The monstrously repressive world of Ceausescu's Romania provides the setting and the subject of Richard Wagner's extraordinary narrative, written shortly before the Christmas revolution.
Stirner, the main protagonist, is an ethnic German, and lives in Timişoara, the town which was to be the revolution's birthplace. He works as a journalist—a meaningless job, since the Party is the only source of news or comment and no one reads the papers. His wife teaches German, but German lessons, like many things, are 'dispensable', and may even be subversive. Her vocabulary classes—which include words like 'salt', 'duck' and 'apricot'—have been reported to the Securitate. Finally, facing nothing but 'the next humiliation and the one after that', Stirner and his wife apply for an exit visa.
In fine, stark prose and with the scrupulous detail of the best documentarists, Richard Wagner has recorded the absurdities, the betrayals and the claustrophobia of daily life in one of Europe's last dictatorships.
Richard Wagner returned to Timişoara to write a preface to this edition, in which he reflects on how far life has changed since the revolution.
Jacket designed by John Marsh Illustration: Anti-Ceausescu montage originally mounted on side of tank. Timişoara, 24 December 1989. From photograph by Gilles Saussier/Gamma.
Richard Wagner was born near Timişoara in 1952. He was a member of the 'Aktionsgruppe Banat', which sought to provide a critique of the Ceausescu regime from the left, until it was broken up by the Securitate. He emigrated to West Germany in 1987 and now lives in Berlin. He has published a volume of poetry, a children's book, and a second novel, Begrüssungsgeld.
After three years, I'm back in the city of Temesvár.* When I left, I saw it as goodbye for ever. Every place I went into, I was going into for the last time. Every street where I lingered, I was there for the last time. Every glance was the last glance, every gesture a last gesture. My despair about the situation in the country was so great that I couldn't conceive of returning. That was in the winter of 1987. I sat in the apartment that would be ours forjust a few more weeks and worked on a story. It was meant to illustrate why leaving was the only possible option. The story was published a year ago in the Federal Republic of Germany under the title Ausreiseantrag, and is published here as Exit.
In Romania, I belonged to the German minority, the Swabians of the Banat. The Banat is situated in the southwest of the country, where Romanian national territory converges with that of Hungary and Yugoslavia. From the seventies on, there was an agreement between Ceausescu and the Federal government on 'reuniting families', in the context of which the Federal government paid bounty for emigrants at so much per head. In the dictator's eyes, these people had for years been simply a welcome means of procuring hard currency. Anyone who could leave the country did so, and by the end many were abandoning it like a sinking ship.
It's January 1990 and, for the first time, I'm back in the places of my former life. Steps, gestures, words. They have a tinge of unreality. I cannot yet grasp it: the dictator is dead. Three years are a short time; three years are a long time. I'm a visitor.
The Romanian people has learnt two new words in these days: 'genocide' and 'terrorist'. It was for genocide that the Ceausescus were sentenced to death and executed. People were pleased about it, but for most of them it happened too quickly. 'Their skin should have been taken off in strips', says an elderly woman. 'They didn't suffer enough', she says. Blood has flowed in these past days and the talk is of vengeance. If people are speaking about the murderers in the Securitate, Ceausescu's secret police, they just say 'the terrorists'. It's a very elementary linguistic rule, which obviously helps to get over the intolerable fact that those in question lived in the neighbourhood until a matter of weeks ago, that the overwhelming majority of them where Romanians, and that they opened fire upon their own people. The designation 'terrorist' creates a distance, it creates the distance that people need in order to be able to free themselves from the nightmare of that regime. Over the years, too much of the dictatorship was seen by people as banal. Too much of that banality culminated in crime.
I abandoned Romania in 1987. I couldn't bear it any longer. I could do nothing against the crime, and I didn't want to be a silent accessory any longer. I left—and then the country was closed to me. After three years, after the bloodbath in December, for the first time I can enter it again. On the frontier at Nagylak I'm nervous, but the officials are polite. The inspection no longer acknowledges any political criteria. I'm an anonymous visitor. A fleeting glance inside my suitcase: 'What have you brought with you? Food, clothes ... all right.' I see the country's new flag, the Communist emblem is missing from it. Some of the guards are wearing armbands in the national colours. What has become of those meticulous inspections? Until just weeks ago, nothing passed without a bribe, nobody avoided harassment. It's as though quite different people now stood on the Romanian frontier, yet they're the very same. The revolution has transformed their behaviour overnight into its opposite; if you didn't know how they'd behaved up until December, you might never suspect it. This is how people turn to face the new. But what kind of guarantee can the new have, with people like that?
