ROMANIA: DEATH OF A DICTATOR : Ceausescu--Tyrant Who Posed as a Statesman : Dictatorship: The executed leader will be remembered as a ruler who believed he could stay the same while all around him changed.
He basked as sycophants proclaimed him the “Genius of the Carpathians,” but Nicolae Ceausescu will be remembered instead as the doddering tyrant whose incomprehensible belief that he could stay the same while all around him changed finally cost him his life.
Even as he carefully crafted an image of independence from his neighbors in what used to be called the Soviet Bloc, the longtime Romanian leader built a family dynasty and ruthlessly insisted on unquestioning obedience from his own subjects.
As a decade and an era ended in Eastern Europe--as 90 million people in country after country rejected one party dictatorship under the approving eye of the Kremlin--Ceausescu’s only response was to suggest a military intervention to preserve the old ways.
He earned most of his once favorable Western image by refusing to join in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, but by 1989 he was ready to help shoot down Solidarity supporters in Poland.
By all indications, he truly believed he could keep his impoverished nation of 23 million somehow apart from the most extraordinary year of peacetime change in Europe since “the springtime of the nations” in 1848.
And when his moment of clarity came--when an angry crowd did the unthinkable and shouted him down during another cliche-ridden speech in Bucharest last Friday--all he could do was stare slack-jawed, a bewildered old man about to run.
Not everyone was happy about the way Ceausescu, who would have been 72 next month, and his equally dictatorial wife, Elena, were said to have met their ends. The leaders of Romania’s 11-day-old popular uprising had at first pledged an open trial that would have provided a clear break from the lynch law imposed for 24 years by the man they overthrew.
Instead, according to the official announcement, Romania’s new leaders also resorted to a secret trial and summary executions, citing, among other reasons, the 60,000 killings for which they held his regime responsible.
Whatever he once was, Ceausescu became not so much a rigidly orthodox Communist as a cruel and calculating medieval potentate.
Critics saw his vaunted refusal to march to the Kremlin’s drumbeat as mostly a sham designed to boost his stature as a world statesman and to cater to his countrymen’s resentment of Moscow for annexing a large chunk of what was once Romania and turning it into the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic.
For years, the West applauded as Ceausescu refused to allow Soviet troops to be stationed in Romania, maintained relations with Israel, criticized the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, and defied a Warsaw Pact boycott by sending his athletes to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Queen Elizabeth knighted him, and the United States extended his country most-favored-nation trade status, choosing to overlook the fact that he maintained his power at home through a cruel security apparatus rivaled only by that of North Korea’s Kim Il Sung.
It was said that wherever three or more Romanians gathered, at least one was reporting to the Securitate secret police. It was estimated that at least one in every 30 citizens was either in jail, internal exile, or otherwise legally restricted in some way. His was a country in which a citizen had to apply for a police permit to own a typewriter.
The United States finally withdrew his “most favored” trade status last year, and on the day he was deposed last week, Buckingham Palace also withdrew his knighthood.
Asked if it had been a mistake not to cancel the honor sooner, the British government’s Foreign Office minister in charge of Eastern Europe, William Waldegrave, said the hope at the time was “that signs of independence from the Soviet line in foreign policy might be followed by signs of independence in terms of the internal policies. I don’t think that was an unreasonable hope, but it was severely disappointed.”
While both the West and Ceausescu may have seen his contributions in foreign policy as more valuable than they really were, at least one of them did contribute to a breakthrough.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin credited the Romanian leader with mediating the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic 1977 peace mission to Jerusalem.
Begin said in an interview after his retirement that during a visit to Bucharest he had asked Ceausescu if he could persuade Sadat “to come visit us.” Ceausescu later convinced Sadat of Begin’s desire for peace with Egypt, which cleared the way for the Jerusalem visit, the Israeli leader stated.
While he refused to participate in the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, there was never any danger that he would follow Alexander Dubcek’s lead and try to give Romanian socialism a “human face.”
On the contrary, his rule was often likened to that of the late Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin. And like Stalin, he had become the venerated object of a “cult of personality.”
