His daughter once described him as "an amputated soul". His wife said that he lived a quiet life of mourning for his country. Indeed, King Michael of Romania's life was shaped by his country - the love he had for it, and the havoc wrought upon him when he was forced to leave it behind. If any comfort could be drawn from this colorful and often sad life, which came to a close on 5 December 2017, it could be that even though he never lived to see his throne returned to him, the old King was allowed to return to his beloved homeland and finally received the respect he deserved for the service he gave. As a young man in his early twenties, an age when most people are setting the stones for the foundations of their lives and still learning about who they are and what they want to become, King Michael was already thrust toward his destiny as well as carrying the destinies of an entire country on his tall shoulders. The Romanian throne had been a double-edged sword for him: it gave his life purpose, but it had robbed him of his childhood when he was forced to occupy it at the age of six. Michael's father, the wily Prince Carol, had turned his back on his duty, his country, and his family to pursue a scandalous affair with Magda Lupescu, carelessly leaving the mantle which he had been groomed his whole life to bear in the hands of his young son. Michael's mother, the stoic Princess Helen of Greece, did her best to keep the boy disciplined and grounded in spite of his exalted position. Yet she was ultimately powerless to stave off her former husband's damaging presence when he came waltzing back into Romania and usurped the crown from Michael. Michael never forgave his father for the humiliation levied upon his mother in the aftermath of their divorce, and refused to ever see him again after Carol was driven into permanent exile in 1940.
During his second reign, which began when he was nineteen, Michael endured the dictatorship of his prime minister Marshal Ion Antonescu, who habitually undermined his monarchical authority and dragged Romania into the Second World War on the side of the Germans. The young king knew that Romania would sacrifice thousands of her soldiers for a cause that they had little to gain from, and he advantageously used Antonescu's dismissal of his abilities to perform what many regard as his most courageous deed. King Michael's Coup of 23 August 1944 removed Antonescu from power and transferred Romania's alliance from the Axis Powers to the Allies. This allowed Soviet troops to march through Romania and gain easier access to invade Germany, which most historians agree shortened the war in Europe by up to six months. The coup saved thousands of lives, and yet it left King Michael and his country vulnerable to Soviet encroachment. An agreement between Stalin and Churchill effectively sealed Romania's fate when it gave the Soviet Union the upper hand in influence over Romanian affairs. Just three years later, communist politicians with Soviet backing had infiltrated the Romanian government, and King Michael, at the age of 26, was sent packing into exile against his will.
In many ways, Michael never truly recovered from the loss of his country. He had some joy in his personal life - he wed Princess Anne of Bourbon-Parma and, after producing five daughters together, they remained married for sixty-eight years until her death in 2016. Yet those close to him noticed a withdrawn, remote figure who seemed to nurse the pain of abdication and exile more intently than other deposed monarchs. His cousin, King Constantine II of Greece, for example, has said that he was grateful to have been a young man when he was driven into exile in 1967, for had he been older he would have found the change in his life more difficult to cope with. Yet King Michael certainly never adapted to life in exile in the way of his Greek relative. Perhaps Michael's stormy childhood left scars on him deeper than anyone could truly understand. Certainly the way Romania suffered under decades of brutal communist dictators after Michael's deposition filled him with enormous sorrow. Even his own children have said that he was a distant father at times, which perhaps explains at least partially the troubles his family endured over the years. All but one of his five daughters have been divorced. His third daughter, Irina, was arrested and convicted in the United States for running an illegal cockfighting ring. His grandson, Nicholas, who had been given the title of Prince in 2010 and was being groomed to one day take over leadership of the deposed royal house, was stripped of his title and cast out of the family for undisclosed reasons, which was later revealed to be his unwillingness to acknowledge that he had supposedly fathered a little girl out of wedlock.
Despite these issues, what King Michael will be remembered for is his steadfastness, his bravery, and his wholehearted devotion to his country. When he returned to Romania in 1997, after previous visits triggered unseemly squabbling among Romanian politicians, the enormous crowds that had jammed the streets to cheer him left him so moved that, struggling to maintain his composure, all he could say to them was a simple "I love you". He was not lying; he never has. No other figure in the last century has stood as a champion of the dignity and welfare of the Romanian people than their last king, and no other figure in the last century is more worthy of having his memory preserved as such in death.