The year 1989 has turned the post-World War II era from current events to history. Comparisons of the revolutions in Czechoslovakia and Romania enable us to look in some detail at their attempts to vanquish two of the strictest regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. The events took them in opposing directions, yet united them in their hopes. These two countries, despite sharing the same objectives, are now remembered very differently. They are in many ways the two extremes, Czechoslovakia – ‘The Velvet Revolution’ so named for being civil and without deaths, and Romania – ‘The bloodbath’.
To compare the revolutionary events we must establish both the economic and social situations leading up to the revolution, the reasons behind them, the isolation experienced by both countries, the effect of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the significant roles of the media, government resistance and the way in which demonstrations were conducted in both countries. Prior to the revolutions, Czechoslovakia had experienced a somewhat smooth transition of power from Gustav Husak to Milos Jakes.
It had produced no change in the strict social controls that had been in force since 1968. Repression existed, even in January 1989 as five days of demonstration led to the arrest of leading activists, members of Charter 77. Additionally, leading ideologists had been issuing warnings to Gorbachev about the dangers of the course he was pursuing, and with open criticism of the developments in Poland and Hungary it was obvious that the leaders were determined to continue without a negotiated transfer of power.
Both Czechoslovakia and Romania had a state controlled planned economy, these were the two countries with the highest percentage of economic state control (up to 97%), although, it is claimed that the standard of living and the economic situation were not significant reasons behind the rebellion in Czechoslovakia. “Times were not even that hard. It was their humiliation, their disgust with the falsity of their regimes, their desire for freedom. ” (Stokes p20) However in Romania the people had very different reasons for a revolution.
Nicolae Ceausescu, despite having ruined the country’s already weak economy, had very little trouble crushing the few brave but isolated dissidents. Rule by a single absolute dictator in the mould of Stalin, Fidel Castro or Ceausescu means, “a rule unchecked and unmoderated in its arbitrariness, ignorance and cruelty. A politburo, even one made up of cruel individuals provides a moderating check against the worst depravities of any one member” (Calinescu ; Tismaneanu p48)
Therefore Ceausescu’s own form of communism, slightly independent of Moscow, with his own regime and the most feared and hated state security system led to a desperate population, an economic shambles. Basically, leading up to the revolutionary events Coausescu’s “dictatorial personalistic regime” primarily based on repression was “structurally fragile”. Isolation from former allies, but more importantly from the Soviet Union, was a significant factor in the revolutions. Czechoslovakia was both geographically and politically isolated.
Except for a short border with the Soviet Union it was completely surrounded by either reform-orientated Communist countries or western style democracies, ‘an island of orthodoxy in a sea of reform” (Sword p67). Political isolation came after 9 November 1989. It was made clear that Soviet leadership would not allow the use of the Czech army for the purpose of internal repression, with this people began to realise that numbers were too great and could overpower the riot police.
In contrast Romania,having been slightly independent of Moscow, was affected neither geographically nor politically, except that the Timisoara uprising came at a time when Ceasescu’s closest allies in the Warsaw Pact, Todor Zhivkov, Erich Honecker and Milos Jakes, had been overthrown. Leaving Nicolae Ceausescu, ‘Isolated in the empire of his delusions, a hostage of an extreme cult of personality and a subservient entourage, Ceausescu ignored reality and believed the fantasies codified in party documents” (Calinescu & Tismaneanu p 43)
The Fall of The Berlin Wall was a vital contributor in motivating the population of Czechoslovakia. The majority of the population were able to receive Austrian television and saw coverage of the border-guards removing the barbed wire from the border dividing Austria and Hungary, essentially removing a section of the Iron Curtain, the East West divide. They watched with envy, the flood of East Germans pouring through the opening to freedom. Combined with the thousands of East Germans that were witnessed and supported by the population of Czechoslovakia as they left the East via Czechoslovakia.
These historic sights could not fail to stir the emotions of those still suppressed, and it wasn’t long before these feelings and ideas turned into actions In complete contrast the only effect on Romania of the events surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall was the disintegration of its allies. Even as late as November demonstrations for wage increases were suppressed, clearly showing the control exerted by Ceasescu just weeks before the revolutionary events, not to mention the speed with which they took place The vast contrast of the demonstrations cannot be underestimated.
Following the stir of emotions triggered by the victorious East Germans, the Czech government made a mistake in permitting an official march in memory of Jan Opletal, a student murdered by the Nazis in 1939. 20,000 people peacefully marched on the streets on 17 November. However the number of demonstrators escalated dramatically, banners and chants emerged for the removal of communism, for Perestroika and Glasnost and for the ousting of the Czech leader Jakes. Furthermore 3000 students demonstrating at Wenceslas Square in Prague, when confronted by riot police, sat down.
The riot police encircled them and intervened with brutal force in the only unpeaceful demonstration. However without the intervention of the army there were no deaths and the injuries were on a considerably small scale compared with those in Romania. An example of how the revolutionary events in Czechoslovakia became known as The Velvet Revolution, is the way in which the citizens joined together with candles and flowers at Wenceslas Square on 20 November, just three days after the initiation of the revolt.
In Romania, the Timisoara uprising began with the Reverend Laszlo Tokes, an unyielding advocate of human and religious rights as well as a member of the Hungarian ethnic minority. Despite repeated harassment from the Securitate and an order from his Cishop transferring him to a smaller town, Tokes still disobeyed the eviction notice. A vigil began outside Tokes’ home to prevent the Securitate from taking him away.
