ROMANIA'S NEW EPOCH started on December 21st, 1989. The Berlin Wall had fallen in November; Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia had already got rid of their Communist regimes; the Soviet Union was disintegrating. After days of riots over the intended sacking of a Hungarian Protestant priest in Timisoara, a town in western Romania with a large Hungarian minority population, the uprising spread to the capital, Bucharest.
Hundreds of thousands had been bussed in to stand in front of the Communist Party building to give the conducator ('leader') Nicolae Ceausescu the chance to show that he was still in charge. However, the planned scenario went wrong and within a few minutes people were shouting 'Timisoara' and 'Jos Ceausescu' ('Down with Ceausescu'). The dictator waved his hands, and his eyes, as the TV pictures show, looked from left to right, at first uncomprehendingly and then with fear and astonishment as he realized that the crowd, for the first time in his twenty-four year rule, was no longer pretending to support him but was making it clear that they wanted to get rid of him. Together with his wife Elena he fled in a helicopter from the roof of the building, but two days later the couple was captured and shot, after a summary military trial, in an army barracks outside Bucharest.
It seems astonishing, even now, that more people were killed after the deaths of the Ceausescus than during the week-long uprising itself. Even as the riots were taking place in Timisoara, images of the events were being manipulated for political purposes: television stations broadcast pictures of many dead bodies, allegedly shot by the army and the Securitate, the secret police. Such was their impact both on shocked Romanians and on Western observers, it was believed that several tens of thousands had been killed as the shaky regime used violence to suppress the protests. Only later did it become apparent that the dead bodies had been dug up from graves to create the impression of atrocities. Today, the total number of victims shot to death in those December days is estimated at 1,200.
Writing the history of twentieth-century Romania in the years since the downfall of Ceausescu has been no easy enterprise. The question of what 'really' happened and who or what caused the so-called 'revolution' of 1989 has never been satisfactorily answered and shows that the past is still an unsolved problem for Romanians. Although it was generally assumed early on that Ceausescu fell as the result of an organized putsch by a group on the margin of the Communist Party, the details and background context did not fit easily into a national narrative of the birth of the new Romania. Myths and justifications are generally widespread in academic publications by Romanian historians. It seems to be more important to promote self-images of a glorious and coherent national history than to research and interpret the past in an objective manner. On its becoming a full member of the EU in January, and as it tries to adapt to professional standards of academic research and discussion on the crucial issues of European history, the country finds itself confronting not only its Communist but also its Fascist past.
In the first years after the fall of Communism the former supporters of the Ceausescus continued their activities, either in the newly founded right-wing anti-Semitic Partidul Romania Mare (Great Romania Party) or in the socialist PDSR, the renamed former Communist Party. These ideologues tried to restore nationalist and chauvinist opinions and movements. Others revived the times of the Second World War and sought the official rehabilitation of Marshal Antonescu, Hitler's war and Holocaust partner. Just how dangerous the mixture of post-Communist and Fascist opinion could become was made brutally clear in 1990 when Professor Ioan Petru Culianu, an exiled academic at the University of Chicago who had succeeded to the chair previously held by the illustrious Romanian historian of religion Mircea Eliade, was shot in the head in a toilet at his department. The alleged killers were said to be former Securitate or Iron Guard partisans, acting because Culianu had ridiculed the Communist system and Romanian national myths.
That the new state was not a fully democratic one was shown in June 1990 when President Ion Iliescu used miners from the Jiu valley to scare away demonstrators from Bucharest's central University Square. In the countryside, a series of pogrom-like incidents led to the burning of whole Roma villages, with several dead. In such an unstable atmosphere it was only in 1999 that--with the help of the famous Gauck-Behorde, the German institution for the study of the East German Stasi files--a similar institution was officially established to deal with the files of the Romanian Securitate. Unfortunately the CNSAS (National Council for the Study of the Securitate files) could only handle files that had been made available by the SRI, the successor institution to the Securitate. Furthermore, the still dominating PDSR (now the PSD) had no great interest in allowing too much light to be shed on the pre-1989 careers of many of its high-ranking members.
So for several years the CNSAS saw no major results. Only in recent months, with the appearance of new constellations on the political scene, has the release of many more files begun to reveal the names of those who helped create the strange and 'special' atmosphere of the Romanian Communist era when the whole country was gripped by belief that resistance against the omnipresent regime was impossible. Rumours and concealment played an ambivalent role during the years of the Communist dictatorship. On the one hand, they prevented clear insights into the mechanisms of suppression and the organization of widespread resistance. On the other, rumours helped to sustain and hand on to succeeding generations a vague knowledge of earlier resistance. So many in Romania today still remember past incidents of organized armed anti-Communist resistance despite the supposedly complete suppression of opposition. In the early 1960s, for example, fifteen years after the establishment of the Communist regime, the Securitate was still having to eliminate active partisan groups in the woods and mountains of the Carpathians and in the north. Some of these were former members of the Fascist Iron Guard, others belonged to rural anti-Communist peasant resistance groups.