I'm travelling by car with friends. We're suddenly speaking faster and louder that beforehand, at the frontier. We're in the Banat, yes, where I spent the major part of my former life. When we reach the first village, there are children at the roadside, waving and shouting. What they're conveying is a mixture of victory signs and requests for chewing-gum. There are many children at the roadside, they shout and wave, they're sure of victory and confident, but they're begging. In this country the victors are destitute.
We travel through streets with gabled houses. At a certain point in the village centre, we see the results of Ceausescu's 'systematization'. The whole area bounded by four streets has been demolished: four-storey apartment blocks stand in the void, no pavement, no street, no tree between them. The apartment blocks are not ready: naked, grey concrete walls stare at the grey sky. But there are curtains at the windows, the buildings are occupied. Days later, Romanian television shows places where villages have stood, they're now snow-covered empty fields. That's in the vicinity of Lake Snagov, near Bucharest. The dictator used to have a residence there. On the way to his residence, he gradually had the villages he could see from his car demolished. The reporters stand at the roadside. Locals point out the sites to them. 'There used to be a village there', they say, pointing to empty space. The television shows the apartment blocks where the villagers now have to live. Children lie in bed, wearing caps. The flats have no heating, no water-supply. People carry water up to the flats in buckets from a surviving well. Toilets without seats stand in the open air behind the buildings, three for each block. I remember West German TV correspondent Dagobert Lindlau's report a year ago. He didn't see any of that. How many journalists over the years and decades saw nothing of the Ceausescu clan's crimes? In the end, the question always remains: how could matters get to that pass?
I spend a couple of days in the village of P., at my parents' house. The village lies close by the River Maros, at an equal distance from the cities of Arad and Temesvár. Here, on.the river and at the village's edge, are the places of my childhood. Until the end of World War II, the overwhelming majority of'P.'s inhabitants were German, Banat Swabians. Flight and deportation took care of half their number. Since the War, half the villagers have been Romanians. And the wave of emigration in the eighties so diminished the number of Germans that in recent times the continued existence of the German-language school has been under threat.
The revolution is present in the village of P. too. The people have chucked out the mayoress. She even smashed a portrait of Ceausescu, but it was no longer any use. Someone must have just given her a kick and told her to go to hell. The mayoress has a career behind her that is typical for the Ceausescu era. She was trained as a shoemaker, but in the nearby small town from which she comes she scarcely practised her trade. She had higher and simpler things on her mind. So she became an activist in the youth league. When the dictator peopled the offices with youngsters in order to get rid of refractory older comrades—this was at the end of the seventies—she became mayoress of P., at the age of twenty-six.
When she arrived she had nothing, people say. She swiped one of the finest houses in the village. People who emigrated had to leave their houses to the state. If one of these caught the fancy of the local authorities, they'd make sure the applicant was able to emigrate speedily, then they'd take it for themselves. That way, all parties were happy. Her house is full of furniture, real wood, all carved, people say appreciatively. They themselves haven't been able to buy real wood furniture for years; all they've had is chipboard, substitute. A substitute life. No proper bread, no proper sausage, no proper clothes.
The people are angry. They chucked out the mayoress and her deputy; the second deputy took over the official duties, till a week later they chucked him out too. They sacked the mayoress's husband who ran the cooperative society, the manager of the corn-mill, the director of the hat factory. The people dragged out the chief of the local police—or militia, as the Communists called it, consisting of three men whose main occupation was harassing or beating people and getting bribed by would-be emigrants—and gave him a thrashing. Since then he has slipped away to his home town, four villages away. The second militiaman is in prison for brutal assaults. The third is still in office under the new public order authority, now called 'police' again like before the War.
In all Romania's local authorities, a mafia of officials and administrators had formed which profited from the situation in the Ceausescu state and enriched itself unrestrainedly. The mayoress appropriated the house on the river that had belonged to the exiled Banat painter Franz Ferch. There the nomenklatura of the district used to do what was not allowed to the people: carousing and playing poker. In the village bakery, bread for the authorities—white bread—was baked separately. The populace got only black. If the mayoress needed anything, she'd send an underling to the shop. Goods were rationed, true, but if the mayoress wanted anything it would always be available from the storeroom.
Year after year the manager of the corn-mill would go off to the Bundesrepublik and make the rounds of everyone who'd emigrated from the village. He'd get them to pay up. Most of them still had relatives in Romania. Most of them wanted to be able to visit the country. Last autumn he announced a visit to me too, but I wouldn't receive him. He tried to intimidate my parents. At the end of December, the army carried out a search of the mill manager's house. They were searching for arms, there and in two other houses occupied by contacts of the Securitate.