He was vain and imperious, despite his unimpressive appearance. He was 5 feet, 6 inches tall with a stocky physique and a manner that was far from charismatic. The ubiquitous portraits of him which graced offices, schools, factories, farms and cities were invariably of the vigorous and dark-haired man who, at 47, was the youngest leader to have at that time ever come to power in a Warsaw Pact country--not of the aging president of later years.
He basked in the adulation that was reflected in the slogan, “Ceausescu-Romania-Peace.” He was described in one paean of praise as “the supreme embodiment of good.” In one speech, a Romanian politician likened Ceausescu to Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Peter the Great, Abraham Lincoln and other major historical figures.
Included among his titles were “Hero of Heroes,” “Worker of Workers” and “First Personage of the World.” Although he was a staunch atheist who suppressed religion in Romania, Ceausescu was hailed as “Our Lay God.” His daily schedule was the lead item on the evening television news, and bookstores and newspapers were filled with works about the revered leader.
He insisted on the deference he felt was his due, and was occasionally embroiled in diplomatic flaps with foreign hosts who he felt did not roll out a big enough red carpet for his visits.
The adulation, whether generated by Ceausescu or his sycophants, reached comical proportions at times, such as in January, 1988, when the British government complained that the Romanians had fabricated a glowing message from Queen Elizabeth II to Ceausescu on his 70th birthday.
The message, published in a Romanian weekly, praised Ceausescu “as a statesman of world stature with widely recognized experience and influence.”
Britain angrily informed the Romanian ambassador that the Queen had sent no such message and that London considered such behavior “an insult to her majesty.”
Yet the adulation wore thin in a nation plagued by food and other shortages under a harsh austerity program designed to reduce Romania’s huge foreign debt.
Ceausescu sought to reduce the debt by demanding payment from Israel and West Germany for permitting Romanian Jews and ethnic Germans to emigrate, according to Ion Pacepa, once one of Ceausescu’s closest aides who defected to the United States in 1978.
Pacepa, former deputy chief of the Romanian Intelligence Service, quoted Ceausescu as saying at one time, “Oil, Jews and Germans are our most important export commodities.”
He said the “basis price” for emigres was $20,000 to $50,000, depending on the individual’s education and accomplishments.
The money, Pacepa maintained, was deposited in Ceausescu’s personal account.
Ceausescu engaged in blatant nepotism that prompted critics to refer to his regime as a Socialist dynasty. His wife, a one-time worker in a textile plant, who earned a reputation as a stern and puritanical watchdog over Communist morality, was a member of the ruling Politburo and first deputy prime minister. Considered the second most important person in the nation, she had virtual control over party membership.
Like her husband over whom she reportedly wielded great influence, Elena Ceausescu was eulogized. She was called a “model to be followed by all women in our country.” She was “the legendary mother,” and “the most just woman on earth.”
The Ceausescus’ two sons, Valentin, and Nicu, and a daughter, Zoia, all held important party or government posts.
Nicu was arrested last Friday and Zoia on Sunday, and both were shown on Romanian television. It is unclear what has happened to them since, and the fate of Valentin Ceausescu is unknown.
Eight of Ceausescu’s relatives were named members of the Communist Party Central Committee, and his five brothers held senior positions in the army, party, and government. In all, about 50 relatives of either Nicolae or Elena Ceausescu were in senior posts before he was deposed.
A Communist since his early teens, Ceausescu was born on Jan. 26, 1918, about 100 miles northwest of Bucharest in the farming village of Scornicesti, which became a national shrine. He came from a family of poor peasants. His father reportedly was a shoemaker.
He received only an elementary education, and in 1932, at the age of 14, he joined a workers’ movement. A year later he joined the Union of Communist Youth and quickly became known as an effective activist. In 1936 he was admitted to the outlawed Communist Party at a time when Romania was torn by unrest among peasants and industrial workers. Romania was then ruled by a Fascist dictatorship under King Carol II.
The same year he joined the party, Ceausescu was arrested and sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for “agitation.” A former fellow inmate remembers Ceausescu as “a skinny kid who rarely said a word. He didn’t whine when they (prison officials) kicked him. He didn’t smile when they fed him.”
