Ceauşescu Is Overthrown in Romania Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The overthrow of Nicolae Ceauşescu in Romania was part of the violent climax to the collapse of Communism in Europe and the dissolution of the Soviet empire.

Summary of Event

Before Nicolae Ceauşescu’s overthrow, Romania appeared quiescent, accepting the last unreformed, Stalinist ruling party in Soviet-dominated Europe. In reality, however, Romania was ready to explode. On two previous occasions, popular discontent had turned violent, threatening the regime. In August, 1977, thirty thousand miners in the Jiu Valley went on strike and allegedly held important officials hostage until their demands had been negotiated. On November 15, 1987, protesting pay cuts and fearful about facing deprivations with the coming winter, workers marched on the Braşov city center, demanding food and destroying the local party headquarters before the army restored order and killed three protesters. Revolutions and coups;Romania Romania, Ceauşescu regime [kw]Ceauşescu Is Overthrown in Romania (Dec. 25, 1989) [kw]Overthrown in Romania, Ceauşescu Is (Dec. 25, 1989) [kw]Romania, Ceauşescu Is Overthrown in (Dec. 25, 1989) Revolutions and coups;Romania Romania, Ceauşescu regime [g]Europe;Dec. 25, 1989: Ceauşescu Is Overthrown in Romania[07510] [g]Balkans;Dec. 25, 1989: Ceauşescu Is Overthrown in Romania[07510] [g]Romania;Dec. 25, 1989: Ceauşescu Is Overthrown in Romania[07510] [c]Government and politics;Dec. 25, 1989: Ceauşescu Is Overthrown in Romania[07510] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 25, 1989: Ceauşescu Is Overthrown in Romania[07510] Ceauşescu, Nicolae Blandiana, Ana Cornea, Doina Tokes, Laszlo Milea, Vasile Iliescu, Ion Roman, Petre

Although Romanian dissidents usually failed to attract the attention of the non-Communist world, they nevertheless existed. By the time of the revolution, Ana Blandiana was well known for her poignantly critical, anti-Communist poetry. Doina Cornea, a lecturer at Cluj University living under house arrest since 1982, continued to publicize human rights violations.

External events also pressured Ceauşescu. In the Soviet world, Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms spread quickly; by December of 1989, Romania alone among the Soviet allies had not begun a retreat from Communism, retaining many features of an earlier Stalinism. A pervasive secret police, the Securitate, had informers throughout the society who reported on any anti-Communist thought or action.

Nicolae Ceauşescu around the time he took power in Romania in 1965.

(Library of Congress)

Romania’s human rights record was subject to constant international criticism. Particularly egregious were the harsh, invasive laws encouraging large families, which outlawed birth control and forbade abortions. A decision by Ceauşescu in 1980 to retire Romania’s international debt halted consumer imports and produced a drive for exports that left Romanians without enough food or energy for their homes. Standards of living in Romania and Albania were the lowest in all of Europe. A misconceived systematization policy called for some eleven thousand villages to be razed and their inhabitants consolidated in agro-industrial complexes; this move allegedly increased agricultural land by 4.5 percent, but it destroyed the peasant village life fundamental to Romanian culture. An urban variant of systematization destroyed the old center of Bucharest and displaced forty thousand people, making space for the gigantic, impractical Palace of the People and the Boulevard of the Victory of Socialism.

In the late 1980’s, Laszlo Tokes, a Hungarian-Romanian pastor in Timişoara, criticized the systematization policy; his commentary received wide publicity, including taped broadcasts on Hungarian radio. It was arranged for Tokes to transfer to a small, remote village, but he refused to go. On December 15, 1989, the authorities determined to remove him by force. The members of his congregation defiantly linked arms to prevent his leaving, and thus began the Romanian revolution.

The next day, the protesters were joined by more Romanians and by people of other nationalities in the multiethnic city. Although Tokes and his family were forcibly removed that night, the protest continued and increased in size. Soon it had moved to the city center, where protesters smashed the local party headquarters and added to their demands democracy and free elections. At a meeting held on December 17, Ceauşescu ordered the army and Securitate to fire on the demonstrators if necessary. That afternoon, the Securitate and probably the army opened fire, killing some and dispersing the demonstration. On December 18, confident that the situation was under control, Ceauşescu began a state visit to Iran.

A general strike broke out in Timişoara on December 19, and the demonstrations spread to Cluj, Oradea, and other provincial localities. On December 20, demonstrations resumed in earnest in Timişoara, and that evening more than 100,000 people gathered in the city center. Ordered again to open fire, the army and some Securitate units refused and returned to their barracks. The formation of the Timişoara Action Committee of the Romanian Democratic Front Timişoara Action Committee of the Romanian Democratic Front[Timisoara Action Committee] was announced, and the committee issued a manifesto of grievances and demands.

