Saturday, February 26, 2011

Is Khadafy Taking a Page from Ceausescu's Play Book?

Recent events in the Arab world have drawn the obvious parallels with the changes that rocked Central and Eastern Europe in the year 1989. But if Tunisia reflected Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution", and Egypt, perhaps, evoked memories of East Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall, most recent happenings in Libya-- where a corrupt and amoral dictator refuses to cede power without a fight-- reckons back to Romania, and the violent disposition of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena.

By the mid-1980s, the ill-considered policies of the Ceausecu regime had pushed Romania to the brink of bankruptcy and despair. But Ceausescu seemed as determined as ever to push on with his mad designs, most notably a program to "systematize" life in the country's rural areas. More than 7000 of Romania's 13000 villages were to be destroyed, and their inhabitants sent to live in modern concrete and cinder-block "agricultural-industrial complexes" far from their original homes. Most of the displaced villagers were to be drawn from Romania's Hungarian minority in Transylvania.

People the world over were outraged by Ceausescu's plan. By the summer of 1988, tensions between the Communist "allies" Hungary and Romania had so heightened that the border between the two states was closed. On a state visit to Romania, Soviet leader Gorbachev had issued a stern public warning to Ceausescu, telling him that "Human beings cannot be treated as gears in a machine." 
But Ceausescu didn't seem to be listening. Instead, he insisted the systemization program would be carried out as scheduled.

But in December 1989, when the police attempted to evict Rev. Lazlo Tokes, one of the leaders of Transylvania's Hungarians, from his home in the town of Timisoara, hundreds of men, women, and children-- young and old, Hungarians and Romanians alike-- formed a human chain around the house, preventing the police from seizing Tokes. The police fled. Emboldened by their victory, hundreds gathered the next day and marched to the center of the town, shouting defiant slogans all the way. Rocks and bottles were thrown; the windows of the local Communist Party headquarters were smashed; finally, using water canons and tear gas, the police managed to restore an uneasy calm. 

When words of the demonstrations in Timisoara reached Ceausescu back in Bucharest, he flew into a rage. This was evidence of a plot by Washington and Moscow to bring him down, he screamed. Why hadn't the police used deadly force against such "traitors and hooligans"? "A few hooligans want to destroy socialism, and you make it child's play for them!" Ceausescu shrieked. Ceausescu ordered that any further anti-government demonstrations must be met with deadly force, and live ammunition. Anyone refusing to disperse-- or anyone destroying government property-- would be immediately shot on sight.

Within hours, three columns of heavily armed troops were marching into the center of Timisoara. When the crowds were ordered to disperse, they held their ground. "Down with the dictatorship!" they shouted. "Down with Ceausescu!" They even taunted the troops with cries of "Ceausescu, come and get us!"

The troops opened fire. The crowd fled in panic. The buildings around the central square disappeared in a haze of dust and smoke. Blood stained the cobblestone streets as hundreds fell to the ground.

The next day, December 18, Ceausescu left for a state visit to Iran, satisfied that his orders had been carried out and that the situation was now under control. But word of the massacre in Timisoara quickly spread from one end of Romania to the other. There were reports that thousands had been killed (the actual number was somewhere closer to 100). A wave of defiance started to overtake the whole country. Striking workers in several Romanian cities were threatening to blow up their factories unless Ceausescu stepped down. There were reports of demonstrations in Sibiu, Brasov, and several other major cities. University students in Bucharest had begun holding meetings to discuss the situation in their country. And in Timisoara itself, men and women who had survived the massacre of December 17 were back on the streets the next day, demanding the return of the bodies of those who had been killed.

Ceausescu returned from Iran two days later still convinced of his ability to maintain control. Within a few hours of landing at Otopieni Airport outside Bucharest, the dictator delivered a televised address to the nation. Looking stern and angry, flanked on both sides by a grim-faced Elena and a few trusted officials, Ceausescu repeated his assertion that the trouble in Timisoara had been caused by "fascist agents" who wanted to sever Transylvania from Romania. The very survival of the nation was at stake, Ceausescu bellowed, and he would never give in to the enemies of socialism. No, Ceausescu declared, there would be no change in government in Romania "until pears grow on poplar trees".

