In Memory of Romania’s Last King: His Royal Majesty Michael I (1921-2017)
The life of King Michael I (Mihai I, for Romanians) embodies almost perfectly the tormented and tragic destiny of Romania, his country, in the 20th century. His quiet and reserved personality, almost a monument to stoicism, was testimony to a man who, in the face of great adversity, always tried to do everything right, but in the end to no avail.
Michael I was the second royal heir to be born in Romania, in 1921, at the Foișor Castle of the Peleș Royal Domain, in the royal summer resort town of Sinaia. He was born into a foreign dinasty, Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, which however became one with the nation after the Great War. As the son of future King Charles II and Princess Helen of Greece, Michael embodied the great hopes of a country set up to become Central and Eastern Europe’s power broker. Named after a late 16th century Wallachian Prince-ruler, Michael the Brave, who first briefly unified all of the three Romanian Principalities, he was practically related through his parents and grandparents with all of Europe’s royal houses, from the massacred Romanovs to the ousted Braganzas of Portugal, the British Windsors or the various German royal and princely houses. His aunts were the Queens of the Balkans, ruling as allies in Yugoslavia and Greece, and even married into the fallen Hapsburg dinasty his grandfather King Ferdinand I helped defeat, losing his German princely title in the process.
He lived a long live, being until the 6th of December 2017 the last living effective head of state of the World War Two era, but he was always a young King. He first became King in 1927, at the age of 5, following the death of his grandfather Ferdinand I “The Unifier”, which triggered the first of many crises to come in Romanian Government. His father, the flamboyant Crown Prince Charles – a sort of Edward VIII character of the roaring 1920s – was disowned after leaving Princess Helen in favour of an affair with a divorced Bucharest socialite, with a Jewish convert to Orthodox Christianity background, callen Elena Lupescu, which will last for the rest of his life. The Regency set up to rule in the name of King Michael I proved to be unstable in the face of the social convulsions unleashed by the beginning of the Great Depression as well as bitter partisan in-fighting. With internal political support from factions acting illicitly, Prince Charles returned to Romania in 1930 and replaced his son, now titled Great Prince or Voivode of Alba-Iulia, on the throne.
The second royal heir born in Romania, Michael embodied the great hopes of a nation set up to become Central and Eastern Europe’s power broker. The Kingdom of Romania which Charles II ruled and in which Prince Michael grew up was a respected and leading European nation, but it also suffered from an acute sense of insecurity, being particularly vulnerable to the the continent’s power shifts, soon to be unleashed.
King Charles II was the most controversial King in Romanian history. He had great plans for modernising the country and wanted to play a more active political role than the previous King, having a low esteem for the bickering of the country’s politicians, who in turn could not come to forgive him for his dissolute personal life. He also proved to be a rather cold father for the young Michael, having banned his mother, exiled in Florence, from seeing him. The Kingdom of Romania Charles II ruled and in which Prince Michael grew up was a respected and leading European nation, one of the founding members of the League of Nations and an Eastern pillar of the Versailles system as well as anti-Bolshevik shield, but it also suffered from an accute sense of insecurity, being particularly sensitive to the continent’s power shifts, soon to be unleashed. Bucharest was the region’s busiest and most cosmopolitan metropolis, and it was during this time that the city gained its renown as the “Paris of the East”.
The arts and the sciences flourished under the personal and quite impartial patronage of King Charles II, a highly intelligent and well-educated person, his moral flaws notwithstanding, producing world-renowned figures and works in all fields of knowledge that still overshadow anything done ever since. However, by the middle of the 1930s, Romania – which can be described overall as the premier emerging economy of the time, pursuing a program of import-substitution industrialisation as well as literacy-promotion for its significant stock of agrarian population – was a country firmly under the economic domination of a reassertive Germany.
