innocents (1565-7), Royal Collection, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fourth Day of Christmas: Holy Innocents: The Killing of the Children and the Escape to Egypt

by Andrew Chandler on Friday 28 December 2012 at 08:23

The fourth day of Christmas, 28th, belongs to the Holy Innocents, recalling the fury of Herod when he learned that the wise men had found the child they looked for, but not returned to his court to report the find, choosing to return to their own country by another road, ‘since God had warned them in a dream not to go back to Herod’ (Matthew 2 v 12). The gospel-writer continues (vv 13-18, ‘Good News for Modern Man’):

The Escape to Egypt

‘After they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph and sais “Herod will be looking for the child in

order to kill him. So get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you to leave.”

‘Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and left during the night for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod died. This was done to make come true what the Lord had said through the prophet, “I called my son out of Egypt.” ‘

The Killing of the Children

‘When Herod realised that the visitors from the East had tricked him, he was furious. He gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its neighbourhood who were two years old and younger – this was done in accordance with what he had learned from the visitors about the time when the star had appeared. In this way what the prophet Jeremiah had said came true:

“A sound is heard in Ramah,

the sound of bitter weeping.

Rachel is crying for her children;

she refuses to be comforted,

for they are dead.”

This story evokes memories of the Jewish captivity in Egypt when, fearing that the Jewish population was growing too numerous, the Pharaoh ordered all Jewish boy children to be killed at birth. Moses was saved then through the courage and ingenuity of his sister Miriam, and an angel of the Lord later avenged the deaths of the children, ‘passing over’ the homes of the Hebrews in visiting plague upon the new-born Egyptians, as the story goes.

ceausescu still present in our public space
Ceausescu still present in our public space (Photo credit: energeticspell)

1989: The Fall of Romania’s Herod

The story is also a poignant and timely reminder of the evils of dictatorship. It was at this Christmas time, twenty-five years ago, in 1989, that the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu fell in Bucharest in the last of a series of revolutions which swept across Central-Eastern Europe in 1989. I remember the parallels which were dawn at that time between Ceausescu and Herod, though it was only some time later that the full horror of Romania’s orphanages were revealed. The revolution had begun in Transylvania, in the Hungarian-minority and dissident city of Timisoara, or Temesvár, where the secret police had opened fire on protesters who had gathered in support of the outspoken Reformed Church ‘pasztor’, Laszló Tökes.

On 22 December, Ceausescu staged a ‘demonstration of support’ in Bucharest which was infiltrated by dissidents who began cat-calling, booing and whistling. They were joined by those more forcibly assembled, and Ceausescu was forced to break off his speech, retire from the balcony and flee with his hated wife, Elena. They were caught, put on trial by the new military regime which had won a three day battle for control of the capitol, and shot on Christmas Day, their bodies being shown on television. By the end of 1989, the leaders of nearly all the ‘satellite’ Soviet states had been forced to hand over power. Except for Romania, hardly a drop of blood had been spilt. It was an ‘annus mirablis’ in the way that 2011 will be seen, if it isn’t already earning that accolade due to the uncertain outcome of violent events in Syria and elsewhere.

Since the time of King Saul, God had warned the Hebrews of the consequences of choosing Kings to rule over them, and ignoring the prophets. The story of the Massacre of the Innocents and the Escape to Egypt, with Jesus becoming a refugee almost at birth, is a reminder of the costs of upholding dictatorship which are almost always visited on innocent generations to come. Pharaohs, Caesars and Herods will continue to come to power, unless challenged. Jesus himself epitomised this by ‘speaking truth to power’ to both Pilate and Herod, confrontations which led to his own bloody sacrifice for our freedom from tyrrany.

The ‘Coventry Carol‘ was performed as part of the pageant of the Guild of ‘Shearmen’ and Tailors on the 28th December, Holy Innocents’ Day, outside the Medieval Cathedral, the ruins of which themselves later became a symbol of resistance to dictatorship and commitment to reconciliation, linking the city to cities throughout the world, including Kecskemét in Hungary, where I live now. The dramatic contrast between Mary’s peaceful lullaby and Herod’s raging must have served as a warning to the city’s citizens about the ever-present proximity of violence and tyranny, at a time when Yorkist and Lancastrian Kings were warring with each other outside the city’s gate. We know that the Mystery Plays were watched in 1484 and 1492 respectively by both Richard III, whom Shakespeare later portrayed as a hunch-backed tyrant, murdering the innocent young princes in the Tower of London, and Henry VII, who had deposed Richard at nearby Bosworth Field, and was struggling to establish his Tudor dynasty with a combination of terror and guile. One wonders what was going through their minds as they watched the portrayal of ‘Herod’s Raging’ and the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’:

‘Charged he hath this day,

His men of might,

In his own sight,

All young children to slay.

‘That woe is me,

Poor child for thee!

And ever morn and day,

For thy parting,

Neither say nor sing,

By by, lully lullay!’

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