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Nicolae Ceausescu

Last modified 11 September 2011.

First published 20 February 2001. Reviewed 22 October 2003. Updated 10 December 2010

Full name Nicolae Andruta Ceausescu. AKA 'Genius of the Carpathians'.

Country: Romania.

Kill tally: An estimated 5,000 killed during the 1989 revolution that ousted Ceausescu. Possibly thousands of deaths per year during the 1980s from deprivations caused by an unnecessary austerity program. Tens of thousands more lives ruined during Ceausescu's reign.

Background: Romania achieves independence in 1878, becoming a constitutional monarchy. The Romanian Communist Party is banned in 1924 because of its ties with the Soviet Union but continues to operate underground. The country is occupied by the Germans during the Second World War and falls behind the Soviet Union's 'Iron Curtain' at war's end. With Soviet backing the Romanian Communist Party takes control of the government. The king is forced to abdicate. On 13 April 1948 the government proclaims the Romanian People's Republic and adopts a Stalinist constitution. More background.

Mini biography: Born on 26 January 1918 in the village of Scornicesti, 130 km west of Bucharest in southern Romania. His father is a peasant. When he is 11 Ceausescu moves to Bucharest, the nation's capital, to work as a shoemaker's apprentice.

1929 - Despite experiencing rapid growth following the First World War, Romania's agriculture-dependent economy is thrown into crisis when the New York Stock Exchange crash of October sees world grain prices collapse.

1930s - The "agricultural crisis" helps feed the growth of the virulently antisemitic and anticommunist 'Iron Guard', the paramilitary wing of the 'Legion of the Archangel Michael', an ultra-nationalistic Romanian fascist group founded on 24 June 1927 by Corneliu Zelea Codreanu.

The Guard advocates war against Jews and communists, violently confronting its opponents on the streets and clandestinely organising and committing political assassinations.

Supported and funded by Nazi Germany, the Iron Guard will become the largest fascist movement in the Balkans, with its growing influence contributing significantly to the political instability that plagues Romania throughout the decade.

Ceausescu becomes prominent in the Romanian communist youth movement and the fight against fascism and the Iron Guard. During this period he also meets Elena Petrescu, the daughter of a sharefarmer. Like Ceausescu, Elena has moved from the countryside to Bucharest and become involved in the communist youth movement. The couple will eventually marry and have three children, two sons, Valentin and Nicu, and a daughter, Zoe.

1933 - On 23 November he is arrested for the first time, for inciting a strike and distributing communist pamphlets. Ceausescu is arrested three more times in 1934 and comes to be classified by the police as a "dangerous communist agitator" and an "active distributor of communist and antifascist propaganda."

1935 - Ceausescu is confined to Scornicesti. He goes underground, returning to Bucharest to continue his political agitation.

1936 - He is a captured and tried for antifascist activities. On 6 June he receives a two-year sentence. Following his release in 1938 he resumes his political work, which leads to his final arrest.

1939 - On 23 August the Soviet Union and Germany sign a nonaggression pact carving up Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence, with the USSR claiming Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, part of the Balkans, including Romania, and half of Poland.

German troops invade Poland on 1 September. Britain and France declare war on Germany two days later. The Second World War has begun.

1940 - In July Ceausescu is imprisoned at Jilava, near Bucharest. In August 1943 he is transferred to a concentration camp at Tirgu Jiu, where he becomes a protégé of his cellmate, the communist leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. During these years in prison Ceausescu studies for a degree from the Academy of Economic Studies in Bucharest.

In September 1940 General Ion Antonescu, supported by the Iron Guard and renegade military officers and backed by Germany, takes control of the Romanian government. German forces enter Romania on 7 October. On 23 November Romania enters the war on the side of the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy and Japan).

1943 - The war turns against Germany in the winter of 1942-43 when the Sixth Army is defeated at Stalingrad (now Volgograd). By the end of 1943, the Soviets have broken through the German siege of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and recaptured much of the Ukrainian Republic. They now begin to move west towards Romania and Germany.

1944 - Ceausescu escapes from prison shortly before the Soviets occupy Romania at the end of August.

Following the occupation, Romanian troops switch sides and join the Soviet forces in the advance against Germany and its allies, and about 120,000 of them will die fighting for the liberation of Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

Ceausescu serves as secretary of the Union of Communist Youth until 1945, the year he is appointed as a brigadier-general in the Romanian Army.

1945 - The war ends on 7 May when Germany surrenders unconditionally. In total, about 985,000 Romanians have died during the conflict. The war has also left Romania behind the Soviet Union's 'Iron Curtain', allowing the Romanian Communist Party to rise to power.

1946 - Ceausescu is made Communist Party regional secretary of Oltenia, his home province. At what is considered to be a rigged general election held on 19 November he is voted into the Grand National Assembly, the Romanian parliament.

