Friday, May 29, 2015

Romanian Royal Struggles in World War II

When European events began to move toward war, the Kingdom of Romania had already gone through some difficulties at the highest level. The Crown Prince had left the country over matters of the heart and when King Ferdinand I died in 1927 he was succeeded by his grandson, the child King Michael I. However, the situation changed in 1930 when Crown Prince Carol returned to the country, secretly, and with the attainment of power by G. G. Mironescu as Prime Minister. He was a member of the National Peasants’ Party (PNT) that was more authoritarian and opposed the leftist factions of the party. He worked in cooperation with Iuliu Maniu in organizing what some have called a sort of coup. His government backed the Crown Prince, causing a break-up of the regency council and so the parliament voted to give the crown to Carol and to make his son, then reigning as nominal king, to crown prince. So it was that King Carol II came to the Romanian throne on June 8, 1930. He presided over a country with a fractured political class, faced by internal and external communist threats and increasingly worrying international trends.

King Carol II & Crown Prince Michael
King Carol II decided to tackle these problems personally and began a campaign for what he called a “national renaissance”. Foreign observers described it as a royal dictatorship. The period between the wars in Europe saw something of a revival of absolute monarchy, at least in the Balkans. King Alexander I of Yugoslavia abolished the constitution on January 6, 1929 and ruled himself until his death in 1934. Outsiders called this period the “6 January Dictatorship” and, later, in 1935 King Boris III of Bulgaria had a “King’s Government” which some observers likewise described as a “royal dictatorship” which is a rather 20th Century term for what used to be known as absolute monarchy or the monarch actually ruling his country. King Carol II tried to do the same thing in Romania. He promised to restore the cultural pride of Romanians and sweep away the disorder and divisions caused by the old political parties. Along with “Monarchy Day” on May 10 (a preexisting holiday), King Carol II designated June 6 as “Restoration Day” to bring all sections of society together in a celebration of Romanian culture.

One element that soon became central to such celebrations was the youth organization established by the King known as Straja Tarii or ‘Sentinel of the Motherland’. With their uniforms, beret headgear and Roman salutes many in the democracies of Western Europe thought noted their similarity to the Opera Nazionale Balilla of Italy or the Hitler Youth of Germany. In Romania, however, the creation of the organization was mostly seen as a reaction by King Carol II to the growth of the Iron Guard and its youth movement. This organization, first known as the Legion of the Archangel Michael, is typically labeled as “fascist” because members wore uniforms, used the Roman salute and were not communists. However, they were different in a number of ways from the actual Fascist Party, in good ways and bad ways but probably most noticeably in being almost as much a spiritual movement as a political one. One of the original requirements was that members had to be willing to die for Christ. They were also generally monarchist, though with the King wielding political power that meant that any political movement could be seen as a potential rival, if not to monarchy in principle then at least to the King.

The royal regime
Yet, for those on the lookout for anything fascist-like, King Carol II attracted his own comparisons. Using his emergency powers he enacted a constitution that formalized near absolute royal authority, reorganized the country somewhat on corporatist lines and he had his followers in uniforms (of a different color) as well. The public supported these changes in a national referendum, which many consider have been held simply for the sake of appearances, and while King Carol II remained the focus of the country he soon delegated most of the day-to-day ruling of Romania to his prime minister General Ion Antonescu in 1940. The problem was that Antonescu tended to favor friendship with Nazi Germany, probably for no other reason than they seemed to be the strongest power in the neighborhood. The Nazis, however, did not approve of King Carol II. Most attribute this to the fact that the King was not a virulent anti-Semite (his mistress and later wife was half Jewish). Hitler seized on the tensions between the King and the Iron Guard to interfere in Romanian politics, favoring the Iron Guard which was anti-Semitic (though it should be said in a different way and for very different reasons than the Nazis).

With the start of World War II in Europe, with its string of early German victories, Hitler became more demanding toward the Kingdom of Romania. He wanted a Nazi-friendly government firmly in power so as not to jeopardize his access to the Romanian oil fields. Considering that, having been on the winning side in World War I, much territory had been ceded to create the “Greater Romania” that then existed, the country had plenty of enemies with Hungary and Bulgaria both longing for territory within Romania’s borders. Isolated on the world stage, King Carol II had no choice but to agree to a demand from Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to hand over Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina to Russia. When Antonescu protested, the King had him arrested and from then on Antonescu was seized upon as Hitler’s man in Romania. He promised Hitler secure and unfettered access to Romanian oil if the Nazi Fuhrer would back him and Hitler agreed. In a very short time, Germany pressured Romania to hand over further territory in Transylvania to Hungary and land in the south to Bulgaria. Thus, by the time Antonescu was back on the scene, the popularity of King Carol II had fallen dramatically as the Romanian people saw gains from the last war being signed away.

