Given the growing threat of calls by Democrats and some Republicans to “reeducate” those they view as their political opposition — specifically, populists, nationalists and traditionalists (PNTs) — it’s time for a look back in history to see how Communists conducted such a reprogramming operation 70 years ago in Romania.
To illustrate with an example — and mind you he’s merely one of hundreds, if not thousands — here’s a comment by David Atkins, the regional director for the Democratic Party in California and an elected Democrat National Committee member.
No seriously…how *do* you deprogram 75 million people? Where do you start? Fox? Facebook?
We have to start thinking in terms of post-WWII Germany or Japan. Or the failures of Reconstruction in the South.
— David Atkins (@DavidOAtkins) November 18, 2020
Pitești prison (Romanian: Închisoarea Pitești) was a small penal facility infamous for mind-breaking and reeducation experiments conducted between December 1949 and September 1951 under the directives of the Communist Party (also known as Experimentul Pitești, the “Pitești Experiment”; or Fenomenul Pitești, the “Pitești Phenomenon”).
This Soviet origin experiment aimed to achieve re-education through systematic torture that transformed victims into torturers and back again into victims, turning the innocent into the guilty, in a spiral of impossible violence.
Between September and October of 1948, Pitești prison was designated as a detention facility for students who were members of the right-wing Iron Guard (Legionaries). Within three years, the death toll from the Pitești Experiment reached 22, and an estimated 5,000 inmates were mentally tortured and physically mutilated.
To hide the mounting death toll, often doctors were ordered to forge the cause of death on the death certificate to indicate diseases from which the detainee had previously suffered.
An important factor that facilitated abuse by Communist authoritarian regimes was their subjective definition of morality itself. Lenin declared that any action that seeks the welfare of the Party is considered moral, while any action that harms it is immoral. As such, morality itself is a relative concept (aka moral relativism), as it follows the needs of the group.
Historian Mircea Stănescu in his 2010 book asserted that the Communist regime did not consider imprisonment as a form of penitence but rather a method of elimination from the social and political life; and, eventually, as a political reeducation environment.
Accordingly, this is fertile ground for the development of an immoral thug caste that’s prone to becoming jailers and torturers.
Alexandru Bogdanovici and Eugen Ţurcanu first conceived of a Diversion and Reeducation Plan for Gherla prison. Its purpose was to continue the unmasking process, by non-violent means. The plan had three phases:
- First, identification. Facilitate the creation of a pro-Iron Guard group, and boost its morale.
- Second, provoke the unmasking of the group in a public gathering. Isolate the leaders and process them. Processing meant a confrontation of the leaders with the reeducated group, with the purpose of changing their political orientation.
- Third, indoctrination of the prisoners with Marxist ideology via lectures and conferences.
However, this light-touch approach of unmasking was later hardened in 1949, when Tiberiu Lazăr, born in Budapest of Jewish origins, became Gherla’s warden. With Lazăr now in charge, beatings became common practice.
Aware that non-violent reeducation methods were not efficient, as the Legionaries were refusing to accept the communist agenda and doctrine, a violent reeducation program was proposed and initiated by the sadistic goons Țurcanu and Ion Marina.
They formed the Organization of Prisoners with Communist Convictions (ODCC), confessed their past crimes and beliefs, studied communist literature, and persuaded other prisoners to do the same.
The program, which was implemented at Pitești by a group of ODCC prisoners under the guidance of the prison administration, was designed as an attempt to violently “reeducate” the mostly young political prisoners, who were primarily supporters of the fascist Iron Guard (Legionaries) as well as some clerics.
Later, the prison was joined by those who opposed collectivization, who tried to illegally cross the border, members of resistance and, generally, opposers of the regime, even in nonviolent ways.
Ţurcanu was transferred to Piteşti prison in December 1949 and given use of Hospital Room No. 4. Here, he and other members of the ODCC began a new “experiment” on Legionarie prisoners.
Torture would begin suddenly and brutally, lasting day and night for weeks on end. They would regularly beat the victims with clubs and whips, force them to eat and drink their own feces, crucify them, sodomize them while screaming blasphemies and jump on victims until they died. When prisoners begged to join the ODCC, Ţurcanu made them confess their anti-communist thoughts and actions before others, accuse themselves of immorality and then join him in torturing other prisoners.
The experiment’s goal was for prisoners to discard past political and religious convictions and, eventually, to alter their personalities to the point of absolute obedience. Its aim was not to kill the inmates, but to “reeducate” them through humiliation, isolation and depravity.
The prison sections were isolated and the communication channels between the inmates cut off. The cells were overcrowded, and the food had a low caloric content (maximum 1,000 calories per day). There was little to no medical assistance, the sanitary program was done on a group basis. Many did not get to the toilet in the allocated time and had to do it in their own food tins, which had to be later washed and reused.
Exterior walls were built around the prison and within the penitentiary perimeter. The inside and outside yards, separated by barbed wire fences, were now completely isolated by concrete walls.
Detainees, who were subject to regular and severe beatings, were required to engage in torturing each other, with the goal of breaking past loyalties. Guards would force them to attend scheduled or ad-hoc political instruction sessions on topics such as dialectical materialism and Joseph Stalin’s “History of the CPSU(B) Short Course,” usually accompanied by random violence and encouraged delation (demascare, lit. “unmasking”) for various real or invented offenses and wrong-think.
