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. …