Well, after owning a website named kingofromania dot com for seven long years, I couldn’t exactly ignore the passing of Romania’s fourth and final king, Mihai/Michael earlier this month.
For a long time, I wondered where my reluctance came from. After all, his death was followed by a major state funeral (the most grandiose in Romania’s history) that involved shipping the King’s body by rail all over the country and then a televised funeral.
But it’s my memory of my visit to Sinaia many years ago that caused me to hold my tongue. Yes, King Mihai was an interesting guy. Apparently, he loved to hunt (slaughter) animals with fellow royals, including his crazy father. He also owned a very expensive watch with the dates in French. And he loved driving and owning “Jeeps” or four-wheel drive SUVs.
But it’s really this attitude that made me hesitant to speak my mind:
King Michael “was a man of great dignity and respect,” she adds. “Romania would be a better place if he had become king again in 1990” after the fall of Communism.
That quote is pretty typical of what I saw from Romanians around the world. Everyone “loved” the guy. Everyone wished he could’ve been more active in running the country (after 1989), and no one has anything but good words to say about him.
The Hallowed Kings of Romania
Many years ago, I spent a few nights in Sinaia, the location of the royal family’s greatest palace in Romania, called Peles (Pay-lesh).
If you ask the average Romanian, they think Peles is absolutely great. It’s a storybook castle, and it’s been well-maintained. It’s certainly an amazing to place, especially if you’re a tourist on their first trip to Romania.
But all I could think of was when I saw that castle was what did this cost the Romanian people? And then I started thinking about the man who ordered it built, King Carol I, a guy who wasn’t Orthodox, who didn’t speak a word of Romanian, and who later ordered his troops to massacre thousands of Romanians in 1907 and then erased all the paperwork so that no one would ever know the details of what happened.
That, of course, lead me to think of the other three kings, Ferdinand (Carol’s nephew, who was born in Germany), Ferdinand’s son Carol II (who truly was a fuck-up on every level), and then hapless Mihai, who took the throne at age 5, was later deposed by his crazy father, and then got it back again in 1940.
All these facts are well-known and were common knowledge in 2010 when I was last in Sinaia, but I remember trying to discuss them with the woman running the pensiune where I was staying. She had portraits of all four kings on the wall, and she thought of them as perfect saints, only to be discussed with solemnity and reverence.
And that’s exactly the problem. You cannot discuss the monarchy in a rational way in Romania. Whether it’s the trope of the Golden Cup or that Romanians prefer their leaders to rule for 30+ years (like Ceausescu did), the concept of the monarchy is virtually “unassailable.”
Or maybe it’s just that King Mihai was always conveniently far away, conveniently too old to really ever do anything, and always spoke in gentle, vague words that you could imagine to mean whatever you wanted.
But there’s still a touch of hypocrisy there, even from Romanians who “loved” King Mihai. Except for a very small percentage of the population, nobody ever really wanted him back. Sure, people would hang portraits on their walls, but nobody ever petitioned the government or agitated to restore the monarchy.
Instead, King Mihai became exactly what his grand-uncle, King Carol I, was: a symbol. Not so much a symbol to fellow Romanians (the way Queen Elizabeth brings comfort to modern-day Britons) but to the outside world. Hey, we’re part of Western Europe’s royal family, and we’re a real country! So respect our amazing king (even if his grandson is a royal fuck-up) and look at us, equals with all the other major European powers.
Questions Not Welcome
All this faint hero worship leaves no room for any actual debate or discussion about facts.
King Mihai sat on his throne during some really turbulent times in Romania’s history. He was young. He was surrounded by fascists and Nazi lovers on one hand and Communists and Stalin worshippers on the other. And Mihai did his best to thread the needle, overseeing the transfer of power from the fascists to the Soviets, completely unaware that Churchill had already decided Romania’s fate.
Those were difficult years, and it’s hard to criticize the choices he had to make. But the facts are the facts. At the time Mihai was crowned, Romania had expanded to include all of Transylvania, all of Bucovina, and all of Bessarabia. And by the time Mihai abdicated, Romania had lost roughly a third of its territory, all of it given away without a fight to the Soviet Union.
Apparently, Mihai lived all right during his exile. Mostly staying in Switzerland, he spent time doing odd jobs, including a brief stint as a stockbroker in New York City (I cannot find a single photo from those days). He had five kids, all of them daughters, and his marriage seemed very stable and happy. And from 1947 until 1990, he (supposedly) wrote messages to Romanians that were read aloud by his wife and broadcast into the country via American-sponsored radio.
But as a true Romanian, I’ve got to ask – did Mihai really do all that much (good) for Romania? Or was he mostly a quiet, sober man who lived a quiet life, never doing anything tangible to help his people?
Did he really make the right choices during World War 2? Would he have helped Romania if he had stood up to the Soviets and at least tried to defend Bucovina/Bessarabia, no matter how futile? Did his enthusiastic embracing of the Soviet Union ultimately rob Romania of a chance to determine its own future after the war?
