King Michael of Romania, who was credited with pre-emptively saving thousands of lives in World War II when, at 22, he had the audacity to arrest the country’s dictator, a puppet of Hitler, died on Tuesday at his residence in Switzerland. He was 96.
His death was announced in a statement from the royal family. King Michael cited a diagnosis of cancer when withdrawing from public duties last year.
The king was often remembered for distinctions that were not of his own making. He is, for example, said to have been the only man to both precede and succeed his own father as king.
But his shining achievement was assuredly his doing. It came on Aug. 23, 1944, when Michael, whose powers were perceived as largely ceremonial, bravely summoned Hitler’s crony Ion Antonescu, the fascist dictator of Romania, to his palace and arrested him.
By then Michael was in league with antigovernment forces, and soon afterward he renounced Romania’s ties to the Axis powers, paving the way for a Soviet takeover as Germany’s military strength was waning. Historians say his action might have shortened the war by months, saving tens of thousands of lives.
Later, as postwar Romania slipped into communism, Michael strove to preserve its constitutional monarchy. But he was forced at gunpoint to abdicate and flee.
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For years, while living mainly in Switzerland, he returned only as a stirring memory on Voice of America Christmas broadcasts. After communism fell, he headed home from his exile in Geneva in December 1990.
“King Michael! King Michael!” crowds screamed on his arrival. But, the country’s rulers, who had been elected that May, were shocked at his popularity and banished him again, saying he had not received proper permission for the visit.
He was allowed to return for Romania’s celebration of Easter, however, in 1992, and again Romania’s leadership was horrified by the size of the crowds he drew, news reports said at the time. He was not allowed to return for another visit until 1997.
But on that visit his citizenship and his castle — though not his crown — were returned, and King Michael visited regularly after that. In 2011 he addressed Parliament, which that year granted him the same rights as other former heads of state. He received a standing ovation.
The Kingdom of Romania was formed in the mid-19th century when two Balkan principalities, Moldavia and Walachia, merged. Its shape and size changed radically as empires waxed and waned. It had a king only five times in its history, twice with Michael: He was king from 1927 to 1930 and again from 1940 to 1947.
He was born Prince Mihai Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen on Oct. 25, 1921, in Sinaia, Romania. His father was Crown Prince Carol; his mother, Princess Helen, belonged to the Greek royal family. Other relatives belonged to Prussian royalty, and his great-great-grandmother was Queen Victoria of England.
In 1925, Carol, widely known as the “playboy prince,” bowed to his family’s fury over an affair he was having with a woman named Magda Lupescu. She was divorced; he was married. He renounced his right to the throne and went to live in Paris, leaving Michael heir to the kingdom. When Carol’s father, King Ferdinand I, died on July 20, 1927, his grandson — all of 5 years old — succeeded him.
When told he was king, Michael was said to have replied, “Really?” When assured that indeed he was the king, he was said to have asked for a piece of chocolate cake.
Michael had English, French and German nurses to help with languages and regents to make decisions. But he grew into his station; he was once said to have told his mother, “Madame, I am king and I want to be obeyed.” A royal spanking followed.
In June 1930, Michael’s father, tired of flitting about Europe, returned to Bucharest to renounce his renunciation. Welcomed back by the country’s political leadership, he was crowned King Carol II. Michael, now 9, was again crown prince, and he seemed to fancy the demotion.
“I have been terribly tired of wearing long trousers and a stiff hat and going to places I don’t want to go at all,” he said.
With the onset of World War II, King Carol tried to take advantage of his country’s political chaos by declaring a royal dictatorship. But the Soviet Union and Germany outmaneuvered him to seize Romanian territory, and the king came under fierce attack.
To placate the outraged military and Romanian fascists, he named the brutal General Antonescu to head his government. In September 1940, the general turned on King Carol and forced him to abdicate.
So, at 18, Michael was again king — but in truth, he was more of a prisoner. He seldom appeared in public. Romania’s leaders gave him chores like reviewing troops. But as the young king matured into his 20s, he prepared to act. He secretly huddled with antigovernment forces that were gathering strength as Germany began to lose the war.
This alliance was at first secret, but by the summer of 1944 Michael had emerged as a symbol of popular discontent. Risking the severest retribution, he publicly pressed General Antonescu to surrender to the Soviets.
The general refused. Michael summoned him to the palace and asked him again, pounding a table for emphasis. The general again refused.
Michael then uttered prearranged code words, and three soldiers and an officer came forward to arrest General Antonescu. He was locked in a vault where Michael’s father had once kept the royal stamp collection. Other arrests followed.
German pilots tried to kill Michael by bombing the palace, but the king prevailed, renouncing Romania’s alliance with Germany. Germany searched in vain for a Romanian general not loyal to the king. Its frustrated ambassador warned Michael that he was playing with fire.
The king shrugged, and Romania became the first Axis satellite to desert Hitler. He soon unleashed 16 divisions against Nazi troops, inflicting severe losses. The coup also accelerated the Soviet takeover of the country.
Michael received the Legion of Merit from the United States and the Order of Victory from Moscow for giving help to the Red Army. He was the last living recipient of that medal, and one of only 20 to receive it.
By 1947, the Cold War had started in earnest, and Stalin ordered Romania to get rid of its king. Romania’s prime minister, Petru Groza, was persuasive: He threatened to execute 1,000 of Michael’s supporters, and Michael himself, if he did not abdicate.
“It was blackmail,” Michael told The New York Times in 2007. “They said, ‘If you don’t sign this immediately we are obliged’ — why obliged I don’t know — to kill more than 1,000 students that they had in prison.”
Michael, the last monarch behind the Iron Curtain, abdicated on Dec. 30, 1947.
He left Romania with more than 30 family members and friends on an eight-car train carrying, among other things, four American automobiles, nine cases of gin and three shotguns. The Romanian government said he had also taken valuable paintings, although he denied this.
Romance soothed the sting of leaving. In November, Michael had attended the wedding of Princess Elizabeth of England and Prince Philip of Greece, his cousin and childhood playmate. There he met Princess Anne of Bourbon-Parma. As they both later recalled, they fell instantly in love.
The couple married in an Orthodox ceremony in Athens in June 1948 after Pope Pius XII refused to permit Anne, who was half French and half Danish, to marry a non-Catholic. They remained married until Queen Anne died in 2016.
They had five daughters, Margarita, Elena, Irina, Sophie and Maria, who survive him.
Living mainly in Switzerland, Michael went on to be a commercial pilot, a stockbroker and, briefly, a chicken farmer. He always regarded his forced abdication as illegal. In his own mind — and in the minds of many Romanians — he died a king.