Friday, February 16, 2007

New York Times profile of King Michael

January 27, 2007


KING MICHAEL I of the Romanians was sitting alone at his desk here, looking over some correspondence, when a visitor arrived. He had evidently been sitting there for some time because the sun had set and the room had dimmed to near darkness around him. His personal secretary, Oana Carbunescu, flipped on a light and he stirred.

Michael, 85, is the last living head of state from World War II. He lunched with Hitler, shook Churchill's hand and lived briefly under Stalin's thumb. He is a quiet man, an undemanding man and, inevitably perhaps, a disappointed man. But as with many quiet, undemanding, disappointed men, he is a keen observer of the louder world around him.

''Unfortunately, I had four years with the Nazis and three years with the Soviets, and you get to the point -- how should I say -- you have radar in your nose,'' he said, smiling faintly. He speaks in a mumble, an impediment from childhood that invites armchair analysis because his life, from the beginning, has been marked by betrayal.

His father, Carol II, known as the playboy king for his romantic misadventures, abandoned Michael's mother for another woman when Michael was 3, leaving him heir to the throne. When Michael's grandfather, King Ferdinand I, died two years later, in 1927, the boy suddenly became the youngest monarch in Europe. Then, less than three years later, Carol II returned to take back the crown.

Michael became king again in 1940, when the fascist dictator Ion Antonescu forced his father to abdicate. Michael's shining moment came four years later when he overthrew Antonescu and abruptly switched sides from the Nazis to the Allies. Many historians credit his brave act with shortening the war by weeks and saving tens of thousands of lives.

But within months, Churchill had traded Romania for Greece at a meeting in Moscow and Michael's fate was sealed, according to Churchill's memoirs, with the approving tick of Stalin's blue pencil. The Communists forced Michael to abdicate three difficult years later, and he packed up his bags and left by train with four automobiles -- cars are his lifelong hobby -- making a life in Switzerland largely on the generosity of others.

''It's not nice to talk about money, but you have to,'' he said, his eyebrows lifting toward each other in an expression of hapless resignation.

ROMANIA has been without a monarch since 1947, but Michael remains vaguely hopeful that his authority will be restored along the lines of Juan Carlos I of Spain. He is still revered by most Romanians. But the politicians and businessmen who now run the country have little interest in the sort of moral oversight a king might provide.

''Many of the ones who have come into the government are from the past,'' he said. ''They changed their colors, but they have the same mentality.''

He tapped his temple. ''After 40 years of going through what we have gone through, we've got a bad bug in here,'' he said of the Romanian people. ''You know, they say it is the end of Communism in Romania. Well, not quite. It is the end of the dictatorship, but certain things remain and it is very difficult to change.''

He says that while the current coalition government has tried to overcome the cronyism and corruption that have marred the country's post-Communist years, those efforts have often been thwarted at lower levels of the bureaucracy.

''It is very, very difficult for your side of the world to understand what happens in this part of the world,'' he said with a wry twist of his mouth and an infinitesimal shrug, one of the many almost whimsical microexpressions that play over the old king's otherwise placid features as he speaks. ''Byzantine habits are left over.''

He predicts trouble in bringing his country, which joined the European Union this month, firmly back into the European fold.

Michael was just 18 when he suddenly found himself head of state in an uncomfortable alliance with Hitler.

''We had already seen what happened in Poland and in France,'' he said, lifting his hands from where they lay folded on the desk in a dismissive gesture. ''It was difficult to see the extent of what he was going to do.''

Michael and his mother resisted the fascist program, intervening on behalf of Jews when the Nazi apparatus turned inexorably in that direction. He said he later learned that Adolf Eichmann ''complained violently'' to Antonescu about his mother, who was posthumously honored for her effort to save Jews as a ''righteous among the nations'' by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.

IN 1944, with Germany bogged down on the Russian front, Michael saw his chance to move against Antonescu. When the dictator balked, Michael had him locked away in a safe where Carol II once kept his stamp collection.

Michael formed a new government, declared a cease-fire with the Soviets and fled for the hills that night. The Germans bombed the palace hours later, forcing him to move to the white stucco, Spanish-style Elizabeth Palace for his final years as king.

''The Soviets arrived 10 days later to liberate us -- from what I don't know because we had already finished with Antonescu and the Germans,'' Michael said. ''And then it started.''

Stalin sent Andrei Vyshinsky, the notorious prosecutor of Stalin's 1930s show trials, to install a puppet government in Romania that would eventually force Michael to abdicate.

''It was blackmail,'' he said. ''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.'' Outside the palace he could see soldiers and artillery facing the compound, he said.

Interrupting his story, he got up and led a visitor through the sparsely furnished palace to a room upstairs where he had signed away his kingdom. An overstuffed settee, where he spends some of his idle hours watching television, now sits on the historic spot.

He worked for a couple of years in Switzerland for the aviation company Learjet and was later associated with a Wall Street brokerage firm. ''Not my cup of tea, but I had to do something,'' he said. In the meantime, he and his wife had five daughters.

''Luckily enough, I married someone I was in love with and that helped an awful lot,'' he said of his wife, Queen Anne.

THE collapse of Communism in 1989 brought a surge of euphoria to the family. But the fleeting hope of restoration was followed by more years of frustration as the first post-Communist governments tried to block the king's return to the country.

Finally, in 2001, Romania's Parliament granted Michael the same rights as other former heads of state and put Elizabeth Palace at his disposal for as long as he lives. That same year, he won back Savarsin castle in western Romania, which he bought with his mother in 1943. Michael is still wrangling over restitution of the royal domain in Sinaia, a 160-acre spread with three castles, where he was born.

Michael says he does not feel entirely at home in Romania. ''Partly yes, but then you think about what's happened,'' he said, wiggling his hand by his ear. ''You can't wipe that out.''

Consequently, he spends only a few months a year in the country, preferring his adopted home, Switzerland. Yet he is much loved in Romania, particularly by children and the elderly. That is a comfort, he said.

''Stalin, Groza, Gheorghiu-Dej, Pauker, Vyshinsky. Where are they all now?'' he asked of his erstwhile tormentors. ''I'm lucky enough to still be here.''

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