On 25 October 2011, King Michael I of Romania celebrated his 90th birthday in Bucharest, with a speech to Parliament, a gala performance in his honour in the Opera and other public and private festivities. Crowned king of Romania first as a child in 1927, then as a young man in 1940, he was sidelined for much of the Second World War by Romania’s de facto leader, Marshal Ion Antonescu, who anchored Romania on the side of Nazi Germany. In August 1944, as Soviet troops were approaching Romania’s borders, King Michael demanded that Antonescu step down. When he refused, the King had him arrested, and a provisional government was declared the same day, which took Romania onto the Allied side. In this interview, conducted in the King’s home in Aubonne, Switzerland, Nick Thorpe asked King Michael about the day which changed Romania’s destiny, and switched the country, at the very last moment, onto the victors’ side; about the day in December 1947 when he was forced to abdicate by the communist authorities; and about his views on the past and future of his country, and the wider region.
NT: Please describe to me in as much detail as you can remember, the events of 23 August, 1944.
KM: The situation in the war, on the front was going from bad to worse. We had been discussing what we could do, how far can we go. Something had to be done, drastically, to get things changed. The question was, how and when? I used to see Marshal Antonescu every once in a while, and this one time when I called him in, funnily enough, he came very easily – no problem. I don’t know if he felt something or not, but anyhow, he came.
NT: The Soviet forces were getting closer then?
KM: Yes. The Soviets had already entered Bessarabia, as it was called at that time. Before my meeting with Antonescu, we had discussed among ourselves, in a small circle, that we have to do something. The thing was, how we were going to do it, because he had so many people of his own, his guards and all that, and they were all around us when he visited us. I had my battalion of guards, and in the house itself, we had our own intelligence. A Brigadier General was also present. We put it very clearly to Antonescu that this situation could not go on any longer as it was. And the general who was with me added – as respectfully as he could between army people – “it is time for you to retire, and leave”. By this time Antonescu was boiling with rage, and this was when he said: “What, me get away, and leave the country in the hands of a child?” He said this in front of me!
NT: You were 23 years old at that time…
KM: Yes. Before the meeting began, we had agreed on a certain coded phrase, which was: “well if this is the situation, I don’t see what else I can do.” As soon as I said that, three non-commissioned officers and a captain came into the room, and told Antonescu he was under arrest. They took him upstairs to the room where my father kept his stamp collection, and locked him up! It sounds funny now, but it wasn’t very funny then!
I went immediately to the palace and got together all the political parties, and everybody else that had to do with this, the general staff and so on. This was not easy, as they were scattered all over town and in the provinces. And then we made a provisional government.
NT: How confident were you that the army could, that the soldiers would follow you and not follow General Antonescu?
KM: I was quite sure that they would follow me, because I was the head of the army, like all monarchs were in Europe…
NT: It must have been a frightening moment for you, as a young man, albeit as head of state, to confront a man of Antonescu’s stature – much older than yourself, 62 years old at that time. He had fought in the First World War, and carried a certain weight… Was he a man who got angry very quickly?
KM: He certainly did. He could be very, very unpleasant. But never with my mother, because he had great respect for her.
After Antonescu’s arrest, we called in all of Antonescu’s guard, who were parked in front of the palace, supposedly to have a quick meal or a drink or something like that, and they were all arrested.
As for myself and the others, we left at around 5 in the morning, to a destination that had been fixed during the night, near Targu Jiu, in the west of the country. We stayed for some time, until the situation was more settled. At 7 o’clock that morning, the Germans bombed the house, the palace in Bucharest.
NT: What did you expect to happen as a result of Romania changing sides in the war, and to what extent were you surprised by the sequence of events that followed?
KM: Well, we were hoping very much that with all these things, by stopping the war with the Russians, we would have some sort of recognition. And then we had to join the other forces (fighting) Germany. It was a very awkward situation – to start fighting your erstwhile allies. But that was in the country’s interests.
NT: Was changing sides in the war a heroic act, or a calculated risk?
KM: It’s a very difficult question to answer. It was a decision we took in a great hurry, an emergency. And luckily enough, it worked!
