The last head of state of World War ll talks . You might say that the King was on the wrong side of history, except for the fact that all sides turned out to be the wrong side.
Abdications, Coups and Royal Family Betrayals –and the Perils of being a superpower ally.
John M. Florescu
BUCHAREST, Romania. These days it is somewhat uncommon to have a conversation with someone who has had a conversation with Adolf Hitler. Indeed, there are no leaders of World War II left – Chamberlain, Roosevelt, Churchill, de Gaulle, Truman, all the stuff of history books. And barring a few distant relatives of Hitler, military aides and concentration camp guards who have a keen interest in keeping a low profile, only one prominent figure remains, and he is in front of me right now.
“We took the train and went up to Berlin and we had lunch with Hitler,” said my guest with time warping effect. “It was not very pleasant at all.”
You said: “He had a ‘glassy eyed expression on his face’,” quoting my guest’s words from my notes.
“That’s when he got on a subject that interested him. That’s when he had this look in his eye.”
Hitler’s guest that day, in 1941, was King Michael of Romania, now 94 , blessed with a pedigree almost like no other. A member of the Imperial German family of Hohenzollern-Sigmarinen, he is the great, great, great grandson of both Queen Victoria of England and the descendant of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. For good measure, he is also married to a Bourbon.
But it was not the King’s breathtaking genealogical tree that intrigued Hitler. Romania had what Hitler craved deeply: Texas-size deposits of high-grade oil urgently needed to drive the German war machine. Romania also had a million-man army, bigger than the US at the time, a welcome boost given Russia’s monumental capacity to exhaust intrusive enemies.
The King is seated in front of me now, on a carved oak chair, at his lakeside ‘family” palace, one of two Royal palaces in a city once known as the “Paris of the East. “ The main royal palace looks like a smaller version of Buckingham Palace; the family one by the lake is unostentatious, almost Moorish style, dotted with modern art – “too much for my tastes,’ the King freely admits– with portraits of Wallachian boyars (noblemen of the East) and a few Hohenzollern ancestors.
It is summer. Out the back window, one can spot deer, one of four, grazing on a park of nightingales, hedgehogs, a tortoise and swallows – a soothing contrast to a nearby lake invaded by pedalos, half-chewed corn husks and pop music.
The first thing I gather up about the King of the Romanians is he speaks English like a native-born Englishman. He is tall too and stands erect which makes him look taller. Simply put, he has a King-like look. He greets me warmly, and we begin with perfunctory, pre-interview small talk. I tell him about an earlier interview at the Kremlin in which I spotted that Yeltsin had only two fingers on one hand. His Highness seems moderately amused but his facial expression, as I will notice over the next two days, rarely gives much away.
A soft and gentle voice, his words are punctuated by an occasional self-deprecating chuckle. He has puffy eyes and a long gaze befitting a man who has witnessed the world from the top, and who has endured the three isms of the last century – fascism, communism, and a sort of wildcat capitalism that engulfed post-1989 Eastern Europe.
Twelve years ago, I, a native Bostonian, came to see King Michael, the only head of state of WW II still alive, the young monarch who had met with Hitler, twice, (at “Eagles Nest” and later in Berlin), Chamberlain, Mussolini, Churchill, Truman and, of course, the titan figures who mattered (or wished to matter), including the King’s own uncle, George Vl, the so-called, “Stuttering King” made famous in the Academy award winning movie, “The King’s Speech.”
The King’s life has been one of consequence, I felt, for in WW II, at the age of 22, he lured Hitler’s Romanian ally, Marshall Ion Antonescu, the so-called “Conducator” – a kind of Fuhrer lite – to his palace, summarily arrested him and then had the Royal Guard lock him in a semi-chilled room where the King kept his stamp collection. As the King put it that same night in a nationwide radio broadcast, “The war is finished and we are joining the Allied nations.”
This essentially unknown palace showdown saved thousands of Allied lives and shortened the war because the main line of German resistance shifted 500 kilometers to the northeast. Some historians contend that as a result, the Russians would capture Berlin first, beating out the Americans who were slugging it out from Normandy. For his brave acts, in 1997, the King was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Those messy few minutes at the palace that day – the King called the events “operatic” – were characterized by British academician John Erickson as “one of the most decisive days of the whole war.” The afternoon melee had an almost keystone cops quality to it. But for split second decision-making, improvisation, luck and the utter absence of fear, it could easily have been the King who got executed rather than the dictator.
