Nicolae Ceausescu, absolute ruler of Romania for 24 years, oversaw a repressive regime known for having the East bloc's most feared secret police. Throughout the 1970s, he squandered $10 billion in loans from the West; in 1981, he set the unrealistic goal of repaying that debt by 1990. By the end of the decade, Romania was the only country in Europe where hunger was widespread and malnutrition was on the rise. Even so, Ceausescu carried on with a "modernization" program that included building the Palace of the Parliament the world's largest civilian administrative building and a monument to his ego. In December 1989, as protests over the state's brutal repression and living conditions gripped Bucharest, Ceausescu and his wife Elena fled the city, but police eventually seized them. On Christmas Day, a hastily staged court tribunal found them both guilty of crimes against the state, and they were shot by a firing squad.
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