A Perfect Storm
When Michael ascended to the throne once more, on the 6th of September 1940, Romania was quite a different place from that of 1927. The worst fears the country harboured after the succesul Great War – which by sheer determination as well as some luck, accomplished “the nation’s centuries old ideals”, as history textbooks still recall – have materialised with the speed of sound and almost mathematical precision between late June and early September of that year. First, Soviet Russia’s dictator Joseph Stalin issued an ultimatum to Romania demanding the immediate cessation of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, two North-Eastern Romanian territories, as part of his agreement with Germany’s Adolf Hitler to divide Central and Eastern Europe between them, sealed in the secret protocol of the still not properly acknowledged Ribbentrop-Molotov Non-Aggression Pact (although the Germans did not sign up for the cessation of Northern Bukovina, they went along with the Soviet grab which actually was extended a little bit further into Romanian territory to include Herța). Then, officially, at Benito Mussolini’s initiative – who could not forget Romania’s condemnation at the League of Nations of the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia, not to mention its opposition to the Italian dominance and eventual takeover of Albania the year before – Fascist ally Hungary obtained satisfaction againt Romania in the so-called Vienna Arbitrage, in fact another diktate, this one of German-Italian making, ordering Romania to relinquish half of Transylvania, its North-Western territory. Lastly, Bulgaria – another Italian and German Fascist ally and Romanian adversary in the preceding war – obtained the cession of Southern Dobruja, in South-East Romania.
Charles II’s foreign policy was in continuation with that of the previous King and the traditional, mainstream, Romanian political elite since the Great War, which presupposed keeping the country aligned with the Western victorious powers, Britain and France above all; strict adherence to the Versailles system of treaties and League of Nations proceedings; and a very prudent, even skeptical, attitudine towards any rapproachment with the Soviet Union.
King Charles II’s legacy to young Michael and his role in this unfortunate string of events and others more to follow are the object of some dispute among Romanian historians, for whom this part of the past was off-limits until quite recently. His foreign policy was in continuation with that of the previous King and the traditional, mainstream, Romanian political elite since the Great War, which presupposed keeping the country aligned with the Western victorious powers, Britain and France above all; strict adherence to the Versailles system of treaties and League of Nations proceedings; and a very prudent, even skeptical, attitudine towards any rapproachment with the Soviet Union, basically an internationally outlawed state at the time, as long as it continued to not recognize the union of Bessarabia with Romania as well as support and foment worldwide communist revolutionary activity through the Comintern (the Moscow-led Third International). With the rise of Nazi Germany, and especially after Britain and France began to pursue a policy of appeasment, he began however a concilliatory policy of economic cooperation with Europe’s largest and resource hungry industrial power, but he personally disdained Hitler, whom he met at Berchtesgaden along with Prince Michael, and viewed the Nazi regime with suspicion, not least because – like the Russian Bolcheviks – they were at this point attracting and funding like-minded movements which threatened his own hold on power.
In early 1939 King Charles II did not partake in the dismantling of Czechoslovakia, although he was offered a piece, known as Northern Maramureș, controlled by Romania until after the conclusion of the Versailles Peace, and, in late 1939, he also granted safe passage to the defeated Polish Government following the joint German-Soviet invasion – a regional ally of Romania begining with a 1921 bilateral defense treaty – with over 120.000 Polish troops and the country’s treasury crossing into Romanian territory and ultimately being shipped to France and then Britain, where they contributed to the Western war against Nazi Germany.
King Michael’s greatest political gesture, a historic act of world significance even if today outside Romania its importance is not remembered or even downplayed, was also the gesture which would ultimatly lead to his downfall, thus is the tragic nature of his life. And, to a large extent, the same goes for the country.
His internal politics are harder to assess and leave room for more interpretation. He stands accused of having subverted Romania’s interwar dmocratic politics, imperfect by present standards, but democratic nevertheless, and even of introducing the country to authoritarianism. After his illegal return to the country – in itself a blow to established legality, even though accepted and in fact promoted by leading politicians of whom some will become his main critics – he actively manouevered between the various factions of the main two parties to get governments led by people who shared his ideas or with whom he could work with. He also made attempts to approach the young generation, whose spirit of liberation as well as revolt appealed to him at a cultural and intellectual level, which by now was starting to manifest itself politically, often in what would become the local version of fascism.