When the firing squad finally brought an end to Antonescu’s life, the short, red haired dictator theatrically tossed his hat up in the air, like a college grad at a commencement. (Rather than explain that days hi-jinx to the Gestapo, the aristocratic German Ambassador to Romania, Manfred von Killinger, took the safe path and committed suicide, but not before prudently shooting his secretary.)
I was well prepared for the day’s task. My father, Radu Florescu, an Oxford-educated historian best known for his five biographies on Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula), had sketched out a 22-page historical timeline on the King. Over two days, I would carefully follow the script. I had another asset: my day job was being the executive producer for Sir David Frost. From having produced ‘one-on-ones’ at the White House, Kremlin (the Yeltsin finger story), and 10 Downing, and points around the world, I knew my task well. I wanted to get the King’s story before he could no longer recall it.
The Balkans have always been the sitting ducks of the world’s Great Powers – an unpleasant condition their polyglot populations know and fear. For better than half a millennium, Turks, Russians, and the West have carved up this fractured corner of Europe.
In 1938, the Crown Prince, 17, and his father, King Carol II, alarmed by the growing militarization of Germany, went to London seeking assurances from Neville Chamberlain. Lord Mountbatten greeted the pair; they had arrived on a British destroyer on their way to see King George Vl. Then, off to Paris, on largely the same mission, to meet French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier.
Nothing much came of it.
Even U.S. Ambassador Joseph Kennedy tried to climb into the act. To the irritation of the Roosevelt Administration, the deal-making Kennedy tried in London to finesse a deal with Hitler’s emissaries. Kennedy also met with my grandfather, also a Radu Florescu, Romania’s acting Ambassador, to see if Romania could provide Romanian oil and grain supplies in exchange for the paring back of the Fuhrer’s territorial ambitions toward the West.
With little to show for his diplomatic maneuverings, Carol II went to see Hitler at Eagles Nest, son in tow. Of the first of his two visits with Hitler, the King only recalls “those famous steps everybody sees in all the photographs and movies.” The King almost sounded embarrassed at just being there, in the near proximity of the Fuhrer. He wanted me to understand that he sort of got out of the way.
In 1940, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church placed the “Steel Crown” on the head of the 18-year old Crown Prince. You might say the event was deju vu since he was King at age 5, for three years. The circumstances of this second anointing were pre-ordained. His father, King Carol II’s, behavior spilled out of bounds: he favored travelling the world with his extravagant mistress, Zizzi Lambrino, the second of two celebrated affairs, than rule what had become known as “Greater Romania.”
The King remembers, “When he [his father] finally came back from one of his trips, I didn’t even know him. I know I loved him, but I didn’t know him.”
Carol ll – known to in the international press as “The Bad Boy of the Balkans,” finally left in the Fall of 1940, a rupture that forever secured the young King’s devotion to his mother. “He [the father] tried desperately to get hold of me. So, he wrote me letters. He called me on the phone. I had to write him a letter. It was unpleasant. For respect for the Romanian people, I cannot come and see you.” Was it also his personal life, I asked?
“Yes, and of course, his private life.” And that was that – never to be seen again.
For the discredit King Carol II brought to his country, self-exile became his punishment. Carol II departed to Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Brazil and finally Portugal, where he died. Mother returned – “the happiest day of my life” – from her exile at Villa Sparta, near Florence, a residence that belonged to the Greek Royal family.
By 1941, the war was in full swing. Germany had crushed France and their mighty panzers were driving headlong toward Moscow. By the time of the monarch’s (and Queen Mothers) second visit with Hitler, in Berlin, the Fuhrer was ready to tighten the screws on his Romanian guests.
At lunch – a lunch the King called “uncanny” – Hitler only spoke in German, which the King does not speak. But the King recalled Hitler’s words very, very clearly.
“[The] one thing he said then…the guarantees from the United States is never going to come into the war,” the King said, looking at me dead-on, as if he was re-living the Fuhrer’s bullying threat.
The King and his mother then went south to see Benito Mussolini, and the King of Italy. “Mussolini was absolutely different from Hitler..in a way friendly, where as the other was icy.”
