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Romania's King Michael: WWII-Era Monarch Who Lived To See Country Emerge From Soviet Domination


King Michael receives applause after his anniversary speech at the parliament in Bucharest in October 2011.
King Michael receives applause after his anniversary speech at the parliament in Bucharest in October 2011.

He lunched with Hitler and Mussolini in wartime, but was awarded postwar medals by Truman and Stalin. He met his future wife at the wedding of his cousin, the young Queen Elizabeth, but tended chickens and vegetables as a farmer in England during lean years in exile. He survived to see his beloved Romania emerge from a half-century of Soviet domination, only to be banned by a jittery postcommunist government alarmed by the former monarch's popularity.

King Michael of Romania, who died on December 5 aged 96, was a study in contrast.

As the oldest surviving World War II-era head of state and for decades the patriarch of a waning monarchy, he spent most of his twilight years not in any of a choice of Romanian royal palaces but in a small house overlooking Lake Leman, in the Swiss countryside.

In March 2016, Michael announced his retirement from public life, with duties to be carried out by his eldest daughter, Princess Margareta. At the time, he was said to be suffering from chronic leukemia and epidermoid carcinoma.

His death now draws the curtains on a unique window on the 20th century.

Years ago, during an interview in his Swiss home, the king's eyes lit up as he talked about confronting Romania's feared fascist dictator, Ion Antonescu, in August 1944. Momentum in World War II had shifted dramatically and the then-21-year-old ceremonial head of state ordered the arrest of Antonescu -- a fierce soldier whom Nazi Germany's Adolf Hitler had come to respect -- after Antonescu refused to break his alliance with the Axis powers.

Michael's action, accomplished with co-conspirators, allowed Romania to switch to the Allied side and had a notable impact on the war. "From what we know, we...shortened the war by several months," he told RFE/RL. "The whole eastern front in Greece and Yugoslavia collapsed because of us."

Michael was decorated by both Soviet leader Josef Stalin and U.S. President Harry Truman.
Michael was decorated by both Soviet leader Josef Stalin and U.S. President Harry Truman.

Antonescu, who was also responsible for the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Jews and Roma during the war, was executed in 1946.

Michael was decorated by both Soviet leader Josef Stalin and U.S. President Harry Truman.

But that wouldn't help him much after the war, when Romania came under Soviet occupation and political parties were banned and elections falsified to install a Moscow-imposed communist regime.

Michael, under guard by troops loyal to the communist coup leaders, was forced to abdicate and leave the country in December 1947. Once abroad, he renounced his abdication as forced and again took to using the title "King of Romania."

He also married Anna of Bourbon-Parma, whom he had met at the wedding of his cousin, Queen Elizabeth, and they eventually had five daughters.

'You Don't Forget'

But while his life in exile was kaleidoscopic, it was not easy. He worked for a Wall Street brokerage, then flew as a test pilot for an aircraft equipment manufacturer. He and his wife even ran a chicken farm in England for a while, before eventually settling in Switzerland.

As he told it, his endeavors sometimes attracted media attention but never any concrete political backing, as Romania had been abandoned to the Soviet sphere of influence.

It was only after the demise of both communism and Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989 that it looked like Michael would finally return home. But Romania's postcommunist authorities kept him away, refusing to restore his citizenship, particularly after he drew an estimated 1 million people to downtown Bucharest on a short visit in 1992.

Finally, in 1997, a newly elected, pro-Western government officially recognized Michael as a Romanian citizen and former head of state.

In 1992, he refused an offer to run for president on an opposition ticket, snubbing politics, unlike his cousin, Simeon of Saxe-Coburg, who ran for office and became Bulgarian prime minister in 2001.

Michael eventually regained many of his royal family's properties, but he continued to spend most of his time in the house on the shores of Lake Leman.

In a 2009 interview with RFE/RL, King Michael said that despite the hardships he and his family had been through, he held no personal grudges.

But he warned that the suffering communism had imposed on the Romanian people should not be forgotten. "Because tens of millions of people have been destroyed practically, gone through absolute hell, and then suddenly they say, 'Well, it's all finished, let's forget it.' You don't forget it," he said.

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