King Michael and Antonescu
Of course, with France defeated, Britain far distant and barely holding on and with a Nazi-Soviet pact in effect, there was simply no way for Romania to resist Hitler’s demands. King Carol II had defied him as long as possible but by the middle of 1940 it was clear that if the country were to have any future it would have to come to terms with the Germans. Antonescu seized on this as his great opportunity and demanded that King Carol II abdicate for having given up so much Romanian territory (though he would have done exactly the same and probably with far less hesitation). At first, he was put off by simply having the King hand over his ruling powers to him (as mentioned) but when he heard a rumor that two royalist generals were plotting his assassination, Antonescu insisted that King Carol II had to go. So, in September, Carol II abdicated and his young son became, once again, King Michael I of Romania but with Antonescu occupying the position of dictator. The Kingdom of Romania officially joined the Axis powers and Hitler had his secure source of oil as well as an additional ally for the upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union.

The only individual Hitler had to worry about was the young King Michael who was as firmly in favor of the Allies as Antonescu and his government were of the Axis. And, it seems, Hitler was worried about the King but Antonescu was not. The Marshal of Romania was convinced that he was in control, the King was just a young man (he still thought of him as a boy) who was not at all interested in politics. And, true enough, at the outset of his (second) reign there was little the King could do, Romania being firmly in the Nazi grip. However, he would bide his time and slowly build up a network of reliable royalists who were loyal to him. He secretly kept himself informed by way of the BBC and various informants and was much more aware of what was going on both inside and beyond the Romanian borders than the dictator thought. Divisions in the country still existed, between the government and the Iron Guard as well as within the government itself between those loyal to Antonescu and those who opposed him. These spread to Germany as well with some of the Nazi leaders backing the Iron Guard and others, along with the army, backing Antonescu. In the end, there was an Iron Guard rebellion but Antonescu emerged victorious and had the organization wiped out, after which he firmly held control of the country. Hitler trusted him as he did no other.

The beginning of his end, and opportunity for King Michael, came with the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Antonescu was an enthusiastic supporter and contributed more troops to the invasion than all the other German allies combined, organized into the “General Antonescu Army Group” which was grouped with the forces led by German Colonel-General Eugen Ritter von Schobert. The contribution was also partly due to the fact that most assumed they would have to fight Hungary someday to regain the territory that had recently been ceded and they hoped that, if Romania proved most helpful in the war with Russia, Germany would favor them over the Hungarians. All such thoughts, however, came to an end with the disastrous Battle of Stalingrad, possibly the bloodiest battle in human history. The Romanian divisions were singled out for attack by the Soviet Red Army and they suffered horrendous losses. The momentum on the Eastern Front shifted in favor of the Soviets and, thereafter, Russian troops moved steadily closer to the Romanian border. And, as the war situation deteriorated and public discontent increased, young King Michael began to seriously plan how to take his country back.

It took time to get everything in place, to be sure that he had loyal people available at the right time to support him. The advancing Russians also had to be considered and whether the Allies would support the King as he tried to switch camps. Finally, in 1944, it was time for King Michael to act and launch his own royalist coup against Antonescu. The Allies, however, remained a cause for concern as the King had secretly sent out messages to them asking if they would grant Romania an armistice only to receive no reply. This was, in all likelihood, because Winston Churchill (whom he had contacted) had already agreed that Romania would be placed in the Soviet sphere of influence in exchange for Greece being reserved for the British sphere. Nonetheless, the King boldly went ahead, requesting Antonescu to meet with him on the afternoon of August 23. The Marshal arrived alongside a general who was party to the conspiracy and a group of royalist army officers waited secretly in the next room as Antonescu was brought before the King.

