Editor’s Note: This is an expanded version of a piece published in our December 31 issue.
I have met a few kings, thanks to my practice of journalism. One was Leka of Albania — a pretender to the throne, but countable nonetheless. He was born to King Zog and Queen Geraldine on April 5, 1939. Two days later, Italy invaded — and the royal family fled.
When I met the “cub,” he was a lion in winter. The year was 2005 and the location was a house on the outskirts of Tirana. Leka was very ill — gaunt, ghostly. He chain-smoked and drank from a dark cup. Someone later said that it contained whisky, probably acting as a painkiller. Behind Leka was the Albanian flag. The man projected great sorrow and great dignity.
He was the nominal head of a political party, and that very day was election day. “Did you vote?” I asked. He answered, “I don’t vote. I am above all political parties, even my own.”
Michael of Romania died last month. He was roughly a generation older than Leka, born in 1921. His birthplace was Peles Castle, up in the Carpathians, near the town of Sinaia. Like Romania itself, Michael got caught between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. In his life was reflected some of the turbulence of the 20th century.
When Michael was born, his grandfather, Ferdinand, was on the throne. His father was Carol, the crown prince, and his mother was Helen, a princess of Greece and Denmark, and a wonderful woman. His father was not wonderful: He was a Class A ass. A rake, he took up with a woman named Magda, who was not a suitable mistress from Romanian society’s point of view. She was redheaded, Jewish, Catholic, divorced … The crown prince was given a choice: your future throne or Magda. He chose the latter, running off with her to Paris.
In 1927, King Ferdinand died. His grandson Michael, age five, was proclaimed king. “Really?” the boy said, when he got the news. Then he asked for a piece of chocolate cake. He knew his royal prerogative.
He probably presumed too much. Once, he said to his mom, “Madam, I am king and I want to be obeyed.” She spanked his royal behind.
The country was governed by a regency, of course — but forces hostile to this regency staged a coup d’état in 1930. They brought back the king’s father, who became Carol II. Michael, now eight, was demoted to crown prince. Carol proved a nasty king, creating a personal dictatorship. This was brought down in 1940, in yet another coup (by equally nasty people).
Michael, 18, was on the throne again. He may well be the only man ever to precede and succeed his father as king. He did not care for his father, particularly because of how he had treated his mother. He never saw him again.
When his father was deposed, Michael may have been back on the throne, but the real power in Romania lay with the prime minister, Ion Antonescu. Michael was a mere figurehead. Antonescu was a proper fascist dictator, a local Hitler. Indeed, Michael would refer to him as “the führer.”
Incidentally, Michael had lunch with the real führer, twice.
Antonescu “treated me like a child,” Michael would recall. But for some reason, Antonescu had respect for the queen mother, Helen. He listened to her even when he didn’t like what she was saying. Helen intervened to save thousands of Jews (a fact that infuriated Adolf Eichmann).
She died in 1982 — and in 1993 was recognized by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, as a “righteous among the nations.”
In the summer of 1944, Michael was 22 and coming into his own. The war was going badly for the Axis, which included Romania. Opponents of the Antonescu regime within Romania treated the king as a focal point. There came a time to act.
Along with a general, Constantin Sanatescu, Michael confronted Antonescu: Leave the Axis, the king said. Romania was going down. The government needed to make a drastic change. Antonescu balked. General Sanatescu told him, “If you can’t do it, then let someone else do it!” “What,” said Antonescu, “and leave the country in the hands of a child?” referring to the king.
Back and forth it went. Then Michael said, very loudly, “Well, I’m very sorry, but there’s nothing else I can do!” That was a codeword, or code phrase. When Michael uttered it, a captain and three soldiers emerged from an adjoining room and arrested Antonescu. They locked him in a vault that once housed Carol II’s stamp collection.
That night, the Germans bombed the royal palace, hoping to kill Michael and his entourage. They had fled, however. Michael and his co-conspirators were able to swing Romania to the Allies, which shortened the war by some weeks or months, thus sparing many lives.
After the war, Michael received an award from Stalin and an award from Truman. The first was the Order of Victory. (Eisenhower received it too.) The second was the Legion of Merit (Degree of Chief Commander). Truman’s citation noted that, in leading the coup against Antonescu, Michael had acted “on his own initiative and in complete disregard for his own safety.” It further said that, “by his superior judgment, his boldness of action and the high character of his personal leadership,” Michael had “made an outstanding contribution to the cause of freedom and democracy.”
