Timisoara Massacre

On December 16, 1989, thousands of people took to the streets of Timisoara in Romania to protest food shortages, harassment of a dissident ethnic-Hungarian priest, Laszlo Tokes, and the dictatorship of Nicholai Ceausescu in general. Many were teenagers and students, and the brutal suppression of these protests marked the beginning of the end for the Ceausescu regime. A few days after the massacre in Timisoara, Ceausescu gave a speech in Bucharest before one hundred thousand people, who shouted down the eccentric tyrant with the cries of “Timisoara!” and “Down with the murderers!” Ceausescu tried to escape the country with $1 billion, but he was captured and executed. It was the last of the popular uprisings against communist rule in eastern Europe that year, and the only one that turned violent.

With Ceausescu gone, Western journalists are invited to see the horrors of the Ceausescu regime. Already on the day Ceausescu was overthrown, locals in Timisoara were unearthing mass graves, believed by townspeople to be holding as many as 4,500 bodies, massacred by the security forces in just three days. The interim Romanian government showed nineteen bodies found in a shallow grave as the victims of the dictatorship. There Robert Maass took the infamous photograph of an unknown man crying over the bodies of a mother and an infant.

Although it was widely assumed otherwise at the time, it later transpired that the crying man and the dead women were not the dead infant’s parents. It was also later revealed that some bodies in the mass grave were not the direct victims of the regime — the mother died of cirrhosis, and the infant of crib death (or sudden infant death syndrome). The locals stage-managed the gruesome event primarily for the international media. Controversy followed, and Timisoara became a symbol (albeit briefly) of media manipulation and sensationalism. It is a photoevent that clearly illustrates the themes we have again and again visited on this site: Can we rely on photographs, and by extension, photographers? Can photographers and newsmen escape from attempts to manipulate them?

It is now believed that the number of dead in Timisoara was probably fewer than 100. Ten years on, the BBC mused whether the key events of the revolution were stage-managed by enemies of democracy (namely the anti-Ceausescu forces within the ruling elite) and whether the Romanian revolution was not a revolution, but rather a coup d’etat. Today, some twenty years after these events, with Romania firmly inside the European Union, we often forget that communist allies controlled politics and economy in Romania until 1996, and that successive Romanian governments blocked attempts to prosecute those responsible for the bloodsheds of 1989.

Ceauşescu’s Romania

For many years, he was a Communist dictator the West could agree with: he first decade in power was marked by an open policy towards the West, and independence from the Soviet Union’s policies. Nicolae Ceausescu presented himself as a reforming communist in his highly publicized (and eccentric, of which more will be said later) state visits to the US, France, UK and Spain. Under him, Romania was the first European communist state to recognize West Germany, the first to join the International Monetary Fund, and the first to receive a US President (Nixon in 1973).

Above was the picture of Ceausescu together with French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing in Bucharest. When when Ceausescu’s Communist Party officials saw the topmost photo, they were horrified to find out that not only did their revered leader appear short compared to towering d’Estaing, but Giscard was also wearing a hat. Ceausescu, who was carrying his, looked like he was begging. The images were doctored for the official party daily, adding a few extra centimetres to Ceausescu and putting a hat on his head. Except no one remember to airbrush out the hat in his hands. When the mistake was spotted, police were sent across the country charged with securing every copy of the paper and its front-page image of the dictator with two hats. (Ceausescu like many dicators was touchy about his height. At group portrait sessions of the communist parties, the members had to respect a certain hierarchy and no one of the group was allowed to surpass Ceausescu in height. They either had to knee or the photos had to be tempered).

Such was a chaotic Romania under Ceausescu.  In 1978, he ordered a new entrance to metro filled up within twelve hours after it was dug just to have a better background for one of his speeches. Although he was feted from the White House to China’s Great Hall of the People, but Ceausescu was so paranoid that foreigners would poison his clothes that he started wearing only clothes that had been under surveillance in a specially constructed warehouse, and each item of clothing would be worn only once, and then burned. To Buckingham Palace, he took his own sheets, and paranoid that he would catch a fatal disease from shaking hands, he washed his hands with alcohol after shaking Queen Elizabeth’s hand.

Like Caligula before him, he made his black Labrador Corbu a colonel in the Romanian Army. Corbu was driven through Bucharest in a limousine; it had its own motorcade, and mansion. The dog being a present from British Liberal Party leader David Steel, the Romanian ambassador in London was under official orders to go to Sainsbury’s every week to buy British dog biscuits which were then sent back in the diplomatic bag.

Perhaps the crowning eccentricity of Ceausescu was his idea to build the Palace of the Parliament, the world’s largest, most expensive and heaviest administrative building. The old city of Bucharest was lain waste by the construction of this and the Boulevard of Socialist Victory leading to the Parliament. Both were never finished. He ordered that typewriters be registered, noting that they were in possession of citizens who pose a “danger to public order or state security”.

Ceauşescu’s government was overthrown in a December 1989 military coup, and he was shot following a televised two-hour session by a kangaroo court, ending two decades of his farcical rule.