Late that night, under the cover of darkness, students at Bucharest University crept out of their dormitories at the center of the college campus. They used packing twine to attach large green pears to the branches of the poplar trees that had grown there for years. When the people of Bucharest awoke the next morning, word quickly spread that, however confident Ceausescu had appeared the night before, pears were in fact "growing" on poplar trees in the Romanian capital!

Ceausescu had also ordered that a massive demonstration be held in the square in front of the central headquarters of the Communist Party the next day. This, he said, would give the Romanian people the opportunity to demonstrate to the world the high esteem they had for their leaders. He also insisted that the rally be broadcast live on Romanian National Television.

Early in the afternoon of December 21, thousands of hand-picked workers from factories, shops, and offices throughout Bucharest were loaded onto buses and taken to Gheorghiu-Dej Square in front of the Central Committee building. There, Communist Party  officials told them where to stand and even which slogans to shout. When the rally was finished, the workers were to be bussed back to their places of work. 

At first, the rally on December 21 preceded as planned. Ceausescu appeared on the balcony, dressed in a heavy woolen coat and a black fur hat against the winter cold. To the dictator's left stood his wife, Elena, and General Vlad of the Securitate. To his right stood the same high-ranking government ministers who had appeared with him as he had delivered his television address the night before. As Ceausescu and his entourage appeared, a loud cheer came forth from the crowd. Some had been given Romanian flags to wave or large banners. Others held high their portraits of the "Greatest Son of the Romanian People", and of Elena, his "Most Esteemed and Closest Colleague".

However, even as Ceausescu began to speak, another group of demonstrators was making its way to the capital's central square. Hundreds of students from Bucharest University, intent on demanding a full investigation of the deaths in Timisoara, had left their campus a short time before. Now, as they approched Gheorghiu-Dej Square, they were surprised to find the pro-government rally already under way-- and Ceausescu himself addressing the crowd! The students realized that their opportunity was at hand.

In his speech, Ceausescu repeated the main points he had made the previous evening. The fascists were at work in Timisoara, he screeched. Fascists and imperialists wanted to tear Romania apart, and bring back capitalism. But he-- Ceausescu-- and the brave Romanian people would never let that happen.

On cue, the crowd began to cheer and rhythmically chant the dictator's name. But when Ceausescu began to speak again about the "Hungarian agents" who were stirring up trouble in Transylvania, there was a loud crackling sound-- gunfire, or perhaps a firecracker. Then, from the back of the assembled crowd, a loud scream arose. Startled, Ceausescu looked up from the speech he was reading and squinted toward the area from which the noise had come. He lost his place, stammered, seemed dazed. Then he recovered and tried to go on.

But now, a new chant was drifting in the air, all across the central square, growing louder all the time: "Timisoara! Timisoara!" Consciences in the Romanian capital had been stirred to action by the deaths of innocent civilians more than 400 miles away. Soon the chanting of that single word-- "Timisoara"-- overwhelmed the entire square. The revolt in Bucharest had begun at last.

By now, Ceausescu seemed completely confused. His eyes darted from side to side. His words seemed stuck in his throat. Elena took a step forward, and in words picked up clearly by the television network's microphone, she told her husband, "Promise them something, Nik. Talk to them!" Ceausescu attempted to continue his speech, but now all that could be heard were the whistles and jeers of the crowd below. The students were in firm control of the square. The pro-government demonstrators had either fled to their buses or had thrown down their banners and had joined the protesters.

The crowd pressed against the large iron gates of the Central Committee buidling. One of Ceausescu's advisors whispered to him, "They're coming in," and tried to lead Ceausescu back from the balcony. Frightened by the advancing crowd, the government camera operator jumped from his platform and ran for cover. The unsupervised camera spun around crazily before finally coming to rest. For several minutes. television viewers around Romania stared at the picture of the gray sky over Bucharest and the roof of the Central Committee building. All this time, however, Ceausescu's microphone remained on, allowing Romanians to listen to the man who had terrorized them for nearly a quarter century frantically trying to regain the attention of the crowd. "Hello," he shouted into the microphone, over and over again. "Hello, hello, hello!"

Suddenly, the screen went blank. When the broadcast resumed several minutes later, the whistling, hooting, and shouting in the square all but drowned out Ceausescu's final public words: "Let us act to serve the people, independence, and socialism!" Then he and Elena fled from the balcony back into the building.