It was at the Doftana prison, which also became a national shrine, that Ceausescu met Gheirghe Gheorghiu-Dej who was then serving a 12-year term for his role in a railroad workers’ strike. In prison, Ceausescu also met several other inmates who became senior officials in the post-World War II Communist regime.
After his release, Ceausescu continued his underground activity, and in 1940 was made a member of the Central Committee responsible for work among youth. That year, convicted in absentia, Ceausescu was again imprisoned, this time for three years.
In August, 1944, as Soviet forces were advancing into Romania, which was then an ally of Nazi Germany, Ceausescu, Gheorghiu-Dej and several other Communist prisoners escaped.
During the same month, Romania’s pro-Nazi government was overthrown and the new government declared war on Germany, then heading for certain defeat.
After the end of the war in 1945, Ceausescu was given important positions in the party, along with the rank of brigadier general. Having spent his entire career in Romania, Ceausescu was a member of the home Communist faction as opposed to the “Muscovites” who had spent the war in the Soviet Union and returned to Romania with the Soviet troops.
The immediate postwar period was marked by struggles between the “Muscovites” and home Communist factions as well as their combined struggle against the government headed by King Michael, King Carol II’s successor. The king abdicated in 1947 and the Romania People’s Republic was established. The country was later renamed the Socialist Republic of Romania.
From 1948 until 1950, Ceausescu served as deputy minister of agriculture in the government formed by the Popular Democratic Front, a coalition of various Socialist, Communist and agrarian parties. For the next four years, Ceausescu was deputy minister of the armed forces with the rank of major general.
During this period the military Muscovite faction leader Ana Pauka, who was vice premier and minister of foreign affairs and held the real source of power, was purged, along with other officials for “deviations.” Gheorghiu-Dej took over the premiership while retaining his post as party leader.
As Gheorghiu-Dej’s protege, Ceausescu moved swiftly to the top. He was named a full member of the ruling Politburo in 1955. In line with his mentor’s independent-minded policies, Ceausescu helped remove pro-Moscow apparatchiks in the ranks of the party.
For a brief period after his mentor’s death in 1965, Ceausescu shared power with Chivu Stocia, who as president of the State Council was titular head of state
Ceausescu later took over Stocia’s post and became sole ruler of Romania.
Ceausescu reaffirmed Gheorghiu-Dej’s policy of strict neutrality in the bitter ideological dispute between the Soviet Union and China.
He infuriated his East Bloc allies, especially East Germany, by being the first bloc leader to establish diplomatic relations, in 1967, with West Germany, Bucharest’s major Western trading partner. He also was the first to play host to an American President, Richard M. Nixon in 1969, and he also was visited by Gerald R. Ford, when he was the U.S. President.
Broke With Allies
Following the 1967 Middle East War, Romania refused to go along with the Soviet Union and the other East Bloc states in breaking relations with Israel. He sought to play the part of honest broker between Israel and the Arabs, declaring: “We do not share the position of those circles which speak in favor of the liquidation of the state of Israel.”
While remaining a loyal partner of the Warsaw Pact, though objecting to some of his policies, such as Soviet calls for increased military spending, Ceausescu repeatedly urged the abolition of both the Communist alliance and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
And he repeately resisted Soviet efforts to tighten the Kremlin’s control over Warsaw Pact forces. “We shall never and under no circumstances place the Romania army under another command but that of our party and state,” he said in 1978 after a meeting in Moscow on military affairs.
In 1983, after the Soviets walked out of the nuclear arms talks in Geneva with the United States in protest over the deployment of new American missiles in Europe, Ceausescu called on both sides to reduce such deployments.
In domestic affairs, Ceausescu followed the Stalinist concept of rigid central planning and control, and a determined drive to industrialize the country. He employed forced labor for the country’s ambitious industrial projects such as the Danube-Black Sea Canal.
For all that he gloried in the increasingly feigned adulation of his people, Ceausescu actually feared that he would be contaminated by them, according to defector Pacepa. After shaking hands with ordinary citizens, Pacepa said, the Romanian leader would wash his hands with alcohol.
And by the end, few in his country rued his passing.
“Oh, what wonderful news!” enthused an unidentified announcer on Radio Bucharest. “The Anti-Christ died on Christmas Day!”