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Trial and Execution: The Dramatic Deaths of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu

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Twenty years ago on Christmas Day, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were executed after a summary trial. Thanks to the marvels of modern technology, anyone can view the highlights of the proceedings on YouTube.

The Ceausescus had ruled Romania with an iron hand, presiding over what had become the most tyrannical regime in Europe. Under their rule, the economy was run into the ground and the country and its unfortunate citizens reduced to penury. Romanians were subjected to pervasive surveillance. Any and all signs of dissent were crushed.

That changed when brave Romanians, first in the western city of Timisoara and then in the capital of Bucharest, defied the regime's tanks and guns and poured into the streets to demand their freedom. (I describe these events in detail in my novel "Romance Language.") After trying in vain to rally the masses while simultaneously ordering the army to crush the revolt using all necessary force, the Ceausescus fled Bucharest by helicopter on December 22. Their first stop was the presidential retreat of Snagov not far from the capital where Ceausecu apparently made several phone calls, trying to assess his options.

Snagov is the site of a beautiful monastery known as the burial place of Vlad Ţepeş, or Vlad the Impaler, a brutal 15th century Wallachian prince who inspired Bram Stoker's Dracula. The Dracula theme runs strangely through this narrative. Ceausescu regarded Vlad as a national hero, identified with him and marked the 500th anniversary of his death by issuing a commemorative postage stamp. (Interestingly, the United States issued its own 32 cent Dracula stamp in 1997 -- to honor Bela Lugosi, a Hungarian-born actor who portrayed the vampire on Broadway in in an iconic 1931 movie).

On the subject of tainted blood, it should be noted that one of Ceausescus' most invidious legacies to Romania was Europe's worst HIV/AIDS crisis, the leader having refused to accept the existence of the disease for many years and having banned the use of contraceptives.

To resume our story: after a brief stop at Snagov, the Ceausescus took to the air again until the helicopter pilot warned them they might be tracked by radar and shot down. Ceausescu ordered him to land and the aircraft came to ground in a field northwest of the capital.

In his book, "The Romanian Revolution," historian Peter Siani-Davies describes how the fugitives and their bodyguards next hijacked a car driven by a local doctor. When it ran out of gas, they commandeered a second vehicle which brought them to Târgovişte, fittingly Vlad's historical capital.
It was there they were finally detained and brought to an army barracks where they stayed the next two days in a strange limbo. Meanwhile violence continued to rage in Bucharest.

According to Siani-Davies, the decision to put the couple on trial was taken on the evening of December 24 by a small group of leaders worried that the security situation on Târgovişte was precarious and the Ceausescus might still be able to pose a threat.

The trial lasted for just under an hour. Watching film of the proceedings today, one is filled with a queasy sense of history at its rawest, stripped to brutal fundamentals. Here are two living people, once all powerful rulers of their country, now defenseless, about to become dead. How would it have been, one wonders, to see the show trials of King Louis XVI of France or Marie Antoinette or the trumped-up trial of Anne Boleyn? This comes pretty close.

The Ceausescus were charged with four counts including genocide. Nicolae Ceausescu refused to recognize the authority of the court and maintained that the revolution was organized by a gang of traitors backed by foreign interests. He seemed convinced to the end that the Romanian people still adored him.

Once sentence was pronounced, four soldiers approached the couple to tie their hands with a crude ball of twine. The intention was apparently to shoot them one at a time but they insisted on dying together. The footage takes on an unrefined, unedited quality far more dramatic than any Hollywood production.

Elena: "We have the right to die together. Together, together!"
Nicolae: "What kind of thing is this?" (Still apparently in disbelief that his last moments are approaching).
Elena: "Don't tie us up, don't offend us. Please don't touch me"
Nicolae: "I have the right to do what I want."
Elena: "Shame, shame on you. I brought you up as a mother. Stop it. You're breaking my arms. Let go of them. Let me go. Why are you doing this?"
A soldier: "No-one will help you now."
Elena: "We're powerless now."

They are led outside. The film records the bursts of gunfire and then zooms in on the two twisted bodies lying like broken dolls, blood streaming from their wounds. And then those famous final portraits of death that flashed around the world.

Twenty years later, those images have lost none of their power to shock.