The Royal Antifascist Coup of 23 August 1944 in Romania

Michael of Romania by Ivor Porter – book cover

On 23 August 1944, King Michael of Romania led the antifascist against the pro-German government, by personally arresting the dictator, marshal Ion Antonescu, a war criminal responsible for the death of hundred of thousands of Romanian and Soviet Jews, who allied the country with Nazi Germany and took it into a hugely disastrous war against the Soviet Union where, by some reckonings, over half a million of Romanian soldiers perished senselessly. The subsequent communist government hijacked the significance of this day claiming the entire merit for themselves and declaring it as the National Day. Nowadays the event is largely forgotten or in the best case ignored by a population that has a low level of education and interest in history, reflected also in the wholesale destruction of the country’s architectural heritage for the purpose of crude property speculation. King Michael, by allying Romania with the democratic powers and the Soviet Union, ensured the shortening of the entire WWII with at least six months, according to western historians, and obtained a better deal for Romania in the subsequent peace negotiations.

In 2008 I published, in the academic magazine “Cold War History”, a review of one of the best books on those events and the personality of King Michael, written by Ivor Porter (“Michael of Romania: The King and the Country”), a former British special operative in those days, who participated directly at the events and is a close friend of His Majesty. He died in 2012 at the age of 98 after an eventful and exemplary life, here is his obituary in the Daily Telegraph). I am extremely fortunate and honoured to have met in the past decade both these two personalities in places like London or Bucharest. The book review below is my humble tribute to HM King Michael and his heroic deeds on this day in 1944:

Cold War History

Vol. 8, No. 4, November 2008, Routledge, pp. 564-565

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

The relevance of monarchies in modern South-East European history is a subject that is very much underrated by the Western 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 king is a public figure of highest moral integrity who saved the country from disaster in the Second World War, or in Bulgaria, where the monarch became one of the 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 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 later as a staff member of the Allied Control Commission in Bucharest.

The book is thus an important witness statement that throws new light on the onset of the Cold War in Romania and South-East Europe. The author shows that the communitisation of the country started with the direct Western approval, and also because of Allied’s unwarranted trust in the Soviet Union, coupled with hesitation at every step, mirroring in many aspects the behaviour toward Hitler before the war. Moscow did not display such niceties and went straight for the jugular in order to achieve its objectives. In Romania there was room for manoeuvre against the Soviet plans in 1945–46, but the opportunity to act was lost because of West’s procrastination. The Russians, unlike the Western Allies, expertly knew the problems of Romania and were able to exploit them in full, as shown by the restoration of Transylvania to Romania as a powerful bargaining argument securing the country’s cooperation.

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 crucially instrumented the 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. That 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 the 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 motifs, 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 often unstable region of the world. © Valentin Mandache

Great War memorial on village green with the figure of King Ferdinand of Romania

The Great War Memorial for the fallen soldiers in the village of Zatreni, Valcea county/ Photograph ©Valentin Mandache

This post has originally been published in Diana Mandache’s weblog on royal history, and is dedicated to the anniversary tomorrow, 24 August, of King Ferdinand of Romania’s birthday (1865 – 1927), the sovereign of the country during the Great War. The article reflects an important aspect of the local identity, at the village level, fostered by the dramatic impact of the Great War events on the Romanian countryside.

The citizens of Zatreni in south west Romania, paid a high price during the Great War, with 233 men killed in action, a huge loss for a village. The memorial on the village green dedicated to the local heroes features a somehow naively, in a provincial manner, rendered figure of King Ferdinand, the supreme commander of the Romanian army, seen in the above photograph. The monument, most amazingly, survived the communist period, probably because there was no inscription mentioning the sovereign’s name on the monument, which made the local communist authorities believe and propagate the idea that the bas-relief represented just a Great War era soldier personifying the army. Romania’s entry into the war on the side of the Entente was decided by a special Crown Council on 27 August 1916. DM

King Ferdinand’s Proclamation – 28 August 1916

Romanians! The war which for the last two years has been encircling our frontiers more and more closely has shaken the ancient foundations of Europe to their depths. It has brought the day which has been awaited for centuries by the national conscience, by the founders of the Romanian State, by those who united the principalities in the war of independence, by those responsible for the national renaissance. It is the day of the union of all branches of our nation.  Today we are able to complete the task of our forefathers and to establish forever what Michael the Brave was only able to establish for a short moment, namely, a Romanian union on both slopes of the Carpathians. […] In our moral energy and our valour lie the means of giving him back his birthright of a great and free Rumania from the Tisza to the Black Sea, and to prosper in peace in accordance with our customs and our hopes and dreams.

Romanians! Animated by the holy duty imposed upon us, and determined to bear manfully all the sacrifices inseparable from an arduous war, we will march into battle with the irresistible élan of a people firmly confident in its destiny.  The glorious fruits of victory shall be our reward. Forward, with the help of God!  FERDINAND   [Source: Records of the Great War, vol.V, National Alumni, 1923]

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see also Forgotten Basreliefs representing Romanian royals