Harassment of a Christian Minister Sparks the Romanian Revolution

By late 1989, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was pressured by neighboring countries to change Romania’s deplorable economic and social conditions. He responded by shifting the blame to the Communist Party and calling for improvements in living standards but not changes to the political system. A Protestant minister condemned the discrimination against Hungarians living in Romania, and authorities began harassing him and ordered his eviction from his church apartment. The minister was physically attacked, sparking protests that led to the downfall of Ceauşescu and his regime.

Summary of Event

In December, 1989, Romanian leader Nicolae Ceauşescu’s actions against Protestant minister Laszlo Tokes led to the dictator’s own downfall and to the end of his repressive communist regime. Speaking out from his pulpit in Timisoara, Tokes had long criticized the Romanian government for its discriminatory practices, especially against his fellow Hungarians living in Romania. Ceauşescu’s government, to silence the pastor, harassed him and ordered his eviction from his church apartment. On November 2, armed attackers (some claim from the Romanian Securitate, or security police), had beat him in his home. Tokes’s congregation and others from Timisoara assembled around his home and church for a vigil to protest his treatment and prevent his arrest, set for December 15. What followed was mass resistance, heretofore unheard of in Romania, which caught the imagination of Romanians in other towns, and protests began all over the country. [kw]Romanian Revolution, Harassment of a Christian Minister Sparks the (Dec. 15-25, 1989)
Tokes, Laszlo
Ceauşescu, Nicolae
Communism;in Romania[Romania]
Tokes, Laszlo
Ceauşescu, Nicolae
Communism;in Romania[Romania]
[g]Europe;Dec. 15-25, 1989: Harassment of a Christian Minister Sparks the Romanian Revolution[02440]
[g]Romania;Dec. 15-25, 1989: Harassment of a Christian Minister Sparks the Romanian Revolution[02440]
[c]Atrocities and war crimes;Dec. 15-25, 1989: Harassment of a Christian Minister Sparks the Romanian Revolution[02440]
[c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 15-25, 1989: Harassment of a Christian Minister Sparks the Romanian Revolution[02440]
[c]Violence;Dec. 15-25, 1989: Harassment of a Christian Minister Sparks the Romanian Revolution[02440]
[c]Politics;Dec. 15-25, 1989: Harassment of a Christian Minister Sparks the Romanian Revolution[02440]
[c]Government;Dec. 15-25, 1989: Harassment of a Christian Minister Sparks the Romanian Revolution[02440]
[c]Military;Dec. 15-25, 1989: Harassment of a Christian Minister Sparks the Romanian Revolution[02440]
Milea, Vasile
Iliescu, Ion

Romanian Protestant minister Laszlo Tokes speaks to his congregation in January, 1990, after being freed from house arrest.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Romania, a small Central European country surrounded by Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, and the Black Sea, was ruled beginning in 1965 by Ceauşescu, the leader of the country’s Communist Party. In his zeal to improve Romania’s economy, Ceauşescu borrowed billions of dollars from Western countries to finance economic development programs. However, his programs backfired, and he started austerity programs to correct the situation. By the 1980’s, Romania was exporting so much of its agricultural and industrial production that its own people were left without enough food and other basic resources. Ceauşescu instituted rationing and other programs, determined not to let the country’s indebtedness reduce Romania to the condition of needing to rely on the largess of the West and the Soviet Union.

The shortages of food, fuel, and other basic necessities, along with the forced relocation of many rural residents, took their toll on the people. Many began to speak out against the government’s insensitivity to their increasingly low standard of living and to inequitable treatment. The ruling class lived well, even luxuriously and decadently, while the general population lived in conditions similar to those during wartime, facing extreme rationing and shortages. Some reports claim the government’s policies led to the death of fifteen thousand Romanians each year from starvation, cold, and various shortages of medical care and other necessities.

Minister Tokes, a young, handsome, ethnic Hungarian in Timisoara, a town in the Romanian region of Transylvania, preached a message about fairness and equality that appealed to many. His congregation started small but soon grew to more than four thousand members from all walks of life—the elderly, middle-age adults, and university students—all eager to hear his message of fairness for those not part of the ruling elite. His popularity soon caught the attention of the communist government’s authorities.

