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World War II -- 60 Years After: Former Romanian Monarch Remembers Decision To Switch Sides

As we mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, RFE/RL is looking again at some of the factors that determined the course of the struggle and shaped the new world that emerged from it. The former monarch of Romania, King Michael, is currently in the Czech Republic as part of his tour to honor the memory of Romanian soldiers who died while fighting to liberate Hungary and Czechoslovakia from Nazi occupation. The king is the last surviving head of state from World War II. King Michael spoke today with RFE/RL about the impact Romania's decision to join the Allied cause had on the outcome of the war.

Prague, 6 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- King Michael is the last surviving head of state from World War II.

The 83-year-old former Romanian monarch was invited to Moscow by Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend next week's ceremonies marking 60 years since the end of the war.

Michael was also invited by the Czech and Slovak authorities to commemorate this week the 15,000 Romanian soldiers who died in 1944-45 fighting to liberate Czechoslovakia from the Nazis.

The invitations came in recognition for Michael's instrumental role in ending Romania's doomed alliance with Nazi Germany in 1944 by siding with the Allies.

Between 1941-44, Romania had lost more than 200,000 people on the eastern front fighting alongside the Germans, and both the country's population and political elite had become increasingly opposed to the alliance with Hitler.

On 23 August 1944, King Michael -- backed by political leaders -- staged a palace coup during which military dictator Ion Antonescu, a staunch Hitler ally, was arrested for his refusal to sign an armistice with the Soviets.

King Michael spoke to RFE/RL about the conditions that made the arrest possible:

"We should have gotten out of the war [against the USSR] before, but it was not possible. We already had the support of the Romanian people, the support of traditional [Liberal and Peasant] political parties plus the communists and the social democrats. The idea was that Antonescu himself make an armistice, because he was the one who had involved the army in the war -- although I was the commander in chief of the army, and not him. That was a very ambiguous situation.... But we decided to ask him to do this, and if he refused, to get rid of him. He refused, and we arrested him, we could not have proceeded otherwise. That's how it happened," Michael says.

Romania then signed an armistice with the Soviets and pushed the Germans out of the country, but found itself in the uncertain situation of being both an ally of the Soviets and under the Red Army's occupation.

As Romanian troops pushed west through Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Austria in an uneasy alliance with the Soviets, the Red Army unleashed a wave of repression against Romania's civilian population, deporting thousands of people to the Soviet Union and plundering whatever riches the Germans had left untouched.

King Michael says Romania's decision to switch sides had a large military impact on the war, although its importance has not been totally recognized.

"From what we understand, [our decision to join the Allies] shortened the war by several months, the whole eastern front in Greece and Yugoslavia collapsed because of us. The impact, unfortunately, morally at least, wasn't...well, we hadn't expected too much anyway, because all this time [after we switched sides] we weren't left on our own [by the Soviets]. Too few people recognize what we did [as a result]. However, we did not do it for them [the Allies], we did it for ourselves, because we had to come out clean. Otherwise it would have been an unimaginable disaster [for Romania]. If the Soviets and the Red Army behaved as they behaved to us even in our new role as some sort of semi-ally, you can imagine what would have happened if we hadn't done anything. We did it to try to save as much as possible given the circumstances," Michael says.

Despite his personal contribution to the Allied cause, for which he was awarded decorations by both the Soviet Union and the United States, Soviet-supported Romanian communists in 1947 forced Michael to abdicate his crown and leave the country on short notice.

As a result, Michael spent most of his life in exile -- in Britain and Switzerland -- where for years he worked as a pilot and an automobile test driver.

RFE/RL asked Michael if he thinks his personal sacrifices and Romania's contribution to the Allied victory was appreciated at the end of the war?

"I kind of doubt it. Although the Russians gave me the highest Russian decoration and, almost a year later [U.S. President Harry] Truman did the same thing on behalf of the United States, I couldn't say that there was more than that. As I said before, when you have to leave the way I had to leave [Romania] -- it is human nature, but when such a thing happens, all of a sudden, nobody knows you anymore. This was a personal issue for me, but it also affected Romania as a country. Romania made sacrifices though. It lost many people, including here [in the Czech Republic], and we should have received more international recognition," Michael says.

One of the darkest episodes in Romania's modern history was Antonescu's persecution of Romanian Jews and Roma. The persecution resulted in the deportation in 1941 of hundreds of thousands of people to the Soviet region of Transdniester, which was under Romanian and German occupation. It is estimated that more than 100,000 Jews and Roma died there.

Michael says that he and his mother, Queen Mother Elena, attempted to alleviate the suffering imposed by Antonescu on the Jews.

But he believes the tragedy of Romanian Jews was inevitable.

"It couldn't have been avoided, because of the verbal agreement Antonescu made with the Germans. No, I do not think it could have been avoided. But my mother and I have very close relations with the chief rabbi of Romania, Shafran, and whenever something was about to happen there [with the Jews], they would find out and would come and tell us, and we would also go to the [Orthodox] patriarch [to ask for support]. The Queen Mother managed, to a certain extent, to temper Antonescu on the Jewish issue, and even for those deported to Transdniester she got Antonescu and his people to send several trainloads of food and clothing for the poor people. And locally, we also tried to do what we could to alleviate the situation. Many years later, the Yad Vashem [Holocaust Memorial Authority] recognized my mother's contribution [to saving Jewish lives] and they gave me a diploma," Michael said.

Even after the fall of communism in 1989, Michael was not allowed to visit his homeland by the largely ex-communist Romanian government until 1992.

Michael never reclaimed his throne and stayed away from politics. In 1992, he flatly rejected a liberal party proposal to run for Romania's presidency. Several years later, another former royal, Bulgaria's King Simeon II, decided to run for office in his home country and became prime minister.

King Michael, however, dedicated himself to using his connections with European royalty to promote Romania's efforts to join NATO.

His relentless efforts paid off, and Michael expresses satisfaction that Romania is now a reliable NATO member with a bright, European future ahead.

"We are part of NATO, and it is a good thing, because we are there with a reorganized army and I think we have a certain influence [within the alliance]. The Americans, who are NATO's main driving force, have seen that we have also sent troops to Iraq, Afghanistan, and even in former Yugoslavia, and we have proven that we are serious. I think they realize that we represent something in our corner of Eastern Europe, so I think we do have some weight, and we fit in well. The European [Union integration] issue is more of a political one, not military. That will be more complicated," Michael said.

King Michael now lives in Romania and despite his age, leads a very active life. A renowned race-car driver in his youth, King Michael still drives his own car.

And instead of flying, he chose to retrace step-by-step the route of Romania's troops through Central Europe -- and drove all the way to Prague.