By nightfall the streets of Bucharest were filled with thousands of men and women demanding an end to the hated Communist regime. Ceausescu immediately declared martial law and ordered army battalions to clear Gheorghiu-Dej Square. Using water canons, tear gas, and rubber bullets, the army managed to force the protesters several blocks south to University Square.

Ceausescu then summoned his defense minister, Vasile Milea, and ordered him to use deadly force to restore order to the Romanian capital. Milea, however, declared that Timisoara was the last place that live ammunition would be used by the Romanian army against Romanian civilians. He refused to order his troops in the capital to fire on the crowds. On Ceausescu's order, a Securitate agent then shot Milea dead on the spot. Government-controlled news agencies were ordered to report that the defense minister had committed suicide. But Milea's "suicide" made it clear that Ceausescu was no longer firmly in control.

By dawn the next morning, December 22, most Romanian army units had decalred their support for the anti-Ceausescu revolution. Finally, with crowds in the tens of thousands battering the door of the Central Committee headquarters where he was trapped, Ceausescu decided to flee to his estate at Snagov, about 20 miles to the north. From there, he planned to go into hiding deep in the Carpathian Mountains, until the Securitate brought the situation back under control.

A short time later, a Securitate heliocopter swooped low over the center of Bucharest and touched down on the roof of the Central Committee headquarters. Security agents loaded food, blankets, medical supplies, and weapons on board. The dictator and his wife, by now nearly paralyzed by fright and exhaustion, had to be carried to the heliocopter as well. Three crew members and four bodyguards also boarded the craft just before the door slammed shut. Badly overloaded, the heliocopter struggled to gain altitude, and barely managed to clear the tall public buildings in the center of the city. The thousands gathered in the square below shouted insults and shook their fists as the hated dictator fled the capital.

Within days, the Ceausescus had been captured, and were dragged before a hastily convened military tribunal. They were charged with genocide against the Romanian people. Their reign of terror had caused the deaths of 60,000 Romanians, the prosecutor charged. After deliberating only a few minutes, the presiding judges rendered their pre-determined verdict: guilty on all counts. The sentence was death by firing squad-- to be carried out immediately.

When the unit commander asked for volunteers to execute the couple, soldiers began fighting among themselves for the "privilege". Finally, to avoid a riot, a lottery was set up, and the "winners" were allowed to join the firing squad. Late in the afternoon of December 25, 1989, as families across Romania celebrated Christmas openly for the first time in decades, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were bound, gagged, blindfolded, and placed against a wall behind the army barracks in Tirgoviste. A commander gave the order to fire, and in an instant, their bodies fell to the ground. Then the night was silent.

Several hours later, the Ceausescu's execution was announced, and pictures of their bullet-ridden bodies were broadcast over and over again on national television. Romania exploded in joy and celebration. "The anti-Christ died on Christmas Day!" some rejoiced. Others cheered, "Dracula and his bride are dead at last!"

With the death of their leader, the Securitate forces realized that their cause was lost. Fighting in the capital soon died down, and the last pockets of resistance in the countryside were squelched. In Bucharest, Timisoara, and other cities, candles of remembrance were lit for those who died in the fight against the dictatorship. According to most reliable sources, the Romanian revolution had cost the lives of nearly 2,000 people.

From Transylvania in the west to the Black Sea in the east, Romanians cheered the downfall of the hated Ceausescu regime that had ruled Romania for almost a quarter century. But many now feared it would take almost as long to heal the damage he had done.

More information on the pivotal events of 1989 may be found in Jeffrey Symynkywicz's book, 1989: The Year the World Changed, copies of which may be purchased from, or directly from the author. For more information, contact Reverend Jeffrey at

Monday, February 21, 2011

Remembering the White Rose

In an urban area just south of Munich, there is one of the city's chief cemeteries, a heavily wooded, beautifully kept area, which lies in the shadow of one of Bavaria's largest prisons. In Perlach cemetery lie the remains of Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans, as well as their friend, Christoph Probst – all three members of the student group, the White Rose; all three executed at Stadelheim prison on the 22nd of February in 1943, for subversion against the Third Reich.

