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HM King Michael I of Romania

Cold War History, Vol. 8, No. 4, November 2008, Routledge, pp. 564-565: Book review by Valentin Mandache:

Michael of Romania: The King and the Country, by Ivor Porter, Stroud, Sutton, 2005, xxi + 328pp.

bookcover-michaelofromania

The relevance of monarchies in modern South-East European history is a subject that is very much underrated by the specialists on the region. The Balkan monarchs made crucial contributions to the process of state and nation building and even today their pre-eminence is conspicuous in countries such as Romania, where the former sovereign is a public figure of highest moral integrity who saved the country from disaster in the Second World War, or in Bulgaria, where the heir to the throne became one of the most successful prime ministers after the fall of communism. In this timely book Ivor Porter charts the life of King Michael of Romania with great skill and in-depth understanding. Through eloquent personal accounts and historical records from the king’s personal archive he shows how very much the life of the sovereign was intertwined with the recent history of his country. The author knows Romania intimately, being well-known for his activity as a British special operations executive operative in the country and as a later member of the Allied Control Commission in Bucharest.

King Michael of Romania and Queen Mother Helen (Diana Mandache collection)

King Michael stands apart as a moral beacon in the middle of his country’s tragedies. Even in 1943 he made a public call for the country to extricate itself from the war, causing panic among the pro-German leadership. His greatest accomplishment was the coup of 23 August 1944, when with immense courage and vision he helped to overthrow the pro-German dictatorship, with the effect that Romania immediately joined the Allies’ cause. The country thus avoided an imminent catastrophe, and according to western sources the king’s action shortened the war by six months. That is a most remarkable achievement, even more so for a 23-year-old monarch, revealed by the fact that the army and administration followed their sovereign unwaveringly. This brought him and Romania the esteem of the Allies, well expressed in Churchill’s instruction to the British representatives in Bucharest: ‘stick to the boy’ (p. 130). The Soviets were conscious of his popularity among the people and even decorated the king with the Order of Victory, the highest Soviet honour given to only five foreigners, among them General Eisenhower. Uniquely in Cold War Europe, this resulted in three years of uneasy cohabitation between the king and a Soviet-imposed government led by communists, with the Red Army present all over the country.

A great merit of this book lies in confirming the continuity between the successive dictatorships that plagued Romania in the twentieth century – beginning with the royal dictatorship of King Carol II, Michael’s father, continued by the wartime fascist-military one of Marshal Antonescu, and culminating in the communist totalitarianism. There was not only continuity of methods and motives, but also of individuals involved at all levels in propping up these successive dictatorships with equal zeal. Through his actions King Michael interrupted that vicious cycle for a very brief period, and after his forced abdication he became a symbol of democracy and hope for most Romanians in the decades to come. Even after 1989 the crypto-communists that came to power continued to put up obstacles to his definitive return home. He was allowed to reside in Romania again and regain his citizenship only in 1997, once the country made a decisive break with the legacy of the Cold War when for the first time the opposition gained power through democratic elections. The book thus makes it abundantly clear why we need to investigate seriously the royal history of South-East Europe in order to enhance our understanding of the Cold War problems in that region of the world. © Valentin Mandache, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)

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