Helen of Greece and Denmark
Princess Helen of Greece and Denmark (Greek: Ελένη; 2 May 1896 – 28 November 1982), was a Queen Mother of Romania during the reign of her son King Michael (1940–1947). She was noted for her humanitarian efforts to save the Romanian Jews during World War II, which led to her being awarded with the honorary title of Righteous Among the Nations in 1993.
Daughter of King Constantine I of Greece and his wife Queen Sophia of Prussia, Princess Helen spend her childhood in Greece, Great Britain and Germany. The outbreak of World War I and the overthrow of her father by the Allies in 1917 permanently marked her and also separated from her favorite brother, the young Alexander I of Greece. Exiled in Switzerland with most members of the royal family, Helen then spent several months caring for her father, subject to disease and depression. In 1920, the Princess met Carol, Crown Prince of Romania, who quickly asked her hand. Despite the bad reputation of the prince, Helen accepts and moved to Romania, where she soon gives birth to his only son, Prince Michael, in 1921.
The situation of her family, however, continues to worry Helen, who made several trips abroad to visit her parents when they doesn't simply stay with her in Bucharest. In doing this, she distanced from her husband, whose multiplies affairs ended when he fall in love of Magda Lupescu in 1924. Finally, in 1925, Prince Carol abandoned his wife and renounced to the throne to live openly with his mistress. Distraught, Helen tries to persuade her husband to return with her but eventually she accepted the divorce in 1928. In the meanwhile, Helen was proclaimed "Princess Mother of Romania" (1926) and her son Michael ascended to the throne under the regency of his uncle Prince Nicholas (1927). However, the political situation in Romania was complicated and Carol took advantage of the increased instability to return to Bucharest in 1930 and being acclaimed as King. Soon, the new ruler forced his ex-wife into exile and only authorized her to see their son two months per year.
In these circumstances, Helen moved to Villa Sparta at Fiesole, Tuscany. Always close to her family, she hosts her sisters Irene and Katherine and brother Paul, who was staying with her intermittently until the restoration of the Greek monarchy in 1935. The outbreak of World War II, the deposition of Carol II and the subsequent dismemberment of Greater Romania in 1940, however, bring back Helen with her son to Bucharest. Subject to the dictatorship of General Antonescu and vigilance of Nazi Germany, the King and his mother were cautious with the fascist regime. They don't show their opposition to the participation of Romania in the invasion of the Soviet Union and the deportation of Jews. Finally, King Michael organized a coup against Antonescu on 23 August 1944 and Romania turned against the Axis powers; however, the country was at the end occupied by the Red Army.
For Helen and her son, the Post-war period was marked by the interference of the Soviet Union in the Romanian political life. In March 1945, the King was forced to accept a communist government at the head of Petru Groza while the following year, the general elections confirm the hegemony of the PCR on the country. Finally, Michsel I wasis forced to abdicate on 30 December 1947 and the royal family takes the path of exile. Helen then returns to live at the Villa Sparta, where she divides her time between her family, gardening and the discovery of Italian art. Increasingly concerned about her finances, Helen finally left Italy for Switzerland in 1979 and died three years later with her son at her side.
Princess of Greece and Denmark A Greek childhood
Third child and eldest daughter of Diadochos Constantine of Greece and Princess Sophia of Prussia, Helen was born on 2 May 1896 in Athens. Since her birth, she received the nickname "Sitta" which was a corruption of the English word sister, that her brother Alexander fails to correctly pronounce. Growing up, Helen developed an special affection for Alexander, only three years older.
Helen spent most of her childhood in the Greek capital. Every summer, the princess and her family, however, travel to the Hellenic Mediterranean aboard the royal yacht Amphitrite or to visit Sophia's mother, the Empress Dowager Victoria in Germany. From the age of 8, Helen began to spend part of the summer in Great Britain, at the regions of Seaford and Eastbourne. The princess grew up in an environment strongly anglophile, among a cohort of British tutors and governesses, including Miss Nichols, who took care especially of her.