1948 - The Communist Party and one wing of the Social Democratic Party merge early in the year to form the Romanian Workers' Party (Partidul Muncitoresc Roman - PMR). PMR takes complete control of the government at a general election held in March. It introduces a Stalinist constitution and proclaims the Romanian People's Republic on 13 April.

Ceausescu is returned to the Assembly at the elections. He is a deputy at the Ministry of Agriculture from 1948-50, then serves as deputy minister of the armed forces with the rank of major-general from 1950-54.

Within the party he becomes a nominee member of the Central Committee. He will continue to climb the ranks, eventually securing the second highest position in the party hierarchy.

1952 - Gheorghiu-Dej becomes party leader and head of state in 1952. Ceausescu is promoted to full membership of the Central Committee.

1954 - Ceausescu is made secretary of the Central Committee and nominated to the party's supreme decision-making body, the Politburo, becoming a full member in 1955.

1965 - When Gheorghiu-Dej dies of pneumonia in March Ceausescu manoeuvres to become party leader. On attaining the post, he appropriates various other party and government roles and begins to surround himself with loyal subordinates. PMR is renamed the Romanian Communist Party.

A new constitution is proclaimed on 21 August and the country renamed to the Socialist Republic of Romania.

Ceausescu will continue to steer Romania on the independent course set by Gheorghiu-Dej, challenging the dominance of the Soviet Union, restricting Romania's active participation in the Warsaw Pact military alliance and condemning the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Shortly after taking power Ceausescu prohibits direct contacts between Soviet and Romanian officials. All Romanian military officers with Soviet wives are ordered to either divorce, send their wives back to the Soviet Union, or resign from their posts.

In 1967 Ceausescu further defies the Soviets by establishing diplomatic relations with the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and by continuing relations with Israel following the 'Six-Day War'.

Soviet forces will mass on Romania's borders in June 1971 but there is no invasion.

Ceausescu's stance towards the Soviet Union wins him considerable support from the West, with then United States President Richard M. Nixon visiting Romania in August 1969. In 1975 the US grants Romania most-favoured-nation trading status.

Romania is also admitted into such international organisations as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the Nonaligned Movement.

At the same time, Ceausescu builds closer ties between Romania and the communist states of China and North Korea.

At home Ceausescu initially adopts a relatively liberal approach to freedom of speech. But this period of relaxation is short-lived as he begins to cash in on his promotion of Romanian nationalism to fuel a Ceausescu personality cult.

1966 - New laws are introduced to engineer an increase in the size of Romania's population. "The foetus is the property of the entire society," Ceausescu states, "Anyone who avoids having children is a deserter who abandons the laws of national continuity."

Abortion and contraception are outlawed, childless couples face higher taxes, divorce is discouraged, and sex education prohibited. The birth-rate almost doubles, but is accompanied by a leap in infant mortality and unwanted pregnancies, with the rising numbers of handicapped, orphaned and abandoned children being placed in decrepit institutions under state care. After the fall of Ceausescu in 1989 over 100,000 handicapped and orphaned children are discovered living in horrific conditions.

During the 1960s the regime also begins planning for urban and rural "systematisation". To provide a labour pool for new industries while increasing the amount of land available for farming and the state's capacity for social control, over 11 million people are to be resettled from private houses in about 7,000 villages to apartment buildings in 550 standardised "agro-industrial centres." Ethnic minorities will be forced to assimilate.

In Bucharest, 10,000 hectares near the city's centre is to be cleared for a massive reconstruction project that will include a grand boulevard and a 'Palace of the People'.

However, legislation for the "systematisation" program is not introduced until 1974 and the plan is not seriously implemented until the 1980s.

1967 - In June Ceausescu purges the Ministry of Internal Affairs of pro-Soviet officers and creates a new Department of State Security (Securitate). With its sweeping powers and extensive resources, the Securitate becomes the arbiter and the enforcer of Ceausescu's will, growing to become the largest agency of its type in Europe, relative to the size of Romania's population.

Securitate agents will be allowed to conduct surveillance on private citizens with impunity. Contacts with foreigners are monitored, mail is screened, telephones tapped, and homes and offices broken into. Those suspected of disloyalty to the regime are arrested and interrogated. Prominent dissidents suffer more severe forms of harassment, including physical violence and imprisonment.

Meanwhile, further manoeuvring by Ceausescu sees him elected president of the State Council in December. By the end of the year he has emerged as the undisputed leader of both the party and the state.

1968 - In April Ceausescu cautions intellectuals and artists not to overstep the mark of permissible free expression. By 1971 he has completely reasserted neo-Stalinist policies on economic and social control. Freedom of speech is limited and the media is controlled. It is even illegal to own a typewriter without an official licence. The Securitate suppress all political opposition.

