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.