After Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, Romania declared neutrality. However, the successive victories of Germany convinced King Carol II and the Romanian government to seek an alliance with Hitler. Simultaneously, Horia Sima and his fascist group called the Iron Guard continued to gain greater influence in Romania. In September 1940, the king appointed General Ion Antonescu as Prime Minister.
For the next few years Antonescu held dictatorial power in the country, initially basing it on the support of the Iron Guard. He forged a stronger alliance with Germany, hoping that it would help him recover Bessarabia and part of Bukovina, which had been occupied by the USSR since June 1940. Consequently, Romania joined Germany and its allies in their attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 and reconquered the disputed territories. Antonescu also initiated a programme of extermination of Romanian Jews; it is estimated that 43% of Jews living in Romania before the war (about 265,000 people) died as a result.
In 1944, when the Red Army was approaching the borders of Romania, King Michael I prepared a plan to overthrow Antonescu in cooperation with various opposition politicians. Following a successful coup on 23 August, Romania joined the Allies and consequently declared war on the Third Reich. The Romanian army alone liberated the capital and drove the Germans out of Romania together with the Soviet army.
However, because Romania ultimately found itself in the Soviet zone of influence, the Romanian Communist Party (PCR) gradually came to power. Established in 1921, the PCR was initially a very small formation, heavily weakened by the repressions in the 1930s and early 1940s. The communists’ efforts to seize power ultimately succeeded in 1947, when Romania officially abandoned its monarchical system to become the Romanian People’s Republic.
The communist dictatorship in Romania bore all the hallmarks of Stalinism. The Thaw associated with Stalin’s death and Nikita Khrushchev’s rise to power in the USSR changed little in this respect. A short thaw in Romania was only brought about by a change of power in 1965, when General Secretary Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej was succeeded by Nicolae Ceaușescu , who held the office until 1989.
From the beginning of the 1960s, Romania became increasingly independent from Moscow. Although it never withdrew from the Warsaw Pact or the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, Romanian leaders stressed and defended their separateness. They also pursued a relatively independent foreign policy, open to both the West and China, even after the latter was engaged in a fierce conflict with the Soviet Union.
This position resulted in many reciprocal visits and agreements; importantly, Romania was the first country in the Soviet bloc to host the President of the United States when Richard Nixon visited Bucharest in 1969. Another clear manifestation of Romanian independence in the international arena was Ceaușescu ’s condemnation of the invasion of Warsaw Pact troops into Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Anti-Soviet sentiments coupled with nationalist tendencies were also evident in domestic policies: the compulsory learning of the Russian language was abolished, Romanian names of streets and buildings were restored, institutions promoting the Russian culture were shut down, and the Roman roots of the Romanians were emphasised.
The anti-Russian and anti-Soviet trend gained social support and was used to build a strong and lasting legitimacy of the regime, especially among the intelligentsia. As Romanian historian Vladimir Tismaneanu wrote, “It was precisely the anti-Soviet, anti-hegemonic line initiated by Gheorghiu-Dej and enhanced under Ceaușescu that made possible the national Stalinist ‘contract’ between the party leaders and national intelligentsia.” However, support for the regime, certainly visible in the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, quickly began to melt away.
The primary reason was the increasingly dire material situation of society, which was in stark contrast with the splendour surrounding Ceaușescu and his wife Elena. In 1977, thirty-five thousand miners went on strike in the town of Lupeni in the Jiu valley; it was eventually crushed, and the strikers suffered severe repressions.
Another major protest, caused chiefly by economic factors, broke out in November 1987 in Braşov, where a strike and a street demonstration were brutally dispersed by the police. The Ceaușescu regime became more and more anachronistic in the context of changes sweeping the region at the end of the 1980s. The dictator was one of the most ardent critics of Gorbachev and his reforms, which he perceived as a “right-wing deviation.” Social discontent reached its apogee at the end of 1989. First, anti-government demonstrations were held in Timişoara, where the regime responded with force, killing about 120 people.
After that, the protests spread to Bucharest. where further clashes took place. Eventually the dictator was forced to flee the capital. The day of 22 December, when his helicopter took off from the roof of the Central Committee, can be considered a symbolic date of the collapse of the communist dictatorship in Romania.
In August 1944, King Michael I appointed General Constantin Sănătescu to form a government, which consisted of representatives of major political forces. Stalin, however, was determined to acquire complete power in the country through loyal communists. As a result of Soviet pressure, on 6 March 1945 the king appointed Petru Groza as Prime Minister.
His cabinet was formed of representatives of parties constituting the National Democratic Front; however, key ministries, including the Ministry of the Interior, were controlled by the Romanian Communist Party. This enabled the communists to fully control the elections held on 19 November 1946. According to rigged results, over 80% of votes went to the communists and their allies. In reality, they received substantially fewer votes, and the real winner of the election was the opposition National Peasants’ Party (PNȚ) led by Iuliu Maniu.
