The Spark of Timisoara: László Tőkés
I write this on December 26, 2009. Yesterday, along with being the Feast of the Nativity of Christ the Lord, was also a special anniversary of a different sort: twenty years to the day from the time that a long Winter at last yielded to Christmas, that an evil dwarf and his ice queen finally met the justice that they long deserved, and their people delivered to freedom.
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His name was László Tőkés and he was a minister of Christ. He lived in the obscure town of Timişoara, in the far western tip of Romania. The region in which he lived is called The Banat; although within the borders of Romania, it has a very large Hungarian-speaking minority. The region has, over the years, toggled back and forth between Hungarian and Romanian control.
In December 1989 László Tőkés was a pastor of a Hungarian speaking Protestant church in this town far away from the nation's capital and leadership. He had acquired a name for himself as a supporter–-some say agitator–-in favor of greater linguistic and cultural rights for those, like himself, of Hungarian extraction.
Let Wikipedia tell the story:
But times were changing in the late 1980s. The death of the monstrous Yuri Andropov was followed by the brief papacy of Constantin Chernenko–and then by the so-called reformer, Gorbachev.
Like his father, Tőkés was a persistent critic of the Ceausescu regime. While a pastor in the Transylvanian town of Dej, he contributed to the clandestine Hungarian-language journal Ellenpontok ("Counterpoints"; 1981-82). An article there on abuses of human rights in Romania appears to have been the occasion of his first harassment by the Securitate [secret police]. He was reassigned to the village of Sânpetru de Câmpie, but refused to go and instead spent two years living in his parents' house in Cluj-Napoca.
His situation was discussed in the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which led indirectly to his appointment to be assistant pastor in Timişoara, where he gave sermons that opposed the Romanian national government's program of systematization, which proposed radical restructuring of the infrastructure of Romanian towns and villages. This was seen by Hungarians as a particular threat to their villages, although Tokés' sermons did not single this out, calling for solidarity between Hungarians and Romanians.
And the first signs of springtime began to appear in Eastern Europe.
In May 1989, Hungary dropped all travel restrictions to the outside world; in August, a so-called "Friendship Picnic" ended when 900 guests–almost all East Germans–crossed the Hungarian border into Austria. The Hungarian Communists gave up absolute power in October, and the Berlin Wall first opened, and then completely fell in November. Solidarity had quietly but firmly taken power from the communists of Poland; the Velvet Revolution threw out Czechoslovakia's communist party.
There was but one bastion of hardline Communism left in Eastern Europe: Nicolae Ceauşescu's Romania.
This last near-Stalinist dictatorship had not changed a whit from the mid-1960s. But the winds of change were blowing, and to those who tried to listen, the creaking of the Romanian communist regime was clearly audible.
The horrors of the Ceauşescu regime, while perhaps not comparable to Auschwitz or the Cambodian killing fields, were still remarkable in their cruelty. Again, Wikipedia:
Ceauşescu visited the People's Republic of China, North Korea and North Vietnam in 1971 and was inspired by the hardline model he found there. He took great interest in the idea of total national transformation as embodied in the programs of the Korean Workers' Party and China's Cultural Revolution. Shortly after returning home, he began to emulate North Korea's system ....
[Ceauşescu] heralded the beginning of a "mini cultural revolution" in Romania, launching a Neo-Stalinist offensive against cultural autonomy, reaffirming an ideological basis for literature that, in theory, the Party had hardly abandoned. ... Strict ideological conformity in the humanities and social sciences was demanded. Competence and aesthetics were to be replaced by ideology; professionals were to be replaced by agitators; and culture was once again to become an instrument for political-ideological propaganda.
In this period, great but pointless national projects were undertaken. A new National Palace of the People and a subway system for the capital of Bucharest were built at enormous expense to the common people. Food and gasoline were strictly rationed: not because there were shortages but because as much agricultural output as possible was sold abroad with the intention of paying off Romania's national debt, a goal that was actually achieved in early 1989.
In contrast to the West and China, which turned wholeheartedly to violent population control through legalized abortion, Ceauşescu, through his wife Elena, fell off of the other side of the horse: they instituted a policy of population expansion at great cost to the common people, instituting policies that forced people to have children and actively taxed them if they did not have any (even if they were single).
They opened enormous orphanages to care for the children who were born to unwilling parents, then instituted policies, such as medically pointless involuntary blood-transfusions, that ended up spreading HIV to huge numbers of children. Even today, in 2009, Romania has 95% of Europe's pediatric AIDS population even though it has 3% of Europe's population.
It should also be noted that the Ceauşescus attempted to obliterate the culture of one of their own minorities. Romania had (and has) one of the largest populations of Roma (those people known most commonly to us as "gypsies") in Europe. They were (and are) viewed with hostility as they were and are commonly viewed as a criminal element. To solve this "problem" it became Ceauşescu's and his wife's desire that they lose their identity as a people. They were forbidden to wander in their time-honored fashion, forced to settle in reservations, and were forbidden to use their ancient Romany language; furthermore, their children were often taken away from them and placed in the above-mentioned orphanages.
