Plotting a coup when you’re the king
“On the morning of the sixth of September, they called me to quickly take the oath,” Michael said. Waiting there were Antonescu and the Patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church with a Bible, as well as the minister of justice and the justices of the Supreme Court.
“I was in a daze. After that, luckily, Antonescu did get my mother to return. He sent a telegram asking her to come to me [from her exile near Florence, Italy]. So she arrived at the beginning of October 1940.”
Whether by plan or happenstance, the schooling of the Crown Prince, which had grounded him so well in Romanian language, attitudes, history, and culture, had included nothing about the country’s politics. “I was completely kept away from any sort of political information,” Michael told us. “I had no education about the political part of the country—none! I used to hear about it on the sidelines—we knew what was going on, of course—but to actually make anything of it, no. I think it might have been my father’s idea . . . So, when all these things started happening, I mixed in it without knowing quite how and why and all the rest of it. Very difficult.”
And things were happening very fast. In November 1940, Antonescu proclaimed himself “Conducător,” the Romanian version of Hitler’s title “Fuhrer.” He did little to stop the orgy of violence against Jews and liberals by the Iron Guard elements in his government. To ensure a stable ally, Hitler pressed Antonescu to curb the Iron Guard. That provoked an armed uprising and the slaughter of 120 Jews in Bucharest in January 1941.
“It happened at the end of 1940, the very beginning of 1941,” King Michael recalled. “The Iron Guard got quite a few of the Jews in Romania, up in the north. Not just the Jews—they took our politicians, our statesmen, and they hung them on hooks, tore their hair out, shot them.” The king’s grim account trails off. Ion Antonescu, he said, “sort of let it happen, until there was a rebellion.” Antonescu used the army to quell the rebellion in forty-eight hours. That, King Michael recalls, kindled a shift in policies.
“After that, he started a little bit to change [with] the influence that my mother, myself, and the Church had on him to go easy on the Jewish question. It wasn’t one hundred percent, but it was something.”
Michael told us about meeting during the early 1940s with Romania’s chief rabbi, Alexandru Shafran.
“He used to come quite often to see me, and explain what was happening, and what he thought was going to happen. I called my mother into one of these meetings, and they talked together. She was appalled, and she said, ‘If you don’t do something, you will go down in history as Michael the Horrible.’” Michael said she took the same message to Antonescu: “She said, ‘This can’t go on anymore. You have to stop or change something.’ He had quite a bit of respect for her. So, somehow, something did get through.”
Queen Helen, who died in 1982, was later honored as a “righteous gentile” at Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. Despite her efforts and those of her son, more than two hundred thousand Romanian Jews and gypsies were sent to Transnistria, where many died. Still, in southern and Eastern Romania, three hundred thousand avoided camps and massacres, more than anywhere else in occupied Europe.
The king told us that in his first months back on the throne, he didn’t realize the strength of Antonescu’s ties to Hitler. “The incredible thing was that he [Antonescu] declared war on Russia without me knowing anything about it,” Michael told us. “My mother heard the news on the BBC that morning, as the war started. About six o’clock in the morning, she came into my bedroom and said, ‘Listen!’ We were all taken aback. So I called up my prime minister, who was Mihai Antonescu [a distant cousin of the marshal], and I said, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ He said, ‘Yes, it’s true. I studied the situation in the newspapers.’”
That was June 22, 1941. We asked the king why he thought Marshal Antonescu had done it, and Michael displayed his usual detachment. He pointed to Russia’s occupation of Romania’s eastern provinces:
“As far as I can make out, because I never discussed all that with him, it had to do with patriotism. These were our provinces . . . After the Russians took our provinces of Basarabia and northern Bucovina, the Hungarians took northern Transylvania, which was something that went down very hard with the Romanian people . . . All our political parties and the population were fully in agreement that we should get these provinces back. We couldn’t do that alone. That’s why Antonescu went and allied himself with the Germans. But they all hoped to limit the conditions, [so that] we’d get to the frontier and not one step farther.”
Instead, Romania’s army took Odessa and joined in the German attacks on Sevastopol and Stalingrad.
Michael said he then “put the question” to Antonescu: “‘What are we doing there in Russia?’ Antonescu said, ‘I am sure that by going east, we’re going to get back Transylvania. Hitler promised.’” The King said there was no written agreement between Romania and Germany on that point, but that Antonescu told him that “he, as an officer, had given his word, and [that therefore he] had to go along without asking . . . His word to Hitler was more important than what was happening in the country.”
It proved to be a case of costly loyalty. At Stalingrad, during the last months of 1942, Romania lost eighteen divisions fighting the Russians, nearly two-thirds of the forces it had posted to the eastern front.
During his first two years on the throne, Michael told us, he did not have any contact with the Allies.
“But then, as things started going bad in Russia, we decided that this was not our war. This had nothing to do with us, and we had to find some way to get out.” He remembers commentators on BBC Radio and Voice of America badgering him, ‘Get out, get out. If you don’t, you won’t be able to show your face in the world.’ I said, ‘Fine to get out, but how do we do it?’ To that, I never got an answer.”
But the young monarch didn’t give up on back-channel communications with the Allies, though he was pretty sure Antonescu’s spies knew about them. The king told us he sent messengers to British and American contacts outside Romania—”representatives [authorized] to speak in my name and in the name of the opposition parties,” the PNL and the PNŢCD. Still no answer. So, the king told us, the head of the PNL, Constantin Brătianu, “sent another message that explained exactly the group we had and what we were trying to do, and that’s when we got a reply. It said, ‘We will not talk with you until you bring the Communists and the Socialists into your group.’ And then we understood,” the king told us. “It very much looked as if that message came from Moscow. And that’s what we had to do, finally.