This milling expert had no trade whatsoever. He'd been a salesman in the shop at the hat factory. His career had reached its first pinnacle when he became district secretary of the youth league. In that period he'd had himself awarded the matriculation he hadn't actually passed, by teachers ready to close both eyes. After retiring from his youth league career for reasons of age, he became first freight-controller, then manager of the mill. He maintained his position by supplying the comrades with wheat and flour and by his proven services to the Securitate—in other words, by pilfering and informing. He too owns a 'weekend house' on the river, where he used to entertain his guests.
When searches were carried out at the homes of the local nomenklatura, absurd hoards were found everywhere—of foodstuffs, drink, hi-fi equipment and stylish clothes. For decades, a mafia—legitimized via the Ceausescu family at the highest level—had infiltrated the structures of the state and instrumentalized all the institutions of society for its criminal machinations. Many if not most of these people are protesting today that they weren't really Communists at all; that they only reluctantly put up with the ideological mumbo-jumbo. Well, that's actually quite true. Communism had hardly any supporters in Romania, and none at all among such people. They weren't Communists, they were accomplices of the malefactor Ceausescu. He was their model, not as a Communist but as a criminal. They imitated him, by forever establishing new privileges for their own enjoyment and by accumulating senseless riches for which they had scarcely any use, while the nation lapsed into physical and spiritual squalor. They were parvenus who despised the culture they didn't understand and, in all they undertook, augmented nothing but bad taste. They built a caste capable of being only the parody of a social elite.
It's a cold winter. That's why all these places are so dismal, I tell myself. But I know it's not the winter. I stand on the village station. I had dirty banknotes in my hand, wafer-thin, crumpled, and for these I got a ticket, a scrap of grey paper, it says 'special ticket' on it, there aren't any real tickets, they ran out months or years ago, who still remembers, whom does it even interest?
The train arrives. It's even on time, I think, and I'm thinking like a foreigner. I am one. Three years ago I left this country, and I've long been a foreigner. I hope I don't stick out too much. I don't stick out. No more than before. I wonder about my Romanian. It hasn't deteriorated in distant lands, distance made it correct.
I sit alone in a cold railway compartment. Another twenty minutes to departure. There are footprints on the seat. 'You have to wear dark clothes to travel by train now', my mother said. A man gets in, sits down opposite me. Starts talking immediately, as is the local custom. No search for an opening, has one. 'What's the matter with the winter, where's the snow got to, what's going on with Mazilu? He's referring to Dumitru Mazilu, vice-president of the National Salvation Front which has exercised power in Romania since Ceausescu's downfall. 'He's been sacked,' the man says, 'he's under arrest. He was an officer in the Securitate. I read about it in the paper this morning.' He doesn't say in which paper. Romania has remained the country of rumours. The man says Securitate. Gives himself the cue he needs. 'Ten times as big as ours, their wages were', he says. 'We, in Arad', he says. He's one of those people who don't listen, just like to talk. In between whiles he looks out of the window, he's getting out at Hodoni, he doesn't want to miss the stop. He talks about arrests of Securitate personnel, about disarmings at which he intimates he was present. He talks about himself as though he were a revolutionary. He asks—obviously because of my accent—whether I'm from Transylvania. I tell him at once that I live in the Bundesrepublik. He asks whether there's work in the Bundesrepublik. Now that there's a new law guaranteeing all citizens freedom to travel, he—who was never allowed abroad—wants to travel at last. He wants to earn a bit of money in the Federal Republic and then come back.
People have climbed aboard, men, women. They talk loudly, stretch their legs. The train is unheated. It's cold in the compartment, as cold as in Ceausescu's day. The people talk about revelations in the media, about their own experiences under the dictatorship. They're from the countryside, they talk about the impositions. How they'd have to hand over animals they didn't even own. 'They wrote me down for ten sheep,' a woman says, 'though I haven't got any sheep at all. I said, "But I don't have any sheep." They wouldn't even listen to me', she says. They talk about travel, they want to visit relatives living in the West. The woman wants to go and see her daughter, who got married years ago and settled in Italy. Travel, an unknown terrain.