Needless to say, freedom and democracy was not to be the lot of Romania, for many years. The country would be under Communist dictatorship, with its own Stalins.
From August 1945 to January 1946, Michael opposed the dictatorship by simply refusing to sign its decrees. This is known as “the royal strike.” It was unavailing, obviously, but an interesting gesture.
In November 1947, the king traveled to London for a wedding — that of his cousins Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. He knew that he faced danger back home. He could have taken asylum then and there, but refused. He later said that he wanted to “be with my people for as long as possible.”
That turned out to be a month more. On December 30, Michael was at Peles Castle (his birthplace) when the Communist prime minister, Petru Groza, summoned him to Bucharest. Groza and the party boss, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, demanded that Michael sign a document, abdicating. Groza let Michael know that he had a gun, and was prepared to use it, on the spot. The Communists also made clear that, unless Michael abdicated the throne and left the country, they would execute a thousand people, most of them students. The thousand were supporters of the king, and they had recently been arrested.
Reflecting on all this later, Michael asked, “What are you supposed to do in a situation like that?” He abdicated and left.
He left on January 3, with about 30 family members and friends. They traveled on an eight-car train. Michael brought with him four U.S. automobiles, which he would have hated to leave behind. He was a lifelong car fancier. The Communists later claimed that he took state property, but this was apparently a lie, one of their many. Michael said he took no state property whatsoever, “not even an ashtray.”
During this terrible period, there was something pleasant: Michael met a girl. He met her in London, when his cousins were getting married. She was Anne, daughter of Prince René of Bourbon-Parma and Princess Margaret of Denmark. She had grown up in France, and had spent some of the war in the United States — in New York, specifically. She attended the Parsons School of Design and worked as a salesgirl at Macy’s. Then, for the French army, she drove ambulances. She would receive the Croix de guerre.
Michael and Anne had a religious problem to overcome — he was Orthodox, she Catholic — but they finessed it, and were married at the royal palace in Athens in June 1948. Anne would never get to be queen — really and properly queen — but she was still known as Queen Anne. About this terrible period, in the late 1940s, Michael would say, “Luckily enough, I married someone I was in love with, and that helped an awful lot.”
They bounced around several countries, as royal exiles do, and eventually settled in Switzerland (as royal exiles do). Michael worked as a farmer, a pilot, a stockbroker, etc. Money was often a concern, but the family had supporters.
The family consisted of mother, father, and five daughters. No sons is often a problem for a king (and a queen). Michael tinkered with the rules of succession — not that they matter too much for mere pretenders — declaring his eldest, Margareta, his heir, or heiress.
Michael looked the part — the part of king. He certainly looked like an aristocrat: tall, thin, erect, handsome, beautifully dressed. He had beautiful manners. He was not a fortunate speaker — he either mumbled or had a speech impediment (it was hard to tell) — but this did not impair his manners. “He was very, very shy,” says Jessica Douglas-Home, a writer with long experience of Romania. He was also very hard of hearing, she says, “which made him even more remote.” Michael was “a quiet presence, full of wisdom and integrity.” He had “an aura of goodness and duty.”
Michael once said, “Whether I’m still the active king of Romania or not, it is still my duty to look after my country.”
At Christmas, he gave broadcasts to his fellow Romanians over the Voice of America. Throughout the years, he also tried to explain his country to other people, especially Westerners. “It is very, very difficult for your side of the world to understand what happens in our part of the world,” he said. “Byzantine habits are left over.”
He liked a movement that was once well-known and important: MRA, or “Moral Re-Armament.” It was led by an American evangelist, Frank N. D. Buchman, who lived from 1878 to 1961. Many, many times, Buchman was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but did not receive it.
In 1978, Ion Mihai Pacepa made a spectacular defection to the United States. He had been a general in the Securitate, i.e., the secret police of Communist Romania. He had also been a top adviser to the dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. After his break with Communism, he got to know Michael, and says that the late king lived “a heroic life.”
The Securitate had reams of personnel files, and these contained materials both “for promotion” and “for demotion,” as Pacepa explains. Did you want to build someone up or did you want to tear him down? There were materials for either purpose.
