20 years ago, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were executed.
December 24, 2009 8:35 PM   Subscribe

"The verdict was read out after a few hours. The Ceausescus were sentenced to death. They had ten days to appeal, but the sentence was to be carried out immediately. A nod to Kafka." 20 years ago on Christmas Day, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were sentenced to death by an impromptu revolutionary tribunal and executed by firing squad. The Times speaks with one of the men who was there that day. Footage of their trial. Translated transcript of the trial, courtesy of the very informative ceausescu.org. posted by Sticherbeast (21 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Sometimes the process is less important than the outcome. This is one of those times.
posted by Dasein at 8:49 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

They deserved life in prison, not a hasty spraying with machine gun fire.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 8:55 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm currently reading The Year that Changed the World. This is excellent. Thanks.
posted by zinfandel at 8:56 PM on December 24, 2009

Actually I beleive a stake through the heart, head chopped off filled with garlic and buried at a crossroads is the tradition.
posted by Artw at 8:58 PM on December 24, 2009 [4 favorites]

Never did one man deserve to be shot so many times, by so many people.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:06 PM on December 24, 2009 [4 favorites]

I asked a Romanian friend about that night once. She was around 8 at the time it happened - she said it was the best Christmas present she's ever received.
posted by dragoon at 9:19 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Wow that really takes me back. And I can never hear that name without immediately thinking of this song.

I also remember reading an account at the time that claimed Ceausescu's wristwatch contained a emergency radio device that sent an "SOS" signal to his guards, and he was surprised that no one showed up to rescue him after repeatedly activating it.

Thanks for the post.
posted by The Deej at 9:19 PM on December 24, 2009

Wow. This court transcript is certainly the most condensed - and hurried - indictment of a tyrant I have seen. Nuance: none. Some more advanced countries (see: South Africa) have seen a different way of dealing with their oppressors.

I have to admit I know nothing about how Ceausescus' cronies were treated. I'm assuming it was nothing like South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Committee's work.

I also admit to having only a rudimentary basis on which to judge the context - and bloody result - of this dramatic slice of history.

Thanks for posting this on the holidays. Not that it's Thanksgiving - that was last month, at least in The States - but recognizing the horrors around us, present and past - helps us realize our current life status.
posted by kozad at 9:20 PM on December 24, 2009

I can't believe it's been 20 years. I can remember watching the news on the BBC on Christmas day when it happened.
posted by ob at 9:33 PM on December 24, 2009

Was Kafka Romanian? Kind of an oddly placed reference.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:45 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

LOL, even their defender said they were guilty. What a farce.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 9:57 PM on December 24, 2009

Everytime this guy comes up in a heated contest of Trivial Pursuit I answer the question correctly and everytime the rest of the players look at me bewildered.
posted by IvoShandor at 10:03 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sometimes the process is less important than the outcome. This is one of those times.

Well . . . I don't know. The problem with the whole thing is that there's a very good chance that the demise of Ceausescu was a coup d'etat planned by his inner circle rather than a popular uprising. The timing of this, if true, was superb, because there were already some unusually ardent signs of unrest occurring (initially related to the state oppression of an ethnic Hungarian religious leader in Timisoara, László Tőkés) and the whole thing happened so quickly that it's very hard to piece together exactly what did happen.

Most Romanians, and most reasonably informed outsiders such as myself, are quite happy to think that the fall of Ceausescu was a good thing, and a long time coming. But the truth is that the writing was already on the wall. It's doubtful that Ceausescu would have lasted much longer anyhow, given both the state of Romania and the goings-on in all of Communist Europe around that time.

The percentage of Romanians who think that the revolution was essentially a farce, orchestrated by other politicans and military figures close to Ceausescu is roughly equal to those who believe that Ceausescu's fall resulted from "genuine" popular uprising. A smaller percentage of Romanians sees his fall as a conflation of both things.

This should normally be a matter for historians to sort out, as the "outcome" should be more important than the "process." But the fact of the matter is that Romania never had a chance to cleanse itself of the corrupt and often savage people who led it in the Ceausescu era. The strangely quick trial and immediate execution of the Ceausescus is now widely believed to have been orchestrated with cold rationale (rather than revolutionary zeal) to prevent a "real" trial from occurring - one which would likely have led to all sorts of factual allegations being made by the Ceausescus against those who (with a speed still not understood clearly) seized power and put them on trial. The trial and execution were, essentially, a cover-up.

At least that's what many Romanians believe today, and they have plenty of reasons to do so.

This would all be rather academic, were it not for the fact that the country, by and large, is still ruled by the people (Nicolae and Elena aside!) who controlled it twenty-plus years ago. Corruption is still unbelievable, abuse of power still undisguised, and with Romania in the middle of its most powerful economic crisis, it's difficult to see how greater problems won't happen. In many ways, Romania's entry into the EU has made things worse, and many EU officials I've talked to openly admit that allowing Romania and Bulgaria (with similar problems of mismanagement and corruption) to join was a big mistake.

