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 89-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.
RFE/RL: With the benefit of hindsight, as Your Majesty said, there are historians who say that if Romania had chosen to resist the Soviet ultimatum of 1940 and defend Bessarabia and Northern Bucovina, even though it would have been defeated and lost several tens of thousands of soldiers, it would have stood to gain more morally and even politically, like Finland. Why did Romania not fight?
King Michael: This is a question we have thought about very deeply. It is quite obvious that we all thought about that, even if later. Maybe something should have been tried, at least morally speaking. Now we were facing a colossus — the Soviets — and it would have been very possible that if we had presented some resistance, morally good as it may have been, we might have had an invasion, with the Russians all over the country. You could never tell exactly, but you know, you have to be very, very careful about certain things. So it is also possible that it was the thought of the government and of some other people then that it was perhaps safer to take a humiliating situation and try to safeguard the rest and the independence of the country. This is something that many other people in the West, of course, do not quite understand and not see the true situation that we were in.
RFE/RL: So basically Romania could have been in mortal danger as a state, it could have disappeared from the map, because Hungary might have taken Transylvania as well?
King Michael: That could have been the very possibility because the Nazis were on one side, the Soviets were on the other side, and we had certain problems with the Hungarians. Who knows what might have happened. We tried to be as friendly as we could with our neighbors but sometimes you don’t know what might come out of it if you’re not careful.
RFE/RL: Yes, someone once said that the only friendly neighbor Romania had was the Black Sea. In 1941, Romania took part in the invasion of the USSR initially under the justification of liberating Bessarabia, but later on it kept fighting alongside Germany on Russian territory and experienced the Stalingrad catastrophe. Many have said that Romania should have stopped at the River Dniester. Would that have been possible in 1941? What was it that Romania had risked?
King Michael: This was a very complicated situation. Because we were trying, at least, to get Bessarabia and Northern Bucovina back, and it would have been absolutely impossible to do that by ourselves. So at the time when [Marshal Ion] Antonescu was leading the state, he wasn’t the head of state, he was leading the state — the fuehrer…[chuckles] he decided that, probably for a short period, the only thing that could be done was to join the German troops and get back Bessarabia and Northern Bucovina. The problem was, how far could we go?
Because I remember very well, sometime later, Marshal [Carl Gustav Emil von] Mannerheim in Finland was, to a certain degree, in the same sort of situation that we had been in — he joined the war against the Soviets but he stopped at the previous Finnish frontiers [after recovering Karelia]. And the result was that he lost the same part [Karelia] again anyhow. So we might have found ourselves in the same type of situation, that we might have taken back our territories and then lost them anyhow, and the situation might have been even worse. It is possible. In view of what happened afterward, it could have been very dangerous.
RFE/RL: But at least, could it have been presented to the great powers afterward not as a war of aggression but rather as a justified attempt of getting back what had been lost?
King Michael: I am very sorry to have to say this: The United States was still much too far away, while Great Britain and France, based on some experience I had afterward, they couldn’t care less about our part of Europe. I remember very well when in 1938 my father took me to London on an official visit. I was not directly involved but I remember hearing that he was trying to get some sort of understanding from the British government to, not exactly safeguard us, but at least to have a minimum of [British] interest in our country and what was happening in that part of Europe, but unfortunately it did not happen that way.
I’ve said it before, many Western countries did not know or care much about the history of our part of Europe. They didn’t care much about what happened if we lost independence and the whole place was occupied or not — not enough interest.
RFE/RL: In 2005, you were invited by then-Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend the Moscow celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. You have declared repeatedly that the Soviet Union’s actions were “extremely horrific for Romanians” and said Russia should officially condemn the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Do you still maintain this statement?
King Michael: I’ve been saying that since long before 2005. And when I was invited to Moscow for the celebrations, I was extremely surprised about that, I must say, because after all the history we and Russia had together I couldn’t quite believe my ears. But I must say that now that the Soviet Union’s finished and gone, I would like to see the Russians — how should I say — a little more open and honest about these things. They should say something about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to put it right. I think it would be the right thing to do.