Born January 26, 1918 and raised in Scornicești, a large village in Olt County, Romania, Nicolae Ceauşescu became Romania’s second communist leader and one of Eastern Europe’s most virulently Stalinist dictators until his violent overthrow in 1989 in a popular revolution. The son of a peasant, Ceauşescu initially joined the illegal Communist Party of Romania in 1932. He met his future wife, Elena, in 1940 and married her in 1946. Following World War II, Communists took power in 1947 and Ceauşescu was brought on board the Central Committee by Gheorghiu-dej in 1952 following a purge of the party’s “Muscovite Faction.” Assuming leadership of the country three days after Gheorghiu-dej’s death on 22 March 1965, Ceauşescu was initially a compromise candidate between the various entrenched factions within the party. Ceauşescu was marked in his leadership for being odd in the communist camp in that he did not kowtow to the Soviet Union’s directives and held an independent direction in foreign policy. Examples of this are shown in Romania’s being open with the West and condemning the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. Romania eventually hosted Richard Nixon and joined the European Economic Community, precursor to the European Union.
After visiting China, North Korea and Vietnam in 1971, Ceauşescu came back to Romania enamored with the ideas expressed in those revolutionary states; particularly, the Cultural Revolution in China and the Juche doctrine in North Korea. The Juche doctrine requires the mobilization of the entire state toward the revolutionary cause and is transformative of culture and life in every way. It was likely after this trip that Ceauşescu went off of of his rocker somewhat. The liberalizations he had helped introduce in 1965 were condemned and his programs during this time were referred to as the July theses. This alignment with a North Korean type of communism did not deter Romania from continuing to pursue an independent streak in foreign relations, as Ceauşescu’s regime was one of the few communist nations in the world to participate in the US held 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles that 14 other communist nations boycotted due to the U.S.’s boycott of the 1980 games in Moscow.
Being a rogue within the Eastern camp allowed Ceauşescu’s regime to borrow money from the West that would otherwise have been denied him given his ideological orientation. These loans weakened the apparatus of state and were one of the many elements contributing to Ceauşescu’s downfall in 1989. Though Romania was able to borrow money, it was not able to do so at a favorable rate and thus the nation was beggared while trying to repay its foreign debts. These debts were repaid by the summer of 1989, months before Ceauşescu’s overthrow. Ceauşescu’s increasingly brutal rule and detached sense of reality led to a volatile situation in which his grip on power had been undermined not only by his own policies but also by foreign elements within his regime. Demonstrations in the city of Timișoara by ethnic Hungarians in support of one of their own quickly transformed into city-wide protests against the regime that were put down by the Securitate, Romania’s intelligence agency. At a mass meeting on the 21st December 1989, Ceauşescu was greeted with a displeased crowd that began to chant “Timișoara.” Events like mass rallies were normally scripted affairs that employed stilted language and theatrics to convey approved messages. When the event did not go as planned, or the crowd began to show dissent, Ceauşescu looked genuinely startled and all of this was captured on state television.
By the 22nd of December the revolution had spread to all major cities and towns in Romania. The case of defense minister Vasile Milea presents history with an interesting conspiracy theory regarding the fall of Ceauşescu; namely, some claim that Milea was killed by Ceauşescu while the official report is that he committed suicide for disobeying orders by not having his troops fire on the demonstrators. Whatever the true circumstances surrounding Milea’s death may have been, it caused many in the army to rally to the revolutionaries’ cause and insured the end of the regime. The Ceauşescus were apprehended in Târgoviște and were tried in a two hour court session on Christmas Day 1989. The trial was as bizarre as it was groundbreaking because it was depicting in media res the downfall of a brutal Stalinist dictatorship. After being convicted of crimes ranging from genocide to illegal acquisition of wealth, Nicolae and his wife Elena were shot to death on video and thus ended the reign of one of Europe’s more bizarre communist dictators.