December 21, 1989
Many Romanians say this day is the most important one in their lives. After 5 days of fighting in Timisoara, The Revolution has reached Bucharest. In Timisoara the death count would reach close to 100, with 400 injured and a thousand arrests.
Many people were surprised by the uprising, even though there was peaceful transitions to democracy throughout Communist Eastern Europe. But Romania was tightly controlled by a huge network of secret police and informants, so in any case, the violence was inevitable. Frederick Becker, a desk officer at the U.S. consulate in Bucharest remembers thinking back in 1988, “Inspecting the shops at the time, I saw Chinese canned sardines and cabbage and very little sign of meat, fresh fruit or vegetables”……”It was a matter of time before something significant would happen here.” Food for the consulate was flown in from Frankfurt every other month.
In the morning of December 21, from eighty to a hundred thousand people gathered in front of the Central Committee building to hear what would be the final speech of Nicolae Ceausescu. The people sitting in the front were party loyalists, and behind them stood workers bussed in for the event ( if they refused to go they would be fired), as well as people gathered by organizers from city squares. They carried photos of a younger Ceausescu and red propaganda banners.
Besides condemning the uprising in Timisoara and assigning blame to Hungarian fascists, Ceausescu lauded his own accomplishments over the past decades. He intended that the speech be reminiscent of one he gave in 1968, angrily denouncing the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the USSR, that set him apart from other Communist leaders. He also promised to raise wages 18 dollars more a month and increased university scholarship money slightly. The speech from the balcony of the Central Committee building was broadcast nationwide.
As he spoke people started to boo him and chant, “Timisoara.” just several minutes into the speech. then 8 minutes into the speech there was an explosion, or gunfire in the background and people started screaming. The one TV camera swung skyward, with just the audio recording.
Here is a translation of that audio from the speech:
A security guard hustled the Ceausescu’s off the balcony as the chanting grew louder and more personal..
There was even more panic as the Securitate secret police started firing into the crowd. Street fighting ensued, and the unarmed protesters were being shot at by four different government forces. Eventually the rank and file members of the military switched loyalty to the side of the people almost unanimously, but in the interim, some people were run over by their tanks, shot, stabbed or clubbed to death. The clashes later became more between the army and the Securitate, but by the end many hundreds of civilians had died.
I have noticed that in a number of the photos above (from Tudor Hulubei’s website) you can see the army soldiers aiming their guns upwards. The Securitate had offices in the upper levels of buildings including hotels and one could see the tracer fire coming from the upper windows.
When I was there in early March 1990 I went into the Securitate offices in the Hotel Athenee Palat. There were interconnected rooms with stacks of paper on desks everywhere and a stench. I noticed doors in other parts of this luxury hotel had been splintered.( I stayed at the Intercontinental Bucharest which had its share of bullet holes, broken windows and tank damage)
The U.S Embassy stood near the Intercontinental and was also near the university. Virginia Carson Young was chief of the consular section and relays what happened there; “[The U.S. Embassy] organized a vehicle convoy from Bucharest to the Bulgarian Border (there was fighting at the airport) and [organized] their reception by the Bulgarian and U.S officials at the border.” the trip was about 100 miles and took up to four hours. She says there was never any mention of the U.S. relocating the Ceausescu’s out of the country to try to end the conflict as was done with the dictator Marcos in the Philippines.
The next morning would be the last time the Ceausescu’s saw downtown Bucharest. The Ceausescu regime was about to end.