“I wouldn’t say that America and Britain were thinking quite like that [to include Communists and Socialists in Romania], but Stalin was pushing. Why it was accepted so widely, I still don’t quite get. And then in 1943, we said, ‘There’s disaster in Russia. We have to do something urgently . . . and we could guarantee a certain part of [our] country free of the Germans, on the condition that they send in a massive airlift.’ We never even got an answer about that.”
In retrospect, the king told us, he could see that Stalin did not want Romania cutting a deal with the Western Allies. The contacts with the Allies that continued through 1943 and into 1944 were spotty. Meanwhile, King Michael was consolidating the elements of a conspiracy of his own. He had to move on it carefully, because Antonescu had chosen most of the royal aides, the servants at the royal palace, and even members of the cabinet. So, the king “huddled” with military and political people in settings that would thwart Antonescu’s eavesdropping— at parties, for example, or late in the evening. The king said several of the Army’s generals were loyal to him, and brought him intelligence, as did the head of the code office at the Foreign Office.
Antonescu was probably not as suspicious as he should have been. The king remembers the wartime dictator as very stubborn, even when his analysis was wrong.
“You know what the French say—’as the father, so the son.’ Antonescu had the mentality that I was going to follow in the footstepsof my father,” Michael told us. “He could not get it into his head that I was different.” The young king was not a playboy, and not focused on personal wealth, as his father had been. As Michael said with a sad smile, Antonescu didn’t get the psychology right.
“And he didn’t want me interfering. In 1943, at Christmas or New Year’s, I’d given one of my [public] messages, and said something to the effect that, ‘after the war,’ or ‘the war would end soon.’ The German minister objected. Antonescu was very angry about that, but it had already been done.”
Antonescu and his German allies had reason to be upset. From their perspective, the war was not going well. By late summer 1944, Russian troops had reoccupied northern Basarabia, and were headed toward Iaşi, in northeastern Romania. King Michael decided it was time to act, though he wasn’t sure what support he could expect from the Allies.
“We hoped and we imagined there would be a difference between the Russians and the Americans. But we couldn’t know it.” The king paused. “We were, I must say, extremely lucky, because the Germans pulled two Panzer divisions from Romania about the beginning of August. That let us breathe a little.”
Still, nearly fifty-five thousand German troops remained on Romanian soil, with almost none of Romania’s own troops present, except some raw recruits with a few months’ training, Michael recalled. What the twenty-two-year-old king had in mind—to seize power from Antonescu and switch sides in the war—was risky. It almost didn’t happen.
“The whole thing was planned for the twenty-sixth of August. One of the general staff officers, who was with us in this coup, began telling the units outside to start coming into Bucharest slowly and gently. But then, accidentally, my doctor in Sinaia was visited by a brother of someone on Antonescu’s staff, who stayed at the doctor’s house—I was at the summer palace in Sinaia at the time. My doctor told us the telephone rang, and he went to pick it up, and this other fellow picked it up at the same time. The doctor didn’t say anything, but heheard that Antonescu was going to the front for an inspection on the twenty-fourth.”
It was clear that if King Michael didn’t act right away, he’d lose his chance.
“So we nearly panicked. I got a call from one of our people in Bucharest. Then we dashed down to Bucharest—I left my mother in Sinaia. In the meantime, I had sent a telegram—I put it out myself, in military terms, to General [Henry] Maitland Wilson, who was commanding Allied forces in Italy. I said, ‘In view of the important eventsin Romania, we need massive bombardment’ at points I specified.”
Here was the king of Romania, telling the Allies precisely where to bomb his own country and people. Allied air attacks had started a few weeks before—Americans bombed the oil fields near Ploieşti during the day while the British made more tactical strikes at night. After he hustled back to the capital about August 20, the king recalled, “I went shooting ducks south of Bucharest as a sort of diversion.”
The new plan was for the king to call Antonescu in on the twentythird, just before he was to head to the front, and demand a report from him. Also present would be the new prime minister, who was loyal to the king, and a military attaché who had served with Antonescu. In the next room waited three non-commissioned officers and a captain of the guard, and beyond them waited another aide de camp. The king and his co-conspirators had worked out a code—certain words the king would say if Antonescu did not agree to break Romania’s ties to
“Antonescu came late, as usual,” Michael remembered. “We started talking . . . We discussed and discussed. Finally, I said, ‘Look, we have to get out of the war, and I’m asking you to do so.’ He said, ‘No! I’ve given my word to Hitler, and this is not my choice.’”
That was it. The king enunciated the pre-arranged code: “‘I’m very sorry, but you don’t leave me anything else to do.’ So at that moment,these three [officers] came into the room, got hold of him, and took him away. He was furious—and red in the face. He being the big leader, how could this happen to him? I didn’t like that attitude. I walked out—we didn’t get on well together, but this latest development was still not quite proper. It was unpleasant.” Sitting with us in the elegant parlor of Villa Serena, the king screwed up his patrician features at the memory of the long-ago unpleasantness. He continued the story:
“Before going upstairs, [Antonescu] turned around, spat on his captors, and said, ‘Tomorrow morning, you’ll all be hanging in the public square.’”
The king didn’t stick around to find out if that would actually happen. He remembers his staff telling him, “‘You’ve got to get out ofhere, because there’s going to be a reaction,’ which actually happened. I left about two o’clock in the morning and drove past Craiova [west of Bucharest]. I heard one airplane go by—when I looked up, it was a P38 Lightning [a U.S. reconnaissance plane] going toward Bucharest. I said to Mircea Ioaniţiu, my secretary and my friend, ‘I’ll bet he’s going to those places I gave him in my telegram.’ And that turned out to be right.”