Although again King in 1940, Michael was still underage according to Romanian law. Two years before, at about the same time Neville Chamberlain was handing over Czechoslovakia to Hitler, a key Romanian ally in the region, his father King Charles II suspended the country’s constitution after an election in which no party managed to get a majority (defined as 40% of the votes, plus an automatic electoral premium). He immediately began setting up a new personal regime, which blended some formal Italian Fascist, or Corporatist, elements with the traditional attachment to the monarchy found in the Romanian society of the time, dubbed by its critics “the royal dictatorship”, although it was more authoritarian than dictatorial since it not only retained a large partion of the liberal Constitution but also had the backing of many influential mainstream figures, who even theorised a crisis-regime called “social monarchy”.
He also began a crackdown of the political movements at the extremes. The Communist Party was already illegal in Romania since 1924, after a left-wing extremist detonated a makeshift-bomb in the premisses of the lower house of Parliament and Comintern agents instigated a riot in Tatar Bunar, a village in Budjak, Southern Bessarabia. Now it was time to tackle the Fascists and especially the largest, most radical and by far the most influential Romanian right-wing extremist group known as the Legion of Archangel Michael, who was responsibile for assasinating various local officials and a Prime Minister, then two... Its political party was made illegal for a second time, as were oficially all others, but because they were thought to be absorbed into his national unity regime; its militants were rounded-up all over the country and imprisoned in camps; and its top leadership, cultic leader Corneliu Zelea Codreanu included, was executed in a staged escape from prison. No open antisemitic persecution took place during this time in Romania, but a Jewish-targetting piece of legislation aimed at revising citizenship law for those who received it after 1918 was passed in early 1938 by the ultranationalist and Fascist-leaning National Christian Party (PNC), a more reasonable competitor and part ancestor of Codreanu’s Legionnaires, which unexpectedly got to form a minority government for two months after the undecided parliamentary election of December 1937. However, Charles II’s failure to keep the country neutral in the new World War, or to avoid the territorial losses in the summer of 1940, was what ultimately brought his swift downfall, but left the concentration of executive power that he pursued in his final two years intact.
The Finest Hours
In the first half of King Michael’s reign, all of this power passed peacefully, despite a tense atmosphere, to General Ion Antonescu, a veteran of the Great War and – beginning with the mid-1930s – a critic of King Charles II. Antonescu pursued a different foreign policy, one of alliance with the Axis Powers instead of hostility or opposition towards them, at first in cooperation with the local Fascist movement supressed by Charles II but then without them, and even against them. He joined the German campaign against the Soviet Union a year later for the purpose of recovering the territories annexed in 1940 and became a loyal, some will say irrationally loyal, military ally of Adolf Hitler. King Michael was left as the head of state, nominally succeding King Charles II, but his role was purely ceremonial during this period, being kept in the dark with regard to the country’s war actions most of the time, although Antonescu allowed his mother, Queen Helen, to return to Romania and live with her son.
What happened for the next 50 more years in Romania – the almost incomprehensible fact that a country without a strong Communist party and apparently without a significant Marxist or typical Left-wing intelligentsia, quite the contrary – ended up becoming one of Europe’s most unreformable Communist regimes essentially originated in the last three years of Michael’s reign.
