Scholar Interviews

What is important about Ceausescu's last speech?


I wanted to talk about another source that I use with the students and it’s very different from the written, Gorbachev speech; this is a televised, the last clip of Ceausescu speaking, before the last speech, before the last meeting in the main Palace Square in Bucharest on the December 21st.

The broader context of this clip is that it was clearly televised by the official Romanian television as they did every speech by Ceausescu for 40 years, 30 years or so, and it turned sour and it all happens in front of the camera, so it is very much a documentary and very raw footage insofar as the person filming does not know what to do when things turn sour, so the camera keeps going and then it’s turned off eventually. Because we don’t know what’s happening behind the camera and, why it’s turned off, whether the person gets afraid of having this on tape or whether somebody steps behind and says, “okay, you’re done shooting.” We don’t know that, but we do see this really powerful moment.

It starts with a sweeping view of the crowds. You see the crowds and of course, we don’t see people individually. We see just that there are people and, lots of heads, with flags, with the usual placards that say long live Ceausescu” and, “long live the Romanian Communist Party”; various forms of that. And so the camera pans from them as it usually would. People are chanting, and you can hear the chants. There’s the usual chant which is, “Ceauşescu PCR" (the short for “Ceauşescu Partidul Communist Romania”), which means Ceausescu and the Romanian Communist Party with this kind of rhythmic thing that people were to do.

People were brought to these meetings from their workplaces on various occasions and they would be organized by where they came from, from their factory or institution. Their placards would be given to them by the Party Secretary from their particular unit who would also stand with them there and would begin the chanting, so if you were part of the crowd, you basically were sort of, you know, kind of commanded to participate in a particular way. People didn’t just start or stop when they wanted. There was a signal given, there was a text given, and you basically went along. Not everybody went along, but enough people went along that you absolutely hear this very clearly. And I would say there was, you know, a direct relationship between how close you were physically to the Party Secretary and how much you would end up chanting.

There’s always plains clothes Securitate, the Secret Police, agents milling around to make sure nobody was doing anything crazy, that everything was okay and, of course, the knowledge of these people being in the crowd would also encourage a lot of people to just go along with what was happening and not just attend silently.

So, then the camera pans to Ceausescu, and Ceausescu appears, and you immediately know something is different if you know Ceausescu. Now, if you’ve just seen him for the first time, he’s just a creepy old man, with an astrakhan hat. However, and not very charismatic, this contrast between him and Gorbachev who is very charismatic. He starts speaking and his voice is not full. He usually spoke with a very loud, very clear voice. His voice is cracking up and he’s looking around and he’s unsure of what he’s doing, and he starts by thanking the people who organized the meeting.

Of course, the meeting is organized on December 21st because he had just returned from Tehran, their friends in Iran, to try to bring back to order the fact that in Romania things were falling apart. On December 17th, there had been an uprising in Timisoara in the west that had been put down by the military. There were rumors running around throughout Romania that people had been killed, you know, kind of bloody street scuffles with the army and there’s also knowledge by now that you have similar things happening, the Velvet Revolution happening in Prague. That basically the wall has fallen down. By the way, in Romania people didn’t know these things immediately. They were picking up on this knowledge very slowly. So he brought together this meeting as a way to control the crowd and so when he’s thanking the organizers for this meeting, he’s in a way signaling that he wants to make sure people are, you know, advised that the forces of order are out there in the meeting and they will keep the crowd pacified.

As he speaks, something amazing happens. That’s the thing that I want the students to see which is they get quiet. The people get quiet. And as he speaks, you start hearing something and it’s louder and louder and louder and they’re booing him. And it’s something that sounds not human. It sounds almost like a machine, you’re not sure, well it is booing. Of course, what’s remarkable about it is that that never ever ever happened before and because of that, you know, because people had been brought in this square many times before, the scenario was repeating itself but this had never happened before. It was a moment of literally just breaking of the dam, you know, there was an emboldening that happened and there is, of course, this scholarship on the psychology of the crowd that when a person sees ten thousand others do something spontaneously, they feel like they have the power to do it as well, and there’s no greater evidence that this particular, you know, little clip because clearly people are just going crazy, and Ceausescu doesn’t know how to react.

He’s caught unaware and you could see on his face. There is a fellow, that appears behind him, on the balcony and whispers something to him; a plainclothes Securitate guy. He, by that point is off camera. The camera moves and pans back to, um, the building and the population, but you could hear him and he is trying to quiet down the population saying, “hallo, hallo” which means, “hey, hey, calm down,” kind of like a teacher or a parent who is upset with his children, and he really has this very paternalistic tone in his voice.

And next thing he’s gone. So he tries to pacify people, there’s a guy comes from the balcony and then he’s gone and that’s it. That’s the last time that Ceausescu is seen in public. And it’s so quick and it’s so swift that it’s breathtaking. It really is breathtaking and because it’s so quick, students sometimes don’t realize the magnitude of this. But it’s a beautiful little moment that exemplifies that even in a situation like Romania where you don’t have a strong dissident movement like you had in Poland, where you don’t have kind of a tradition, again, like in Poland, some say in Czechoslovakia, but mostly in Poland, where you have kind of a popular, sort of oppositional movements. The street uprising does make a difference. Some people in Romania see it as a tragic moment because it’s kind of the moment that it seems like there’s a popular revolution and it gets stolen, but by the same token, it’s powerful and you know that people make a difference, even in the most authoritarian and despotic of the communist movement, so that’s the power of this particular scene.

How to Cite

Maria Bucur, interview, "What is important about Ceausescu's last speech?" Making the History of 1989, Item #606, (accessed May 28 2021, 3:25 pm).