What happened afterwards is another question. But the actual fact that we broke away and stopped the war on that front – that worked.
NT: You had already begun tentative approaches to the Allies before, in Ankara, and in Cairo?
KM: Roughly three years before. We were very well in touch with each other, and when this happened, I don’t think it was such a surprise for most in Europe, because they knew very well that there was something in the air.
Only the Russians seemed surprised and badly shaken. For a few hours or days – that’s what I was told.
For a moment they stopped their advance, and then they continued. Because they were not expecting anything like that. We were lucky that they didn’t destroy too much – physically speaking.
NT: Did you personally have some respect for Marshal Antonescu – during, or before the war?
KM: It depends what you call exactly respect. He was a good officer. He had served as military attaché in London. He loved his country. He was a great patriot in that way. But I think it (power) went to his head very quickly. You couldn’t discuss in a normal way with him anymore. He went right off the deep end!
NT: There were also efforts at that time being made by Hungary to find ways out of their alliance with the Nazis. Count Miklós Bánffy visited Bucharest in 1943 to seek ways for Hungary and Romania to leave the Axis side together. Did you have meetings with Bánffy, or were you aware of this?
KM: I personally did not hear anything of that kind. I was completely kept out of public affairs. We had an inkling, something was in the air. But nothing precise, ever. But Antonescu didn’t want me to mix up in anything – I shouldn’t know a thing! Maybe that was better. Who knows?
NT: From the time of the outbreak of the war, until August 1944, how did your own feelings change about the dangers facing Romania and the best course of action to take?
KM: I was not really kept informed about what was going on in the background. It was a complicated situation, difficult to understand sometimes, from the outside. Thanks to Antonescu’s great respect for my mother, she could tell him quite a few things, even concerning the treatment of the Jewish population. She managed to get him to stop certain things.
NT: How did she do that?
KM: She talked to him. She met him several times. Sometimes she talked to him in front of me, but these were very delicate things, and mainly she did this on her own. And he listened to her. It was extraordinary, because he respected her very much. So while he didn’t like very much what she was telling him, he did stop a certain amount of things that he was going to do. She stopped him.
NT: We’re talking here about the pogroms, the deportations of the Jews, in Bukovina for example. In retrospect, was there anything more that you or your mother could have done, to stop the deportations?
KM: That is very difficult to say now, but I don’t think she could have done much more, because Antonescu suddenly went off the deep end. When he didn’t like someone, or someone interfering he could be very nasty. So she did what she could, and tried to keep it between the two of them. But she managed to a certain degree, yes.
NT: The Chief Rabbi of Romania at that time, was Alexandru Shafran…
KM: Yes, we knew him very well. He came very often to see us. In private audiences, with my mother and myself, and he explained what was being prepared [against the Jewish community]. And then somehow my mother got to Antonescu and she stopped it. Why he listened to her, is difficult to know, but he had respect for her.
NT: You met Hitler on two occasions. What were your impressions of him as a man?
KM: My mother had a house in Florence, and she wanted to go and see what was happening – in January 1941. So I went with her. And on that occasion she wanted to go to Rome to see some of her relations. And then of course when we got there we had to go and see Mussolini. Then Antonescu said, we should probably go to Germany now. What’s that got to do with us? We asked. But Antonescu said, we must go and see “the other one”! I had met Hitler with my father when we went there in 1937. We came from an official state visit to London, and passed through France and Germany and went to Berchtesgaden and I met him there. This time, we had to go to Berlin. I didn’t speak German then, and I don’t speak it now. I wouldn’t die of hunger in German, but more than that – no. So we went to Berlin, and he invited us for lunch, with my mother.
NT: Do you remember what you had for lunch?
KM: Not at all! The chief of protocol, maybe one or two others were there, maybe five or six people around the table. I don’t really remember what was discussed. But at one moment he did say something about our troops doing very well on the Front with the Russians – that was at the beginning [of the war].
NT: Did he strike you as a frightening, a bullying man even?
KM: I could see his general expression was hard. Very hard (he grimaces – imitating Hitler’s expression). He sort of screwed up his face – like this.
NT: How did your own life change – from August 1944, to the end of the war?