King Michael’s greatest political gesture, a historic act of world significance even if today outside Romania its importance is not remembered or even downplayed, was also the gesture which would ultimatly lead to his downfall, thus is the tragic nature of his life. And, to a large extent, the same goes for the country. In 1944 the Second World War was slowly turning into the Allies’ favour, but its end was far from a certain matter, and least of all the costs necessary to achieve it. As the Russian troops began crossing Romania’s Eastern borders, he basically organised a plot, involving loyal military officers of the Royal Guard and civilian politicians to oust Antonescu from power, by force if necessary, and save the country from useless destruction and eventual Sovietisation. The 23rd of August coup, as the act became known, dismissed Marshall Ion Antonescu from power, swiftly pushed out all German troops from Romanian held land, officially reinstated the 1923 Constitution (which was but an extension of the original 1866 Constitution) and proclaimed Romania’s immediate “change of arms” and adherence to the United Nations Charter devised by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt early on in the war. The Romanian Royal Army will go on to fight on the Western front as far as Vienna, although the Soviets witheld from it the honour of “liberating” Budapest and minimized the campaign it waged in Slovakia. King Michael I will receive the Soviet Union’s highest medal for his deed from Joseph Stalin no less, as well as the highest medal of the United States of America and the highest order of the British Empire, but Romania will not share, even remotely, Italy’s war-end fate at the Allies’ postwar deliberation. The Soviet Army began to disarm and suborn Romanian military units in Moldova, the North-Eastern part of the country as soon as the “change of arms” came into effect, without even counting the prisoners of the war made on both sides of the river Prut sent to labour camps in Siberia and Kazakhstan. The country, or most of it anyway, might have preserved its separate legal existance in August 1944, but it was to become unmistakenly a Soviet satellite, even a model Soviet satellite.
Change of Arms
When King Michael I organised the plot to dismiss Ion Antonescu (which was theoretically not a plot at all, since he was oficially his Prime Minister), he took into account the expected Russian reaction, and included among the plotrers the leaders of the barely 1,000 men (and women!) strong and illegal Romanian Communist Party. After Antonescu’s arrest, it was the Communist Party’s strongmen who took the Marshall into custody at an undisclosed location, because of Royal Palace fears that some Army units loyal to him or German paratroopers might try to liberate him, as had happened in Italy with Mussolini, but more likely to please the Russians and the Communists in need of palpable antifascist credentials for their core propaganda effort since even before the war.
Why did Michael last so long on the throne? For one thing, he was popular. For the Romanian people, he was a national savior and the hope for an independent and democratic future, as the crackdown on student manifestations in Bucharest’s Palace Square testify. For the world public opinion, it was he who was the country’s symbol of antifascist resistance, Communist propaganda nowithstanding.
They will later hand him to the Soviet military commanders in Romania, who had him flown to Moscow and then returned to the country for a “people’s trial”, in which he was sentenced to death and executed by firing squad. The trial – to say nothing about the manner in which it was instrumented – did not find him guilty of genocide against the Jewish population, in Transnistria in particular (the Romanian-ruled territory in present-day South-Western Ukraine, where the Romanian military deported Jewish population from Bessarabia and Bukovina, organised camps and was involved in mass-killings alongside German troops and locals), but of generic war crimes, leaving unclear the extent of his antisemitic policies, and – after the fall of Communism – sparking controversy in Romania among historians, politicians and the public in general between those who wished to erase his name from the national pantheon and those, often with neofascist or antisemitic leanings, who wanted some form of rehabilitation. In any case, the Romanian Communists appropriated for themselves the Soviet meme of “antifascist struggle”, from which they were conspicuously absent, and the royal act of 23rd of August became in their ideology an “antifascist revolution” and later a state holiday in the People’s as well as the Socialist Republic of Romania.
What happened for the next 50 more years in Romania, the almost incomprehensible fact that a country without a strong Communist party – a party, moreover, with a very antinational, or antipatriotic, official discourse, totally subordinated to the Kremlin’s dogma that Romania was an “imperialist reactionary capitalist state” which took over revolutionary Bessarabia – and apparently without a significant Marxist or typical Left-wing intelligentsia, quite the contrary, ended up becoming one of Europe’s most unreformable Communist regimes essentially originated in the last three years of Michael’s reign.
Stunned by the popularity and vivid emotions triggered by King Michael’s first return visit, granted only in 1992, Romania’s new elites continued for more than a decade to promote the historical lies and slander produced by Communist propaganda.
