Legend has it that while employed as a shoe-maker's apprentice he was wandering through a railway station and stole a piece of luggage. When he was caught by police the suitcase was full of Communist Party flyers; thus he was arrested as a Communist and imprisoned at Doftana together with other Communists. It is said this was his first contact with Communism.
He was a member of the illegal Romanian Communist Party (PCR) in the period before World War II, and imprisoned in 1936 and in 1940 for his activities. After World War II, when Romania was beginning to fall under Soviet influence, he served as secretary of the Union of Communist Youth (1944-1945). After the Communists seized power of Romania in 1947, he headed the ministry of agriculture, then served as deputy minister of the armed forces under Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej's Stalinist reign, and eventually rose to occupy the second highest position in the party hierarchy.
With the death of Gheorghiu-Dej in March 1965, Ceauşescu became leader of the PCR, and then president of the State Council, in 1967. He soon became a popular figure, thanks to his independent policy, challenging the supremacy of the Soviet Union in Romania. In the 1960s he ended Romania's active participation in the Warsaw Pact military alliance. His finest hour came with his condemnation of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces. In 1974 he became president of Romania as well. He followed an independent policy in foreign relations—for example, in 1984, Romania was one of only two Communist-ruled countries to take part in the American-organized 1984 Summer Olympics. Also, the country was the first of the Eastern Bloc to have official relations with the European Community: an agreement including Romania in the Community's Generalized System of Preferences was signed in 1974 and an Agreement on Industrial Products was signed in 1980.
However, Ceauşescu refused to implement any liberal reforms. The evolution of his regime followed the Stalinist path already traced by Gheorghiu-Dej. Their opposition to Soviet control was mainly determined by the unwillingness to proceed to destalinization. The secret police (Securitate) maintained firm control over speech and the media, and tolerated no internal opposition. Ceauşescu also instituted a North Korean-style personality cult, giving himself the titles of "Conducator" and "Genius of the Carpathians," and even having a king-like scepter made for himself. Such excesses prompted the painter Salvador DalÝ to send a congratulatory telegram to the "Conducator." The Communist Party daily Scinteia published the message, unaware that DalÝ had written it with tongue firmly in cheek. Ceauşescu also invested his wife Elena and other members of his family with important positions in the government.
Despite his increasingly totalitarian rule, Ceauşescu's political independence from the Soviet Union drew the interest of western powers. Ceauşescu was able to borrow heavily from the west to finance economic development programs, but these loans ultimately devastated the country's financial position. In the 1980s, Ceauşescu ordered the export of much of the country's agricultural and industrial production in order to repay its debts. The resulting domestic shortages made the everyday life of Romanian citizens a fight for survival.
Ceausescu's social policies further aggravated the situation. For instance, it became national policy to forcefully increase the population. A key element of this was the decree that disallowed abortion. While the population did increase, many of the children were abandoned at state-run orphanages by their families who could not support them owing to the food shortages. These institutionalized "decree babies" lived in squalid conditions that caused many deaths. Another disastrous policy was Ceausescu's refusal to acknowledge the presence of AIDS in the population. He forbade testing of the blood supply; because of this and because Romania allowed the use of shared needles in transfusions for orphans, Romania had over half the cases of childhood AIDS infections in Europe.
In 1978 Ion Mihai Pacepa, a senior member of the Romanian intelligence service (Securitate), defected to the United States. This was a powerful blow against the regime, forcing Ceauşescu to overhaul the architecture of Securitate. Pacepa's 1986 book Red Horizons: Chronicles of a Communist Spy Chief (ISBN 0895265702) reveals details of Ceauşescu's regime such as his collaboration with Arab terrorists and his massive espionage on American industry.
Beginning in 1972, Ceauşescu instituted a program of systematization. Promoted as a way to build a "multilaterally developed socialist society," the program of demolition, resettlement, and construction began in the countryside, but culminated with an attempt to completely remodel the country's capital. Over one fifth of central Bucharest, including churches and historic buildings, was demolished during Ceauşescu's rule in the 1980s, to rebuild the city in his personally chosen style. Many people died during the erection of The People's House ("Casa Poporului") in Bucharest, now the Parliament House, the world's second largest building after The Pentagon. Ceauşescu also planned to bulldoze many villages in order to move the peasants into blocks of flats in the cities, as part of his "urbanization" and "industrialization" programs.
Ceauşescu's regime collapsed after he ordered regular military forces and Securitate to fire on anti-Communist demonstrators in the city of Timişoara on December 17, 1989. The rebellion spread to Bucharest, and on December 22 the army fraternized with the demonstrators. On the same day Ceauşescu and his wife Elena Ceauşescu fled the capital in a helicopter—an aide held a gun to the pilot's head. The pilot landed after faking an engine failure, and the Ceauşescus were captured by the armed forces at a road block. On December 25, the two were condemned to death by a military kangaroo court on a range of charges including genocide, and were executed by firing squad in TÔrgovişte. Romania was the only Eastern Bloc country to violently overthrow its Communist regime.
- Edward Behr, Kiss the Hand you Cannot Bite, ISBN 0679401288
- John Sweeney, The Life and Evil Times of Nicolae Ceausescu, ISBN 0091746728