With the abdication of his father, the young monarch ruled – but in name only. Hitler kept a furtive eye on him, even dispatching his Hohenzollern cousins to spy on him. He was annoyed that the monarch drove to the oil rich fields north of Bucharest to comfort US pilots, the enemy, who had been shot down during their bombing runs. The downed US pilots were sprinkled into the wheat and corn fields. The wounded lay everywhere: in one day, Operation Tidal Wave, the US dispatched 177 bombers from Benghazi, Libya to bomb Ploiesti.
The King liked cars, Jeeps and planes and he’d rummage through the twisted wreckages himself – he took pride in being able to identify the plane types and being able to figure out which of them took off from North Africa because of the tell tale red dust clogged in the instrumentation panels.
“I shook hands with them. Why not? I mean enemies, if you like, but not in our feelings.” The King would go so far to ask a fallen US POW for his gun “if you don’t mind.” I got a dirty little letter from my [Hohenzollern] cousin” about all this.
As the war progressed, Romania had seen its vast provinces to the East swallowed by Russian expansionism, a recurring geopolitical headache in the Balkans (and, with Putin in full swing today, a notably sensitive subject). Adolf Eichmann was often in Bucharest too. Hitler dispatched him regularly as the war effort was taking a turn for the worse and the deportation of the Jews began to slow.
The Fuhrer was particularly set with the King’s mother, Queen Mother Helen of Greece, as she, King Michael and the Chief Rabbi Alexandru Safran, were derailing plans to deport Romanian Jews to the camps. “I had a quite good connection with the chief Rabbi. And the Rabbi was giving me information.” The information was passed along in closed circle, mostly to the King’s mother. She said, “Well, this cannot go on any longer. We have to try to do something about it.”
The Queen Mother went to see the dictator. “Mother managed to appeal to Antonescu to stop the deportation of the Jews [to Auschwitz]…she managed to touch his soft spot.” As a result, the King claims that 400,000 Jews were saved from deportation from Transistria, although figures on deportation from Romania are disputed among historians. In 1995, The Queen mother was posthumously awarded the “Yad Vashem.”
As the din of war intensified, an Iron Curtain of sorts split the Royal families of Europe. On each side of the conflict, the respective governments cast a disapproving eye on family exchanges across battle lines. “I could not keep in touch with the Royal family of Britain. That was impossible.” The King had long lost touch with the Romanovs who were now scattered between London and Italy.
The dismemberment of the Royal families was not the King’s only problem.. Diplomatic relations severed, alienated from his father forever, his aides replaced one-by-one, the King was engaged in an endless cat-and-mouse game of attrition with the dictator.
King and dictator would spy on each other and disagree on everything that mattered: relationship with Hitler, the conduct of the war, the treatment of the Jews, handling POWs, the need to exit the war and secret back channel messages to the Western powers, which Antonescu also secretly explored on his own.
In 1943, the King speaking through personal envoys loyal to him tried back channels in Ankara and Cairo to reach President Roosevelt. “It would have been dangerous for me to do this directly. They had one of their own in the cable office of the foreign ministry and the King had his man in the telex office. The King’s message was bold, even suicidal: Romania would clear portions of the country to enable Allied paratroopers to land and undertake a rear guard action against the Germans. Putting himself at risk, the King went so far as to send detailed aerial photography to pinpoint paratrooper drop points.
There was no answer from Washington. With the war turning against Romania, the King felt his moment to act.
On August 23rd, 1944, the King invited the dictator to the Palace to discuss the war situation. “I asked him to come,” said the King, as if to underline his authority. The dictator was taken to a sitting room, with a cadre of guards loyal to the King hidden next door.
“I started by saying that this situation can not continue. We have to get out [of the war]. He refused flatly. And that is where he said this thing about his promise to Hitler…that he was going to be with him. He is an officer; he gave his word of honor.”
After almost an hour – and at a clear impasse – the King said, “”I am very sorry, but then I’ve got nothing more I can do.” – the “nothing more I can do” was code for the guards to burst into the room. They encircled the dictator.
“What is this?” Antonescu said. One of the NCOs put his hand on the dictator’s arm. The commander said, “Take your hand off the Marshal’s arm.”
The dictator was jostled into the hallway and then Antonescu spat at them. “Tomorrow you will be hanged in the main Square.”
Leaving nothing to chance, the King’s men sprung the same trick on a couple other cabinet members, luring them with false pretenses and arresting them one-by one, just before dusk. The waiting chauffeurs and entourage were whisked away cowboy like: “You don’t move, you come with us” during what one might call a modified changing of the guard.