Subsequently, the communists began to strengthen their grip on power and eliminate the opposition. In 1947, they arrested several PNȚ members, including the party leaders Iuliu Maniu and Iona Mihalache, both of whom were sentenced to life imprisonment and died in prison. The symbolic end of the process of establishing a communist dictatorship in Romania was the abdication of King Michael I on 30 December 1947. The monarchy was disestablished, and the country was transformed into the Romanian People’s Republic.
At the same time, between 1947 and 1948, preparations were being made to unite the Romanian Communist Party and the Romanian Social Democratic Party. As it was the case in other countries of the Soviet bloc, this move was primarily intended to eliminate social democrats from the political stage. During the unification congress (21–23 February 1948), the Romanian Workers’ Party was proclaimed.
The makeup of its leadership reflected the dominant role of the communists: 31 out of 41 members of the Central Committee came from the PCR, and 10 out of 13 members of the Political Bureau belonged to the communist party. Importantly, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, a communist, became General Secretary of the Romanian Workers’ Party.
The new party grew rapidly: before August 1944, it had at most 1,000 members, in April 1945 it had more than 42,000, in June 1946 reached 717,000, and by February 1948 the party had over a million members. This number later began to decline due to verification aimed at eliminating “hostile elements”. As a result, up to 450,000 members had been removed by the party by the mid-1950s. After 1955, the number of members began to grow again; in 1964 it reached the level of 1.37 million members, in 1974 membership stood at almost 2.5 million, and in 1989 it counted a staggering 3.8 million members.
The verification carried out in the early 1950s was a means of political fight used by Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej’s faction (which to a large extent consisted of home communists) against the competitive faction of Muscovites with Ana Pauker and Vasile Luca at the helm. The decisive attack on the Pauker faction took place in 1952. It could be viewed as an element of the general trend visible in the late 1940s and early 1950s throughout the Soviet bloc, where high-ranking state officials were put on show trials as scapegoats. Pauker and her colleagues were indicted and deprived of their functions. Thus, Gheorghiu-Dej secured undisputed leadership in the party and served as General Secretary until his death in 1965.
The fight for succession after Gheorghiu-Dej was eventually won by Nicolae Ceaușescu, who took the leadership of the Romanian Workers’ Party in March 1965. His rise to power was followed by several years of thaw, primarily in culture and science. Over time, however, the cult of the individual began to develop in Romania, which was increasingly reminiscent of the Asian model. Ceaușescu initially used the title of president, granted to him in 1974, but before long he began to call himself conducător (the “Leader”). Propaganda materials hailed him as the infallible “Genius of the Carpathians”, numerous hymns and poems were created in his honour, and his portraits filled up public spaces.
The dictator’s birthday was a great celebration, accompanied by festivities and parades. Ceaușescu’s megalomania was best epitomised in the construction of a huge presidential palace and the redevelopment of the centre of Bucharest, which involved the destruction of many valuable architectural monuments.
The dictator simultaneously began to form a peculiar “entourage”, entrusting many of the most important state functions to his close or more distant relatives. For this reason, the period of Ceaușescu’s rule is sometimes called “dynastic communism.” The hated dictator was deprived of power in the wake of the revolution that swept Romania in December 1989. On 25 December he was sentenced to death and executed immediately after the pronouncement of the verdict.
In 1945, the communists took full control over the existing political police. Following a reorganisation in 1948, the General Directorate of People’s Security, known in short as the Securitate, was established. Its main tasks were “to defend the democratic conquest and to ensure the security of the Romanian People’s Republic against the plotting of internal and external enemies.”
Gheorghe Pintilie became the head of the new structure, but its activity remained under constant supervision of the Soviet advisers. In the first period, the Securitate consisted of ten directorates responsible for particular aspects of its activity: I – domestic intelligence; II – counter-sabotage; III – counter-espionage in prisons and the police; IV – counter-espionage in the armed forces; V – penal investigations; VI – protection of ministers; VII – technology, VIII – cadres; IX – political – responsible for “purity” in the party ranks; X – administration. After many organisational changes, the structure of the Securitate was finalised in 1978 and remained unchanged until 30 December 1989, when the service was dissolved in its entirety. In this period, it was composed of six directorates: I – domestic intelligence; II – economic counter-espionage; III – counter-espionage; IV – military counter-espionage; V – personal protection of party leadership; VI – investigations. Additionally, there were around a dozen special or independent units. In 1948, almost 4,000 people were working for the political police; this number reached almost 6,000 employees in 1969. The network of agents, which in 1948 consisted of over 42,000 informants, was much more numerous and grew constantly, reaching a maximum of 450,000 registered informants (including approximately 130,000 active ones) in December 1989.