From the Goudi coup to the Balkan Wars
On 28 August 1909 a group of Greek officers, gathered in the "Military League," organizing a coup d'état (called the Goudi coup) against the government of King George I, Helen's grandfather. While declaring monarchists, the League members, led by Nikolaos Zorbas, asked the King to dismiss his son from military posts. Officially, this was to protect the Diadochos from the jealousy that could be originated by his friendship with some soldiers. But the reality was quite different: officers blame Constantine for the defeat of Greece against the Ottoman Empire during the Thirty Days' War of 1897.
In the country, the situation was so tense that the son of George I finally was forced to resign from their military posts to save their father of the shame of expelled him. The Diadochos also decided to leave Greece with his wife and children. For several months, the family therefore moved to the Schloss Friedrichshof at Kronberg in Germany. Was the first time that the 14-years-old Helen knows the exile.
After much tension, the political situation eventually subside in Greece and Constantine and his family were finally allowed to return to their homeland. In 1911, the Diadochos was restored in his military duties by the Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos. A year later, broke the First Balkan War, which allows Greece to annex large territories in Macedonia, Epirus, Crete and the North Aegean. It's also at the end of this conflict than King George I was assassinated in Thessaloniki on 18 March 1913 and Constantine I succeeded him on the Hellenic throne.
After these events, Helen spends long weeks visiting Greece, which she previously knew only the main towns and the Island of Corfu. With his father and brother Alexander, she discovers the Greek Macedonia and the various battlefields of the First Balkan War. However, this period of calm was short-lived as the Second Balkan War broke out in June 1913. Once again, Greece emerged victorious of the conflict, allowing it to significantly expand his territory, which grew in 68% after the signing of the Treaty of Bucharest in relation to the beginning of the Balkan Wars in 1912.
World War I
During the World War I, King Constantine I first seeks to maintain Greece in a position of neutrality. He considers that his country was not ready to participate in a new conflict after the Balkan Wars. But, formed in Germany and linked to Emperor William II (who was his brother-in-law), Constantine I quickly accused of supporting the Triple Alliance and wish the defeat of the Allies. Soon the King fall out with his Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, who was convinced of the need to support the countries of the Triple Entente to fullfil the called Megali Idea. Protected by the Entente countries, and in particular by the French Republic, in October 1916 Venizelos formed a parallel government in Thessaloniki. The central Greece was occupied by the allied forces and the country was soon in the middle of a civil war, the called National Schism.
Weakened by all these tensions, Constantine I became seriously ill in 1915. Suffering from pleurisy aggravated by a pneumonia, he remained at bed for several weeks and nearly died. In Greece, public opinion was moved by the rumor, spread by Venizelists, that the King wasn't sick but that Queen Sophia in fact injured him in the course of an argument where she tried to force him to fight alongside the Emperor. The health of the sovereign declines so that a ship was sent to the Island of Tinos in order to seek the miraculous Icon of the Virgin and Child supposed to heal the sick. After kissing the holy picture, the King recovered partially his health but the situation remains worrying and was needed surgery before he can reasume his duties. These events have an special impact on Princess Helen, who was very close to her father: impressed by his recovery, she develops a deep religiosity, a trait that she retains throughout her life.
Despite these difficulties, Constantin I refuses to change his policies and was facing the increasingly clear opposition of the Triple Entente and Venizelists. Thus, on 1 December 1916 took place the called Greek Vespers where the Allied soldiers fought against Greek reservists in Athens and the French fleet bombards the Royal Palace. On this occasion, Helen was nearly killed by a gunfire from the Zappeion. After hearing the gunshots and worried for the life of her father, the princess ran to the gardens of the royal palace but she was saved by the royal Garde du Corps, who take her back inside to the palace.
