“Let’s go!” A tall old man in a blue tracksuit sitting at the wheel of a small Volkswagen switched gears with resolve. I was flustered and, try as I might, couldn’t fasten the seatbelt. My driver was none other than His Majesty Michael I (or Mihai), the last king of Romania (or the King of the Romanians, as his official title goes). I had no idea that this living legend would be the one to pick me up at the train station.
King Mihai was a real participant in and even an architect of historic events. He lunched with Hitler and drank tea with Mussolini, received the Soviet Order of Victory from Stalin and almost single-handedly stood up to him just a few months later. This year King Mihai will celebrate his 90th birthday.
Having met quite a few representatives of modern royalty, I have never met anyone even remotely similar in attitude and style. King Mihai looks and sounds regal, yet he is very unpretentious and straightforward. I suspect it is because, as opposed to most modern royals, he has wielded real power and had to take life and death decisions. “Faith in God provides essential meaning to my life,” the king told me once. “It helped me to overcome doubts in crisis moments, of which there were quite a few.”
Indeed there were several, but two stand out: the king’s decision to arrest Marshal Ion Antonescu, Romania’s pro-Nazi military dictator and de facto ruler; and abdication, extracted from His Majesty literally at gunpoint.
Born in 1921, King Michael was first crowned in 1925, after the death of his grandfather King Ferdinand, who had exiled Mihai’s father Prince Carol and stripped him of the title of Crown Prince for an affair with a commoner and divorcee. The little king was represented by the regency council, which included his mother and Carol’s former wife, Princess Helen.
However in 1930, in the midst of the Great Depression, Carol suddenly returned to Romania, and reclaimed the throne as King Carol II. In fact, he overthrew his own son, who once again became Crown Prince. Princess Helen was sent into exile, and did not return until 1940, when under pressure from Antonescu and the proto-fascist “Iron Guard” movement, Carol had to go into exile – this time forever. Mihai became king again at the age of nineteen.
Romania joined the war against the USSR on the side of the Axis powers with Antonescu as much as informing the king about this. The war – and the Germans – were quite unpopular with the Romanian elite, but the desire to regain Bessarabia, annexed by Stalin in 1940, was stronger. After Stalingrad, disillusion deepened by the month. On June 23, 1944, King Mihai woke up determined to take his country out of its alliance with the Nazis. His recollections of that day still sound vivid today.
“I summoned Marshal Ion Antonescu and Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mihai Antonescu. When they came to the palace, I explained how I saw the situation: Romania must ask the Soviet Union, Great Britain and the United States for a truce. Antonescu said he had to consult Hitler first. I said: “Well, there is nothing I can do.” This was a signal to my aide-de-camp Dumitrescu to enter the room accompanied by three warrant officers. They told Antonescu: “You are under arrest!” The marshal was beside himself with anger. “I cannot leave the country in the hands of a child!” he shouted. He started yelling at Gen. Constantin Sănătescu, the chief of my military chancellery and future prime minister. Antonescu was led away and I immediately embarked on the formation of the new government.
That same day, the Luftwaffe bombed Bucharest. The Royal Palace was a particular target for them – several bombs were dropped on it. Hitler had always hated me, and the concept of monarchy in principle. A monarch is a symbol of legitimacy and continuity. The Führer could not bear to contemplate that because he and his regime had no real legitimacy whatsoever.”
The king’s next appointment with destiny happened on December 30th 1947, after he returned from London where he attended the wedding of Princess Elizabeth (future British queen) and his cousin Prince Philip of Greece, now the Duke of Edinburgh. By that time, pro-Moscow Stalinists had taken over much of Romania’s government structure, despite the king’s refusal to countersign government decrees.
When the king speaks about that day, his anger, pain and frustration still show: “Communist leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and Prime Minister Petru Groza who was not himself a Communist, but who was on good terms with them, asked for an audience to discuss, as they put it, ‘a family matter.’ I thought they wanted to discuss my engagement to Princess Anne. Groza and Gheorghiu-Dej presented me with this text of abdication and gave me thirty minutes to sign it. I replied: ‘That’s not the way we do things. The people must have their say.’ ‘We don’t have time for that!’ they told me.”
The young monarch didn’t really have the choice: “Groza and Gheorghiu-Dej threatened to execute students arrested during an anti-communist demonstration in Bucharest shortly before. I looked out of the window and saw that the palace guards had been replaced by soldiers from a pro-communist division. They were even wearing Soviet uniforms. Artillery guns were pointing at the building. I didn’t want to cling to power at the expense of human lives and signed the abdication manifesto. Once I had done so, Groza patted the pocket where he kept his gun and grinned brazenly, saying: “I didn’t want to end up as Antonescu.”
Nearly a century of exile followed, during which the king tried different trades: chicken farmer, test pilot, stock broker. It was a life of hardship and joy. His Majesty is happily married to the former Princess Anne of Bourbon-Parma and has four daughters. The eldest, Princess Margarita, will eventually succeed as Head of the Royal House of Romania.
His Majesty could return to Romania only in 1995. Even after the fall of Ceausescu dictatorship, Romania’s post-Communist government was afraid of letting him into the country, fearing the monarch’s genuine popularity. Eventually, all was settled and even a significant part of the family property was returned to King Mihai.
He doesn’t play a political role but doesn’t shy away from observations about the state of post-Communist societies. When I asked him what he considers to be the most pressing problem for them, he replied: “Cynical attitude to life, politics and politicians. Everyone thinks that there is nothing but corruption and filth all around. We must do everything within our power to revive a sense of trust in political and public institutions. I’m also worried by the lack of traditions. The old ones have been destroyed and new ones have not yet emerged. In the end, this is an issue of faith, not necessarily religious faith, although for me personally faith in God is uppermost in life. We must restore the faith in politics and politicians, the faith in public institutions and in the people’s ability to change life for the better.”
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.