Versione italiana | Search in site:

Rumania, the road to freedom

from "National Communism" to revolution

In 1944 the Communists helped topple the Antonescu government and a week later the Red Army moved into Rumania. In 1946 the Communist Party won the elections and in 1948 the new Constitution came into effect, guaranteeing freedom of expression exclusively to those authorized by the government. The Greek-Catholic Church was abolished, agriculture was collectivized and peasant farmers were re-located. After a period of tension with Moscow – in the throes of de-Stalinization – in 1967 Nicolae Ceausescu became president and began to promote “National Communism”. In the Seventies, the so-called “Small cultural revolution” triggered the first expressions of organized dissent. The Eighties saw the introduction of strict rationing of basic commodities and ever-tighter control over Rumanian society. Leading dissidents included Constantin Noika, Ana Blandiana and Doina Maria Cornea. In March 1989 the BBC broadcast the “Letter of six”, signed by six former leaders of the Party now openly critical of its policies. On 17 December a protest demonstration in Timisoara was quashed when Securitate agents opened fire on the crowd. On 21 December, at a political rally in Bucharest, Ceausescu was met with whistles and jeers and forced to take refuge in the headquarters of the Central Committee. On 25 December 1989, after a summary trial, Ceausescu and his wife were executed in the Targoviste bunker.

The post-war period
In Rumania the Communists earned themselves a significant role in political life in August 1944, when, alongside democratic groupings and king Michael, they toppled the pro-Nazi government of marshal Ion Antonescu. One week later the Red Army crossed the border and entered Rumania, where it was to stay for the next 14 years. The Soviet Union pressed for the previously outlawed Communist Party to join the government and for non-Communist politicians to be removed from the scene. In a campaign launched in January 1945, all ethnic Germans – officially recognized as Rumanian citizens and whose ancestors had been living in Rumania for 800 years – were deported to the Donbas coal mines: 70 thousand men and women were forced to leave their homes and a fifth of that number later died of the ensuing hardships, labour accidents and malnutrition.
In the elections held on 9 November 1946, the Communists won 80% of the vote. On the strength of this victory, they eliminated the centre parties and took complete control of power. Between 1946 and 1947 hundreds of public, military and civilian officials were tried for having supported the Antonescu regime and many were sentenced to death for war crimes. In December 1947 king Michael was forced to abdicate and to go into voluntary exile. On 13 April 1948 the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Rumania came into force, prohibiting and punishing any Fascist or anti-democratic associations and guaranteeing freedom of the press, of expression and of assembly exclusively to those authorized by the government. The Rumanian Greek-Catholic Church was abolished and forced to merge with the Orthodox Church, effectively controlled by the regime.

In the early post-war years, according to the “SovRom” agreements, numerous Soviet-Rumanian joint ventures were set up, allowing Rumanian products to be exported to the USSR at nominal prices. In all the ministries there were Soviet "advisors" who reported directly to Moscow and held the real decision-making powers. All walks of life were infiltrated by agents and informers of the secret police. In 1948 the forced collectivization of agriculture was introduced; any peasant farmers who refused to hand over their fields voluntarily were "persuaded" by beatings, intimidation, arrests and deportations. On 1 June 1948 the banks and large businesses were nationalized. Political opponents were imprisoned, tortured and killed. On 18 June 1951 the deportation of peasant farmers from Banato (south east Transylvania, on the border with Yugoslavia) began: some 45 thousand people were forced to pack up their belongings and leave their homes. They were then deported in cattle trucks manned with armed guards, to the eastern plains. The purpose was to induce the last remaining independent peasants to join the collective farms. Within the Party, differing opinions led to clashes between the various factions, followed by the elimination of the groups that refused to toe the Soviet line. The Party featured three main currents, all Stalinist: the "Muscovites" – including Ana Pauker and Vasile Luca – who had spent the war years in the Soviet capital, the "Prison Communists" led by Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, who had done time in Rumanian jails during the war, and the Stalinist " Segretariat Communists" – including Lucretiu Patrascanu – who had gone underground during the Antonescu years and had taken part in the 1944 government. Following the death of Stalin, and probably due to the anti-Semitic policies of late Stalinism (Ana Pauker was Jewish), Gheorghiu-Dej and the "Prison Communists " gained the upper hand. Ana Pauker was expelled from the party (along with 192,000 other members); Patrascanu was tortured, had one of his legs amputated, was accused of revisionism and was then executed after a show trial.