After the war ended, the Soviet Union – in line with the Big Three Allies’ high-level agreements on “spheres of influence”, which gave it a free hand in the region – treated the country as an occupied enemy, instead of a co-belligerent, a status which Italy obtained and Romania seeked, but was refused. King Michael and his provisional government led by General Nicolae Rădescu still controlled most of the country and the state’s institutions were fully functional, but in the absence of determined external diplomatic support from the Anglo-American Allies he was unable to do anything but to grudgingly give in to the Soviets and their local Communist Party, finally appointing Petru Groza – more of a Communist fellow-traveller than a Communist in his own right – to head the government in March 1945. Despite a “royal strike”, the Groza Government will quickly begin to purge the public administration, falsify the November 1946 elections, ban non-Communist or non-Communist aligned parties and stage political trials for opposition politicians. By 1947, the country was firmly under Communist control and only King Michael weirdly stood apart, powerless.
Obviously, there was no place for a King in a Communist regime and Michael’s days on the throne were numbered. His last acts as King now seem more like a private matter, but their desperate political significance is easy to understand. As American and European politicians were discussing an economic reconstruction plan for the continent in Paris and the Cold War between East and West was becoming an acknowledged reality, he travelled to London, for his second cousin’s wedding, the current Queen Elisabeth II, where he met and got engaged to Ana Bourbon-Parma, a French citizen and former nurse in the American army, related to some of Europe’s oldest royal houses. It seems to have been love at first sight, but it was also a political statement about the future: a free Romania and the Romanian monarchy will endure and every letter of the law will be respected, including the statute of royals. When he got back to the country, the Communist ministers of his government were in shock: he was not expected to return from his visit, least of all with a royal marriage proposal.
The former Communists’ basic idea, essentially incorporated in the current regime, was and still largely is that the country went through a progressive development during Communism which was only thwarted towards the end by the idiosyncratic behaviour of the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu.
Why did Michael last so long on the throne, being forced to abdicate, basically at gunpoint, only on New Year’s Eve 1947? For one thing, he was popular. For the Romanian people, he was a national savior and the hope for an independent and democratic future, as the crackdown on student manifestations in Bucharest’s Palace Square testify. For the world public opinion, it was he who was the country’s symbol of antifascist resistance, Communist propaganda nowithstanding, not only because of the mid-1944 “change of arms”, but also because of the lesser known fact that even before Romania’s switch of alliances, he and Queen-mother Helen – who will later receive Israel’s “Righteous Among the Nations” distinction – intervened to limit, alleviate and ultimately end and reverse Antonescu’s deportations of Jews from the North-Eastern border part of the country into occupied Transnistria. The Soviets knew they had to deal with him carefully if they were to preserve their propaganda image regarding the “democratic antifascist front”, particularly in the eyes of the Western Communist parties and fellow travellers which were gaining momentum in countries such as France or Italy. It mattered also that he was royal, one even related to the British head of state, and on top of that decorated by Stalin himself: he could not simply be imprisoned and left to die in Sighet Penitentiary as had happened with basically all Romanian opposition politicians of the era or, even more dramatically, be literaly thrown out the window, as would happen shortly after his abdication in Czechoslovakia with Foreign Minister Jan Massarik.
He left the country in a guarded train, being allowed to take only handbags with personal items of no value. In his absence, some former Royal Army officers, students and peasants took up arms against the Communist government in the name of King and country, hiding and fighting for a decade in isolated mountainous regions. A Royal Romanian Government in exile, The National Romanian Committee, was organised by his former Prime Minister Nicolae Rădescu in the United States, and King Michael toured the US Eastern Coast, speaking about the abuses happening in Romania and denouncing the forced and illegal act of abdication. In his country, however, he became known as an exploiter of the people, a sort of fancier boyar of the Middle Ages, who left the country with a train full of gold ingots and old masters’ paintings while the country’s people were close to starvation (and in Soviet re-occupied Eastern Moldova, a gruesome famine was indeed politically engineered on top of the war shortages, in order to crush the pockets of bourgeois resistance to imminent communization as well as the historical identification and traditional attachment of the Bessarabian population to Romania).