Then Tokes, under duress, told the people to go home. Shouts of “down with Ceausescu were heard. A religiously inspired act of civil disobedience had thus triggered a full-blown political rebellion against one of the most tightly controlled authoritarian societies in the world” (Calinescu & Tismaneanu p43). The next day this had turned into a major demonstration in which the city was virtually taken over by anti-Ceausescu and anti-Communist demonstrators. Troops were sent in and turned the demonstrations into violent memories. Similarly, in an attempt to regain respect, Ceausescu summoned a public meeting in University Square. after stones were thrown at him there followed another confrontation with the troops and a massacre ensued.
Unlike Czechoslovakia, Romania still held full control over it’s army. It was this extra power and force which caused the difference in the demonstrations. Without the army they were moderately peaceful but with it came brutal violence and many deaths. In Romania it was even the act of a soldier which signified the switch of the army’s loyalties and the beginning of end. However Ceausescu’s attitude was the complete opposite. Whether he was incredibly confident or completely oblivious to the intensity of the situation is not known, despite the state of emergency on 18 December he left on a scheduled visit to Iran.
On returning two days later he addressed the crowds on live television, the fatal error which sealed his fate. Despite his obviously weakened power, it was clear that he would not surrender. Even after his capture, the loyal Securitate continued to fight the demonstrators, causing unnecessary violence which was non-existent in Czechoslovakia. The success of “The Velvet Revolution” brought with it the new leaders of Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubcek and Vaclav Havel.
It was clear that Havel enjoyed the most popular support for the presidency, although he accepted only on the condition that Dubcek simultaneously received an important position. On 30 December, almost straight from prison, Havel was made President of Czechoslovakia, and Dubcek President of Parliament. Their first priority was to set a date for the free elections which they won by a landslide with a turn-out of 96%. However, Ceausescu’s capture was not the end of the lies and governmental deception. The new leaders, the NSF were former party bureaucrats as well as dissidents.
They claimed to be a “spontaneous emanation of revolutionary movement from below”. They pledged to establish full democracy and dismantle all institutions of the old regime, although they didn’t indicate what would replace them. A public trial was promised for 25 December but it was later announced that a secret military tribunal had taken place on 24 December and that the Ceausescus had been executed immediately They argued that it had saved many lives by making the Securitate stop fighting a lost cause and surrender but disappointment and mistrust in the new government, the self-appointed NSF had started to set in.
Despite this, as in Czechoslovakia, the new party, the NSF won the free elections by a landslide. In conclusion the revolutionary events of 1989 in Czechoslovakia and Romania began for the same reasons, the populations rebelled against two of the strictest regimes under the power of dictators. The other significant comparison was the role of the media. However, there are many contrasts. In Czechoslovakia the economic situation was not as serious as in Romania. and isolation aswell as Soviet influences figured greatly on Czechoslovakia.
Whereas Romania didn’t suffer many affects of isolation and was slightly independent of Moscow. It is evident that control of the army was extremely significant on levels of violence in the demonstrations. The media undeniably had one of the most significant effects on the revolutionary events. In Czechoslovakia coverage of the demonstration at Wenceslas Square, from journalists that had been caught-up in the disorder, outraged the public. Thus provoking further marches which grew in size on successive days. Censorship forced the press to condemn the students the next day.
However the rumour of the alleged death of a student spread and entered the Western media. The State subsequently denied the rumour as no students died. Regardless of the denial both the West and the Czech population were suspicious and called for a widespread investigation. Due to the media coverage more people protested and a civic forum was formed by a number of opposition groups. The fact that the Press had begun to report objectively showed there was no longer total censorship and the appearance of banners and posters everywhere followed, to counter the official propaganda.
It was clear to the people that the end was in sight. Likewise, in Romania, it was the Media which brought the anger of the population to a climax. The vigil continued and developed into a mass demonstration. When troops were sent in news of thousands of deaths was created, which hit the headlines in the West. A state of emergency was declared, although there were less than 200 deaths. Ceausescu addressed the nation televised by both East and West, yet he displayed no hint of compassion for the victims of Timisoara and dismissed the demonstrations as the work of “fascists” and “hooligan elements”.
He then continued to take responsibility by praising the army for their “utmost forbearance” before taking action. The coverage of this resulted in increased public outrage as well as a lack of faith in Ceausescu. After this, a public meeting was staged in the centre of Cucharest, once again on live television which presented the ritual chants of “Ceausescu si poporu! ” (‘Ceausescu for the people! ‘) become “Ceausescu dictatoru! ” (“Ceausescu the dictator! ‘).
Transmissions were stopped and when returned viewers saw lame promises of an increase in the minimum wage and pensions being made. Seeing this weakness in their ruler brought strength and courage to more Romanians. Until this point demonstrations had only involved students and actors. However, with the end in sight, the workers gave their support and forced the government to listen The workers made threats of a two hour national strike on 27 November, resulting in the resignation of the entire Politburo on 24 November.
Having experienced relative success the people didn’t stop there. With another threat of a general strike following the announcement of the new government which consisted of three quarters communists, the government was left with only one option – to collapse. Finally a majority non-Communist government was formed on 10 December, although progress was helped by the CPCS as in an attempt to salvage some credit, they denounced the leading role of the Communist party, thus terminating the demonstrations.