This combination of needless privation, political and literary oppression, the Ceausescu cult of personality, and the steadfast refusal of Ceauşescu and his wife to read the signs of the times and to sense the winds of change, led to an explosive situation.
It was in this atmosphere of an accumulation of toxic political waste that László Tőkés caused a spark. Again, Wikipedia:
In the summer of 1988, [Tőkés] organized opposition to systematization among Hungarian Reformed Church pastors, again drawing the strong attention of the Securitate. After the Securitate objected to a cultural festival organized on October 31, 1988 (the Day of Reformation), jointly with the amateur Hungarian-language theatre group "Thalia", Bishop László Papp banned all youth activities in the Banat (the region of which Timişoara is part). Tőkés nonetheless collaborated with the bishop of the Romanian Orthodox Church on another festival in spring 1989.
On March 31, 1989, Papp ordered Tőkés to stop preaching in Timişoara and move to the isolated parish of Mineu. Tőkés refused the order, and his congregation supported him. The bishop began civil proceedings to evict him from his church flat. His power was cut off and his ration book taken away, but his parishioners continued to support and provision him, some of them being arrested and beaten for their trouble. At least one, Erno Ujvárossy, was found murdered in the woods outside Timişoara on September 14, and Tokés's father was briefly arrested.
A court ordered Tokés' eviction on October 20. He appealed. On November 2, four attackers armed with knives broke into his flat; Securitate [secret-police] agents looked on while he and his friends fought off the assailants. The Romanian ambassador was summoned to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry and told of the Hungarian government's concern for his safety. His appeal was turned down, and his eviction set for Saturday December 15.His Hungarian-speaking parishioners began to gather at his apartment to discourage the eviction. Like a snowball rolling downhill, the group grew to include Romanian youth, and then people from all social groups. Signs denouncing the regime and calling for free elections began to appear. Within days the entire city of Timişoara was in revolt.
Ceauşescu, clueless to the last, organized a massive "spontaneous" rally as he gave a great speech on December 21. And spontaneous it was, but not in a way he expected. This massive televised rally, intended to transmit his supremacy to the nation and the world, ended in unexpected booing. Ceauşescu's look of astonishment at the people's hatred was the crowning moment of the Revolutions of 1989. His TV cameras were cut off, and he fled his own Presidential palace by helicopter; captured before he could flee the country, he was returned to Bucharest and, after a two hour drumhead court martial, he and his wife were executed by firing squad on Christmas Day 1989.
The death penalty should not be so lightly given, but bitter things happen in revolutions. And Ceauşescu's quarter-century of brutal terrorism and manhandling of the people of Romania, as well as the abominable social policies pressed by his wife, earned them both their date with the firing squad.
To Tőkés' credit he played no part in the violent denouement of the Romanian revolution. He was eventually elected the Lutheran bishop of his region, and devoted the next years to an (alas, largely unsuccessful) attempt to re-obtain his church's properties that had been confiscated by the Communists. He was elected to the European Parliament in 2007. In 2009, he achieved recognition for his efforts to overthrow his nation's bitter dictatorship when he was awarded the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom from the Victims of Communism Foundation.
In some way, Tőkés' contribution cannot be viewed as crucial in that it is very likely that some event would have triggered the collapse of Romanian Communism. The Ceausescu regime was on its last legs by any measure and its overthrow was almost certain, given the events in the nations surrounding it.
But László Tőkés was not some random historical personage. He, like his father before him, suffered significant retribution from the Communist authorities for decades before his stand. He was a subject of concern and of hearings before the United States Senate long before his stand that December night. While perhaps not a Solzhenitsyn, he was heroic in his own way. And it should be remembered that he chose not to take up arms in defense of himself but rather stood on his moral authority as a pastor and as a Christian.
The pen of history writes, and having written, moves on. History moved forward and Tőkés was, in fact, the individual who fired a moral shot heard around the world. His contribution to the destruction of communism is measurable, and he should be saluted for what he did. László Tőkés is surely one of the Tattered Remnant.
It is melancholy for those of us who are individuals who struggle against prenatal surgical violence to contemplate Nikolae Ceauşescu and his vile wife Elena. While the end of preserving unborn life may have been laudable in itself, his motives were not, and the direct and oppressive manner in which they persued their ends should make anyone who stands for human liberty recoil.
Yes, if legalized abortion is once more suppressed, there need to be legal mechanisms in place to encourage childbirth and to discourage and punish those who insist on killing the unborn. But the methods used by the Romanian Communists are in thier own way just as repugnant as those used by the Chinese Communists to restrict birth. Careful thought must be given to how we achieve our ends. This much we know: if there is a question as to which way we must modify our society to end the horror called legal abortion, the bitter ghost of Nikolae Ceauşescu, a philosophical descendant of Vlad Ţepeş the Impaler, surely does not provide an answer.
Not by a long shot.