In the early years of the communist regime, its real or alleged opponents were often arrested by Securitate officers without respect for the law and without a proper prosecutor’s order. In the years 1945–1964, figures indicate that 73,334 people were sentenced to prison, of which 2,811 people died before serving their sentences.
According to other sources, there were 134,150 political trials involving at least 549,000 defendants only in the period from 1949–1960. The Piteşti prison was a notorious facility where the “re-education” experiment was carried out for almost three years (December 1949–August 1952).
It was primarily based on using brutal forms of torture, including pulling out nails, beating, thrusting the head into chamber-pots or being forced to eat faeces. The goal was to destroy the prisoner’s past identity and system of values and transform him into a torturer abusing his former companions. “I think that the methods used in Piteşti are not used even in hell. There are things that the human mind cannot fathom,” recalled one of the former prisoners.
Another form of repression was deportation to a labour camp. As a rule, it was done without trial and sentence; rather, it would happen only on the basis of an order from the Ministry of the Interior. Most of the camps were located along the Danube-Black Sea channel, which was under construction at the time and came to be known as the “death channel.” In the years 1945–1964, 21,068 people were sent to the camps, of whom 656 died while serving their time.
According to other estimates, as many as 180,000 people were in the camps in the early 1950s. After Ceaușescu came to power, the most extreme forms of terror were practically abandoned, and it lost its mass character. Still, the apparatus of repression was one of the pillars of the system. Romanian citizens continued to be subjected to large-scale surveillance and severe repressions had not been abandoned, especially towards oppositionists from intellectual milieus.
The adaptation of the economic structure and legal concept of ownership to the communist model began in early 1945. On 23 March, the government announced a decree on agrarian reform. It legalised the confiscation of land owned by “collaborators and war criminals” and nationalisation of properties exceeding an area of 50 hectares. The land obtained in this way was distributed among 800,000 peasants, and the remaining part became the property of the state.
A similar process occurred in the cities, where the state gradually took control over factories and other private enterprises. The process continued in 1947–1948, when industrial enterprises, mines, banks and transport companies were nationalised. At the same time, central control of the economy was introduced. The first and subsequent plans primarily focused on the development of the heavy industry at the expense of other branches of the economy.
Indeed, this trend was maintained until 1989. Particularly intensive attempts were made in the 1950s to collectivise agriculture. Farmers protested in great numbers, as evidenced by the 80,000 people who were arrested and the 30,000 who received charges for resistance against collectivisation. Their opposition, however, did not prevent the implementation of the plan. The result was a complete change of the ownership structure in the countryside: By 1962, only 9% of land was in private hands while the rest belonged to the state.
The 1960s were a decade of quick economic growth. The industry developed, new jobs were created, housing estates were built, electrification proceeded. Production of cars, washing machines, televisions and other household appliances began. All this meant that the standard of living of the residents improved.
In the 1970s, however, the first symptoms of a serious crisis manifested themselves, which was mainly due to unbalanced investment and the emphasis on fast industrialisation. As a result, agriculture, the production of consumer goods and the development of the energy sector were neglected. Economic problems deepened in the wake of global crises and natural disasters affecting Romania in the 1970s (floods, droughts and a severe earthquake in 1977).
The balance of international exchange also deteriorated, resulting in growing debts. All these maladies prompted the authorities to announce a radical austerity programme in 1982, whose aim was to pay off all foreign debt by 1990. Although the programme was successful, its implementation drastically decreased the standard of living of Romanians. The rationing of staple foods was introduced, which significantly reduced their consumption. The supply of electricity and heat to flats and public buildings was reduced (the temperature in offices could not exceed 14 degrees Celsius).
The streets and shop windows were not illuminated. In 1984, even a ban on using household appliances was introduced to limit electricity consumption. At the end of the 1980s, Romania became the pariah of Central and Eastern Europe, and its citizens were among the poorest inhabitants of the region.
Society and culture
As it was the case in other countries of the Soviet bloc, the 1940s and 1950s were a period characterised by the far-reaching Stalinisation of social and cultural life. In August 1948, the communist authorities introduced a new law on education. According to its provisions, schools were to be secular and run by the state; there was no room for religion in the curricula. In schools and higher education institutions, emphasis was put on ideological indoctrination in the spirit of Marxism-Leninism.
At the same time, both staff and students were carefully selected. Many pre-war lecturers were removed, and attempts were made to influence the makeup of the student community, allocating 30% of places at universities to youths from rural areas or from working-class families. It was accompanied by a new cultural policy aimed at subjecting all forms of creative expression to the state ideology. The Section of Agitation and Propaganda was created at the Central Committee of the PCR and tasked with ensuring the proper character of cultural initiatives.
