Magazine | December 31, 2017, Issue

Good King Michael

The late King Michael of Romania (Patrick Robert/Corbis/Sygma via Getty)
Steering between Nazis and Communists, the Romanian monarch did ‘his bravest best’

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.

It was 2005 when I met Leka. He was in Albania, and very ill. Behind him was an Albanian flag. Leka projected great sadness 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.”

This is the most kingly thing I have ever heard said. Leka may have been a faintly ridiculous or pathetic figure, but he was clearly a patriot, and he had not exactly chosen his path in life. He was following what he considered his duty. He died in 2011.

Michael of Romania died a few weeks ago. He was roughly a generation older than Leka, born in 1921. Like Romania itself, he was 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.

A regency governed the country, of course. But forces hostile to this regency staged a coup d’état in 1930, bringing 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. Yet the real power in Romania lay with the prime minister, Ion Antonescu, who was, essentially, 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 Antonescu had respect for the queen mother, Helen, listening 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). In 1993, she 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. He led a daunting coup against Antonescu, toppling him, and swinging Romania to the side of the Allies. This shortened the war by some weeks or months, sparing both combatants and civilians many more casualties.

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. Truman’s citation read, “By his superior judgment, his boldness of action and the high character of his personal leadership,” Michael “has 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.

In November 1947, King Michael 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. A month later, in Bucharest, the Communists gave him a choice: He could abdicate the throne and leave the country; or they would execute a thousand students — supporters of his whom they had rounded up. Talking about this later, he asked, “What are you supposed to do in a situation like that?” He abdicated and left.

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. 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. And “he had an aura of goodness and duty.”

Ion Mihai Pacepa knew him too. 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. In 1978, he made a spectacular defection to the United States. He says that the Securitate had copious files on Michael — including “hundreds of false testimonies ‘documenting’ that he was an American, British, French, and German spy.” He also says that, in his judgment, Michael lived “a heroic life.”

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. He managed to reach Romanian soil that Christmas, 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 an integrity and a decency that 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. Later, Michael became an unofficial diplomat-at-large for Romania, arguing for its admission to NATO and the EU.

He was shaken by the material deprivation of Romania — its poverty. But he was even more shaken by the lack of a “moral sense,” as he called it. No one was instilling this sense in young people. “This is not to say that we should all be priests or monks,” he explained, but “the rules of God” should be taught.

You know an old expression: “It is good to be king.” It can be, sure — but it can also be something else. There was far more drama, far more turbulence, in King Michael’s life than I have sketched here. “I had four years with the Nazis and three years with the Soviets,” he once said, referring to his second reign (after the childhood one). 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.

We would also balk at “Your Majesty,” being good republicans, or red-blooded Americans. But Michael was a model of humility, 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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