Outside the monumental former royal palace that looms over the main square of Bucharest, mourners have been laying flowers for days in tribute to a long-deposed and exiled king whom few of them ever knew.
Rows of candles flicker in the cold, and long lines snake around the building. Crowds are waiting hours to pay their respects to King Michael I of Romania, one of the last two surviving World War II European heads of state.
He died Dec. 5 at age 96, some 70 years after being forced to abdicate by the country’s Communist government, reportedly at gunpoint, and then sent into exile.
Even from Britain and Switzerland, where he spent much of his life working, among other things, as a stockbroker, chicken farmer, and commercial pilot, the former monarch commanded widespread respect among ordinary Romanians. His death has prompted nostalgic comparisons with the nation’s present-day political leaders.
“You can’t compare our current political leaders with him,” says Livia Amzar, a middle-aged engineer, as she lays flowers outside the palace where the former king, whose body was flown from Switzerland this week, is lying in state until his funeral on Saturday. That is expected to be a grandiose affair attended by politicians and royalty from across Europe and beyond.
“Maybe a few have thoughts for the country and the people, but not many,” complains Ms. Amzar. 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.
'A moment of dignity'
Michael’s passing comes at a time of considerable political turmoil in Romania, which joined the European Union in 2007. Despite being the fastest-growing economy in Europe, the country has seen escalating confrontations between the government and people.
In February, upwards of half a million demonstrators took to the streets to protest government moves to weaken anti-corruption efforts. Politicians quickly backed down, but subsequent efforts to amend judicial legislation have brought tens of thousands back out in anger.
Against that background, mourning for the former king provides “a moment of dignity in a confusing and noisy political world,” says Radu Magdin, a political consultant. “Romania is okay from a lot of points right now, but we have all these legislative changes and protests. Having this monarch whose main messages were ones of loyalty, principles, it’s such a huge contrast, irrespective of the generations.”
Michael actually ruled Romania twice: as a child between 1927 and 1930, and then again between 1940 and 1947. In 1944, as a 22 year-old, he played a key role in a coup that removed Romania’s pro-Nazi leadership and led to the country switching sides towards the end of World War II.
Three years later Michael was forced to abdicate by the country’s Soviet-backed regime, and went into exile. He would not be allowed back until 1992, more than two years after a bloody revolution brought Communist rule to an end.
Even then he was treated with caution by the politicians of the day, who were wary of his potential influence on society. Not until 1997 was his Romanian citizenship restored; he never moved back to the country.
Despite his lengthy absence, and little enthusiasm for restoring the monarchy, Michael remained popular in Romania over the years.
Reaching the flag-draped coffin on display in the ornate former throne room after a three-hour wait, Adrian Stefan, 31, puts his right hand on his heart and bows his head.
The end of an epoch
“My grandparents and great grandparents lived through those times and they taught me,” he says. “Michael was the last symbol of a proud Romania. We came to witness the end of an epoch.”
Michael’s passing also likely signals the end of the Romanian royal family’s relevance. His children have little public standing; his eldest daughter, Princess Margareta, has already said she will not use the title of Queen, but rather Custodian of the Crown, out of respect for the fact that Romania is a republic.
Saturday’s funeral will not only be the last important royal funeral here, but also “probably the most grandiose funeral in Romanian history,” says Theodor Paleologu, a historian and former diplomat, waiting in the long line of mourners with his son.
“This turnout shows the deep affection for the king, but also the consciousness that a very important chapter in Romanian history is coming to an end,” he adds.
For many, Michael’s passing also feels like a moment lost, highlighting what is lacking in today’s Romania.
“We missed the chance in the 1990’s to involve the king more in our social life,” says Dan Pontus, a worker in the cement industry who flew to Bucharest from his home in the country’s northwest to visit the palace before the former king’s funeral.
“The king was educated like a king, raised like a king,” he says admiringly. “Those leading our country today are just commoners with little understanding of this world.”