The Gheorghiu-Dej regime and the 1950s
Gheorghiu-Dej, a firm Stalinist, did not like the reforms introduced in the Soviet Union by Kruschev following Stalin’s death in 1953. Moreover, he did not share the Comecon’s goal of bringing Rumania into the Eastern Bloc by means of a heavy industry development plan. He shut down the main labour camps, abandoned the Danube-Black Sea Canal project, brought rationing to an end and raised workers’ wages. These measures, plus popular resentment about lands that had historically belonged to Rumania remaining part of the USSR, took Gheorghiu-Dej’s Rumania down a relatively independent and nationalist road, even if the country did join the Warsaw Pact in 1955. When the Communist regime achieved stability, however, the number of arrests grew, especially among the pre-war élite: intellectuals, the clergy, teachers, former politicians even with leftist leanings, such as Pauker and Patrascanu. A system of forced labour camps and prisons was set up, modelled on the Soviet Gulag. The resumption of the futile Danube-Black Sea Canal project became a pretext for building even more of these camps. The most infamous were those at Sighet, Gherla, Pitesti and Aiud; some were also set up in the aluminium mines in the Danube delta.
The notorious Pitesti jail became the epicentre of a particular Communist "experiment", with routine psychological and physical torture designed to crush the individual and turn victims into tormentors. For the countries of the Communist bloc the 1956 “Hungarian revolution” marked a crucial turning point and people began to feel the need for change: most of the states under Moscow’s influence distanced themselves from the rigid rules of Stalinism in favour of “Communism with a human face”. Dej exploited the thaw introduced by Kruschev and the condemnation of Stalinism to strengthen his own position within the Party. During the Budapest uprising, the Rumanian government offered the USSR its support and in exchange, in 1958, the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Rumania. This was also thanks to Moscow’s confidence in the government’s ability to stifle all anti-Communist initiatives, reinforced by certain changes in the penal code that led to tougher sentences for anti-Communist activities. After the 1956 revolution, Gheorghiu-Dej worked in close contact with the new Hungarian leader, János Kádár. In exchange, Kádár gave up claims to Transylvania. In this region Hungarian and Rumanian schools and universities were brought together in Cluj. After 1956, the government launched a series of political purges and a state of terror ensued: all expressions of dissent were crushed and new forced labour camps were set up. All protests against nationalization and collectivization ended in bloodshed: dissidents were persecuted, tortured, killed and deported. Such ferocious repression led to a surge in the number of armed resistance groups, especially in the provinces of Galac, Tulcza, Mures, Gorj, Dolj, Bacau, Dambovita and Arges. These organizations did not actually constitute any real threat for the regime but they were of great symbolic value. Small bands of armed resistance had, in fact, sprung up in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, thanks to the partisans that had then fled into the Carpathian Mountains. Such groups brought together people of very different social and political backgrounds: there were former army officers, students, peasants and worker doctors. Some of them had belonged to the extreme right-wing Iron Guard while others were Communists.


