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King Michael I of Romania won over a nation he barely ruled

The passing of the king is seen as a national tragedy although few alive can remember his reign.

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King Michael I of Romania won over a nation he barely ruled

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Reuters
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He was the last surviving head of state from World War II, removed from office by the Soviets in 1947.

Loved by the Romanian public, loathed by some of the country’s post-communist presidents, King Michael was a complex public figure who altered the course of Europe’s modern history.

Forced to abdicate by Stalin’s agents, the young Romanian monarch, who only came of age 4 years earlier, had already helped end his country’s alliance with the Nazis, staging a coup against Marshal Ion Antonescu, Hitler’s ally in Romania. This political gamble, which could have cost the monarch’s life, aided in the defeat of Nazi Germany.

King Michael's next move proved to be his most controversial. According to his own account, the young king was held at gunpoint by communist leader Petru Groza who threatened to execute 1,000 dissident students unless the king renounced his throne.

Some regard the abdication as a historic mistake, offering leeway for the Soviet forces to win control over Romania. In 2011 the former Romanian President Traian Basescu, called the King’s resignation an act of treason and the King a “soviet puppet”. 

However, the public mood was different and, more than 60 years after his abdication thousands of people took to the streets in major cities to show their support for the King. 

The public’s fondness for the monarchy has been in striking opposition to the apprehension some politicians showed towards the king. Ion Iliescu, Romania’s first post-communist president, took extraordinary measures to keep the exiled king out of the country. 

Just after the fall of communism, nervous about his legitimacy and fearful of the monarch’s popularity, Ion Iliescu, together with the ruling National Salvation Front (the current Social Democrat Party), banished him from returning to his homeland, arguing that this could have destabilizing effects on national security. It wasn’t until 1997 that King Michael I was able to return to the country.

Despite showing no political ambitions, King Michael has traditionally been regarded as a threat by the left-leaning Social Democrat Party, which tried unsuccessfully in 1994 to declare the king persona non grata. Only now, 23 years after his return, is the party willing to back a draft law that will certify the Romanian Monarchy as a public institution with enhanced privileges.

The relentless support King Michael I received from the public over the last years is best depicted in the pages of newspapers and on television screens. The King’s passing has been treated as a national tragedy in the media. TV talking heads and political pundits, current and former state leaders, supporters and opponents alike have joined in publicly expressing remorse over the death of King Michael. President Klaus Iohannis said that: “King Michael was one of Romania’s greatest historical figures. His death is a great loss for Romania, for Romanians.”

Despite taking the monarchy to levels of popularity current Romanian politicians can only dream of, king Michael leaves a shadow over the future of his house. His only nephew, Price Nicholas, was stripped of his title 2 years ago and removed from the line of succession. One year before, his daughter Irina was also cut from the succession.

Once the official ceremonies and mourning are completed, the questions regarding the future are likely to take centre stage. King Michael himself designated his daughter Princess Margareta as heir to the throne but others, like Paul-Philippe Hohenzollern, dispute her position.

By Cristian Gherasim