This week, the Libyan civil war ended abruptly when rebels shot and killed Moammar Qaddafi, who had controlled the North African country since 1969. The chaos in Sirte reminded me of the tumult that marked the fall of communism in Romania.
Most of Eastern Europe transitioned from communism peacefully. Solidarity ended communist rule in Poland and the Velvet Revolution ended totalitarianism in Czechoslovakia. The peaceful transfer of power occurred throughout the Soviet bloc except in Romania. There, blood was shed when a provisional government-less than a week old- executed tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena, who had ruled the country for a quarter-century.
The Ceausescus’ final minutes were captured on television and were just as disturbing as the video of Qaddafi’s last moments.
Unlike Qaddafi, many in the West had previously supported Ceausescu. He gained international acclaim in 1968 when he opposed the Prague Spring and supported Czechoslovakia reformer Alexander Dubcek, a leader who wanted to create socialism with a human face. This, in effect, was an effort to ease up on state coercion and allow some degree of political pluralism. It was similar to Gorbachev’s glasnost effort two decades later.
Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev had no use for Dubcek’s heterodox views. He sent Warsaw Pact tanks into Prague in the summer of 1968 to crack down on reform efforts and restore “order” to his satellite state. This action was later justified by the Brezhnev Doctrine, which said that Eastern Europe states could not deviate from the USSR’s model of socialism.
Every Warsaw Pact ally -save Romania- joined the effort and crushed the rebellion. Unlike his COMINTERN partners, Ceausescu condemned the Soviet invasion and spoke up for the Dubcek regime. Most Westerners applauded this “maverick” attitude and praised Ceausescu’s “panache.” They saw him as Dubcek-like leader, i.e. a reform-minded Communist who would liberalize Romania. Ceausescu made useful idiots out of these credulous foreigners.
In fact, Ceausescu was a Stalinist who ruled Romania with an iron-fist. That was not what Americans (Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter) or the British (Labour Party) wanted to hear, though. They imagined him as a different kind of communist, not nearly as brutal and coercive as his comrades in Moscow or Beijing.
President Richard Nixon traveled to Bucharest in 1969, months after the Prague Spring, and praised the Romanian leader. A year later he invited the Romanian leader to Washington. The Ceausescus traveled to London in 1978 (the last full year of a Labour government) and received an official welcome from Queen Elizabeth.
Nicolae enjoyed the new-found celebrity he enjoyed in the decade following 1968 and his international fame went to his head. He turned into a megalomaniac following a 1971 trip to Beijing, where he met with Chairman Mao (another communist leader who defied Moscow) and witnessed the Cultural Revolution underway there. Later he visited Pyongyang and was impressed with the cult-of-personality that the Supreme Leader Kim Il Sung enjoyed.
These travels shaped Ceausescu’s reign and the way he viewed himself (as well as the way he expected his subjects to view him). Once, he told a minister, “a man like me comes around only once every 500 years.” He expected others to hold that opinion, too.
During the 1970s, Nicolae transferred some of his power to his wife, Elena. She was reportedly a world-renown chemist (she was the self-appointed Tsarina of Romanian science and had received an honorary fellowship from the British Royal Institute of chemistry; in fact, she dropped out of school at age 14 and her transcript showed she was a pitiful student) This freed up Nicolae’s schedule and let him enjoy his one hobby: big-game hunting.
This small transfer of power did nothing to mute the Western response to the Ceausescu regime. The apogee of this adoration occurred during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Carter called Ceausescu an exceptional leader who shared the same goals as the Americans. He claimed the Romanian regime was committed to human rights, had courageously stood up to Soviet intransigence and had several notable achievements.
None of those assertions withstood scrutiny, as U.S. intelligence reports showed on a routine basis. Ceausescu had, in fact, begun cracking down on his population. Religious minorities were persecuted while political dissenters were arrested, never to be seen again. The secret police spied on everyone and created an environment of terror.
Ceausescu claimed he was a different kind of communist, but a weak economy crippled his country during the 1980s (just as it destroyed other Eastern command economies during that decade; his human rights abuses rivaled other Communist regimes as well). Despite these hard times, Ceausescu set about renovating his capital. Heretofore observers called Bucharest the Paris of the Balkans. But in the 1980s, its leader decided to model his city on the North Korean capital of Pyongyang and ensure his capital had the grandeur of Paris.
These projects took place while the Romanian economy was crumbling. This hubris ultimately cost Ceausescu his life. But that was a few years down the road. In the mid 1980s, most Romanians simply thought their leader had lost his mind. Nevertheless, his plans were put into motion.
1/5 of Bucharest property was removed between 1984 and 1989. 50,000 homes were demolished. The dictator built a House of Republic that was bigger than Versailles and constructed an Avenue of Victory of Socialism that was wider than the Champs Elysees.
These construction projects put a tremendous strain on Romanian society. The misery index soared during the 1980s as the economy tanked. People could not afford basic toiletries. Grocery stores lacked staple food products. Sanitation and environmental problems were rampant.
Romanians were growing restless and needed a spark to explode. That spark came in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down.Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev had told Eastern German Chancellor Erich Honecker that Soviet forces would no longer get involved in its satellite states’ internal affairs-reversing the Brezhnev doctrine. The fall of the Wall unleashed an avalanche throughout the Eastern Bloc.
Unrest quickly spread to Romania. Uprisings broke out across Transylvania and moved swiftly to Bucharest. Ceausescu thought he could calm things down if he addressed the country. He made a public speech on December 21 hoping to restore order.
The speech turned into a debacle when the crowd booed down its leader, the first time it had ever done so. Ceausescu looked stunned and tried to quiet the crowd. Instead, his hand motions escalated the situation. Shortly thereafter, Romanian television went black and a full scale rebellion broke out in the capital.
The Ceausescus fled Bucharest by helicopter. Moments later, the military turned on the regime and arrested the dictator and his wife before they could leave the country. Nicolae and Elena found themselves imprisoned from December 22 to the 24th.
On Christmas Day, they endured a show trial staged by a provisional government court. The trial took only two hours. The Ceausescus were found guilty and sentenced to death by a firing squad. Soldiers tied up their leaders, much to the shock and dismay of the Ceausescus.
Nicolae demanded that they stop trying to tie them up. Eleana said that she was the soldiers’ mother and had raised them. These remarks showed how removed from reality the couple had become. The guards continued tying up the disgraced leaders. Minutes later, the regicide was complete.
Tyrants usually die as cowards. Qaddafi begged for his life at the end. Ceausescu refused to acknowledge reality. Neither had a firm grip on how despised they had become. Both thought a majority of their countrymen would save them and, in time, restore them to their throne. This megalomania continued to the bitter end.
Both used force to terrorize and control their countries. They lived by the sword. And died by it too. How fitting.