So the question isn't, "Is Romania better off without the Ceausescus?" It's "Would Romania be better off today if the fall of the Ceausescus - imminent anyhow - had come about without a power-saving coup d'etat by their underlings?" Many Romanians I know, in retrospect, admit to thinking it would have been better to have the Ceausescus for another year and clean out the whole lot than to allow what increasingly feels like a superficial changing of the guards. Things are better than they were twenty years ago for sure . . . but still worse than things in neighboring countries with somewhat similar histories.

I asked my best Romanian friend, who lives in Cluj, how celebrations are going. She told me, "We are all happy about the Christmas season, but for the revolution anniversary, there are no big ceremonies. We're not sure what we would be celebrating anymore. Still, by the Piata Unirii* I saw a bouquet of flowers. At first I felt bad someone had dropped them. Then I remembered."

* A square wherein there is a statue memorial to some students who were killed there in 1989.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:58 PM on December 24, 2009 [43 favorites]

That ceausescu.org site used to be run by some pretty unabashedly pro-Ceausescu people, and had apparently stolen almost all the content from another Romanian site's revolution sub-section. I don't know if the same people still run the site, but it has a skeevy history.
posted by DecemberBoy at 11:24 PM on December 24, 2009

Right on, Dee Xtrovert.

For more information about how little has changed, check out this article by Nobel (literature) winner Herta Muller about how she is still tracked by secret police any time she's in Romania.

Also, this one: Romania's Collective Amensia.
posted by smoke at 11:55 PM on December 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Woah, Herta Muller won the Nobel Prize?!??

(oh, this year)

Her Land of Green Plums (set in & about the Ceaucescu era) is brilliant beyond words.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:24 AM on December 25, 2009

heh - Once again, the Nobel committee has nonplussed the Anglophone literary world by awarding its prize for literature to someone most of us have never heard of – although that would not include the people at Serpent's Tail, who published an early work of hers, The Passport, in 1989

(I have no idea how a professional literary critic cannot be reading just about everything that Serpent's Tail publishes, but I guess that's because most of it isn't Anglophone)

posted by UbuRoivas at 5:35 AM on December 25, 2009

For anyone still watching his thread, I just saw (thanks, late night art movie tv!) a 1992 documentary called Videogramme Einer Revolution (Videograms of a Revolution) made by a czech/german director, Harun Farocki (wiki), together with Andrej Ujica, a romanian screenwriter.

It's a timeline of the events that occurred in Bucarest during the revolution, edited by collating amateur video and public tv newscasts, as well as unbroadcast footage; the commentary is very sparse and just leads the viewer into the sequences.

A few segments are available on youtube.
posted by _dario at 6:46 PM on December 26, 2009

Sometimes the process is less important than the outcome. This is one of those times.

In retrospect, perhaps. But how do we judge which those times are? How do we make sure it's right?

The answer: follow due process and the rule of law. Even Hitler would deserve a full and proper trial. Wait, that's not entirely accurate; the world deserves accused people having a full and proper trial.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 12:14 PM on December 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I remember a detail that at the time struck me as almost impossibly bizarre and cynical. Ceaucescu tried to counter public anger over food shortages by showing himself on the television news touring one town market after another, all full of plenty of fresh produce. He had the same food brought with him and the cameras crew, arranged for filming at each market, then removed for the trip to the next market.
posted by longsleeves at 9:18 PM on December 27, 2009

Romanian General Ion Mihai Pacepa was the highest-ranking Communist bloc defector in the entire history of the Cold War. But I don't know that when I read his book, Red Horizons. So my initial reaction on some of the claims he made against the Ceausescus seemed just *waaaaaaay* too crazy to be believed. Plenty of them make the "food shortage" incident above seem like an average, everyday occurrence.

I've since learned that he probably under-exaggerated many incidents. (In fact, having reread the book, its main fault seems to be that the insane behavior of the Ceausescus can barely be shoe-horned into the pages; the reader becomes so deprived by the lack of anything normal that it gets to be kind of hard to take in, except in small doses.) It's worth checking out, if you have an interest in this at all.

It's a pity that there aren't more comments here, but what's been posted is great.

And UbuRoivas, I was in Romania when Müller won the Nobel Prize. The press spent three days denouncing her "hateful and distorted ways," before realizing that hey, maybe it's not a bad thing for Romania to have a Nobel Prize winner. (Despite her having left for exile decades earlier!) But I just want to add that Herta Müller is a truly fantastic writer, and well worth checking out. I've got that Serpent's Tail edition of The Passport and it's a minimalist classic. (I bought it three or four years ago, when there were dozens of them on Amazon for under $1. All are gone now, but the book has been republished.)
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:18 AM on December 28, 2009

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