That night, security forces battled people on the streets of Bucharest. The next day protests had spread across the country. Ceausescu sought to address the gathered crowds again, only to be met by a barrage of stones and other objects. The Ceausescus then fled by helicopter from the building’s roof as crowds broke into the headquarters building. The fugitive couple left the capital behind but were captured on the run later that day.
Demonstrators were “overwhelmed by joy” as the regime disintegrated, one official observed. But the secret police, or Securitate, sought to regain control. However, the army turned on the Ceausescus and battled the police.
Whether the fight was an unscripted revolution or a pageant orchestrated by other communist party leaders determined to take power remains undecided. (The latter charge led to the indictment earlier this year of 89‐year‐old Ion Iliescu, the former communist official who became Romania’s first elected president, for crimes against humanity. He has yet to be tried.) Nearly 1,000 people died and more than 2,100 were injured in the confusing battles that continued for days across the country.
But Ceausescu’s time in power had ended. On Christmas Day Nicolae and Elena faced a drumhead court‐martial, captured on tape. In a 55‐minute trial, they were found guilty of committing genocide, subverting state power, destroying public property, undermining the national economy, and attempting to flee Romania with public funds. A horrid, disastrous, tyrannical reign of 24 years had come to an ignominious end.
Little evidence was offered, but the horror of their rule was evident to all. Their appointed attorneys joined the prosecution in contending that the Ceausescus were guilty of capital crimes. They were sentenced to death.
The result was preordained. Gen. Victor Stanculescu already had chosen the execution squad and location to carry out the sentence. The prisoners were bound, with Elena shouting “shame” and claiming that she had raised the soldiers like their mother. Hundreds of soldiers volunteered for the execution squad; one officer reported that “everyone wanted to shoot.” Those chosen didn’t wait for orders to fire and fired often. The former dictator and dictatress were hit by 120 bullets. Their bodies were reburied in a family grave in 2010, largely forgotten by the world, though not Romanians.
The show trial was “quite shameful, but necessary,” argued Iliescu. Stanculescu similarly said the trial was “not just, but it was necessary.” He believed a public lynching was the alternative. Or, many feared and the Ceausescus hoped, rescue by the Securitate.
For the first time in decades, Romanians were able to celebrate Christmas. And they had something serious to celebrate. A horrid, disastrous, tyrannical reign of 24 years had come to an ignominious end.
Thirty years have passed, but it is important never to forget the evil that men and women can commit. And how humanity’s worst tendencies are exacerbated by power, especially absolute power. As we approach a new year we should remember, as oft has been said, that eternal vigilance truly is the price of liberty.