Inmates were forced to stay in uncomfortable positions, such as lying down with the head raised and a needle pointing at the back of the neck so as to never fully experience deep rest.
They were forced to walk on all fours in a circle, each licking the anus of the one in front, or behave in obscene and perverted ways during mock religious services.
“Prisoners’ whole bodies were burned with cigarettes; their buttocks would begin to rot, and their skin fell off. Others were forced to swallow spoons of excrement, and when they threw it back up, they were forced to eat their own vomit,” historians recount.
Torture was applied as a means of exposing the intimate details of a prisoner’s life (“external unmasking”). Many prisoners would confess imaginary misdeeds. During the first of this external unmasking, the detainee had to confess all his actions that were hostile towards the regime.
This phase itself was split into:
- The inside exposure: The person was forced to reveal all the activities aimed against the penitentiary regime and administration, since incarceration. The purpose was to expose all subversive activities and also verify the “correctness” of the prisoner. The process was done in public, under the surveillance of the reeducator, and prisoners had to be actively involved and ask questions in turn.
- The outside exposure: Detainees had to reveal their hostile behavior prior to the arrest, especially the actions that may have harmed the interest of the Communist Party: subversive organizations (the resistance), the activity of the historical parties after their dissolution, acts aimed against the party members during the war, espionage, etc.
The second phase represented the internal unmasking, where an autobiography was requested from the inmates; the degree of defamation it contained was considered directly proportional to the mental shift of the prisoner towards the reeducation program. They had to present their family members as immoral, criminals and incestuous, in public. The anti-regime actions that had them imprisoned were as such presented as being caused by the depraved environment they were educated in.
The second phase of “internal unmasking” also required torture to reveal the names of those who had behaved less brutally or with relative indulgence to them in detention.
The third and last phase was the post-unmasking, and it consisted of discussions concerning Communist doctrine and practice. While during the first and second phase, the person had to prove the past was left behind and his loyalty stands with the Party, the purpose of the third phase was to strengthen the theoretical foundation of this process.
Public humiliation was also enforced, usually at the third stage (“public moral unmasking”). Inmates were forced to denounce all their personal beliefs, loyalties and values. Notably, religious inmates had to blaspheme religious symbols and sacred texts.
The inmates were required to accept the notion that their own family members and communities had various criminal and grotesque features. They were required to author false autobiographies, comprising of accounts of deviant behavior.
Guards chanted baptismal rites as buckets of urine and fecal matter were brought to inmates. The inmate’s head was pushed into the raw sewage. His head would remain submerged almost to the point of death. The head was then raised, the inmate allowed to breathe, only to have his head pushed back into the sewage.
Inmates subject to “reeducation” were supposed to work for exhausting periods doing humiliating chores, such as cleaning the floor with a rag clenched between the teeth.
After the reeducation program’s initial success at Pitești, the regime intended to spread the practice to other prisons as well. This was also due to ideological reasons, as workers and peasant were at the forefront of the Communist propaganda.
Elsewhere, work on the Danube–Black Sea Canal started in the summer of 1949. It was meant to be the final destination for the old political and social elite.
Political prisoners were forced to work under extremely harsh conditions, subjected to an extermination regime and targeted for the next stages of the reeducation process.
While the emphasis was set more on work-driven slavery reeducation rather than violence, the two functioned in parallel, and a great number of working prisoners ended up in mass graves.
However, in 1952, there was a policy shift away from hardline methods and the program ended. In the post-Stalin era after 1953, the Romanian regime investigated and prosecuted the worst of the abuses.
The Piteşti Experiment, in which roughly 5,000 prisoners were forced to torture each other to the point of insanity and sometimes to death, became the quintessential example of the evil of Romanian Communism.
The victims of Piteşti are seen today as anti-Communist martyrs. Individuals tortured in other Communist prisons, including people incarcerated as fascists, are even widely regarded as saints because of the unique spiritual experiences they had in prison.
The ODCC secretly faced trial for abuse. More than 20 death sentences were handed out on Nov. 10, 1954.
Eugen Țurcanu was held responsible for the murder of 30 prisoners and the abuse exercised on 780 others. He and 16 accomplices were executed by firing squad on Dec. 17 at Jilava Prison.
Securitate officials who had overseen the experiments were tried the following year. All were given light sentences, and were freed soon after.
In order to hide responsibility for the events, the Securitate tried to frame the prisoners themselves. As such, the number of people aware of the ongoing situation was limited.
Reportedly, except for its founders — Gheorghe Pintilie and Alexandru Nicolschi; leaders of the OS Iosif Nemeș and Tudor Sepeanu; and the prisons’ political officers — very few people from the Administration admitted to being aware that beatings and torture were being used on prisoners. As such, few were held responsible for the atrocities.
Studies of the Pitești prison experiments resulted a term called the “Pitesti Phenomenon“:
“The Pitesti Phenomenon is the term used to group, if that’s even possible, the different types of tortures used between 1949 and 1951 in this prison. Needless to mention, the victims were the ‘enemies of the state’ whose only guilt was the opposition against the communist regime. In this case, the enemies were hundreds of students trapped at Pitesti Prison in the ‘most terrible act of barbarism in the modern world’ (Alexander Solzhenitsyn).”