Ceauşescu lived by the Marxist dictum that religion “is the opiate of the masses,” and that Christians in general, and Tokes in particular, were not to be tolerated in a communist society. The dictator’s initial reaction to Tokes’s popularity was to have his security police harass and threaten the members of his congregation. When none of those actions deterred either Tokes or his congregants, Ceauşescu arranged to have Tokes suspended from his ministry and then denied him ration books that were needed to obtain food for himself and his family. Still resisting the efforts to be scared away from his mission, Tokes was attacked by masked men, who were rumored to be security police, and beaten and stabbed.

Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu around 1965, the year he took power in Romania.

(Library of Congress)

The townspeople of Timisoara began their protests after hearing of the brutal attack on Tokes. Crowds of unarmed men and women gathered about Tokes’s church apartment on December 15, 1989, to prevent the authorities from taking the minister from his home. At this time Ceauşescu was out of the country on a state visit to Iran, but his security police, under the direction of his wife, Elena, tried to disperse the protesters, who quickly formed massive demonstrations. The police moved against the protesters with tanks and helicopter gun ships. A state of emergency was declared after the Timisoara protests spread to several other Romanian cities: The population was fed up with life under Ceauşescu.

By December 22, with Romania in the middle of widespread revolt, Ceauşescu, who was back in the country, ordered his army to break up the protests and to fire on the protesters, most of whom were unarmed, if necessary. Defense Minister Vasile Milea, however, refused to order his soldiers to shoot civilians. Milea soon was found dead. His official cause of death was listed as a suicide. Another version of how he died claims that Milea had tried to incapacitate himself to relieve himself of having to follow orders with which he disagreed, and that he had botched the attempt and died accidentally. Most Romanians, though, believe that a security police officer had murdered him in retaliation for his refusal to lead the army against the protesters.

Fighting continued throughout the country, as demonstrators organized themselves into the Frontul Salvarii Nationale, or the National Salvation Front (NSF). Tokes was a part of the organization, as was the army chief of staff, Stefan Gusa. The army threw its support behind the protesters.

The Securitate remained loyal to Ceauşescu, and it used force and terrorism to try to quell the increasingly widespread insurrection. However, on December 25, the protesters and the army subdued the Securitate and took control of the government. The Ceauşescus tried to flee but were captured. They were tried in a secret trial on Christmas Day and summarily executed by a firing squad for crimes against the state and for genocide, the illegal gathering of wealth, and “undermining” the Romanian economy.


The NSF took power immediately and abolished the one-party system of the previous decades. However, the NSF also proclaimed that though Ceauşescu and the Communist Party brought disaster to the country, communism in and of itself was not to be abandoned. Some of the Communist Party members who held power during the Ceauşescu regime kept their leadership positions after his fall. The interim president, Ion Iliescu, who had been mentored by Ceauşescu, became disaffected with the way his mentor was ruling the country, so Ceauşescu stripped him of all his party positions. During the elections of 1990, the NSF won a large majority in the legislature. Iliescu was reelected to the presidency in 1992.

Tokes eventually became a bishop of the Hungarian-speaking Reformed Church district of Oradea in Transylvania. In 2007, he was speaking out on issues relating to religion and ecumenical cooperation.

Though the economy lagged and civil unrest continued because of food shortages and price increases, Romania slowly pulled itself out of the depths of repression. By 2007, the constitution had been changed to protect the rights of ethnic minorities, and the country had joined the North Atlantic Treaty North Atlantic Treaty Organization Organization and the European Union. Also, after having been deprived of the right by Ceauşescu beginning during the 1960’s, Romanians could once again celebrate Christmas. Romania
Tokes, Laszlo
Ceauşescu, Nicolae
Communism;in Romania[Romania]

Further Reading

  • Campeanu, Pavel. Ceauşescu: From the End to the Beginning. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. A prison cellmate and fellow communist, Campeanu bases his account of Ceauşescu’s rise to power on previously unavailable documents and personal recollections.
  • Deletant, Dennis. Ceauşescu and the Securitate: Coercion and Dissent in Romania, 1965-1989. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1996. An authoritative account of the Ceauşescu years, providing a history of the oppressors and the oppressed. It is the first major work to use the archives of the Romanian secret police.
  • Pacepa, Ion Mihai. Red Horizons: The True Story of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu’s Crimes, Lifestyle, and Corruption. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1990. Pacepa was a high-ranking officer who defected from Romania. A first-person exposé of the Ceauşescu regime.
  • Siani-Davis, Peter. The Romanian Revolution of December, 1989. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005. The causes of the revolution and way Ceauşescu was overthrown are discussed in a straightforward, journalistic style. A detailed account of how various leaders and ordinary people became involved in the chaos.

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