          Sophie Scholl was born on May 9, 1921 (exactly one day before my own father, it occurs to me) the daughter of Robert Scholl, the mayor of Forchtenberg, a town in western Bavaria. A few years later, her family moved to Ulm and in 1933 Sophie, like so many German young people,  joined the Hitler Youth. At first she was enthusiastic about Germany’s new regime, but, influenced by the views of her father, a political opponent of the Nazis, she became increasingly critical of  Hitler and his government. Sophie's brother, Hans Scholl, became even more outspoken in his opposition to the Nazis, and soon started meeting clandestinely with other students opposed to the government.  

          After graduating from the equivalent of our high school in 1940, Sophie became a teacher at a nursery school in the outskirts of Ulm. In May 1942, she entered the Kudwig Maximilian University in Munich, studying biology and philosophy. Later that year, in the aftermath of the German defeat at Stalingrad, her father was imprisoned for making critical comments about  Hitler to one of his employees. "This Hitler is God's scourge on mankind,” the Herr Scholl had said, “and if this war doesn't end soon the Russians will be sitting in Berlin."

          Around this time, too, Hans Scholl, also a student at the University in Munich, had formed the White Rose resistance group, committed to opposing the government of Nazi Germany and its policies. Eventually the group in Munich numbered seven members: six students-- the Scholls, plus their friends,  Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, and Jugen Wittenstein—and one teacher, Kurt Huber, a professor of philosophy.  

          The group decided to adopt a strategy of passive resistance against the Nazi regime, and published leaflets calling for the restoration of democracy and civil liberties in their country. These were anonymously distributed throughout central Germany, at first by simply taking names at random from the telephone book. Later, the group decided to focus on university lecturers and bar owners as a more efficient means of disseminating their limited resources. It was not long before the Gestapo became aware of the group's activities.

          In its pamphlet Passive Resistance to National Socialism, published in 1943, the group explained the reasons why they had formed the White Rose organization:

          “We want to try and show that everyone is in a position to contribute to the overthrow of the system. It can be done only by the cooperation of many convinced, energetic people - people who are agreed as to the means they must use. We have no great number of choices as to the means. The meaning and goal of passive resistance is to topple National Socialism, and in this struggle we must not recoil from our course, any action, whatever its nature. A victory of fascist Germany in this war  would have immeasurable, frightful consequences... The name of Germany is dishonoured for all time if German's youth does not finally rise, take revenge, smash its tormentors."

          The members of the White Rose also began painting anti-Nazi slogans on the sides of buildings around Munich. These included "Down With Hitler", "Hitler Mass Murderer" and the simple German word "Freiheit"-- "Freedom". They also painted crossed-out swastikas along the sidewalks of Munich's busy streets. Their writings would often end with the sentence: “People of Germany! We are the White Rose! We are your guilty conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace.”

          Soon, members of the group had begun  leaving piles of leaflets in public places. It was during one of these leaflet drops, in February of 1943, that Sophie and Hans Scholl were discovered, when Jakob Schmidt, a member of the Nazi Party, saw them throwing leaflets from a balcony of the third floor of a classroom building at the university into the courtyard below. Schmidt immediately informed the Gestapo and both of the Scholls were arrested. Soon, Christoph Probst, too, was implicated  in the writing of the leaflets.

          The three members of the White Rose group appeared before the High Judge of the People's Court, Roland Friesler—brought in from Berlin especially for the occasion-- on February 22, 1943. They were, of course, found guilty of sedition, and they were executed by guillotine just a few hours later. Just before he was executed Hans Scholl shouted out: "Long live freedom!"

          In her speech before the court, Sophie Scholl had said: “Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don't dare express themselves as we did.” Within a few years, she told the judge and jury, "It will be you who will be standing trial. It is you who will be judged by history."

          Then, as she was being led away to her execution, Sophie told her cellmate, Else Gebel: 

          “It is such a splendid sunny day, Else, and I have to go. But how many have to die on the battlefield in these days, how many young, promising lives. What does my death matter if by our acts thousands are warned and alerted. Among the student body there will certainly be a revolt.”

          May that revolt happen now, in our own hearts, when we hear of heroes like the Scholls, and Cristoph Probst, and the  other members of the White Rose: A revolt against tyranny in all its forms. A revolt against any leaders—or ideologies—or religious institutions—or prejudice or narrow-mindedness—which exalt one group of people above another. A revolt against all ideas that say we human ones are bound to sin and shame and war and conflict.

          These blessed saints of peace and understanding—and hope and courage—speak to us still. May we remember them always, and take up their struggle, and create at last a world which reflects the love and justice for which they lived and died.