KM: It was very very difficult. It’s not a nice word, but those were two to three years of “hell”. We couldn’t do very much, we had to keep away, at Sinaia. We did not often visit Bucharest. We only came for certain official things…
NT: Did you feel some respect from the Soviet side – you were awarded an order by Stalin – the order of victory?
KM: That came a little bit after. I must say the Russian delegation, the generals and so on behaved extremely correctly. We felt that something was not quite right, of course, we knew everything they were doing in the background, but towards me directly and my mother they were very correct.
NT: After Antonescu was sentenced to death (by a “peoples’ tribunal”), did you consider using the royal pardon, and could you have done so?
KM: I could have, but at that time our government, the Minister of Justice was a Communist, Patrascanu. He seemed to be a little more moderate than all the rest of them. But in our constitution at that time, any official decree or law that I had to sign had to be counter-signed by the respective minister. Even if I had done that [issued a royal pardon] the Minister himself would have refused to sign, so it wouldn’t have worked anyhow.
At that time in Romania, after the war, we just tried to save what could be saved. Apart from that, nothing I tried to do was taken into consideration at all. There were three members on the Armistice Commission, the British, the Americans, and the Russians. The Russian side issued all the orders. The Americans and the English I met said they understood our concerns, but they couldn’t do anything.
NT: Did you feel let down by the British and Americans? Do you think they did as much to help you as they could have, given the historical circumstances, and the military situation on the ground?
KM: To be very frank, Britain and America let us down badly. Very badly. Within this arrangement of the three parties, the Russians conducted everything, gave all the orders, and the others said “such a pity”, “so sorry”, and that was all. They did a few little things of no particular consequence. But to actually try and stop certain things that were going on? No.
I only met Churchill once properly, to talk to. That was in Cannes in France in the 1950s. He asked me on that occasion whether Romania ever had a constitution. Honestly I couldn’t believe my ears! I was extremely excited, and put all kinds of questions about what was happening in Romania. And he listened. Then suddenly he came out with something like that. I was very surprised, taken aback. Otherwise they were all very polite and nice and so on. The closest and more open-minded ones were the Americans, and secondly the English.
NT: Let’s move on to 30 December 1947 and your forced abdication.
KM: It was the end of the year. We were in Sinaia, and my secretary called up from Bucharest and said, Groza (the communist Prime Minister) would like to see you as quick as possible, and would you please come down to Bucharest.
So we arrived in Bucharest, and when we arrived at the house, there was nothing unusual, absolutely nothing. And then Groza and Gheorghiu-Dej asked to see me. With my mother. Because they wanted to talk about a “family problem”. We had just come back from Switzerland, and my future wife and I had just got engaged, so I thought that was what they meant when they mentioned “a family question.”
Well, the family question was: to put to me that I have to abdicate. Then came a long explanation, that the times have changed, monarchies don’t count any more, and all sorts of nonsense of that sort. That monarchy and the royal family have no more place in Romania now. Then they said – please don’t do anything, because it will be worse. I went into the room next to mine, and looked out of the window. The place was full of soldiers – the same thing at the back of the house. So I went back in there, and said – what is going on here? And then they fished out a paper. For me to sign. Saying that I had abdicated.
My mother had tears in her eyes, and then I said – what the hell is going on? Then he said: if you don’t sign this now, we’re going to have to shoot or kill, one thousand people that are already in prison. Probably those who had come to the palace, and made a demonstration for me. What do you do in a case like that? You try to save yourself – you can’t do that, anyhow. You save your position, and then you know that something is going to happen like that – what else is there to do? Some people have said, I should have fought it out – I said, very well, and have a thousand people killed?
NT: Did Petru Groza or Gheorghiu-Dej have a gun in the room?
KM: Groza did. He thought he was very amusing. When all that was finished with the paper, he said “I’ve got something to show you”. So he picked up his jacket, and he said, look, feel – he took my hand and there was a pistol in his pocket…
So I looked at him like that, and he gave me a big smile and laugh. And said he didn’t want something to happen to me, as happened with Antonescu. So if something had happened he would probably have fished it out. Those were nice people, you know.
NT: Seeing what was happening in the country, and elsewhere in what was becoming the eastern bloc, the Soviet bloc, did you seriously think that they would allow you to keep the throne?
