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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.

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