Finally, on 10 June 1917, Charles Jonnart, the Allied High Commissioner in Greece, asked the King his abdication. Under the threat of an invasion in Piraeus, the King agrees and goes into exile, but without formally abdicating. The Allies don't wish to establish a Republic in Greece, so one of the members of the royal family should succeed him. Because the Diadochos George was also considered Pro-German like his father, they wanted considered someone malleable, as a puppet ruler of Constantine I's enemies. Finally the younger brother of the Diadochos, Prince Alexander, was choose by Venizelos and the Triple Entente as the new King.
From Exile to the Romanian wedding
Life in Switzerland
The 11 June 1917 the Greece royal family fled secretly their palace, surrounded by a loyalist mob who refuses to see them go. In the days that followed, Constantine I, Sophia and five of their children leave Greece to the port of Oropos, and took the road to exile. This was the last time that Helen sees her favorite brother. In fact, on their return to power, Venizelists prohibit any contact between the new Alexander I and the rest of the royal family.
After crossing the Ionian Sea and Italy, Helen and her family settled in Switzerland, mainly between the cities of St. Moritz, Zürich and Lucerne. In exile, Helen's parents were soon followed by almost all members of the royal family, who leave their country with the return of Venizelos as Prime Minister and the entry of Greece to the war alongside the Triple Entente. However, the financial position of the royal family was precarious and Constantine I, haunted by a deep sense of failure, soon to fall ill. In 1918, he contracted Spanish flu and again was close to die.
Very concerned about the fate of their father, Helen and her sisters Irene and Katherine spend a long time with him to distracted from his worries. Helen also seeks to reconnect with Alexander I. She try to take advantage from the visit of her brother to Paris in 1919 to call him by phone. However, the officer who escorted the King in the French capital refuses to pass her communications and those of other members of the royal family.
Meeting with Crown Prince Carol of Romania
In 1920, the Greek exiles were visited by Queen Marie of Romania (Sophia's first cousin) and her daughters Elisabeth, Maria and Ileana in Lucerne. Worried about the future of his eldest and still single son, Queen Sophia hopes indeed the wedding of Diadochos George, who has already proposed to Princess Elisabeth a few years earlier. Homeless, penniless and without any real political value since his exclusion from the Greek throne in 1917, Helen's elder brother reiterates his request in marriage to Princess Elizabeth, who, despite her initial reticence, finally decides to accept. Pleased with the union, the Queen of Romania then invited her future son-in-law and his sisters Helen and Irene to go to Bucharest in order to publicly announce the royal engagement. Driven by their father, the princesses accept and departure was set to 2 October. In the meanwhile, another member of the Romanian royal family arrived to Lucerne. Returned from a world trip around to forget his morganatic wife Zizi Lambrino and their son, the Crown Prince Carol joined to the group.
In Romania George, Helen and Irene are received with pomp by the royal family. Housed at Pelișor Castle, they were central part of the celebrations for the return of Crown Prince Carol to his country (10 October) and the announcement of the engagement of Elisabeth with the Diadochos (12 October). The stay of the Greek princes, however, was brief. On 24 October, a telegram announced the death, at Zürich, of the Dowager Duchess of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, mother of the Queen of Romania. The next day, another message announced to the Greek princes that Alexander I suddenly just died in Athens, following a monkey bite.
In these circumstances, the three Greek princes and Queen Marie of Romania decide to made an emergency return to Switzerland. Moved by the situation and probably pushed by his mother, Crown Prince Carol at the last moment decided to travel with them. After being cold and distant with Helen during her stay at Romania, the Crown Prince turns suddenly very attentive to the princess. During the train journey, the two tell their lives and Carol confides in Helen on his affair with Zizi Lambrino. In grief for her brother's death and determined not to return Greece without him, Helen then falls in love with the heir to the Romanian throne.