Under Gheorghe Gheorgiu-Dej, Stalinist leader from 1947 to 1965, the traditional structures of the peasants' party and the liberal parties were destroyed. Opponents of the regime were confined in the prison at Sigher, on the border with Ukraine. In 1992 former dissident Ana Blandiana established a memorial site here as a tribute to the memory of its political prisoners (the web-page is at www.memorialsighet.ro). Another point of resistance was the Maramures region in the remote northwest of the country, where traditional farmers refused to accept the imposition of collectivization by the Communists. One of the most notorious forced labour sites was the Danube--Black Sea Canal where many political opponents and ethnic minoris died.
When Ceausescu first took over power in 1965 he seemed prepared to allow a certain degree of liberalization. He was well received in the West (including the United Kingdom) since at the beginning he pursued an independent course among Warsaw Pact countries: Romania had had no Soviet troops on its soil since 1958, and in 1968 Ceausescu protested against the use of the Pact's armies to suppress Alexander Dubcek's liberal 'Prague Spring' in Czechoslovakia. Romania established early diplomatic links with Israel; his domestic and foreign policies seemed to combine a skewed nationalist tradition with Communist ideology.
But this liberalization didn't last for long. With the failure of Ceausescu's economic policy of far-reaching autarky and the collapse of centralized industrial plants in the 1970s and 1980s terror grew, though it is difficult to qualify precisely the subtle and the violent forms of oppression exercised by the omnipresent Securitate. Although most people were afraid, there were isolated acts of opposition and resistance both from intellectuals and from workers who opposed the regime in 1976 and 1987. What made it easy for the Securitate to maintain control was the absence of a self-confident society such as those that offered a degree of shelter to the Solidarity movement in Poland and to Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia. In Romania there was no civil society or church to support a counterculture of opposition.
The reasons for this can be found in Romania's prewar and wartime history. The Stalinist regime of Gheorgiu-Dej, imposed in the shadow of Stalin's conquest of Eastern Europe in the wake of the Yalta agreement, was only the last in a row of dominoes that toppled what remained of democratic and liberal ideas in Romania. It had been preceded by the Fascist regime of Marshal Antonescu, who had sided with Hitler in the Second World War after forcing, with German help, the abdication of King Carol II, in 1940. Carol, a royal dictator, himself had made increasing use of terror to counter the influence of the Iron Guards, who were a violent anti-Semitic, anti-Communist movement of the Christian right. Romania's interwar period was thus over-shadowed by the loss of democratic institutions and liberal thinking on a large scale. As a result of the growing economic crisis and the terror tactics of the Fascist movement, democratic society rapidly disappeared. Foremost among those who suffered was the Jewish population. In 1938 Carol II marked his assumption of autocratic power by adopting Nazi-style anti-Semitic laws in Romania.
Romania joined Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, largely with the aim of regaining Bessarabia and Bukovina, which had been seized by the Soviet Union in 1940 as a result of the secret agreements contained in the German-Soviet Pact by which the German and Soviet foreign ministers Ribbentrop and Molotov effectively partitioned Eastern Europe. In the first days of the Barbarossa campaign, between five and thirteen thousand Jews were murdered by the Romanian army, militia, police and German soldiers in the old town of Iasi near the Bessarabian border. The slaughter had been organized by Romanian military intelligence on the explicit orders of Antonescu, who accused the Jewish population of the northern border territories of backing the Soviet regime and supporting its military strategies. The high number of casualties was the result of a well-planned strategy; the terrified Jewish citizens were arrested and shot, and those who survived these atrocities were taken to the railway station and crowded into cattle trucks. Two and a half thousand Jews died on the death trains, left without food and water to endure a journey lasting several days.
It is estimated that during the Holocaust a total of 250,000 people, mostly local and deported Jews and Roma from the northern provinces of Romania, were killed in the region of Bessarabid and between the Dniester and Bug rivers. Most of the surviving Jewish population left Romania in the 1950s and 1960s, forced out by the Communists. Blame for the atrocities was placed firmly on the Germans, and it is only since 1989 that research, mostly by Romanian historians living abroad, has begun to reveal Romania's active and, to a great extent, deliberate participation in the Holocaust.
In 2003 President Iliescu appointed Romanian-born Nobel Peace prizewinner Elie Wiesel to head an international commission to investigate activities on Romanian soil during the Second World War. The commission's report, presented one year later, can be read in English at www.yadvashem.org. It gives a detailed account of the part played by Romanians in the extermination of Jews and Romas. By thus successfully institutionalizing research and centralizing the public interest in neutral and objective study of the disputed past it has become possible for younger historians to show a fresh and more rational approach to Romania's jagged landscape of the past. Historians of the generation born in the 1960s, such as Alina Mungiu-Pippidi or Adrian Cioflanca, not only observe the country's memory politics with a critical eye but bring European standards to bear on Romanian historiography.
Former dissidents, fearing that the future of the CNSAS is at risk, have urged acting president TraJan Basescu to condemn the Communist past. Basescu established a commission for the study of the Communist regime headed by the renowned Romanian Professor of Politics Vladimir Tismaneanu (University of Maryland). Open discussion of Romania's past is now a supporting feature for its membership of the EU.
Markus Bauer is Research Fellow at the University of Portsmouth.…