ONE has briefly wondered if the Ceausescus, in their final hours, pondered for a fleeting moment the last arrogant words they addressed to what they believed was still a cowed, submissive nation. Their erstwhile allies in Eastern Europe, they had said, were abandoning ``the path of communism.''
There was no reason to change a (Romanian) system which, to quote Elena Ceausescu, had brought their country ``high standards of civilization and general welfare.'' Nicolae Ceausescu spoke of further ideological molding of ``a new [Romanian] man.''
The quotes above are from their speeches at the Communist Party's congress only a month ago.
The videotape of the opening of the couple's secret trial released Monday showed them to be apparently as uncomprehending of their own situation as they had been to the sufferings of their people.
The Ceausescus ran a megalomanic dictatorship without precedent in the darkest Stalinist years of postwar Eastern Europe. Reports indicate that, in its last vicious fling, the dictatorship cost at least 5,000 civilian and Army lives and left tens of thousands of wounded.
How many more lives were taken in the 24 years of Nicolae Ceausescu's rule will be for the court and historians ultimately to establish. The provisional government's tribunal charged the regime with genocide of at least 60,000. To one long familiar with Romania's years of repression, even that figure seems modest.
Many more lives were effectively destroyed in other ways - exclusion from education and chosen callings, liquidation of political rivals and critics, and the general distortions of culture and history required to sustain the Ceausescus in their lust for power.
From the start, Ceausescu's power was based on deception. His predecessor, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, a year before his passing, declared Romania's ``independence'' from Moscow on its own national ``road to socialism.'' But Ceausescu lost no time in claiming credit for this initiative himself and thereafter whipping up popular nationalism in his defiance of the Soviets.
The ``independence'' became increasingly opportunistic, playing East and West against the other for his own ends. Nonetheless, Ceausescu's refusal to participate in the Warsaw Pact's action against Czechoslovakia in 1968 - and his uncompromising joint warning with Yugoslavia's Josip Broz Tito that both would fight any similar move against themselves - was courageous indeed at that time of uncertainty in East-West relations.
But neither man was sympathetic to the radical reformist ideas of the Prague Spring, above all its move to deprive the Communist Party of its leading role.
To the last, Ceausescu was unequivocal about reform and party power - by which he meant his own power.
Two years ago, Mikhail Gorbachev tried to warn him just as he had done with East Europe's other conservatives. When Ceausescu disdained the warning, it was clear that Gorbachev thereafter was apparently content to let him ``hang himself.''
For that matter, even in pre-Gorbachev Russia, Ceausescu was never more than an irritant to Moscow.
I recall a conversation with a Brezhnev diplomat about one of Ceaucescu's votes against the Soviet Union in the UN. ``It doesn't bother us. If he behaves really badly, we could be across the Pruth [the river forming the Romanian border with Soviet Moldavia] tomorrow.''
And, he added cynically, ``not many Romanians will want to fight for Ceausescu.''
How true that has just proved!
It was always the West's mistake to take too seriously the influence on Moscow of Ceausescu's ``independence.'' But the myth was maintained and defended, years after his abuse of human rights had been exposed by journalists and other dispassionate observers.
For far too long, also, the personality cult was too lightly regarded. In my files are copies of lyrical - better said, hysterical - poems that began the cult in 1972. Through the 1970s, it became ever more extravagant and embraced the wife as well. Biographers will have a rich seam to explore in Elena's rise to power, parallel with her husband, as the catalyst in the schizophrenia that ultimately destroyed them both.
After the Ceausescus, then what? What sort of government is going to emerge? The ``liberal'' European revolutions of 1848 failed because of their almost exclusively intellectual base and the absence of nationally based forces capable of assuming power.
Such a vacuum now exists in Romania. Prewar there was a limited measure of democracy, but under a ``royal dictatorship'' with Fascist leanings. Under the Ceausescus, repression was so complete that no meaningful opposition groups could emerge, like those taking over elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Romania's ``provisional government'' is not yet a government.
Western support is essential. But the best hopes perhaps lie in the fact that a different kind of Warsaw Pact is beginning to take shape, one thinking not of intervention to ``save socialism'' but of political and moral aid to a member country whose difficulties are obviously in many ways greater than those facing the Russians, the Poles, or anyone else.