And did Mihai’s distant yet royal attitude create the vacuum that Nicolae Ceausescu later filled? Because Ceausescu did his best to become a king in all but name, the “beloved Conductor” of the country who regularly touted “his” achievements in taking care of “his” people (subjects).
Frankly, we’ll never know.
Romania acquired its first king because the local nobility was too busy fighting over power, land, and wealth to support a Romanian leader (Alexandru Ioan Cuza). The elites wanted to find someone who was too strong, too unassailable to ever be knocked off his throne like so many other domestic princes in Moldova/Romania had been.
And because Romania was only barely acknowledged as an independent country (instead of the Turkish vassal they had been for centuries), they brought in a “ringer”, a true blue-blooded royal from (what was then) Europe’s most powerful noble family. And then they bankrupted the country in order to build the king not just a truly luxurious palace but also a gaudily opulent “hunting lodge” a few hundred meters away (Pelisor).
And then, in just a few short decades, Romania went from being a country that was 99% rural and 99% illiterate to a country with universal public education, a half-decent Constitution giving rights to its citizens for the first time, and the tripling of the size of its territory. And Romania went from a forgotten Turkish vassal to a significant participant in the geopolitical shitstorm now known as World War 1 (that nearly saw the country wiped off the map forever).
Between Mihai’s birth in 1921 and his exile in 1947, Romania underwent incredible changes. Thousands of factories were built, and those blue-collar workers soon organized and became bastions of support for Communism. And during those years, mass media was developed with newspapers and radio reaching Romanian villagers for the first time, connecting them to the outside world in a way that had never been done before.
Those were big changes, not just in Romania but in all of Europe. And World War 2 was a tremendous upheaval for everyone and everything, some 60 million people across the continent becoming refugees and some 80 million people killed. Romania went from a triumphant winner in 1920 after years of oppression by foreign powers to a murderously genocidal force of evil, rampaging through (what is now) Ukraine and Transnistria in 1941.
Those were all big changes, huge changes, part of the most turbulent period of Europe’s history, and there’s no telling what another person might have done in Mihai’s place. All we can do is look at the facts and identify what decisions he made and wonder if something more could have been done.
And yet, I feel afraid to even ask these questions as Mihai is, at least to most Romanians, the last incorruptible and beautiful part of their country’s history, legacy, and culture.
He’s no longer a man or a leader or even a member of a royal family but a distant, kindly, honorable deity who loved his people even if he “couldn’t” do much more than send them well wishes from a very safe distance.
Out of Gas
And so, after an incredible display of pomp and circumstance, Mihai has been laid to rest.
His daughter, Margareta, is active in charity and other humanitarian work in Romania, but she’ll never be asked to assume any kind of leadership role. And there’s little chance that any of his grandkids will do anything significant either. They’ve all been very safely rendered impotent.
Which leaves Romanians in a deep, dark hole that they haven’t been in since the days of 1848, when the rulers were all corrupt or beholden to foreign powers. Almost everything that Romanians can be proud of is now gone, their only consolation being able to shop for an iPhone online and the ability to legally go work in foreign countries without too much paperwork.
A new king isn’t coming, not an official royal king and not a “marshall” or a dictator who rules with the powers of a king.
All that’s left is bands of corrupt politicians openly looting the country as fast as possible with (seemingly) nothing that the Romanian people can do except stand around in the cold and protest or write long, agonizing posts on Facebook.
Romanians are now left holding the bag, and the bag is nearly empty. So yes, I think a period of fond reminiscence for King Mihai is okay. It’s a form of healing to attribute so much goodness to an elderly, distant man that few people actually really knew.
But that period of mourning needs to be short because now there’s really no one left to save Romania, not a new royal, not a new strongman, and definitely not the deal with the devil that Romania has made with the United States.
A New Hope
Indeed, I truly believe that for the very first time (except for a brief period in 1990), Romanians are on their own.
And you know what? I don’t think of that as scary. I think of it as liberating.
Romanians aren’t the backwards, illiterate peasants that they were in 1866 when they had to rent out their country to a foreign king. Romanians aren’t the victims of geography as they were in World War 2 when they were sold out by Churchill to the Soviets. And Romanians aren’t the helpless “comrades” that they were during Ceausescu’s long reign.
Romania is, at least on paper, a democracy. It is a full member of the European Union. It has universally respected borders. There is no longer any risk that a foreign army is going to sweep in and slice up the country. And nobody, not even Mihai’s descendants, are ever going to step up and become the new all-powerful ruler.
So, this is it, people.
If you’ve cried your tears and said your prayers for Mihai, it’s time to step up to the plate and take responsibility for Romania. It’s time to keep up those Facebook posts. It’s time to protest. It’s time to organize. It’s time to discuss what you want from the future and how you’d like to accomplish it.
In other words, it’s time for everyone to become a little king now, a sovereign citizen in charge of their country’s destiny.
We’re all the “king” of Romania now.
REST IN PEACE, YOUR MAJESTY!