Megalomania starts with an ounce of pride

Having a very expansive view of yourself, filled with grandiose notions of your own importance, has a medical name. It is called megalomania and is an official mental disorder. Yet it often starts with small doses of pride and haughtiness.

Ten days ago I was in Bucharest, Romania to give a history lecture and visit friends. Romania is a beautiful nation recovering from the trauma of 54 years of Communist rule, almost 25 years of that under the dictatorship of one of the strangest couples of the 20th century. Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu ruled the nation with an iron hand and a quirky mix of extreme nationalism and the hoarding of riches.

But one of the most interesting things about the Ceausescus was the way they seemed to change. From a fairly “normal” Soviet-style dictator, this couple became a horrifying spectacle of excess and repression. Some scholars trace it to the visit Ceausescu made to North Korea in 1971. When he came back to Bucharest from that trip, he began massive building ventures and extensively widened a personality cult already begun.

Did the megalomania of Kim il Sung in North Korea somehow influence or infect Ceausescu? Or were the seeds of pride already there and just needed more room to grow? Of course, not all pride becomes the mental disease of megalomania. But with this couple, it very much seemed to.

The Ceausescus had over 40 palaces and hunting lodges in Romania at the height of their power until their execution in December, 1989. The central house in Bucharest was sealed until just two years ago and is now open to the public.

With a friend I was able to tour the house, including the ornate bedrooms and bathrooms, swimming pool, and one of the twenty-one escape tunnels underneath. Our guide said that perhaps half a billion dollars was spent on this monstrosity, all by a ruler who portrayed himself and his family as simple people.

Megalomania is somewhat mysterious but its consequences in the life of a family or nation can be enormous. But pride in any form, no matter how small, can also lead to consequences that are painful for all involved.

Romania is still recovering from the despotic and megalomaniacal rule of the Ceausescus. Let not those seeds grow in my own heart, or any leaders we know.

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