Restoration and Marriage
Soon after their arrival to Switzerland, Crown Prince Carol asks Helen's hand, making the joy of the Queen of Romania, but not the princess' parents. Helen was determined to accept the marriage proposal, and this caused that King Constantine I showed acceptance to the engagement, but only after the marriage of Carol and Zizi Lambrino could be quickly dissolved. For her part, Queen Sophia was much less favorable to her daughter's wedding. Having no confidence in the Romanian Crown Prince, she tries to convince Helen to reject the proposal. However, she insists, and despite the doubhtsof her mother, the engagement was announced in Zürich in November 1920.
In the meanwhile, in Greece, the Venizelists lose the election in favor of Constantine I's supporters, on 14 November 1920. Desiring to resolve the dynastic question, on 5 December the new cabinet organized a referendum, whose disputed results showed that 99% of the populatuion demanded the restoration of the sovereign. Under these conditions, the royal family returned to Athens and Helen was accompanied by her fiancé in her return. For two months, the two traveled to discover the inner Greece and their ancient ruins. They then go to Bucharest to attend the wedding of Diadochos George with Elisabeth of Romania (27 February 1921) before returning to Athens to celebrate their own wedding in the Metropolitan Cathedral on 10 March 1921. Being the first Greek princess to marry in Athens, Helen wore the Romanian 'Greek Key' tiara, a gift from her mother-in-law. The newlyweds then spend their honeymoon in Tatoi, where they remain for two months before returning to Romania, on 8 May 1921.
Crown Princess of Romania
Installation in Bucharest
Upon her return to Romania, Helen was already pregnant. With Carol, she spent some time at the Cotroceni Palace, where the pomp and protocol of the Court impress and bored her at the same time. Then the couple takes up residence at the Foișor, an elegant Swiss-style chalet built in the surroundings of Peleș Castle, at Sinaia. Was there where the Crown Princess gives birth after only seven and a half months after her wedding. Her only child, Prince Michael, named in honor to Michael the Brave, the first unifier of the Danubian Principalities, was born on 25 October 1921; the childbirth was difficult and requires surgery. The ordeal significantly weakens Helen, to whom the doctors forbade a second pregnancy.
Once the Crown Princess was recovered, in December 1921 the couple moved to Bucharest, in a large villa at the Șoseaua Kiseleff. Despite their significantly different points of interest, Carol and Helen managed to lead, for some time, a bourgeois and happy existence. In the morning, the heir performs his official duties and, in the afternoon, they made their favorite occupations. While the Crown Prince engages in reading and his stamp collections, Helen spend her time in horse riding or on the decoration of their residences. The Crown Princess was also involved in social work and founded a nursing school in the capital. She was also appointed an Honorary Colonel of the 9th Cavalry Regiment, the Roshiori.
Helen reunites with her family
In the meanwhile, the political situation was deteriorating in Greece. During the Greco-Turkish War in 1919, the Hellenic Kingdom spend a period of unrest and the health of King Constantine I was deteriorates again. Worried about the future of her father, Helen asked her husband's permission to return to Greece. The couple and their child thus left for Athens at the end of January 1922. But while Carol leaves Greece in February to attend the betrothal of his sister Maria with King Alexander I of Yugoslavia, Helen remains with her parents until April and when she returned to Romania she brings her sister Irene. At that time, the Crown Prince reasumed his affair with his former mistress, the actress Mirella Marcovici.
In June 1922, Carol and Helen go to Belgrade with the whole Romanian royal family to attend the wedding of Alexander I and Maria. Back in Bucharest, the Crown Princess then assumes her role as wife of the heir to the throne. She participates in official acts and supports the sovereign and her husband during ceremonies that punctuate the life of the monarchy. Like all women of her rank, Helen was also interested in social works. Nevertheless, she continued to be worried for her family, and even visits her sister Irene, her aunt Maria and her Greek cousins in an futile attempt to console herself from the remoteness of her parents.