It was only after the death of Gheorghiu-Dej in 1965 that a thaw occurred; this allowed greater freedom of creativity as state censorship subsided. It allowed scientists who had been expelled from universities immediately after the war to pick up their studies again. Subjects aimed at the ideological indoctrination of young Romanians at school were cancelled. However, this trend did not last long. On 6 July 1971, Ceaușescu gave a speech in which he presented the main principles of the new cultural policy (known as the July Theses).
Consequently, the so-called small cultural revolution was introduced, which led to significant limitations on creative freedoms and increased control of cultural activities. From then on, the State Committee of Culture and Arts would prepare a set of topics to be developed by artists, writers and directors, which also had to be approved by the Central Committee.
Ceaușescu wanted to limit what he viewed as excessive influence of Western cultural trends, particularly with regards to cinematography. The presence of ideological contents in the media increased significantly after 1971, especially on television. The small cultural revolution also included education; a “special sector” in charge of ideological education would be an integral part of every educational institution.
Sport was also used for propaganda purposes. From 1977, the nationwide Olympic Games known as the Daciada would be organised. The initiative was in line with the new cultural policy, but the success of the famous Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci also contributed to its introduction. Most citizens were forced to take part in the games – in its first edition, almost 9 million people participated.
Until the end of the communist dictatorship, the principles put forward in the July Theses did not change fundamentally. This direction caused great dissatisfaction in intellectual and artistic milieus. The most notable manifestations of their dissent were Paul Goma’s open letters and Marina Preda’s novel entitled Cel mai iubit dintre pământeni (“The Most Beloved Earthlings”), which criticised the regime.
After the communists seized power, the Romanian Armed Forces were reorganised following the Soviet model. Soviet advisers were introduced at many levels of the command structure and Romanian officers underwent training in the USSR. Approximately 30% of active officers were expelled because of alleged disloyalty to the new authorities.
In 1958, Khrushchev decided to withdraw part of the Soviet armed forces from Central and Eastern Europe; in the case of Romania, he decided to pull back all soldiers of the Soviet Army. This decision was mainly determined by strategic considerations: Romania was surrounded by other Warsaw Pact countries and it did not seem necessary to maintain a strong military contingent there.
Consequently, about 35,000 Soviet troops left Romania. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Gheorghiu-Dej pursued a policy of increased independence from Moscow which also expressed itself in the sphere of military cooperation; this policy was later continued by Ceaușescu.
One of its effects was Romania’s stronger, more autonomous position within the Warsaw Pact (Romania openly presented an independent position at meetings of representatives of the alliance, participated in joint military manoeuvres only to a very limited extent, and did not agree to the transit of foreign troops through its territory). It was one of the elements that allowed Romanian leaders to present themselves as national communists preserving the independence of the country.
This policy led them to condemn the invasion of the Warsaw Pact troops into Czechoslovakia in 1968. However, Ceaușescu and his entourage took the possibility of similar actions against Romania very seriously. Around that time, the Romanian war doctrine was worked out and remained in force until 1989: It said that the state should defend itself against possible aggression, not only using regular military forces, but with the involvement of the entire nation (the so-called Doctrine of War of the Entire People). In accordance with this principle, the Patriotic Guard was formed and tasked with supporting the army in the event of an attack on Romania.
If this situation materialised, its tasks included organising the defence of important industrial facilities, maintaining public order and protecting the civilian population. It consisted of ordinary citizens, both men and women, who were not subject to obligatory military service. In 1989, it had around 700,000 members as opposed to the regular armed forces which commanded around 200,000 soldiers.
The party controlled the army just as much as it did other areas of the state. The army was supervised by the Higher Political Council of the Army and other bodies. Its tasks included raising political awareness, coordination of the work of political officers, ensuring the loyalty of the military towards the party and, crucially, control over the promotion policy. It should be emphasised that membership in the party was obligatory for people who wanted to make a career.
Unsurprisingly, 90% of soldiers belonged to the party or youth organisations affiliated with it in 1989. Political training in the army boiled down to indoctrinating soldiers and strengthening the conviction about the party and its leaders as the leading force of Romanian society. However, this was not enough for the country’s dictators. Fearing the independence of the army and its commanders, Ceaușescu frequently replaced top officers throughout the entire period of his rule, believing this to be an additional guarantee of their loyalty.
Nevertheless, as the revolution in December 1989 demonstrated, he could not count on unconditional support from the generals. The army did not defend the dictator who ultimately had to flee the capital. Ironically it was the military who sentenced Ceaușescu and his wife to death and executed them on 25 December 1989.
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