In June 1948, King Michael’s uncle, King Paul of Greece, hosted in Athens the royal wedding with Ana de Bourbon-Parma the Romanian Government would not have, a marriage the Vatican again did not approve because the heirs had to be baptised Orthodox Christians according to Romanian law. The couple moved into a rented house near London and, some ten years later, to Versoix, their permanent residence in Switzerland, with the external service of the Securitate, the Romanian Communist regime’s secret politice, tracking their movements and activities under the code names “Rex” or “Leon”, according to archival documents recently made public. One cannot abstain to remark that the five daughters King Michael and Queen Anne, who passed away the year before his death, had in the course of their long life in exile are also a testimony to his desire to abide fully by the original statute of the Royal House, which inscribed the German-inherited Salic traditions of the Romanian monarchy into law, allowing the Crown to be passed only to male heirs.
It takes all of this apparently fastidious detail about a country and a world which may seem as lost as the mythical continent of Atlantis, and which some may even wish to be forgotten or misread, to understand how the present Romanian society digests the death of King Michael I, because history can be written over, falsified or even ignored but it never really goes away. Someone who last visited Romania in the 1990s will be struck by how often the Royal Family has appeared in the media in the last decade or more and the genuine interest and positive feelings it usually excites, despite all kinds of controversies related to it of greater or lesser importance. There are various public, artistic and charity events that members of the Royal Family regulary sponsor, shelves of books about its past and present, blogs and even a show on the National Television entitled “The King’s Hour”. Taken at face value, this is a real U turn.
It was only after the end of the CDR-coalition government that anticommunism was declared dead as an ideology of opposition to the very postcommunist regime nebulously set up between 1991-1992.
Ever since the December 1989 bloody and disputed Anticommunist Revolution there was a minority undercurrent in Romanian society wishing for the restoration of the country’s pre-Communist constitutional monarchy or basic system of government, which got entrenched in various intellectual, civic and artistic circles as well as in sections of the resurected historical democratic parties. Although never really formally organised, this state of mind diffused among the more educated rather than a movement properly, which seeked an alternative to the “neocommunist establishment” and wanted to somehow bridge the best of the past with a hopefully brighter future, in the often underwhelming present of postcommunist Romania. This was taken very seriously by the country’s former Communist elites and leaders who – stunned by the popularity and vivid emotions triggered by King Michael’s first return visit, granted only in 1992, the same year they managed to push through an often criticised and wanting constitution – continued for more than a decade to promote the historical lies and slander produced by Communist propaganda.
They also took the care to immediately ban him from re-entering the country. This mean-spirited, deceptive and propagandist attitude – against non only the monarchy, but against almost everything having to do with pre-communist Romania that was not recycled by the Communist regime beginning with the 1960s – has not disappeared completely, even though beginning with the early 2000s a gradual, partial and criticized reconcilliation took place between Ion Iliescu, the architect of the current regime, and other younger Social-Democrat leaders and the Royal Family, which allowed it to return to the country and even claim some of its confiscated private properties or receive financial compensation for them. However, since then, some of the most outspoken critics of the monarchist idea are embittered politically-involved intellectuals and émigrés who in the early 1990s generally wholeheartedly supported it.
The Muddled Times
A stable nation and a well-working society need functional democratic institutions, a thriving economy and security, but also a shared constitutional political culture in which to grow and communicate with itself. On all chapters, Romania has much to improve, but the latter is particularly deficient. The former Communists’ basic idea, essentially incorporated in the current regime, was and still largely is that the country went through a progressive development during Communism which was only thwarted towards the end by the idiosyncratic behaviour of the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. When the Cold War ended, it was therefore only in need of a gradual reform and democratization along the line of Nikolai Gorbachev’s Perestroika or, farther down still, the “socialism with a human face” of Alexander Dubček and the 1968 Prague Spring. The opposite view was that Communism was basically alien to the country’s political traditions and public spirit, that it was imposed by force by an occupying power and perpetuated only through mass repression against the Romanian people and widespread manipulation. Far from being a Golden Age of social progress, it was actually a period of misdevelopment and a diversion from Romania’s over a century-old previous Western path, no matter the stumblings or the imperfections along the way.
