Friday, March 6, 2015

The Last World War II Leader - Michael I

King Michael I Romania
His Majesty Michael I, King of Romania

It is March 2015 as I write this. World War II is a distant memory for some; to others, it is just another boring topic in history class.

The people who served in the war and even guided it are not all gone, however. Seventy years on, there is one national leader who remains in power from that time, technically retaining the same title, and still a dominant figure in public life in his own country though largely unknown in the West. He also directly influenced, by his own hand, the course of the war, shortening it by many months and saving countless lives - including American and British ones. He is the last lion.

His name is His Majesty Michael I, King of Romania.

King Michael I Romania
King Michael of Romania of the House of Romania née Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen with the Queen Anne at Elisabeta Palace and surrounded by the Queen and four of their daughters: Princesses Margarita, Elena, Irina and Mary.

Events in Romania never were very well publicized in the West during World War II, or afterward. The two facts are conjoined, because the Iron Curtain prevented the dissemination of pre-war information that otherwise would have been disclosed, if not by actual documents, by memoirs and the like. The Western Allies never recovered document troves from Romania, as they did in Germany; whatever the Soviets found, they destroyed or secreted away in their still-hidden archives. Aside from British agents, not a single western military figure ever set foot in Romania during or immediately after the war except for shot-down air force personnel.

King Michael I Romania
King Carol II and Michael

Events in Romania before the war were confused no matter how you look at them. Michael was born Mihai on 25 October 1921 to Crown Prince (future King) Carol II and his wife, Princess Elena. Very quickly, Mihai became embroiled in palace intrigue. His father eloped with his mistress Elena "Magda" Lupescu, and when the reigning monarch, King Ferdinand, passed away in 1927, Mihai became King Michael I. Michael's father came back a few years later and assumed the throne, and young Mihai went back to being the heir apparent. King Carol made sure to give young Michael a full education, though, for the first time in Romanian royal history, that did not include learning German, but rather Romanian. Royalty theretofore had lived apart from the people, but times were changing.

Hitler and Antonescu discuss strategy

The events before Romania's entry into World War II are very confusing unless you pay close attention to the detail. On April 13, 1939, France and Britain pledged to ensure the independence of Romania, which illustrated the deep the bonds between the nations. However, negotiations on a similar Soviet guarantee collapsed when Romania refused to allow the Red Army to cross its frontiers. This refusal began the long, slow descent of Romania into chaos. On August 23, 1939, the Soviet Union and Germany signed their famous non-aggression pact. Often overlooked is that the pact contained a secret protocol (not revealed until many years later) giving the Soviet Union the Balkans as its sphere of influence (beyond the portion apportioned to Germany). Freed of the Soviet threat, Germany invaded Poland on September 1, with the USSR following a couple of weeks later, and quickly finished it off. Since France and Great Britain also had guaranteed Poland's independence, the implications to Romania were obvious.

Horia Sima, leader of the Iron Guard and deputy prime minister of the Romanian government

The Ribbentrop/Molotov Pact of August 1939 and Germany's three-week blitzkrieg against Poland, with assistance from the dreaded Soviets, panicked Romania. It acted in good faith, granting refuge to members of Poland's fleeing government, but time for it was rapidly running out. Romania's premier, Armand Calinescu, proclaimed neutrality, but events were running too fast to be stopped. Antonescu's Iron Guards assassinated Calinescu on September 21, 1939. King Carol tried to maintain neutrality for several months more, but France's surrender and Britain's retreat from Europe rendered meaningless their assurances to Romania. Great Britain and France obviously would be unable to help Romania at all in the foreseeable future. Carol decided to strike a deal with Hitler, though how much that was his idea and how much Antonescu's is open to conjecture.

King Michael I Romania
King Michael in 1947, the year of his ouster

Things changed again in September 1940. Pro-German anti-Bolshevik Prime Minister Marshal Ion Antonescu staged a coup d'état against Carol II, whom the Marshal claimed to be 'anti-German'. Carol (with his mistress) went into exile. Young Michael was reinstalled as King, but he was only a puppet to the Prime Minister and his fascist Iron Guard cronies. Michael remained king throughout the war, powerless.

Marshal Zhukov (standing, back seat, closer to the camera) salutes welcoming crowds during the bloodless invasion of Bessarabia in mid-1940. A Romanian province coveted by the Soviet Union, Bessarabia was "liberated" by Zhukov after Romania had no choice but to capitulate when her appeal to Germany for help went unanswered thanks to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Even so, the invasion stoked resentment against the Soviet Union and pushed Romania solidly into the German camp as a member of the Axis.

Antonescu was never very popular, but he had the reins of power via 'royal decrees' which he drafted himself. After various provocations by the Soviets, such as their occupation of Bessarabia in 1940, Antonescu committed the country to a massively self-destructive war on the Soviet Union with the Germans in the hopes of winning territory in the East. Romania had held territory in the southern Ukraine during the middle ages, and it still felt that it deserved title to it. Thus, to many Romanians, Romania was not 'conquering' territory, it was simply recovering territory that had been stolen from it hundreds of years ago. That kind of sentiment is what leads to wars.

Romanian territory at its greatest extent in 1942-1943. 

