Michael of Romania
Romantic, royal and retiring
UNTIL the collapse of communism, being an exiled monarch was merely thankless. Since then it has been cruelly disappointing. In Albania, Georgia, Hungary, Montenegro, Russia and Serbia the monarchist cause has at best crashed and burned—or more often failed to ignite at all, leaving royal pretenders (or pretend royals) stranded on the eurotrash heap of history. In Bulgaria, Simeon Saxcoburggotski (or ex-King Simeon II) was briefly a popular prime minister. But now he languishes in an uncomfortable coalition with the ex-communists, heirs to the party that exiled him and murdered his followers.
The classiest act, however, is Michael of Romania: dignified, modest and sharpwitted; ambitious for his country, but not for himself.
He is one of only three surviving heads of state from 1945 (the others are ex-King Simeon, who was only seven when the war ended, and Mohammed Zahir Shah, once King of Afghanistan and now, aged 92, back home as “Father of the Nation”). Michael makes no claims to his throne; in return, Romania’s current rulers treat him with the courtesies due to a former head of state.
Bursting with questions, your columnist hurried to a London hotel for a few moments of monarchical nostalgia. But what does one call a king without a country? For a representative of a republican newspaper, “Your Majesty” seemed too deferential. “Sire” was clearly over the top. “Sir” seemed too downbeat. “Mr Hohenzollern [the royal family's surname]” would be insulting.
In a language such as German, where spoken as well as written salutations matter, the problem would have been insuperable. But English is flexible: “you” proved just fine.
The real problem, though, was not addressing Michael correctly, but understanding him. A speech impediment turns his idiomatic American into a diffident mumble. His wife Anne, by contrast, speaks with crystalline precision. An exiled Greek princess, she honed her English as a sales assistant at Macy’s in New York.
The first question—and one that still rages in discussions in Romania—is about the Soviet takeover. In August 1944 the then king staged a coup against the pro-Nazi Antonescu regime and switched sides to the Allies, signing a speedy armistice with the Soviet Union. After two years of uneasy coexistence, he was forced to abdicate. Looking back, was there any card he could have played differently? “No”, is the firm answer. “It wasn’t just the Soviet Union. America and Britain forced us to include communists in the coup against Antonescu. At the time there were only a few hundred in the whole of Romania”. As in other eastern European countries, the Red Army’s presence made communists sprout like mushrooms. Soon it was too late. “Only Ernest Bevin [British foreign secretary after 1945] was honest,” says Michael, flatly. “He said ‘Britain is not in a position to help’.” In short: “when something happens like it did with us, suddenly nobody knows you no more.”
So palace coups gave way to earning a living: initially by market-gardening in England, with some chickens on the side—“Rhode Island Reds and Sussex”, notes his wife, enthusiastically. Most royals don’t get the chance to keep chickens.
Unlike Baltic and Ukrainian exile leaders, Michael wisely shunned cold-war attempts to stoke armed resistance in his captive homeland. “In the 1950s the Americans wanted to use me to train a whole bunch of people and parachute them in. I said ‘no—what’s the point?’”. That is a sad theme for eastern Europe, and perhaps an ominously contemporary one: almost as bad as having the Kremlin as your implacable enemy is having the West, absent-minded and unreliable, as your friend.