Nicolae Ceausescu and “National Communism”
Another key factor for the opposition in Rumania was the advent, in the late Fifties, of “National Communism”. Dej had taken the first steps in this direction but it was Nicolae Ceausescu who adopted National Communism as the basic guideline for the Rumanian government. Ceausescu became leader of the Communist Party in 1965, after the death of Dej in mysterious circumstances in Moscow. He then went on to become Head of State in 1967. Right from the beginning, Ceausescu skilfully played the nationalist “card” in the political game: by appealing to anti-Soviet sentiments, he soon gained popularity. National Communism was accompanied by a certain liberalization of the economy. In April 1964 Rumania rejected a new “SovRom” agreement: under the guise of a joint venture to exploit the delta of the Danube, the plan would in fact have had a negative impact on Rumania’s territorial integrity. In October, the secretary of the Rumanian Workers’ Party successfully rid all Party and State institutions of their Soviet advisors. At the same time, political prisoners were released, implying that terror had been a consequence of Soviet policy and that Rumania was now moving towards a liberal system.
On 22 March 1965 the Plenum of the Rumanian Workers’ Party Central Committee unanimously elected Nicolae Ceausescu as First Secretary of the Party. Ceausescu made the most of the liberalization process to remove all his opponents, accusing them of responsibility for the terror of the Fifties. In 1967 Rumania established diplomatic relations with the German Federal Republic and the following year condemned the invasion of Czechoslovakia, refusing to send its army to join the Warsaw Pact troops. Little by little, the enormous popularity that Ceausescu had earned himself with this policy turned into a veritable personality cult. Meanwhile, his government became increasingly authoritarian, imposing rigid police controls to stifle all criticism of the regime. His visit to North Korea in 1971 appears to have encouraged Ceausescu’s megalomania and he subsequently embarked on a visionary plan for overhauling the country known as “systematization” or the “Small Cultural Revolution”. Huge swathes of Bucharest were razed to the ground to make room for the gigantic Palace of the People and the adjacent Civic Centre. This enormous complex sliced the city in two and involved demolishing approximately one fifth of Bucharest’s historic districts. An entire quarter was razed to the ground, including 40 thousand buildings, many of huge artistic, historical and architectural value, including 19 orthodox Christian churches, 6 synagogues and Jewish temples and 3 Protestant churches. In spite of such folly, Ceausescu continued to enjoy international respect: the presidents of the United States and France, the emperor of Japan, the queen of England and countless others continued publicly to express their admiration for the head of the Rumanian government and for his independent stand against Moscow. For the opposition, it was obviously particularly difficult to stand up to a regime so widely accepted by the international community. In the Eighties, to pay off foreign loans and complete the construction of the Palace of the People, the rationing of basic commodities became increasingly drastic from one year to the next. As from 1985 this measure was also extended to oil, electricity, gas and heating. This led to the emergence of a black market and cigarettes became the country’s second currency: they were used to buy just about anything. At the same time, the State tightened its grip over society: telephone tapping became the norm, the Securitate recruited hundreds of new agents and censorship became increasingly strict. According to some reports, in 1989 one Rumanian out of three was an informer.


Forms of dissent in the Seventies and Eighties
The first significant expressions of a dissident movement appeared in the early Seventies. After Ceausescu’s visit to China and North Korea, the Party introduced a series of political restrictions: this miniature “cultural revolution” put an end to the freedom of speech achieved at the end of the Sixties, and gave rise to various forms of organized dissent. In 1970 the poet Anatol E. Baconski published an article in an Austrian literary magazine in which he protested against the censorship in force in Rumania. The following year the poet Dan Desliu spoke out publicly against government policy. In 1977 a protest broke out in the Lupeni mines, spreading all over the Jiu plain. The strikes were violently crushed and hundreds of workers were deported. In February 1979 Ionel Cana and Gheroghe Brasoveanu set up the Free Rumanian Workers’ Trade Union. Despite their arrest, in April the trade union was able to count on a sizeable number of members from all over the country. Many were forced into exile, but others, such as Carmen Popescu, managed to stay in the country and smuggle news of human rights abuses outside Rumania. This led to increasingly harsh repression and reinforcements for the Securitate: official data put the number of secret service agents at 70 thousand, although that figure is generally presumed to have been much greater. As the regime tightened its grip on power, repression against the country’s ethnic minorities was also stepped up: in 1972 in Timisoara the German minority formed the “Aktionsgruppe Banat” – made up of writers from the Banato region – which planned to propose independent cultural initiatives. The participants suffered harsh retaliation: the founder, William Totoka, was imprisoned while others, including Nobel prize winner Herta Muller, went into exile. A separate problem was that of the Hungarian minority, who were the victims of a total assimilation programme. In the Seventies a former prominent member of the Communist Party, Karoly Kiraly, addressed numerous letters to the Party, broadcast by Radio Free Europe, protesting against the forced assimilation process and against Ceausescu himself.
Although the Rumanian Orthodox Church collaborated with the State (there is proof that some priests were in fact Securitate officers), many clergymen protested openly about limitations on religious freedom. One of them, Gheorghe Calciu-Dumitreasa, was arrested in 1979 and not released until 1984, after international protests. In 1948 the Greek-Catholic Church had been banned and numerous priests forced to move to the Orthodox Church. Bishops had been arrested too and many had died in prison. Despite all this, certain Greek-Catholic communities continued to exist underground, while some of the faithful joined the Roman Catholic Church. The Protestant Churches too had to struggle to see their rights recognized, at least in theory: in 1974 several Baptist pastors were arrested for speaking out against restrictions on religious life. The regime frequently resorted to psychiatric methods to crush its opponents. Despite belonging to a Party organization, some members of the Writers’ Association demanded the right to freedom of thought and rejected the rigid conventions of socialist realism and the glorification of the regime and its leaders. They thus became symbols of the rejection of ideology, even at the cost of their own careers. One of the most significant representatives of this group was the poet Ana Blandiana, whose verses were openly critical of the regime. The role of certain dissident philosophers also became very important; one of these was Constantin Noika and the so-called “Paltinis Group” that gathered around him, which was particularly popular with young people. The outstanding dissident figure of the 1980s was Doina Maria Cornea, professor of Roman philology at the University of Cluj, who, despite relentless persecution, continued to make her opposition to the regime absolutely clear. In those years, attempts to create a broader dissident movement intensified, but were almost all doomed to failure due to the harsh repressive measures of the secret police. The 1980s were marked by a serious economic downturn and ever-worsening standards of living. When news of a new wage cut surfaced on 15 November 1987, thousands of workers took to the streets in Brasov to protest against Ceausescu. The crackdown was immediate: organizers and demonstrators were arrested and removed from the city. The news soon spread all over Rumania and abroad, with numerous open letters published or broadcast in the West.


