When Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was overthrown on December 21, 1989, and executed the next day, it happened so quickly that many people around the world almost missed it. After all, it happened within the bigger picture of communism collapsing throughout Eastern Europe, so it was quickly overlooked in the chaos.
But Ceauşescu held the distinction of being only one of two of those governments to fall violently (we’ll get to the other one, Yugoslavia, a little later). The rest did so relatively peacefully. After the smoke in Romania cleared, though, the rest of the world began to see that Ceauşescu had enacted some truly repressive and crazy policies.
Like many other communist despots, including the two we’ve already profiled in our book, Ceauşescu limited his people’s food rations, controlled the information they received, and even micromanaged the temperatures in their homes. But none of that was necessarily crazy. Ceauşescu never caused a massive famine in Romania and he is generally considered responsible for thousands, not millions of deaths.
The crazy thing that Ceauşescu did was believe his own hype. In 1971, after visiting communist North Korea, Ceauşescu decided to model his rule on dictators in that part of the world by carefully constructing his own “personality cult.”
Perhaps to overcompensate for his diminutive stature (approximately 5ft 6 inches tall), Ceauşescu built himself and his wife up as the benevolent leaders of a socialist utopia, but socialism was a one-way street for him.
As the Romanian people struggled with food and energy rations during the 1970s and ‘80s, Ceauşescu and his family lived a capitalist lifestyle. In addition to a large presidential palace in Bucharest where they spent most of their time, the Ceauşescus had several country villas, lake cabins, and apartments throughout Romania. Ceauşescu enjoyed hunting, fishing, and entertaining world leaders at his many properties, sharing the finest Romanian wines with them, and dining on multi-course meals.
When communist regimes began collapsing in the late 1980s, Ceauşescu tried to hold things together through a combination of brutality and lies, but by then the people had seen through their leader’s crazy policies and realized he was a hypocrite who had to go.
The Ashes of World War II
Nicolae Ceauşescu came of age during World War II in Romania, which was actually one of the Axis Powers and had a quasi-fascist government through most of the war. When the war began in 1939, Ceauşescu was a 21-year-old communist who thought he was going to change the world, but who found himself in concentration camps for most of the war.
Despite the hardships the future dictator endured, it wasn’t all bad. He met his future wife, Elena, during the war and made important contacts that helped in later years.
When the Red Army occupied Romania after the war, Ceauşescu established himself a bona fide pro-Soviet, pro-Stalin communist. His ascent in the government was meteoric after that.
Ceauşescu became the General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party in 1965, which was essentially the highest position in the land, and would later make himself president. The first few years of his rule were actually important and a bit unique compared to other Eastern Bloc countries.
Although Romania was a Warsaw Pact member, it differed in many international policies from its communist allies. Ceauşescu recognized West Germany before other communist states did and recognized both Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization as well. He was actually popular in Romania during the first few years of his rule, but then he visited North Korea and China in 1971 and everything changed.
When Ceauşescu returned from his Asian trip, he announced in his “July Thesis” that Romania would undergo a transformation just as China had (we’ll get to that later in our book). Art would be changed, restrictions on travel were enacted, and most importantly, a massive propaganda campaign was initiated that stressed the primacy of Ceauşescu and his wife.
A Communist Living the Good Life
There were several problems with Ceauşescu assuming complete control of Romania. First, he was quite uneducated. With only a grade school equivalent education, Ceauşescu didn’t have the background to deal with some of the complicated issues in front of him. Although there are plenty of intelligent people in the world who aren’t very educated, he wasn’t one of them.
Second, instead of accepting a confidant who was educated and/or intelligent, he chose his wife to be his right-hand person. Elena may have been charming, as Nicolae was, but like him, she wasn’t too bright. Neither of the pair was very well-read nor well-spoken, but that didn’t stop Nicolae from “awarding” his wife a Ph.D. in chemistry.
That was just the beginning of the ride on the crazy train for Ceauşescu and also marked the beginning of the end for him. To build his communist utopia, Ceauşescu had to borrow large amounts of foreign currency, and to pay that off, he had to enact strict austerity measures.
Fines or jail time were given for heating homes and offices above 60°F, curfews were common, and television consisted primarily of the “the leader” giving speeches with his wife standing next to him.
But the craziest things Ceauşescu did were related to food (there’s that thing with food and dictators again). In 1982, the government announced a vigorous plan to combat obesity—although it really had more to do with paying back Romania’s debts. The plan included lowering caloric intake to 2700-2800 calories a day. They did this by limiting pay and rations and by creating strange “mystery meat” food substitutes.
There was even a coffee called nechezol that was only 20% coffee and 80% chickpeas and beans!
Needless to say, chocolate, real coffee, cigars, and imported cigarettes, and even Soviet imports such as caviar, were considered luxury goods and off-limits to most people.They weren’t off-limits to Ceauşescu and his family, though.
As the Romanian people struggled to pay back the loans their leader took out, Ceauşescu and his family lived the high life in their villas and mansions. Because Nicolae had complete control of the media, he was able to keep his lifestyle a secret for many years. He also used his secret police to arrest, torture, and imprison any dissenters.
But Ceauşescu’s crazy policies and lifestyle couldn’t be hidden forever. By the late 1980s, brave Romanians were beginning to protest about “the Leader” and it all came to a head on December 17, 1989, in the city of Timisoara. Thousands came out on that day to protest the dictator, but they were greeted with live ammunition from the police and military, leaving more than 100 dead.
Once Ceauşescu was executed, the people of Romania finally saw just how high on the hog the dictator lived and just how crazy he was.
Did You Know?
- Nicolae actually “stole” Elena away from one of his brothers. The couple married in 1939, had three children and remained married until they were executed in 1989.
- Ceauşescu developed a strange sort of friendship with Spanish artist Salvador Dali. The two men corresponded via letters and met in person in 1974 when the artist gave the dictator a scepter. Ceauşescu was said to have enjoyed the gift, although many contend that Dali meant it as a sarcastic joke. The joke was clearly over the dictator’s head.
- Ceauşescu’s height has been subject to debate. Some sources list him at a minuscule 5’2, while others have him at a more average 5’6.
- Romania under Ceauşescu was often a place with seemingly contradictory ideas, just as the dictator lived his life. For example, abortions were made illegal in 1966, but so too was going to church.
- Just months before he was removed from power and executed, Ceauşescu managed to repay the more than $11 billion in loans Romania owed.