Ceauşescu returned to Bucharest on the afternoon of December 20, and that evening he made a radio broadcast in which he blamed the disturbance on hooligans working with foreign imperialists and thanked the army and Securitate for doing their duty. The following day, thousands of workers were ordered into Bucharest’s Square of the Republic, where they joined students and others in front of the Communist Party’s Central Committee headquarters to hear an address by Ceauşescu. Shortly after he began speaking, he was interrupted by catcalls and commotion at the back of the crowd. When Ceauşescu hesitated in confusion and disbelief, his wife, Elena Ceauşescu, dragged him back inside the building, but not before all of Romania had seen the confused and flustered president live on national television.

Attempts to break up the demonstration after the aborted speech only succeeded in moving the demonstrators to the university, where they kept up their confrontation with the army and the Securitate, which continued shooting that night, inflicting many casualties. Confusion thereafter prevailed in the Central Committee building. Ceauşescu’s fury focused on the defense minister, General Vasile Milea, who reportedly refused Ceauşescu’s order to resume firing on the demonstrators. For this disobedience Milea was apparently summarily executed on the morning of December 22, costing Ceauşescu whatever army support he may still have enjoyed; none believed the government’s claim that Milea had committed suicide. With the army now fraternizing with demonstrators who threatened to storm the Central Committee building, the Ceauşescus took off in a helicopter from the roof that noon.

Immediately thereafter, the Central Committee building as well as the television and radio studios across town were occupied by demonstrators. That afternoon, Ion Iliescu, a former Communist youth leader who had been forced off the Central Committee in 1984, announced the formation of the National Salvation Front, National Salvation Front (Romania) which was composed largely of such Communists as himself and Petre Roman, the future prime minister, with representatives of the Securitate and the army, together with some dissidents, including Blandiana and Cornea. That evening a manifesto announced that the Front now held governmental authority in Romania and outlined a program of free elections, protection of human and minority rights, and far-reaching economic reforms.

Meanwhile, the Ceauşescus had abandoned the helicopter and commandeered an automobile. They were soon captured and taken to a military installation in Tîrgovişte. On December 25, they were tried and found guilty of genocide, a reference to the highly exaggerated figure of sixty-three thousand dead in the revolution, and of seeking to flee the country with vast sums in foreign banks. Both were then executed. An edited video of the irregular judicial proceeding, resembling the mock trials that the Communists themselves conducted in the past, was shown on Romanian television on December 26, as were pictures of the bullet-ridden Ceauşescus. Intermittent firing had been continuing on the streets of Bucharest and elsewhere, allegedly by die-hard members of the Securitate, but incontrovertible evidence of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s death and threats to execute gunmen not surrendering by December 27 brought an end to the violence.


Many disturbing questions remained following Ceauşescu’s overthrow. How was it possible to account for the speed with which a group of Communists formed a government and issued a manifesto on December 22? Was it a popular revolution, as the Timişoara events indicated, or a coup d’état, as the immediate appearance of the National Salvation Front suggested? What exactly were the roles of the army and the Securitate? When and why had they gone over to the new government? Why were preposterous death figures cited at Ceauşescu’s trial when the government admitted in June, 1990, that at the time of his flight only 144 persons had died? Who killed the 889 others the government reported had been killed after Ceauşescu’s flight, when the new government was already in place?

These and other such questions lingered unanswered long after the revolution and handicapped the National Salvation Front in its quest for international acceptance and approval. By 1996, the Communists, who had continued to dominate in the government, were swept from power, and Romania, although suffering from widespread corruption, gradually took steps to reform its economy. In March, 2004, Romania joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Revolutions and coups;Romania Romania, Ceauşescu regime

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Codrescu, Andrei. The Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile’s Story of Return and Revolution. New York: William Morrow, 1991. Witty, insightful commentary on Romanian events by a famous poet who returned to his native land in December, 1989.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Corley, Felix, and John Eibner. In the Eye of the Romanian Storm: The Heroic Story of Pastor Laszlo Tokes. Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1990. Biography provides a detailed narrative of events in Timişoara through the December demonstrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Deletant, Dennis. Ceauşescu and the Securitate: Coercion and Dissent in Romania, 1965-1989. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1995. Presents a comprehensive examination of both the activities of the secret police in maintaining oppression in Romania and the ways in which dissenters fought back. Draws in part on Securitate archives. Includes map, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Patapievici, Horia-Roman. Flying Against the Arrow: An Intellectual in Ceauşescu’s Romania. New York: Central European University Press, 2003. Quasi-autobiographical account of the life of a young writer living under the oppression of the Ceauşescu regime.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pilon, Juliana Geran. The Bloody Flag: Post-Communist Nationalism in Eastern Europe—Spotlight on Romania. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1992. Examines the new nationalism that replaced communism in Eastern Europe. Focuses on the specific case of Romania.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rady, Martyn. Romania in Turmoil: A Contemporary History. New York: I. B. Tauris, 1992. Scholarly account of the Romanian revolution by a British historian.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ratesh, Nestor. Romania: The Entangled Revolution. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1992. A veteran chief of Radio Free Europe critically examines the Romanian revolution, highlighting many questions, inconsistencies, and contradictions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sweeney, John. The Life and Evil Times of Nicolae Ceauşescu. London: Hutchinson, 1991. A London journalist who covered Romanian events for the Observer took leave to write this well-researched, literate account.

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Dissolution of the Soviet Union

Categories: History