With his passing, the prospects of a royal restoration in Romania – the country where such a course of action was constitutionally, intellectually and morally most fit and most appropriate after the fall of Communism – seem greatly diminished, but not disappeared.
The latter view has fueled much of Romania’s post-1989 progress towards democracy, market economics, rule of law, NATO and European Union membership, but along the arduous road some subtle mutations began to appear in a cross-section of this opinion set. A change in leadership and even loss of moral compass took place among the resurrected historical democratic parties arrayed in opposition to Iliescu’s regime, in essence the National Peasant Party turned Christian-Democratic National Peasant Party (PNȚCD) and the National Liberal Party (PNL). From former political prisoners of the Communist period or exiled knowledgeable anticommunists, such as Corneliu Coposu, Ion Rațiu or Radu Câmpeanu, the torch was handed to a younger generation of leaders, born and bred under the Communist regime, who timidly began to wield and taste power. This led to a pragmatic and at the same time despirited reconsideration of key elements of Romania’s anticommunist worldview among some political and intellectual circles even before a reformist faction of Iliescu’s “neocommunist” government-party, the National Salvation Front (FSN), became the leading center-right critic in the second-half of the 2000s, of its successor the Social-Democratic Party (PSD).
The restoration of the constitutional monarchy was one of these mutedly revised key elements of the post-1989 anticommunist worldview, but – as is the case with almost everything connected to the Romanian monarchy – it was about much more.
The authors of the revision to the anticommunist political program were a group of advisers, collaborators and intellectuals close to Emil Constantinescu, Romania’s first President who did not belong to the former Communist elite who took – or retook – power in December 1989. Constantinescu, a geology university professor, was neither a Christian-Democrat nor a Liberal – although he ran with the decisive support of PNȚCD’s revered leader Corneliu Coposu on a program of long overdue market economy reform, political democratisation and determined Western orientation in foreign affairss, which also included a strong pro-monarchist message. He was a member of the Party of Civic Alliance (PAR), a new party, neither former Communist nor historical or pre-communist, made up mostly of intellectuals who wished to mimic the mass-civic movements which transformed the Polish and Czech postcommunist politics. Although the Civic Alliance shared the general pro-monarchist ethos of the Romanian historical parties, soon after his election as President in 1996 Constantinescu – who was routinely slandered in the former Communist controlled media as the candidate of the boyards, who will take back the peasants’ land just de-collectivised by Iliescu once the King was reinstated – distanced himself from the people and parties who brought him to power, assembled under the banner of the Romanian Democratic Convention (CDR), which also won the legislative elections that year.
He did return King Michael’s passport, effectively lifting Ion Iliescu’s 1992 ban regarding his entry into the country, but he made no other gestures towards the Royal Family or monarchist supporters. He began instead to see himself and his office as above all parties and all political agendas, but at the same time attempting to appeal to all, and built around himself a group of people who fed this grandstanding, but ultimately self-defeating, posture. True, the Constitution the former Communists adopted, for all its ambiguities, expressly required him to be independent in office, meaning giving up on his party membership, but Constantinescu tried to build a strong governmental Presidency of mostly French as well as American inspiration, without being either, to replace the sort of Eltin-style Presidency of Iliescu’s previous six years.