In September 1922, a military coup forced King Constantine I to abdicate in favor of his son George II, and to leave in exile. Without any real power and exceeded by the revolutionaries, after a failed coup of a pro-royalist group (the called Leonardopoulos–Gargalidis coup d'état) in October 1923, the new sovereign in turn was forced to abdicate after only fifteen months of reign. Devastated by these events, Helen didn't think to much, and immediately went to Italy to find her parents in their exile. Shortly after the coronation of King Ferdinand I and Queen Marie of Romania in Alba Iulia on 15 October 1922, Helen therefore left for Palermo, where she remains until the death of her father, on 11 January 1923.
Bored by the absence of his wife, Carol finally invite his mother-in-law to stay in Bucharest. However, the Dowager Queen doesn't arrived alone: with her, came not less than fifteen Greek princes and princesses, without warning, at his home. Increasingly irritated by the invasive presence of his wife's family, Carol was also hurt by Helen's attitude, because she refused to fulfill her marital duties. Jealous, the Crown Prince suspected that his wife began an affair with the charming Prince Amedeo of Savoy, Duke of Aosta, regular guest of the Greek royal couple in Sicily. In these circumstances, Helen and Carol began their separation and the Crown Princess saves the appearances by devoting more time to the education of her son, Prince Michael.
Abandonment of Crown Prince Carol
In the summer of 1924, Carol meets a courtesan named Elena Lupescu (better known under the name of "Magda" Lupescu), with whom he begins an affair in or around 14 February 1925. Since his marriage, this wasn't the first extramarital relationship of the Crown Prince. However, this time for Carol was a serious bond, a fact that soon worry not only Helen (always of a conciliatory and tolerant disposition with her husband's infidelities) but also the rest of the Romanian royal family, which fears that Lupescu could turn into a new Zizi Lambrino. In November 1925, Carol was sent to the United Kingdom to represent the royal family at the funeral of the Dowager Queen Alexandra. Despite several promises made to his father, King Ferdinand I, he takes advantage of traveling abroad to find his mistress and live their relationship openly. Refusing to return to Bucharest, Carol finally officially renounce to the throne and prerogatives as Crown Prince on 28 December 1925.
In Romania, Helen was distraught by Carol's attitude, especially as Queen Marie makes her partly responsible for the failure of her marriage. The Crown Princess wrote to her husband to convince him to return. She also attempts to convince politicians to delay Carol's exclusion to the royal succession and proposed to her in-laws to made herself a trip to meet her husband. However, the Prime Minister Ion Brătianu, who despised the Crown Prince because of his sympathy to the National Peasants' Party, categorically opposed. The Head of government even accelerates the exclusion procedures by summoning both Houses of the Parliament to registered the act of renunciation and appoint little Prince Michael as the new heir to the throne.
On 4 January 1926, the Romanian Parliament ratified the acceptance of Carol's renunciation and a royal ordinance was issued giving Helen the title Princess Mother of Romania; in addition, she was included in the Civil list, a privilege previously reserved to the sovereign and the heir to the throne. After King Ferdinand I was diagnosed with cancer, a Regency Council is also formed during Michael's minority with Prince Nicholas as the Head, and the assistance of Patriarch Miron and the magistrate Gheorghe Buzdugan, replaced aftrt his death in 1929 by Constantine Sărățeanu. Despite this, Helen continues to hope the return of her husband and obstinately refused requests for a divorce that he sent to her from abroad.
In June 1926, shortly before the death of her father-in-law, Helen went to Italy to attend the funeral of her paternal grandmother, Dowager Queen Olga of Greece, and moved with her mother to the Villa Bobolina in Fiesole. The princess took advantage of her stay in Italy and to try to arranged an encounter with her husband but, having initially accepted to see her, Carol cancels the meeting at the last minute.