'Existe Dumnezeu. Trăiască Tokes Laszlo', someone has written up on the facade of the Catholic church on Lahovary Square in Temesvár. 'God exists. Long live Laszlo Tokes.' The declaration is at once defiant and confident of victory. The writer looks back and looks ahead. Addresses the Communists and addresses the people. The Hungarian Reformed pastor Tokes, his conflict with both the church authorities and the Securitate, had become the trigger for the Temesvár uprising in December. The despairing people took heart from the pastor's courage; through his example, they found a strength in which they'd ceased to believe and they freed themselves. In his church Pastor Tokes, like others before him, had found support for his upright stance only at the grassroots. His church elders handed him over without shame to the Securitate, they agreed unreservedly to his deportation. Both the Reformed Church bishops responsible resigned or disappeared after the victory of the revolution. They're an eloquent illustration of how church institutions behaved under the Ceausescu regime. They too were governed by fear, mistrust, opportunism, corruption and collaboration.
So the wave of resignations and dismissals that has swept through Romanian society since the dictator's downfall had to extend also to the churches. So far only Teoctist, Patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church, has resigned. This largest of the country's denominations used to allow prayers for the dictator to be said in its churches; and when Ceausescu's town-planners had historic churches demolished by the dozen, its dignitaries in no single case put up any visible opposition. The other denominations behaved in a similar fashion. At the World Council of Churches, their envoys on several occasions blocked resolutions against the Ceausescu regime. Even last August, the churches were still expressing their loyalty to the Conducător (Führer) at an assembly in Bucharest. The bishop of the Evangelical Church in Transylvania, Albert Klein, also distinguished himself on that occasion. All these dignitaries ought to resign, to clear the way for a church renewal. The country finds itself in a state not least of moral disaster. The Ceausescu regime devalued everything. A return of religious ideas can be detected. People left in isolation, not just by politics, are seeking to find comfort in God. On the Opera Square in Temesvár, people stand day after day and light candles on the spots where the young people who ventured the unthinkable—that is to say, raised their voices against the criminals—were shot down in December by Ceausescu's troops. The square is now called Victory Square. Lamp-posts and walls carry the posters of an opposition party with long traditions, which was banned after the Communists took over complete power in 1948. 'Forward with God', the posters say. The central importance of God in so badly damaged a community of values places the churches under an obligation to transform themselves self-critically.
Even after the end of the Ceausescu dictatorship, there are queues everywhere, at all the shops. Even now people carry shopping-bags around with them, stand in line, wait. But they talk as well, and they're impatient. They don't want to have to wait for anything any more. Many of them still haven't really grasped the idea that the country's problems are by no means resolved with the departure of the Ceausescu clan. There are long queues at the newspaper kiosks. 'In the past, people used to read the paper in two minutes, the sports pages maybe, the classifieds; now they read everything word for word', a woman says.
The commonest word these days is probably Libertate, freedom. The television calls itself Free Romanian Television, lots of newspapers have the word 'Free' somewhere on their mastheads. But they're the papers from before the revolution. Formerly they were called 'Spark' or 'Red Flag'; now they're called 'Truth' and 'Rebirth'. But the same people often write in them, and they write with the same hollow enthusiasm about revolutionary events as they did in the past about decreed economic successes. In the past, if some campaign had just been announced against black-marketeers they'd write indignant reports. Now they give vent to their indignation over the luxury in the villas of the ruler's family—and they do it with blithe confidence, as though they'd never thought anything different. On television, I find the same newsreaders who were there when I went away. Then they used to praise the dictator; now they tear him to pieces. Now he has gone at last. But there's virtually no critical comment in the media on the new government. Instead, sensational journalism is the order of the day. New details are disseminated daily about the life of the hated clan. A truly free press still has to emerge. It cannot be created by the hired scribes of the bygone regime. They're not even turncoats. Years ago, one of these people said: 'We write what they ask us to.' They're probably doing the same thing again now.
Romanian politics is in a provisional state. The self-styled National Salvation Front government is legitimized only by what it does. It has defined itself as provisional and already announced free elections for April. Could be that these get deferred. Postponement is demanded above all by the opposition, which had no structures when it emerged from beneath the shadow of the dictatorship. It's just constituting itself. When Ceausescu fell, he dragged down with him the institutions of his regime, closely involved as they were in his criminal machinations. The dictatorship was over, but there were neither functioning parties nor a parliament. The Communist Party, which had almost four million members though hardly any communists, applauded the dictator as late as the last Party Congress in November. It's totally discredited and since the dictator's downfall has vanished from the country's public political life. Many of its members and parts of its apparatus have integrated themselves into the National Salvation Front; but none of them, not even prominent ones like Ion Iliescu the Front's president, openly appears as a Communist. You get the impression nobody wants to talk about this party any more. It no longer exists, leading politicians say. But it wasn't dissolved either. Who should undertake such a dissolution? It's a paradoxical situation. Angry demonstrators in Bucharest in mid-January demanded that the Party be banned. A helpless leadership of the National Salvation Front agreed to the demand and, after chaotic discussions with the demonstrators, issued a public decree banning the Communist Party—but a day later made it the subject of a referendum, and finally cancelled the referendum. This sequence of events shows the ill-defined criteria of present-day politics in Romania, just as the agonized discussion over reintroduction of the death penalty did. This discussion had arisen because the populace wanted to see the 'terrorists' hanged. Execution and vengeance are images of confusion following the downfall of a destructive dictatorship. They cannot be the beginning of a democratic future. This dilemma characterizes public life in the country. Meanwhile the Communist Party's assets have been confiscated and transferred to state ownership. Will the Party be the nation's scapegoat? It shouldn't be forgotten that society as a whole bears responsibility for the Ceausescu regime. Only the participation of all, be it only through silence, cowardice and opportunism, made possible the unbelievable crime which took place in Romania.