KM: I must say we never thought of that sort of thing, because the situation was so bad in Romania that I was more concerned about the poor people who were suffering there, so all these other things…they didn’t even come in our mind, until they came with their paper.
NT: Did you shake hands with them, as they left?
KM: I couldn’t very well turn my back – we don’t do that sort of thing! Then I took the car and went back to Sinaia. We had lunch there, and the whole staff were in tears. They already knew all about it. And the guards that we had there were all taken away and replaced by others – by their own people. They had two regiments that were made up of former prisoners-of-war, in Russia. They were indoctrinated…So they were the ones who were put around the house then.
To be sure that there are no difficulties.
NT: Did it ever occur to you to try to resist, militarily, the Soviet takeover?
KM: The difficulty was that they put, due to Russian pressure, some very strong, nasty communists into government. They could have given all the orders to do anything, no matter what I did. On the way up to Sinaia, when we got on the mountainside, I saw two trucks coming down from Sinaia, full of my soldiers – they had all been taken – no guns, nothing. They were being taken to Bucharest.
So no matter what we might have tried, the people were going to suffer more than us. So it wasn’t worth doing that to the poor people there, who were already in an awful situation. It would just have made it worse for all of them. But if there had been the slightest influence or something from outside, maybe we could have done something…they were occupying half of Germany, after all.
NT: So at that moment, had for example the British or Americans put pressure on the Soviets, do you think it could have made a difference?
KM: It’s difficult to know. But if I had a friend going through a thing like that, I would have done anything I could to get him out of it. But people are people, they’re different.
We got back to Sinaia, and we had just three days to pack. There were always two people who followed my mother, in every single room, so she wouldn’t take anything off the tables.
NT: You were allowed to take four cars…
KM: Four cars and whatever clothes I had – that sort of thing.
NT: Let’s go back briefly to Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s wedding in London in the autumn of 1947. Were you offered the chance, did it cross your mind to stay in London, and why did you come back to Romania?
KM: The American ambassador didn’t want to talk about anything at all. He just told me, very diplomatically “we don’t see any purpose for you to go back”. That was about all he said. Neither yes nor no. So I said, well, I have to go back to my own place.
NT: Did you think the Communists might kill you?
KM: No, we hadn’t thought of that. Even when we got back. Probably they would have done that if I refused. It’s possible. When they threaten another thousand people because of that, what do you do? That’s the problem, I mean morally speaking.
NT: And when you left Sinaia that day, 3 January 1948, did you think you would ever set foot on Romanian soil again?
KM: We were hoping. But nothing more precise than that. Just to show you what kind of people they were, there used to be an honour guard, for official occasions on the station at Sinaia. They had two rows of officers, and I usually walked down the middle. On this particular occasion, all these officers – there were about ten or twelve in each line, they had their backs turned. Nice, no?
And those were the battalion of mountain troops. They were acting under orders of course. They turned their backs on me. I felt disgusted. Not for the poor fellows – they had their orders – but for the mentality. When I went up to the officers, and looked them in the face, they were all crying. But they didn’t dare move. They would have probably been put in prison if they’d done anything.
NT: President Traian Basescu this summer was very critical of you in a TV interview – he accused you of delivering Romania to the Soviets? How do you react to President Basescu’s words – what other courses of action were actually open to you?
KM: It’s not even worth reacting to such a thing like that, because it’s so small you know. And that’s the type. The more insults from him, the more he thinks he’s bigger. I couldn’t care less!
NT: Were you surprised that President Basescu spoke in those terms?
KM: No, I didn’t even think of it twice. It even came out in one of the newspapers, that there was “absolutely no reaction to Basescu’s declaration from us”! Why should there be? So what?
NT: Finally, a more general question. You told a previous interviewer that “Great Britain and France couldn’t care less about our part of Europe” – was that always the case, and do you think it is still the case today? Who can or should Romania trust?
KM: The Americans and France have now begun to understand, they now have a minimum of respect for us, because what we’ve been going through all these years has finally sunk in. That is a bit different than before, when we had all sorts of horrible things happen, and nobody lifted a finger.