Constantinescu’s close group of collaborators would become more articulate after his Presidency’s and CDR government’s embarassing failure in the midst of an economic crisis and intense debates about Romania’s support for the NATO air campaign over Kosovo. In their view, the 1990s anticommunist ideology was basically correct – with some nuances brought to its narrative by new historical research unable to demolish it –, but limiting and hopelessly romantic for political operatives such as themselves to pursue. Nevertheless, they proclaimed for themselves and then for others that the Democratic Opposition in Romania would do better to simply look to other Western episodes of post-regime change political reconstruction, such as Gaullist France or, later, even post-war Germany, instead of looking into its own Western past, in an apparent divergence with the region’s other former Communist countries where the pre-war political history was generally not brought back to life (and it rarely could be brought back to life in truth) after the fall of Communism.
Not all the members of the grander CDR coalition – which also included as partner an unequal union between the breakaway reformist faction of FSN, the Democratic Party (PD), and a tiny historical Romanian Social Democratic Party (PSDR), which will later lend its name and prestige to Iliescu’s former Communist Party of Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR) – shared it evenly and, in any case, these moralistic, story-telling old politicians could not agree on anything or get anything done.
There is no reason to believe that the balancing and moderating contribution that the constitutional monarchy had in the nation’s politics of yore can simply be replaced in the future with membership in the European Union and other Western democratic clubs, no matter how important or desirable they may be, as some of the revised anticommunists superficially argue.
In fact, the Liberals were the first to demand more ideological pragmatism and moral flexibility in dealing with Iliescu’s former Communist party and allies. Right after PNL was resurrected in 1990, the party knew the first of its many splits to this date, as was always the case since its inception in the middle of the 19th century, with the PNL-Youth Wing, led by future Prime Minister Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu and future business magnate Dinu Patriciu, supporting the aborted reformist FSN government of Petre Roman and later the so-called independent technocratic government of Theodor Stolojan. But it was only after the end of the CDR-coalition government that anticommunism was declared dead as an ideology of opposition to the very postcommunist regime nebulously set up between 1991-1992. The fall put the leading PNȚCD party outside Parliament, leaving a vacum in Romania’s center-right politics unfilled to this day, and brought Iliescu’s former Communists once more to power, along with an informally allied fringe party reaching second place, as much far-right as it was far-left, swollen by the vote of a disabused youth.
On the 16th of December, the day the Anticommunist Romanian Revolution started in Timișoara, in the West of the country, King Michael I was burried with full head of state honours, in a twist of irony to those who, after taking power in late December 1989, long refused – and some still refuse – to call him anything else but ex-King Michael. The royal funeral took place in Bucharest, after a private ceremony at Peleș Castle in Sinaia, and was a highly attended and watched emotional moment for the country, which had proclaimed three days of mourning for the occasion. King Michael’s body then found its way by train to Curtea de Argeș, Romania’s royal necropolis and medieval capital of the Wallachian Principality, some 150 kms North-West of Bucharest. His sarcophagus was put to rest in a new Royal Mausoleum built over the previous eight years in the style of the First Wallachian Princely Church to house together the tombs of all of the country’s Kings and Queens. With his passing, the prospects of a royal restoration in Romania – the country where such a course of action was constitutionally, intellectually and morally most fit and most appropriate after the fall of Communism – seem greatly diminished, but not disappeared. The current transition-era, rather cynical, crop of politicians, despite warming up to the Royal Family in the last decade or more, will generally not have it. Romania is just Romania – as one popular historian put it in a book on this topic published a few years ago – meaning a country of hazardous events and makeshift things at the outskirts of Europe, not Spain or Britain.
The monarchy, despite its shorthcomings with King Charles II, was a balancing and Western outlooking institution in Romania’s modern history, which had a decisive contribution in shaping Romania and Romanian society for the better. This contribution was severely missing in postcommunist Romania. And, as the present rise of populism in Romania and in Europe in general – not to mention rising international tensions and aggresive return of power politics, especially at the country’s ever troubled Eastern frontiers – shows, there is no reason to believe that the balancing and moderating contribution that the constitutional monarchy had in the nation’s politics of yore can simply be replaced in the future with membership in the European Union and other Western democratic clubs, no matter how important or desirable they may be, as some of the revised anticommunists superficially argue.