The party landscape now being constituted is still confused. It could hardly be otherwise. The parties appear on brief evening TV slots, presenting themselves and their programmes. They're partly reversions to political fields from the prewar period, partly new formations with general democratic and/or ecological approaches. A political development will be needed through which individual parties can define their contours. The elections will in any case come too soon for them, even if they're delayed; and if they're delayed, there's the danger of reconsolidation of the Communist power apparatus—for instance, under cover of the National Salvation Front. The latter ought to confine its tasks to the transition period up to the elections. It oughtn't to put up candidates for the parliament to be elected. Once the vote is over, it ought to consider its task done and dissolve itself, so that the country can pursue a democratic path.
The minorities in Romania have already established their own representative organizations. There's a Hungarian Union, which as a party will look after the interests of the country's largest minority, and a Democratic Forum of Romanian Germans which—because the number of Germans in Romania is so modest now—conceives of itself not as a political party but as an interest group. The future of the Romanian Germans is highly doubtful. The first issue facing them, especially since the new travel and passport laws came into force, is emigration. A large part of the minority already lives in the Federal Republic. Bounty payments and bribes ensured rapid emigration during the Ceausescu period. The dictator regarded the Romanian Germans exclusively as a commodity to be sold. Living conditions in the country had become so bad that more and more members of the German minority wanted to leave it. The cultural structures of this minority, its communities, fell into ruin long ago. There's no longer any family that isn't torn apart. For most Romanian Germans, the victory of the revolution was the signal for departure to the Bundesrepublik. In Temesvár huge queues of would-be emigrants stand in front of the passport office and the photocopying bureau. The programme adopted by the Democratic Forum of Romanian Germans is serious. Seeing that aid from the Federal Republic is also promised, it could be a real basis for a materially and spiritually secure future for the minority. But, as with many other things in this country, it's too late. Many, very many, people want to emigrate at once. Estimates vary from sixty to eighty per cent. The latter figure seems more probable. Ceausescu was overthrown ten years too late.
It's a January morning in Temesvár. I meet an acquaintance and we go into a bar. The bar's full, we look around, we're in luck, one table's still free. When the waiter notices us sitting down, he calls out to us that they've run out of beer. We nod and remain sitting. We want coffee and mineral water. The waiter comes over to the table, wipes the dirty tablecloth. 'You can get your own coffee at the snack-bar next door', he mumbles. He ignores the mineral water. We remain sitting and talking. We sit in our coats, wearing our caps. Everybody's sitting in their coats, wearing caps. The room is full of smoke and noise, you have to speak loudly in order to understand each other. After a while the waiter comes back. 'We've got some more beer,' he says in an undertone, 'Pils. If you'd like some.' We ask for a beer and a mineral water. He goes away and comes back with a beer and a mineral water. We're speaking German. When he makes out the bill, he adds up the figures in Hungarian.
On the streets, there are happy people and taciturn soldiers. Armoured cars stand in front of the army building on Freedom Square. They're bedecked with pine branches. Ribbons in the national colours are tied to them, and narrow black ribbons. It's these ribbons which recall what happened here a few weeks back. They recall the fact that all the dead still have not been found; that the atrocities perpetrated by the Securitate in December in Temesvár have still not been cleared up.
Romania is a ruined land starting out again. Democracy is incomprehensibly at hand. And the army's still on the streets, in public life, having its say. Will it some day really return to its barracks? Or will it remain a factor of Romanian politics? For the moment, there are many questions—and no answers.
* Temesvár, chief town of the Banat, has a mixed population of Hungarians, Romanians, Germans, Serbs, etc. Traditionally known abroad by this, its Hungarian name, it has figured prominently in the world's press recently under its Romanian name, Timişoara.