Events were moving at lightening speed. ”We didn’t know if Hitler knew [but] the Gestapo was near the Palace, “ said the King. Sensing trouble, the head of the secret police went straight to the Germans and the German Ambassador Killinger, was dispatched to the Palace.
“He came in furious looking, like murder in his eyes. Where is Antonescu?” he demanded. The King fed him a story, but Killinger didn’t believe it. He “knew something was up” and notified Hitler.” Within hours and on orders from Hitler, waves of German planes bombed the Palace hoping to kill the King and his family.
From half a century’s distance, the King explains these events in almost a matter-of-fact way. “We couldn’t think much about what was happening around. We had to get the job done.”
By late 1944, the King had deposed of Hitler’s ally – an act for which Truman would later praise King Michael in a highly publicized Letter of Merit. “In complete disregard for his own safety, he gave the signal for a coup d’etat by ordering the palace guards to arrest the dictator.” Joseph Stalin wrote the same sort of letter – in fact, one of four he wrote for world leaders while Soviet party secretary. With such gratitude, one might have thought the King would have got some of what he wanted from Washington, London or Moscow.
Instead, he got Andrei Vyshinsky.
Vyshinsky was Stalin’s architect of “The Great Purge.” He was the kind of enforcer who had to his credit, according to the King and other documents, the dubious feat of having put “30 million of their own people to death.” [double check death toll]
Vyshinsky’s opening line at the Palace was, “Here I am Yalta.”
“According to the Yalta Agreement,” the King argued, “every country is allowed to chose its own way.” Vyshinsky wanted only the Russian-appointed apparatchiks to take charge.
“We can’t do things like that,” the King objected.
Vyshinsky lost his patience. In 24 hours, the Russian insisted on a result of his own design. The King explains: “And when I said, ‘I can’t,’” he bashed his fist on the table, started to scream and he got up and went out and smashed the door. And then he cracked the wall.”
Later, according to the King, Vyshinsky called the King “a tough nut.” Though there is some doubt as to whether Vyshinsky’s temper tantrums were contrived, the King took delight in being called “a tough nut” by Stalin’s ruthless fixer. The King looked me straight in the eyes when he pronounced the words “a tough nut.”
As news of Romania’s volte face spread, the Russian “liberators” swept into Romania. They were “looting and raping and everything that goes with it, “ said the King. “They brought these people with steal bars and they kept hitting all the people who were around. ..the most cruel were the women…not quite killing people, but maiming them. “
The King went on to say that prisoners with syphilis were selectively released “and they violated them [the pro-royalists girls], being ill, on purpose, and they put a thing around their neck, written there, exactly what had happened and sent them back to their families.”
Darkness swept across Romania as it had over a cluster of nations soon to be called ‘satellites.’ Just as Vyshinksky and the Romanian communists tightened their grip, with mock trails, mass incarcerations and executions, a bit of unexpected bright news arrived. King George Vl invited King Michael and his mother to attend the wedding of his daughter, Princess Elizabeth to Prince Phillip, both cousins of the King.
“We were very happy. At least we could come out and see something else..you don’t have the suppression around you, you sort of breath out – breathing freedom so to speak..”
The nascent Romanian communist leadership was all for it. “If you don’t go, everyone is going to say that we are keeping you prisoner,” Petru Groza, a party leader, said with a laugh. The whole government was at the airport “all smiles, all warm, everything wonderful.” They were hoping this would be the last they ever see of them.
In London, the King attended Princess Elizabeth’s wedding at Westminster Abbey. Afterwards, the Grand Duke of Luxembourg threw a fabulous party where King Michael met the young Bourbon lady who was connected to the Royals houses of Spain, Italy, Greece, Denmark, and then some. A few days later, they bumped into each other again at Claridges.
“I was in uniform with my future brother-in-law. I came into the sitting room and she was there also. I didn’t even know who she was,” said the King with the brightest smile of that day’s recording. He took her to the movies and museums and then he “sort of half proposed.” She said ‘No’ the King remembers with a laugh. That decision would reverse itself soon.
Receptions were thrown for the young royal couple. At one of the events, the King and his mother approached Winston Churchill and Antony Eden. Mother and son asked Churchill, “What can be done to help Romania?” “He [Churchill] just said this, ’I have always taken the courageous path.” And he walked away, cutting the exchange short.
