Red Flag

February 20th, 2011

Of all the revolutions of 1989, the Romanian revolution was the only one which ended with bloodshed and executions. Nicolae Ceauşescu, who had ruled Romania with more or less absolute authority since 1965, ended his days in front of a firing squad in Târgoviște, along with his wife Elena. The overall  story of Ceauşescu’s rule and its overthrow is fascinating, but one of the basic levers of government control in the Ceauşescu years was ceaseless propaganda, most obviously through communist newspapers.

In the western Romanian city of Timişoara, the local party paper in the Ceauşescu era was Drapelul rosu (Red Flag), which specialised in reporting non-existent bumper harvests and improbable industrial achievements, and reprinting long speeches by various party bigwigs. Here’s the front page from December 30th, 1967, celebrating twenty years since the foundation of the postwar Romanian communist state:

Drapelul Rosu, 1967

The red headline reads “Long live our beloved homeland, the Socialist Republic of Romania!” and the reprinted speech is by Ion Gheorghe Maurer, member of the Politburo, former Foreign Minister and lifelong party apparatchik. The masthead followed the style of the main communist party newspaper, Scînteia (Spark — aping the pre-soviet Iskra), integrating Stalinist iconography and sloganeering:

Drapelul Rosu, 1967 (masthead)

This supposed celebration of twenty years of communism was in reality a grim time for most Romanians, trapped in the regime of an ardent Stalinist who was nonetheless fêted by east and west alike. Indeed, Ceauşescu’s apparent ability to play a double game in Cold War relations was one of the reasons for his own colossal self-regard, and contributed to his delusion and paranoia. This in turn led to one of the iconic images of Ceauşescu’s fall: his faltering speech on December 21st, 1989, when his confused and baffled reaction to the shouts of the crowd made it clear to all just how deluded and isolated he was.

The media reactions to another twentieth anniversary, that of the founding of the post-communist Romanian state, are, to put it mildly, pretty different. The events of 1989 still exert a powerful fascination for Romanians (and Ceauşescu still has his supporters, most obviously the PCR). Most of the coverage still focuses on the drama of communism’s overthrow. For example, Romania Libera‘s front-page of December 20th, 2010 (admittedly covering what is now the 21st anniversary) leads with “I killed for the revolution,” the story of Corneliu Stoica, champion sharpshooter and participant in the revolution.

Romania Libera, 20th December 2010

Though the differences are obvious, many Romanians are still convinced that the overthrow of Ceauşescu was a palace coup by members of his own entourage. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?

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