Radio Free Europe: Romania’s former sovereign, King Michael, is one of the three surviving heads of state from World War II (alongside Bulgaria’s King Simeon and Cambodia’s Norodom Sihanouk), and the only one involved directly in the war. RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc spoke to the 88-year-old former monarch at his residence in Aubonne, Switzerland, about the start of the war and the impact of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on Romania and the rest of Eastern Europe.
RFE/RL: We’re marking this month the 70th anniversary of two fateful events in European history that also had a subsequent impact on Romania. On August 23, 1939, Nazi Germany and the USSR signed a nonaggression pact with a secret protocol that would result, less than a year later, in Romania losing territories to the USSR. And on September 1, as a direct consequence of the pact, Germany attacked Poland, thus triggering World War II. I would like to ask you to recall the moment when you learned about the beginning of the war — what did you feel then?
King Michael: At that time I was still in school, and I wasn’t involved with the running of the state, my father [King Carol II] did it all with his government. Of course, we knew what was happening around us, but the implications — deep implications — at the time, were difficult to understand, because I was concerned with what I had to do in school. But we felt deep down in a way without saying it, so to speak, that something very nasty was going on. And finally, what we felt was exactly what has actually happened.
RFE/RL: Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3, and on September 17, the USSR invaded eastern Poland. The Allied powers, however, did not declare war on the Soviet Union, and Romania felt threatened from two sides. This feeling of unease you mentioned, the instinct that something bad was to come, did it have anything to do with the fact that even though Romania had established diplomatic relations with Soviet Russia, it knew that the issue of Bessarabia was still pending?
King Michael: Yes, of course. The question of the Soviet Union at the time — we always kept it in our minds as something to be very careful of, because you never quite knew what was coming next. We had seen a lot of things about the history [of Romania and Russia]; it was enough to understand we could have been in a dangerous situation later on.
Because we had the possible danger from the Soviets, on the other hand, the German Nazis were also working up something and we were sort of caught between the two. So there are many, many things that people may be criticizing and so on, but we ought to — this is the thing I realized later, not at the time itself — we were facing danger in the sense that either the Soviets or the Nazis, if we didn’t do the one thing or the other that they might have liked, we might have lost our independence. So it’s a very difficult situation, come to think of it, after it happened. How do you try and steer as much as one can without being too dangerous? That was our problem. Continue reading