King Michael speaks
King Michael calmly asked the dictator to take Romania out of the Axis and make a separate peace with Russia. Of course, he refused and when the general beside him suggested a change in government might be in order, the haughty Marshal scoffed that they could not seriously consider putting the country in the hands of a “child” referring to King Michael. He underestimated his monarch to the last. At a signal from the King, the officers next door burst into the room, saluted him and placed the Marshal under arrest. After briefly trying to order them to stop, Antonescu realized that he was isolated and had been outmaneuvered by King Michael. At that point, the King had to move quickly, arresting pro-Antonescu officials, setting up a communications center and appointing a new administration for the country. In a hastily organized broadcast, King Michael announced that Romania was leaving the Axis, that democracy was restored and he declared peace with Russia. Crowds of war-weary Romanians soon gathered around the palace shouting, “Long live the King!” On the advice of his officials, the King then left Bucharest, coming under fire as went and it was a good thing too as German forces shelled the palace that same day, demolishing the room where the King would have been staying.

Loyalist troops began rounding up the Germans in the country over the next few weeks as Romania put itself in the Allied camp but the Soviet troops who crossed into the country did not come as liberators but killed and pillaged as they went, taking prisoner all Romanian troops they encountered who had been ordered not to resist since the Soviets were then supposed to be their allies. The Soviets also began picking out communist traitors who would be subservient to them to form a new socialist regime when the country was completely taken over as it was in due course. In the meantime, King Michael ruled by royal decree until a new parliament could be elected and in September of 1944, in Moscow, he formally signed the armistice with the Allied nations and pledged Romania to the Allied cause. However, the Soviets demanded crippling reparations and the return of Bessarabia and Bukovina as well as ordering the King to choose a new prime minister. King Michael did so but, in an act of defiance, chose a prominently anti-communist one. Red Army troops terrorized, intimidated and stirred up trouble which they then offered to put down so long as the King appointed the leader that Stalin preferred. He had no choice but to comply.

King Michael, his situation showing on his face
The British and Americans demanded a return to democratic government with U.S. President Truman refusing to agree to an armistice until Romania did so. This, the King thought, was a life-saving opportunity for his country. However, to his horror, the elections would not be held until 1946 by which time the Soviets had firmly taken control of the country and terrorized everyone into voting for the candidates favored by Stalin. Romania had been abandoned by the western democracies to the Soviet Union and King Michael was little better than a prisoner in his own palace. The war was over for Romania but the monarchy had not long to live. The following year, tired of his continuous resistance and refusal to leave the country and abandon his people, the communists finally forced King Michael to abdicate by threatening to start massacring Romanian students if he did not sign the document. He did so, all of his property was confiscated and he was forced into exile.

World War II was a conflict that the Kingdom of Romania did not want to fight. King Carol II declared neutrality when it started and the country only joined in when all power was in the hands of Antonescu. King Michael took the country out of the Axis and out of the war but was undercut by the post-war settlement that gave Eastern Europe to Stalin. Yet, his action, which so shocked everyone, proved the value of monarchy. It was only because of the existence of the Romanian monarchy and the person of King Michael and the loyalty that he, an inexperienced but intelligent young man, commanded as monarch that he was able to bring down a dictator who had seemed totally unassailable. That was the power, not of an individual young man, but the power of monarchy. Happily, the era of Soviet domination did finally come to an end and King Michael was returned to his country. It is only unfortunate that his country has not been returned to him.


  1. Monarchs and monarchists, as humans are not free from error, have unfortunately often made the mistake to trust the wrong people. The communists were not to be trusted from the onset. The same, of course, goes for many other republican movements and individuals. When you have honest and good intentions, it is often hard to understand that many others are nothing like yourself. That is, I think, a 'problem' that has troubled many a monarch and monarchist in history. Of course, not a small number of monarchs and monarchists have had to learn about the darker aspects of human nature and psychology the hard way, as they were betrayed by the very people in whom they had placed their impeccable trust. Actually, it is a tragedy that these people were not worthy of the trust that was bestowed upon them by the monarchs and their loyal subjects, because the world would have been a much better place if only these people had reciprocated with loyalty instead of treason. Thus, the real tragedy, in my eyes, is that these people could have fulfilled the traditional duty of any ordinary man to a king who places his trust in him, but chose not to despite the fact that they were, without a doubt, presented with so many opportunities to change their minds, admit their past wickedness at least to themselves, and put a definitive end to their past ways that were obviously erroneous.

    1. Admitting a mistake, even an obvious one, is something many seem to find positively impossible. They might do so but only if it costs them nothing of value but they will never do it when there are consequences -such as losing power.

  2. Excellent summary of Romanian during this time period. You made the issues faced by King Carol II and his son, Michael I very understandable.

  3. He messed up bad. Antonescu was right, he was a boy and King Michael was naive to trust Stalin and the Allies.


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