1969 - Ceausescu assumes the role of chairman of the newly formed Defence Council. Already directly in control of about 20,000 special security troops, the new post increases his influence over the regular armed forces.

1970s - Ceausescu continues to concentrate power at the top of the party structure. The military and security forces are overhauled, thousands of managers and officials are removed and replaced with his protégés, party and state structures are blended, and the media is manipulated with "patriotic commercials" to promote his personality cult.

In the early 1970s Ceausescu begins to travel widely abroad. He visits China and North Korea in June 1971, meeting with the leaders Mao Tse-Tung and Kim Il Sung. In April 1972 year he travels to Egypt, where he meets with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Palestine Liberation Organisation head Yasir 'Arafat. The following month Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir journeys to Romania for talks with Ceausescu.

By 1976 Ceausescu has visited more than 30 less-developed countries to promote trade. In 1978 Ceausescu he travels to the US.

1972 - In July Ceausescu's wife, Elena, is elected to full membership of Communist Party Central Committee. In 1973 she becomes a member of the Politburo and is made head of the personnel section, giving her the final say on party promotions at all levels throughout the country.

Many observers believe that Elena becomes the real power behind Ceausescu's dictatorship, particularly in it's later years, as Ceausescu becomes weak and ill.

1974 - Voters "elect" Ceausescu president of the republic in March. He further tightens his control of government by placing trusted allies and members of his immediate family, including his wife, three brothers, a son, and a brother-in-law, in strategic party and government posts - a policy that comes to be known in the West as "dynastic socialism."

Meanwhile, Ceausescu's personality cult is increasingly boosted by the state-controlled media, which lionises him as the greatest genius of the age, the 'Genius of the Carpathians', the 'Danube of Thought', the "guarantor of the nation's progress and independence", the "visionary architect of the nation's future." His presidency is described as the "golden era of Ceausescu."

However, while the first years of Ceausescu's reign do see a continuation of the spectacular levels of industrial development achieved under the Stalinist programs adopted by Gheorghiu-Dej, overcapitalisation and economic mismanagement leave the country with excess production capacity and a mounting foreign debt at a time when world market prices for industrial products are experiencing a downturn.

Growth falls from highs of 10% per annum in the early 1970s to 3% in 1980 as spending far outpaces income. By the end of the 1970s Romania's international debt is approaching US$10 billion.

Ceausescu attempts to blame the West for the predicament, accusing it of economic imperialism. The subsequent deterioration of relations with the West is exacerbated as Romania's human rights record becomes an increasing concern.

1979 - As head of the National Council of Science and Technology, Elena Ceausescu is given a seat in the Cabinet. In 1980 she is appointed first deputy prime minister, the number two position in the government behind her husband.

1981 - Agricultural production falls, requiring the reintroduction of food rationing. Domestic energy is also in short supply as the bulk of electrical power is diverted to industrial development projects.

Ceausescu proposes a 'New Agrarian Revolution' under which farmers will be forced to supply the state with set quotas for which they will only be paid a third of the market price.

1982 - With the country now firmly in the grip of a balance-of-payments crisis Ceausescu introduces a rigorous austerity program to pay off the accumulated foreign debt within a decade. Most of the country's produce is exported, causing further shortages of food, fuel and other essentials at home.

The standard of living plunges. But while most Romanians are needlessly starving, cold and living in the dark, Ceausescu and his family continue to be surrounded by comfort and privilege. One dissident estimates that at least 15,000 Romanians die per year as a result of the austerity program.

US Secretary of State George Shultz claims that Romania has "possibly the worst" human rights record in Eastern Europe.

1983 - Following an alleged military coup attempt Ceausescu's brother, Ilie, is made deputy minister of national defence and chief of the Higher Political Council of the Army.

1987 - In May students stage a large demonstration in Iasi, in the northeast of Romania, near the border with Moldova. Massive antigovernment protests and riots break out in Brasov, 150 km north of Bucharest, on 15 November. Ceausescu uses force to suppress the uprisings. Thousands of children are also recruited to spy on their families, friends and teachers and report to the Securitate.

1988 - The urban and rural systematisation program first proposed in the 1960s is revived.

Ceausescu, meanwhile, becomes even more interventionist in the economy, visiting factories himself and personally setting their production targets.

1989 - Ceausescu is now the head of state, the head of the Communist Party, the head of the armed forces, chairman of the Supreme Council for Economic and Social Development, president of the National Council of Working People, and chairman of the Socialist Democracy and Unity Front.

To strengthen his control and keep any potential rivals off-balance party members are constantly rotated through the government's key ministries. At the same time, at least 27 of Ceausescu's close relatives now hold top party and state posts, acting as his trusted eyes and ears.

While communist regimes elsewhere in Eastern Europe are falling, Ceausescu refuses to loosen his grip. His goal of clearing the country's foreign debt is achieved during the year but the high social cost will precipitate his downfall.