What Churchill didn’t say was that Britain and the Americans had long made a deal with Stalin. Recalling the dead-end initiatives of 1943 and 1944 to reach the British and the Americans to “get out, get out” of the war, the King only now fully grasped why his country heard only silence. “Nobody wanted to help because of an arrangement [between the Allies and the Kremlin] we did not know – that Stalin had his piece of cake in Romania. They divided Europe without us knowing.”
Did you know, I asked, about the exact 90/10 formula written at Yalta on the back of an envelope leading to the partition of Europe? The King said no.
King George Vl asked to see King Michael and he invited the Romanian monarch to Paris. He wanted to know, “What the Russians were doing and what the communists were doing?” In Paris, Ernest Bevin, formerly of the War Cabinet, explained everything. “He was the only one at the time who was absolutely honest with us,” the King said.
Alone with his mother, his young fiancée left behind, the King returned to Romania. At the airport, his reception was icy. Little did the King know his days were numbered.
Petru Groza, the leading communist official and first Communist Prime Minister, had an ambiguous message for the King: “We would like to discuss a family matter.”
“Family matter, we thought, must have been this thing to do with my engagement,” said the King. By temperament, the King had little time for Groza, who had the look of a jovial car salesman from the 1950s. “He used to tell filthy jokes in front of the ladies.”
It was a bit before noon. Groza arrived at the family palace wanting to talk politics more than weddings. “Monarchy is finished, it’s not modern anymore. It’s preventing Romania from progressing.”
And then he slapped down a piece of paper in front of me – a Letter of Abdication. “I will go next door and read this thing quietly.”
Within minutes, the Marshall of the court, the King’s loyal aide, whispered into the King’s ear. Telephone lines had been cut, the King’s guards had been replaced with Russian-trained soldiers. To make things worse, the palace had been ringed with artillery, aimed at the palace.
“So what do you do?” said the King. The King argued and argued. But it was to no effect.
“Look if you don’t sign this thing quickly, there’s going to be bloodshed,” said Groza.
“What do you mean? “
“We have a thousand young people in prison here and if you don’t do this quickly, we’ll shoot the whole lot.”
The King turned to his mother who was next to him. “I can not take this responsibility, just for me to go, the King said to his mother. “So I signed it.”
Groza, “jovial as usual with a big smile on his face,” asked the King to look at his suit pocket. “Feel it,” he said. “I felt it. He had a pistol in it.”
Then he turned around with a big smile “and said to my mother, in German, “I have this so that this shouldn’t happened to me what happened to Antonescu….It was all very well put together,” the King conceded.
“I was so disgusted, besides being very sad and upset. And I didn’t think of much more.”
Romania’s monarchy was over, the last monarchy to fall in Eastern Europe.
The Royal family was given three days to pack up their belongings at Peles, their splendid Bavarian-styled Palace cradled high up in the Transylvanian Alps in the town of Sinaia. They were promised a sealed train to freedom, but the King harbored doubts. The thought of his butchered Romanov ancestors in Yekaterinburg in 1917 haunted him. I did not know, the King said, if “they’re going to divert the train and instead of going to Switzerland, they’re going to Russia.”
The King described his captors as “horrible people, officers of theirs, in our house…low down.. trying to humiliate one the whole time. It did not work.”
At the Royal station in Sinaia, two lines of Romanian officers were set in formation along the platform for a final salute. At the last second, the guards were ordered to turn their backs on the King and the Queen Mother.
“And there was one captain, at the very end of the rows, who just turned his head a little bit, to look at me. And he was crying.”
At that, the King ‘s voice cracked.
Switzerland was to be freedom’s home. With its Royal Eagle emblazoned in gold, the train rumbled north through the night, brushing against the heavy winter firs that line the steep Transylvanian valleys north of Peles Castle.
On the second day of travel, toward evening, the train with darkened windows got to a place and then stopped. The Queen Mother was jumpy. “We did not know where it was. Somewhere in no where, you know?” said the King.
After a brief pause, the train moved forward a bit, then stopped a second time. Was this Moscow?
The silence was suddenly broken by the sound of the all-too familiar US-made Jeep. The train door suddenly opened and it was a Captain, an American, in uniform. He looked at us and said, “Now you are free.”
I looked closely at the King – his eyes were awash in tears.