King Michael of Romania, who was credited with 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.
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.
With the onset of World War II, King Carol, Michael’s father, 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 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 anti government 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.
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.
Michael, the last monarch behind the Iron Curtain, abdicated on Dec. 30, 1947.
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.
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.
Requiescat in pace Your Majesty!
Requiescat in pace Your Majesty!