The Fall of the Berlin Wall: Memories from Communism

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Dr Ion Jinga HeadshotOn 5 November, I hosted at the Embassy a conference commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, “the year that changed the world”. The event was chaired by The Rt. Hon. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the British politician with the longest, uninterrupted Ministerial service in Britain since Lord Palmerston in the early 19th century. Guest speaker was Professor Roger Scruton, a fabulous personality, writer, philosopher and public commentator, who from 1979 to 1989 was an active supporter of dissidents in Eastern Europe under Communist Party rule. Memory is one of the most important human attributes, and therefore for me attending such an event was more than a privilege: it was like watching a movie I have played in many years ago.

In 1989, I was a young engineer working in Nuclear Physics at 150km North of Bucharest. The atmosphere in Romania during those days was very tense. Evolutions in other communist countries were spectacular and, like when a heavy, dark cloud was floating in the air, everybody was expecting a storm to happen in Romania, too.

Romania had had one of the long-lasting anti-communist armed resistance. From 1948 to 1961, “the partisans” controlled significant areas in the Carpathian Mountains and my native region, the historic Muscel County, was the cradle of a fierce anti-communist movement named “The Outlaws of Muscel”.

I grew up with the stories my grandmother used to tell me about the partisans and the fights conducted by colonel Arsenescu and lieutenant Arnautoiu, the leaders of the group, before they were captured by Securitate in the vicinity of her village, where peasants’ stubbornness obliged the regime to allow private ownership of the land – a rare case in Communist Romania.

Then, the Jiu Valley miners’ strike of 1-3 August 1977, when 90,000 miners decided to stop working, was the largest protest movement before 1989. The response to the unrest was to isolate or imprison the miners’ leaders once the strike had ended, and reneging on concessions. A strict surveillance blocked any contact with the outside world, yet the miners managed to send a letter to the French newspaper Libération, which published it on 12 October.

The movement helped break down the myth of unity between the Communist Party and the working class, something that Solidarity would continue in Poland a few years later. The break with workers frightened the regime, which could depend even less upon the peasants who were forced to give up their land, or the intellectual élite.

“Severe revolt in Romania” – Italian newspaper (‘La Notte’) headline in 1987

Another significant episode was The Rebellion of Brașov, which erupted on 15 November 1987, the day of local elections, when 40,000 workers walked off the job and marched toward the Communist headquarters at the city centre. They sacked the headquarters building, throwing into the square portraits of Ceaușescu, chanting “Down with Ceaușescu!”, “Down with Communism!”, and singing the anthem of the 1848 Revolution “Awake, Romanian!” – This song is today the national anthem of Romania. A massive bonfire of party records and propaganda burned for hours in the city square.

Securitate forces surrounded the place and disbanded the revolt by force. British historian Denis Deletant refers to that moment as “Ceaușescu’s inability to heed the warning signs of increasing labour unrest, plunging blindly forward with the same measures, seemingly indifferent to their consequences.” Therefore, the Brașov Rebellion foreshadowed the popular uprisings that would bring down the communist regime in Romania in December 1989.

In 1989 the regime reached its maximum paranoia. My recollection of that time includes a movie produced by an acclaimed Romanian director, Dan Pita, titled “The Last Ball in November”. It came on cinemas in November and was immediately forbidden simply because the 14th Congress of the Communist Party was to take place the same month and the authorities suspected the film title was an allusion to the end of Communism.

In the rainy autumn of 1989, sitting cramped in a small flat in our little town and listening to Radio Free Europe on an old radio which worked with batteries, because electricity was provided only during certain hours of the day, I heard on 9 November about the fall of the Berlin Wall.

On 21 December 1989, when the Revolution was triggered in the capital city of Romania,my wife and I were in Bucharest, at the University, where she had to attend a course as a probationer history teacher. While she was in the classroom, I joined a long queue in front of a food store where oranges were sold. It was before Christmas, and, for common Romanians like me, Christmas was the only occasion to find oranges, so I was happy to buy some for our daughter who was two years old and remained at home with our parents.

Crowds in Palace Square, 1989

The huge meeting convened by Ceausescu in the Palace Square with the hope to get the people’s support for his repressive measures in Timisoara, turned against him. In the crowd of hundreds of thousands people, like in a Brownian movement, we have been part of the tumult for the whole day. Late evening, in our aunt’s flat at the margin of Bucharest, we saw Ceausescu on the TV speaking about an imperialist plot. Nobody believed him. That night we we did not sleep at all. Next early morning we were again on the streets and saw tanks moving towards the city centre with soldiers on turrets, wearing rifles and bayonets. The image was scary, like in a war movie. But soon after, long columns of workers from the industrial platforms of Bucharest headed to the University Square and we joined them. This time, the feeling was that we are strong.

When close to the University, we saw again the tanks and soldiers, but this time making their way back to barracks and I knew Ceausescu’s regime was, finally, over. We arrived in the Palace Square just in time to see the helicopter with Ceausescu aboard taking off from the roof of the Communist Party headquarters. It was the Revolution, and we were part of it.

All these are now history. A new beginning started in December 1989 for Romania and Romanians. A year later I left the Institute of Nuclear Physics to work for the local administration and at the end of 1992 I joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. An opinion poll conducted last September shows that a large majority of Romanians (81.6%) believe democracy to be the main gain of the Romanian society after 25 years since the fall of communism.

Before the WW2, Romania was a regional power, its national currency was one of the strongest in Europe and the Romanian elites were educated in Paris, Berlin and London. Without the 42 years of Communism, Romania would probably be today at the same level of development as France, Germany or the UK. But we have learned to catch up rapidly and 25 years after its return to democracy, Romania is a modern European State and a proud member of the European Union and NATO.

Posted: 06/11/2014 09:39 GMT Updated: 06/11/2014 09:59 GMT in Huffington Post