“I vividly remember King Michael’s Securitate files,” says Pacepa. “The ones for promotion contained a 1944 newspaper photo of Gheorghiu-Dej, just freed from jail, kissing the king’s hand to thank him for freeing Romania from Nazi occupation.” The ones for demotion “contained hundreds of false testimonies, ‘documenting’ that King Michael was an American, British, French, and German spy.”
In 1989 — on Christmas Day — the Communist regime at last fell. It was replaced by a government not entirely un-Communist. Michael tried to return to Romania at Easter 1990, but they blocked him. Later in the year, at Christmas, he managed to reach Romanian soil, but they expelled him after twelve hours. “He came like a thief,” said a government spokesman, “lying and physically forcing his way into the country.” Princess Margareta said, “It’s obvious that the powers-that-be in Romania are terrified of him.”
Yes, they were.
They let him come at Easter 1992 and were further spooked. This quiet king attracted huge, teeming crowds. Forbidden to give a formal address, he gave an informal one from a hotel balcony. You never heard or saw a less charismatic speaker. (There are films of the event.) But at least he wasn’t a demagogue. He exhibited the earlier-mentioned wisdom and integrity, and it apparently captivated the crowd.
In 1996, a government of the center Right was elected, led by Emil Constantinescu, a bulwark of Romanian democracy. Unafraid of Michael, they restored his citizenship, handing him his new passport right on the tarmac at the airport.
Looking around Romania, he was shaken by what he saw — the material deprivation, the poverty. Speaking about the Communists, he was magnanimous: “Everybody knows what Communism as such was. People are the delicate issue. There were millions of people in the Communist Party. It doesn’t mean they are responsible for what happened. Maybe just some of them are.”
The National Liberal Party wanted him to run for president, but he declined. His cousin in Bulgaria, Simeon, the onetime king, did run for office: and became prime minister of Bulgaria, serving for four years.
For Romania, Michael became an unofficial diplomat-at-large. He argued for Romania’s admission to NATO and the European Union. He made excellent arguments, by the way. Romania indeed joined NATO, in 2004, and the EU, three years later.
In 2011, he marked his 90th birthday with a speech to the Romanian parliament. “Eighty-four years since I became king, I can say without hesitation to the Romanian nation: After freedom and democracy, the most important things to be gained are identity and dignity. Here a major responsibility rests upon the Romanian elite.”
During his last years, he was particularly concerned about a moral sense, especially among Romania’s young — he was concerned about the lack of it. Who was instilling this moral sense in young people? Who was failing to do so? “This is not to say that we should all be priests or monks,” Michael said, but “the rules of God” should be taught.
He also said, “Maybe the patriarch doesn’t like it too much, but I don’t make a difference between Orthodox, Catholic, and more. Faith comes from the same God.”
On his 91st birthday, in October 2012, a square in Bucharest was renamed for him. When King Michael died last month, he was 96.
“It is good to be king,” goes an old expression — and it certainly can be. But it can also be something else. “I had four years with the Nazis and three years with the Soviets,” Michael once said (referring to his second reign, the one after his childhood reign). That is not necessarily what a king bargains for. But it’s what this one signed up for — or was born for.
A few days after Michael died, Rahul Gandhi was elected president of the Indian National Congress — like his great-grandfather, grandmother, father, and mother before him. (Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv, and Sonia.) A person might resent him, as a privileged dynast. Or envy him. Or pity him? Bear in mind, two of those predecessors were assassinated. You and I might not sign up for Rahul’s job.
In 1997, the New York Times asked a man on the street about Michael. “He is very special for us,” the man said. “Very modest, intelligent, and religious.” Consider that first adjective: “modest,” and very modest. You and I would balk at “Your Majesty,” being good republicans, or red-blooded Americans. But Michael was modest, particularly as contrasted with Ceausescu, say, who styled himself the “Genius of the Carpathians.” Leka of Albania may have had a pretension or two, but he would never have called himself what the Albanian dictator, Enver Hoxha, did: “Sole Force.”
Kings can be as tyrannical as the next leader, but they can also exemplify patriotism, national identity, and salutary tradition.
Michael once said, in his fumbling, mumbling way, “It’s queer how history does things,” and he is so right. My colleague David Pryce-Jones did not know Michael, but he knew his mother, Helen, and he has just the right words for the late king: “He did his bravest best.”
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