In March six prominent members of the Communist Party write an open letter to Ceausescu that criticises his abuses of power and his economic policies. The so-called "letter of the six" is circulated in the Western media and read on Radio Free Europe, where it is described as the manifesto of an underground organisation called the National Salvation Front.

Nevertheless, Ceausescu is reelected for another five-year term as head of the Romanian Communist Party in November, only weeks before his downfall.

On 16 December antigovernment demonstrations begin to break out in Timisoara in the west of Romania. The next day, as large numbers of protesters march on the Communist Party headquarters in the city, Ceausescu orders his security forces to fire on the crowd. Up to 4,000 die during the days of conflict that follow. The 'Revolution of Timisoara' ends on 20 December when the demonstrators take control of the city, aided by army defectors.

The demonstrations spread to Bucharest. On 21 December 80,000 to 100,000 people gather outside the headquarters of the Communist Party in Republican Square in a mass rally organised by the party in support of Ceausescu and broadcast on national television.

However, as Ceausescu speaks to the crowd from the balcony of the building, he is shouted down by chants such as "Timisoara", "Down with the murderers", "Down with the dictatorship", "Romanians awake", and "We are ready to die." The television broadcast is stopped, but not before images of a visibly shaken Ceausescu are aired.

Ceausescu retreats inside the party headquarters. Outside the number of demonstrators converging on the square grows throughout the night. It is reported that the minister for defence, General Vasile Milea, is summarily executed after he refuses to obey Ceausescu's directive and order his troops to fire on the crowd.

The army sides with the demonstrators on 22 December. Ceausescu makes a final attempt to address the crowd, but seeing that situation is now out of his control he flees the capital with his wife, boarding his personal helicopter from the roof of the party headquarters building.

Several hours later the Ceausescus are captured at Cîmpulung, about 100 km northwest of Bucharest, and returned to a secret location in Bucharest.

Meanwhile, battles between Ceausescu loyalists in the Securitate and the military break out on the streets of the capital, claiming about 1,000 lives. The loyalists are assisted by terrorists from the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Syria and Libya, who are in Romania to receive training.

On 25 December the Ceausescus are tried by a special military tribunal and convicted on charges of mass murder and other crimes. The sentence is death. Ceausescu and his wife are executed by firing squad shortly after the sentence is handed down. They are buried at an undisclosed location. After footage of their dead bodies is broadcast on national television the remaining resistance to the regime change falls away.

Much intrigue and uncertainty surrounds the exact circumstances of the Ceausescu's downfall. Sources indicate there may have been several plots to oust him - by the Romanian military, by dissidents in the Romanian Communist Party, by the Soviet secret service, by Ceausescu's son Nicu, and by the Securitate.

Postscript

The National Salvation Front (NSF) government that takes control of Romania after Ceausescu's downfall is composed of senior Communist Party figures, high-ranking military officers, and prominent Romanian dissidents.

The NSF acts quickly to overturn Ceausescu's most unpopular programs and shore up its support. Food exports are suspended, the general availability of foodstuffs is increased, energy restrictions on households are lifted, the systematisation program is halted, and abortions are legalised.

1990 - The Securitate is dissolved and many of its personnel integrated into the army. On 9 February the NSF is replaced in government by the Provisional Council of National Unity. At elections held in May the NSF is formally voted into power.

1991 - A new constitution establishes Romania as a republic with a multiparty electoral system and a market economy. Citizens are guaranteed the right to freedom of speech and religion, and the private ownership of assets.

1992 - The graves of Ceausescu and his wife are allegedly discovered at Ghencea Civil Cemetery in western Bucharest. The following year members of the Communist Party erect a modest granite headstone to mark the site.

2010 - In July the graves at Ghencea Cemetery are opened and samples taken from the bodies in order to determine if they are those of the Ceausescus.

The exhumation is witnessed by Ceausescu's son-in-law Mircea Oprean. "I'm inclined to believe that these are my parents-in-law," Oprean says. "I saw the bodies; my father-in-law's was quite well preserved. ... I recognised my father-in-law's black winter coat ... which like his trousers had some holes in it, presumably bullet holes. ... But I won't be 100% sure until the DNA tests have been done."

The analysis confirms that the bodies are those of Ceausescu and his wife. The bodies are reburied in adjacent graves at the Ghencea Cemetery.

Comment: Ceausescu could have been a hero but instead went down the killing road. His commitment to Romanian independence was poisoned by paternalism and his belief in his own infallibility - hubris, that age-old companion to despots. Not content with ruining the country it is alleged that he also tried to rob it, establishing Swiss bank accounts to hide his stash. His most appalling legacy is the thousands of filthy, neglected children rescued from the orphanages and institutions Ceausescu claimed did not exist.