First reign of Michael I and Italian exile
Princess Mother of Romania
In the spring of 1927, Queen Marie made an official visit to the United States. During her absence, Helen and her sister-in-law Elisabeth took of care of King Ferdinand I, whose health declined rapidly. The King finally died on 20 July 1927 at Peleș Castle and his 5-years-old grandson succeeded him under the name of Michael I while the Regency Council takes the direction of the country. However, in Romania, Carol retains many supporters (soon nicknamed "Carlists") and the National Liberal Party began to feared the return of the Prince.
After long sought to convince her husband to go to Bucharest, Helen gradually changing her attitude towards him. Anxious to preserve the rights of her son and probably convinced by Prime Minister Barbu Știrbey, the princess wants a divorce, whom she gets easily: on 21 June 1928, the marriage was dissolved by the Romanian Supreme Court on the grounds of incompatibility. Helen also takes her distance from his mother-in-law, who complains of being separated from little King and criticized more openly the Greek entourage of the Princess. In these circumstances, the Dowager Queen approaches her eldest son and builds ties with the Carlist movement.
After the Regency Council showed being totally unable to govern the country, Carol appears increasingly as a providential man who can solve the problems of Romania. Still, his supporters (as Prime Minister Iuliu Maniu, leader of the National Peasants' Party) continue to demand of his separation from Magda Lupescu and his reconciliation with Helen, which he refused. Thanks to his many supporters in the country, the prince finally organizing his return to Bucharest on the night of 6-7 June 1930. Joyfully welcomed by the population and the political class, he proclaimed himself King then under the name of Carol II.
The impossible reconciliation with Carol II
Came to power, Carol II initially refused to see Helen but expresses, by contrary, his desire to meet his son, demoted to the rank of heir to the throne with the title of Grand Voivod of Alba Iulia by the Romanian Parliament (8 June 1930). To be reunited with Michael, the King therefore resolved to meet to his former wife. Accompanied by his brother Nicolas and his sister Elizabeth, he visit the princess in her villa in the Șoseaua Kiseleff. At the sight of her former husband, Helen shows coldness but she has no other alternative than to offer him her friendship for the sake of their child.
In the following weeks, Helen suffered the combined pressures of politicians and the Romanian Orthodox Church, who are trying to persuade her to reasume her conyugal life with Carol II and accept to be crowned with him at a ceremony in Alba Iulia, scheduled on 21 September 1930. Despite her reluctance, the princess agrees with to reconciliation and considered the annulment of her divorce, but under the condition to had a separate residence. In these circumstances, the former spouses are approaching and while Carol II sometimes goes to Helen for lunch with her, the princess will, from time to time, have tea with him in the royal palace. In July, the King, his former wife and son traveled together in Sinaia but while Carol II moved to Foișor, Helen and Michael stay at Peleș Castle. Each day, the family gathers for tea and, on 20 July, Carol II and Helen appear publicly together on the occasion of a ceremony in memory of King Ferdinand I.
In August 1930, the government presented a decree to Carol II for his signature officially confirming Helen as Her Majesty The Queen of Romania. The King, however, crossed this out and declared Helen to be Her Majesty Helen (i.e. with the style Majesty, but not the title Queen). Helen refused to allow anyone to use this style in her presence. In these circumstances, the proposed coronation of the two former spouse was postponed. The return of Magda Lupescu to Romania finally puts an end to the reconciliation efforts of the pair. Soon the King gets Michael moved to his side, even if Helen was allowed to see his son every day in exchange for her political silence. Increasingly isolated, the princess was forced into exile by her former husband, with whom she agreed a separation agreement in October 1931. In exchange for her silence, and through the mediation of her brother, the former King George II of Greece, and her sister-in-law Elisabeth, Helen then obtained a substantial monetary compensation. With the approval of Carol II, she obtained the right to stay four months a year in Romania and to received his son abroad during two months. She retained her residence in Bucharest and the King agrees to fund his maintenance during his absence. Especially, Helen receives a sum of thirty million lei to buy a home abroad and in addition she obtained an annual pension of seven million lei.
