The Hohenzollerns, the German dynasty that ruled Romania from 1866 until 1947 (when the communist regime was installed) are little known in the UK. But their stories involve a whole range of monarchs across Europe, including Queen Victoria. To an audience of over a hundred both standing and sitting, Princess Margareta of Romania presented her family’s history last Thursday at the Romanian Cultural Institute. As with a lot of royal families, the stories involve glory, scandal, a lot of name dropping, but also, Princess Margareta says, a set of values forgotten by modern Romania, such as “dignity and honour”.
Born in exile in Switzerland in 1949, Princess Margareta first saw Romania in 1990, after the revolution.
She was educated at a boarding school in Hampshire, a French school in Switzerland and then at Edinburgh University, where she graduated in Politics, International Law and Sociology. She also dated Gordon Brown for four years but left him because, she said in an interview for the Daily Telegraph, “”It was a very solid and romantic story, I never stopped loving him but one day it didn’t seem right any more, it was politics, politics, politics, and I needed nurturing.”
After pursuing a career in public health policy and working for several UN agencies dealing with health and development, she quit her job in 1989 to join her family in their efforts of returning and contributing to Romania. She saw this as her duty.
Whilst politically her father, King Mihai, was forbidden to enter Romania by the government in 1990, Margareta founded one of the first charities in Romania following the fall of communism. The Princess Margareta Foundation fundraised for projects to set up NGOs, help the poor, create communication links between the young and the elderly, and support creativity and talent.
Princess Margareta enjoys public attention – she has given more interviews and public presentations than any other member of the Romanian royal family. Tonight she uses the hour to speak about how monarchy made modern Romania. Beyond crucial historical acts, she suggests that there are three main ways in which monarchy shaped Romania – it brought political stability (except with the rule of Carol II), raised Romania’s international profile, and supported charity, arts and culture.
One can’t exaggerate the role of the first monarch, Carol I. Karl of Hohenzollern, a German soldier with a blood line going back to Napoleon Bonaparte, was approached to become the king of Romania in order to save the country from internal faction and external pressure from the neighbouring Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian Empires.
As soon as he arrived in Romania, the Parliament adopted one of the most modern European Constitutions, which also neglected the Ottoman Empire’s suzerainty over Romania. As he was coming to Bucharest, legend has it that one of the wheels on his cart broke due to the city’s potholes. He duly promised himself he wouldn’t leave the country without building roads – a promise he kept. Then he led his army on the battlefield to fight for Romania’s independence from the six hundred years of Ottoman rule, leading to the proclamation of independence in 1877. Above all, Carol’s reign brought stability to internal politics.
While he dealt with foreign policy and military rule, Carol’s wife,Elisabeta got involved in charity and the arts. Born to the German Wied family of royal blood going back to the eleventh century, Elisabeta was UK’s Queen Victoria’s favourite candidate for both her sons Edward VII and Alfred; they, however, rejected her. Taking the pseudonym of Carol Sylva, Elisabeta published over 50 volumes of poetry, plays, novels, essays and fairy tales in several languages. She translated Romanian writers into German and discovered and supported artists including George Enescu, one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, whose opera Oedip at the Royal Opera House has recently brought him to the eye of the British media and public. Elisabeta’s last big project before her death was the making of a neighbourhood dedicated to the blind.
But despite his many achievements, Carol I also failed to address land inequality, for which reforms had been started before his reign – and perhaps one of the reasons that account for the rise of the Communist Party in Romania. As Carol I died in 1914 without any heirs, his nephew, Ferdinand, followed him to the throne.
Ferdinand came at the trickiest time, when he had to choose to side with Germany and the Central Powers, following his uncle’s desire and blood line, or with the Triple Entente, which the Romanian government, as well as his strong-willed wife Maria supported. He chose the latter, and thus managed one of the most extraordinary events in Romanian modern history, the 1918 unification of Wallachia and Moldova with Transylvania and Bessarabia (today the Republic of Moldova).
During the First World War, Queen Maria was the more prominent figure and, unlike Elisabeta, never hesitated from getting involved in politics. Maria Alexandra Victoria, the grand-daughter of Queen Victoria through her son Alfred and his wife Maria Alexandrovna, the only daughter of Tsar Alexander II, fought for the continuation of the war to achieve the unification. The French diplomat Charles de Saint-Aulaire said of her, “There is only one man in this Romania and that is the Queen”. She made herself extremely popular with the Army as well as with the international great powers including France and the USA. But she was cornered by her son, Carol II, the black sheep of the Hohenzollern reign in Romania.
At first flippant, hedonistic, loving heavy drinking, partying, and later power, Carol II sparked many scandals in inter-war Romania. Carol II abdicated from the throne twice. The first time, in 1925 – only one year after being crowned – was due to his affair with a woman not of royal blood. Returning to the throne in 1930, he created a personality cult around himself in order to make up for his earlier negative, playboy image. Though first resisting the Nazi’s pervasion of the Romanian political landscape, by 1940, lacking support from the other Western powers, he gave in.
The collaboration with the Nazi regime, the massacre of Jews and the loss of Bessarabia to USSR marked the total decline of Romania’s parliamentary monarchy. The subsequent rise to power of the communist regime put an end to the monarchy for good. Or at least that’s what the Romanian public thinks.
Princess Margareta seems to disagree. Asked if she believes the monarchy should be reinstated in Romania, she’s adamant: “Of course. That’s what we’re fighting for. My father considers his take from power unjust.”
If in 1990, this might have been conceivable, especially given King Mihai’s popularity and reputation as a “man of dignity and duty”, it’s hard to imagine monarchy reinstated in today’s Romania. But we do live in extraordinary times.
The exhibition “The Royal Family of Romania in Pictures” by Daniel Angelescu, official photographer of the Royal House, is on at the Romanian Cultural Institute until 16 September.