Thus, the Romanian desire to recover that territory is understandable to Romanians, even if the means that Antonescu and his cronies employed to effect that recovery were completely abhorrent, illegal and wrong-headed.

King Michael I Romania
King Michael - who always loved cars - testing a jeep in April 1946.

However, with Soviet troops advancing on the capital, on 23 August 1944 Michael collaborated with others and ordered the palace guard to arrest Antonescu, just like King Victor Emanuel of Italy had arrested Benito Mussolini the year before. After Adolf Hitler, who liked Antonescu, had the Luftwaffe bomb Bucharest in retaliation, Romania declared war on Germany. It claimed to suffer 1.7 million casualties while fighting the Germans and driving them out of the country.

King Michael I Romania
King Michael recently with his daughter, Princess Sophie.

Michael remained king after the war, but the Soviets were in complete control and decided everything. Their ultimate aim was to extinguish any remaining national spirit and pride; among their petty acts was to abolish celebration of May 10, the actual date of founding of Romania as a principality, and move the date to 1 December, a date which has virtually no historical resonance. They had no use for a king, especially one who was a bona fide war hero.

King Michael I Romania
Kings Carol II and Michael I

On December 30, 1947, with King Michael contemplating a marriage, he was called to the royal palace on a pretext. Upon arriving there, he was coerced by Soviet officials into abdicating the throne. Michael was forced to leave the country and became an émigré for over 40 years. He was only allowed to return to the country briefly on 25 December 1990, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Subsequent short visits followed - delayed by the fear of then-President (and Communist) Ion Iliescu that Michael was becoming too popular. Only after Iliescu's defeat was Prince Michael's citizenship restored to him in 1997. His Majesty now is free to remain in his own country.

King Michael I Romania
TIME Cover - Vol. 10 Nº 5: King Michael I | Aug. 1, 1927

However, His Majesty King Michael I of Romania (his proper title) was not completely forgotten or ignored by the Allies. After the war, he was awarded, inter alia:

  • Soviet Union: Star of the Order of Victory
  • United Kingdom: Knight Grand Cross with Collar of the Royal Victorian Order
  • United States: Chief Commander of the Legion of Merit
  • France: Knight Grand Cross of the Légion d'Honneur
  • Poland: Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the White Eagle
  • Italian Royal Family: Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Crown of Italy
  • Malta: Knight of the Order of St. John

The 1946 Soviet Order of Victory apparently was used for political purposes by the Communist regime to foster the illusion that His Majesty Michael had voluntarily "given away as a gift" Romania to the Soviets. The other medals were in recognition of the fact that King Michael's personal acts measurably shortened the duration of the conflict, by some estimates up to six months.

future Queen Elizabeth
The future Queen Elizabeth during World War II. She finally became Queen of England in 1952, 25 years after King Michael. She is Michael's third cousin.

While Michael is no longer acknowledged officially as King, the monarchy having been abolished, he remains extremely popular in his country to this day. In fact, his popularity has been increasing in recent years. By some polls, his popularity approaches 50%, with a small fraction of respondents having a negative opinion. In October 2012, celebrating Michael's 91st birthday, a square in Bucharest was renamed after him.

King Michael I Romania
Romanian Greek Key Tiara worn by Queen Helen in the 1930s. The tiara fits low across her forehead in a distinctly 1930s style. That is Crown Prince/King Michael of Romania beside her.

With his distant relation Queen Elizabeth II of England (both descended from Queen Victoria), they are the only two remaining rulers from the World War II era (King Simeon II of Bulgaria survives, but the monarchy in Bulgaria - unlike in Romania - was officially terminated in 1946, and the Dalai Lama remains but was never involved in the conflict). Considering that Queen Elizabeth was working in a motor pool during the war while Michael was King of Romania, he remains the only true world leader from the period of World War II, and one who personally influenced key events.

King Michael I Romania



  1. Nice to see this complimentary page about King Mihai. FYI: In one of your photos here King Mihai is styled as King Michael of "Gotha". King Michael is not related to the Gothas. He was of the House of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, not Gotha. Saxe-Coburg and Gotha is the royal house of Belgium and Bulgaria (Simeon II). Today, however, he has completely broken his ties to the German royal house and changed the name of the royal house of Romania to the "House of Romania".
    Enjoyed your post. Great choice of photos. Piece of trivia which you may already know: King Mihai does not speak German. He had an interpreter present when meeting Hitler. Mihai's father Carol II insisted that Mihai speak and study in Romanian (amongst other languages, but not German) - one of the few good things Carol did for Mihai's future. Earlier Romanian kings were not allowed to learn Romanian and the royal family did, previously, only communicate in German, but not King Mihai.

    1. Thank you very much for those facts, Jay Massey. I will make the corrections and add a thing or two. Really appreciate it when people who care about this material stop by and comment. :)

  2. Dear Mr. Bjorkman, Excellent article. Its very fitting that you have included a photograph of Queen Elizabeth II therein for it was at her wedding reception in 1947 that King Michael I met the love of his life - Italian Princess Anne of Bourbon Parma who later became his wife. Please see the link below for an excellent summary of the important events in the monarch's life :-