Editor's Pick

Romano Cagnoni/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
30 November, 2021

ON 21 DECEMBER 1989, anti-government protests spread to the streets of Bucharest, ending the dictatorial rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu. The Romanian Revolution had begun five days before in the western city of Timișoara, where thousands of people had mobilised to resist the eviction of the dissident cleric László Tőkés. As security forces responded with water cannons, tear gas and gunfire, killing hundreds of people, the protesters grew in number and more strident in their demands, calling for an end to communist rule.

Ceaușescu, who had been in Iran for most of the Timișoara uprising, returned to Bucharest on 20 December. By then, the government’s crackdown had been condemned by a number of countries, including the United States and the Soviet Union. In a televised address to the nation, Ceaușescu blamed “fascist reactionary groups” for instigating the protests.

However, as he delivered a similar speech to a crowd of over a hundred thousand people—mostly workers who had been forced to attend—at Palace Square the following afternoon, his audience began to heckle him. Flustered by boos, catcalls and slogans, he announced increases in pensions and family allowances, but this did not work. He abandoned the speech and, that evening, security forces began firing indiscriminately at protesters.

On the morning of 22 December, the defence minister, Vasile Milea, died under mysterious circumstances. A radio station controlled by Ceaușescu’s loyalists claimed he had killed himself, but another station, which had been taken over by protesting students, claimed he had been shot by security forces. Ștefan Gușă, the chief of army staff, announced that the army would support the protests. As demonstrators took over large sections of Bucharest, Ceaușescu fled and a provisional government was formed. He and his wife, Elena, were soon captured and, on 25 December, executed after a show trial.