1989 – the collapse
On 20 January 1989 certain journalists working for the “Rumania Libera” newspaper, were accused of involvement in the underground press and arrested. With the Ceausescu regime now in its death throes, the initiatives of the dissident movement intensified. Society’s hopes and expectations were growing, also thanks to news transmitted by independent radio stations about the changes taking place in the other Soviet bloc countries. In March 1989 the BBC broadcast the so-called “Letter of six” in which six former Communist leaders criticized Ceausescu’s domestic policies: the collectivization of agriculture, the madly ambitious demolition plan for Bucharest, the excessive power of the Securitate, censorship and telephone tapping. On 17 March the French daily “Liberation” published a pamphlet by Mircea Dinescu describing the situation in Rumania. In May, during the meeting in Paris of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Gabriel Andreescu went on a two-week hunger strike to protest against the regime. Two months later a report by Dumitri Mazilu on human rights violations was presented to the Commission for the Defence against Discrimination and the Defence of Minorities. With this sensational revelation, Mazilu, a former diplomat and Securitate officer, began his struggle against the regime. In October 1989 Doina Maria Cornea, along with a large group of dissidents, sent an open letter to the West criticizing Ceausescu’s re-election as Party Secretary. In the meantime, a violent wave of arrests shook the country. Ceausescu’s ony response to the changes taking place in the other countries of the Soviet bloc was to escalate repression and terror at home. On 14 December, in Jasi, an anti-Ceausescu demonstration took place, the organizers of which were then arrested. On 17 December a group of Transylvanian Hungarians, soon joined by numerous Rumanians, gathered in Timisoara in front of the house of the protestant pastor Laszlo Tokes, who had been sentenced to exile. The government reacted by setting armed tanks against them and killing 100 people. On 20 December the dictator condemned the Timisoara events with a speech broadcast on the radio. The following day a Ceausescu rally held in front of the headquarters of the Bucharest Central Committee ended in rioting and whistles of contempt and the leader was forced to shelter inside the building. Firecrackers were let off and the Securitate opened fire on the crowd. On the morning of 22 December the suicide of the army general Vasile Milea was announced. The populace laid siege to the building in which Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were sheltering, and from which they were forced to escape by helicopter from the roof. At the same time, the State radio and television stations were occupied and started broadcasting a running commentary on the events happening outside. By evening the first armed divisions of rebels had been formed. These were then joined by the army, which invaded the Securitate headquarters. On 25 December Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were sentenced to death and summarily executed at the end of a cursory trial held in the Targoviste bunker in which they had taken refuge.

16 July 2009

Don’t miss the story of the Righteous and the memory of Good

Once a month you will receive articles and events selected by Gariwo Editorial Board. Please fill out the field below and click on subscribe.




Crimes of genocide and against the humankind

the denial of the individual's value

The first legal definition in the domain of mass persecution dates back to 1915 and concerns the massacres of the Armenian populations perpetrated by the Turks, which were followed by the trials of the perpetrators before the Martial Court. In the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 the Great Powers use the terms "crimes against civilization" and "crimes of lèse-humanity". In the aftermath of Second World War, face the Holocaust tragedy, the Military Tribunal of the Nurnberger Trials against Nazi officials started the proceeding by stating the crimes on which it was competent... On 9 December 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations unanimously approved the Convention for the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, which is considered as the most heinous crime against Humanity. 

read more

Featured story

Sihem Bensedrine

journalist and civil rights activist