Herlad Tribune: A survivor: Romania's 'lucky enough' king

Regele Mihai I al României

A survivor: Romania's 'lucky enough' king

By Craig S. Smith

BUCHAREST: King Michael I of the Romanians was sitting alone at his desk here, looking over some correspondence, when a visitor arrived. He had evidently been sitting there for some time because the sun had set and the room had dimmed to near darkness around him. His personal secretary, Oana Carbunescu, flipped on a light and he stirred.

Michael, 85, is the last living head of state from World War II. He lunched with Hitler, shook Churchill's hand and lived briefly under Stalin's thumb. He is a quiet man, an undemanding man and, inevitably perhaps, a disappointed man. But as with many quiet, undemanding, disappointed men, he is a keen observer of the louder world around him.

"Unfortunately, I had four years with the Nazis and three years with the Soviets, and you get to the point — how should I say — you have radar in your nose," he said, smiling faintly. He speaks in a blurred mumble, an impediment from childhood that inevitably invites armchair analysis because he is a man whose life, from the beginning, has been marked by betrayal.

His father, Carol II, known as the playboy king for his romantic misadventures, abandoned Michael's mother for another woman when Michael was 3, making Michael heir to the throne. When Michael's grandfather, King Ferdinand I, died two years later, in 1927, the boy suddenly became the youngest monarch in Europe. Then, less than three years later, Carol II returned to take back the crown.

Michael became king again in 1940 when Romania's fascist dictator, Ion Antonescu, forced Carol to abdicate. Michael's shining moment came four years later when he overthrew Antonescu and abruptly switched sides from the Nazis to the Allies. Some historians credit his act with shortening the war by weeks and saving tens of thousands of lives.

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But within months, Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, had traded Romania for Greece at a late- night meeting in Moscow, where Michael's fate was sealed, according to Churchill in his memoirs, with the approving tick of Stalin's blue pencil.

The Communists forced him to abdicate three difficult years later, and he packed his bags and left by train with four automobiles — cars are his lifelong hobby — to make a life in Switzerland largely on the generosity of others. "It's not nice to talk about money, but you have to," he said, his eyebrows lifting toward each other in an expression of resignation.

Michael remains vaguely hopeful that his monarchy will be restored along the lines of that of Juan Carlos I of Spain. But the politicians and businessmen who run the country have little interest in the sort of moral oversight a king might provide, despite his being revered by many Romanians.

"Many of the ones who have come into the government are from the past," he said. "They changed their colors, but they have the same mentality.

"After 40 years of going through what we have gone through, we've got a bad bug in here," he said of the Romanian people. "You know, they say it is the end of Communism in Romania. Well, not quite. It is the end of the dictatorship, but certain things remain and it is very difficult to change."

He says that while the current government has tried to overcome the cronyism and corruption that have marred the country's post-Communist years, those efforts have often been thwarted at lower levels of bureaucracy.

"It is very, very difficult for your side of the world to understand what happens in this part of the world," he said with a wry twist of his mouth and an infinitesimal shrug. "Byzantine habits are left over."

Michael was just 18 when he suddenly found himself head of state in an uncomfortable alliance with Hitler.
Michael and his mother resisted the fascist program, intervening on behalf of Jews when the Nazi apparatus turned inexorably in that direction. "We were friends with the chief rabbi here," Michael said with a hint of pride. "He used to come every second week to tell us what's going on. We managed, my mother managed, to do something."

He said he later learned that Adolf Eichmann had "complained violently" to Antonescu about his mother, who was posthumously honored for her effort to save Jews as "righteous among the nations" by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.

By late 1942, Michael was at the center of secret negotiations with the Allies via coded radio messages through intermediaries in Egypt and Turkey. In the second half of 1943, the Allies sent a message insisting that Michael include the Communists and Socialists in any plans for post-fascist Romania.

"We were working with the National Peasant Party and the Liberal Party, the old historic parties, and then we had to bring in these other two," Michael said, wincing. "They didn't represent anything in my opinion, but that was the Russian influence, of course."

By 1944, Germany was bogged down on the Russian front and the plotters saw their chance. It was agreed that Michael would summon Antonescu and give him the choice of signing an armistice with the Soviets or face arrest. On Aug. 23, the dictator arrived at the palace and Michael made his demand. Antonescu refused, saying he would have to speak to Hitler first, so Michael signaled to royal aides to take him prisoner.
Michael formed a new government, declared a cease-fire with the Soviets and fled for the hills that night. The Germans bombed the palace hours later, forcing him to move to the white stucco, Spanish-style Elizabeth Palace for his final years as king.

"The Soviets arrived 10 days later to liberate us from what I don't know because we had already finished with Antonescu and the Germans," Michael said. "And then it started."
Stalin dispatched Andrei Vyshinsky, the notorious prosecutor of Stalin's 1930s show trials, to install a puppet government in Romania that would eventually force Michael to abdicate.

He worked for a couple of years in Switzerland for an aviation firm and was later associated with a Wall Street brokerage. "Not my cup of tea, but I had to do something," he said. In the meantime, he and his wife had five daughters.

"Luckily enough, I married someone I was in love with and that helped an awful lot," he said of his wife, Queen Anne.

The collapse of Communism in 1989 brought a surge of euphoria to the family. But the fleeting hope of restoration was followed by more years of frustration as the first post-Communist governments tried to block the king's return to the country.

Finally, in 2001, Romania's Parliament granted Michael the same rights as other former heads of state and put Elizabeth Palace at his disposal for as long as he lives. That same year, he won back Savarsin Castle, which he and his mother had bought in 1943. The family now operates it partly as a bed and breakfast.

Michael says he does not feel entirely at home in Romania. "Partly yes, but then you think about what's happened," he said, wiggling his hand by his ear. "You can't wipe that out."

Consequently, he spends only a few months a year in the country, preferring his adopted home in Switzerland. Yet he is much loved in Romania, particularly by children and the elderly, if not by the country's oleaginous politicians. That is a comfort, he said.

Where are they all now?" he asked of his erstwhile tormentors, mentioning Stalin and Vyshinsky among others. "I'm lucky enough to still be here."

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