On Christmas Day, 1989--20 years ago, the dictator of communist Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were taken to a kind of revolutionary tribunal, tried for two hours, put up agains a wall, and summarily executed.

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When is it justified to put a political leader up against the wall and have him shot? We don’t do that in America, and that is fine; I am not advocating it. But there are other nations and other circumstances. I’m thinking of Romania. On Christmas Day, 1989–20 years ago Friday. On that day, the dictator of communist Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were taken to a kind of revolutionary tribunal, tried for two hours, put up agains a wall, and summarily executed. Romania was the last of the Eastern European communist states to fall, and the most violent.

The other communist states didn’t kill their leaders. The Romanians did. The dictatorship there was particularly harsh, and personal. It was a North Korean kind of place–one in which you could imagine power being handed down in a family, unlike the apparatchik communism of Poland or East Germany. In the Romanian case it was notable that they executed not only Ceausescu but his wife.

There is a famous clip of Ceausescu, here, beginning a speech in Bucharest to a huge crowd Dec. 21, 1989, believing them under control, then being overwhelmed by a rising tide of voices. There is no video of his execution. There was supposed to be, but apparently the soldiers started shooting as soon as he was against the wall, and the cameraman wasn’t ready. Such enthusiasm!

Were the Romanians right to execute the Ceausescus? I can’t condemn them for what they did. It was a lawless act, but it was a lawless couple who had a lawless regime. The regime had fallen, but only for four days, and the people who held the Ceausescus must have worried that political change wouldn’t be permanent until they had guaranteed it. Some of them might have remembered that when the Communists seized power in Russia, and found themselves in a civil war between “Red” and “White” armies, they executed Czar Nicholas II, his wife and children. There would be no restoration of the Romanovs.

Nor of the Ceausescus. Merry Christmas to the Romanians, who earned the right to be free of tyranny.