Between scandal and exile
In November 1931, Helen leaves Romania for Germany, where she went to the bedside of her mother, the Dowager Queen Sophia of Greece, seriously ill with cancer. After her death on 13 January 1932, Helen bought her house in Fiesole, Tuscany, whom she used as her main residence. In this large house, that she renames Villa Sparta, the princess received the visit of her sisters Irene and Katherine and her brother Paul, who remained with Helen in long stays.
Despite the distance, the friction between Helen and Carol II continues. In September 1932, a visit from Michael and his mother to the United Kingdom was the opportunity of a new conflict, which soon make the headlines of the international press. After Helen disobeyed the orders from her former husband (who wanted that his son carries anything but shorts and never be photographed with his mother in the newspapers), the King instructs that the heir to the throne would be back to Bucharest. Exasperated by this attitude, Helen decides to grant an interview to the Daily Mail, "in the hope that public opinion help to preserve her parental rights". This was follows by a violent press campaign, which enraged the King. Despite these events, Helen chose to return to Romania for Michael's birthday and threatens to go to the International Court of Justice if Carol II doesn't allow her to see their son.
Back in Bucharest, the princess tries to involve the government in a case against the King, without much success. She then turned again to her sister-in-law, the former Queen of the Hellenes. However, the latter was deeply shocked by the interview given to the Daily Mail, and the two women had a violent fight during their reunion, where Elisabeth even slapped Helen. Carol II then considered his former wife as a political opponent, and in order to undermine her prestige, the King initiated a campaign in the press against her, claiming that she had tried to commit suicide twice. After only a month in the country, Carol II imposes a new separation agreement (1 November 1932), under which was denied to Helen the right to return to Romania and finally forced him into permanent exile in Italy the next day. During the following years, she has no contact with her former husband, who only briefly tell her by telephone the death of Queen Marie in 1938. Despite the tensions, Prince Michael was able to see his mother every year in Florence for two months.
In Fiesole, the life of Helen and her sisters was relatively retired, even if they were regularly frequented the Italian House of Savoy, which has always been welcoming the Greek royal family during his exile. The Greek princesses also used their connections to find a wife to Diadochos Paul, who remained single. In 1935, they benefit from the presence in Florence of Princess Frederica of Hanover, to arrange an encounter between her and their brother. Their good offices are effective and Frederica quickly falls in love with the Diadochos. However, the princess' parents are reluctant to approved this relationship and it wasn't until 1937 that Paul and Frederica were finally allowed to get engaged. In the meanwhile, the Greek monarchy was restored and George II once again became King of Greece, but his wife Elisabeth, who filed for divorce on 6 July 1935, remained in Romania.
Queen Mother of Romania
World War II and Dictatorship of Antonescu
In Tuscany, Helen finds real stability, despite the absence of her son most of the year. However, the outbreak of World War II disrupts again her daily routine. In accordance with the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet Union forced Romania to cede Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina to them on 26 June 1940, and a few weeks later, the country was also forced to surrender Northern Transylvania to Hungary (Second Vienna Award, 30 August 1940) and the Southern Dobruja to Bulgaria (Treaty of Craiova, 7 September 1940); this territorial losses ended with the Greater Romania, created at the end of World War I. Unable to respect the territorial integrity of his country and under pressure from the Iron Guard, a fascist party supported by Nazi Germany, Carol II becomes increasingly unpopular and finally was forced to abdicate on 6 September 1940. His son Michael, aged 18, becomes King while General Ion Antonescu established a dictatorship with the support of members of the Iron Guard.
Eager to obtain the favor of the new sovereign (and some legitimation to his dictatorship), Antonescu grants Helen the title of "Queen Mother of Romania" (Regina-mamă Elena) with the style "Her Majesty" on 8 September 1940 and sends the diplomat Raoul Bossy to Fiesole to persuade her to return to Bucharest (12 September 1940). Back in Romania (14 September 1940), Helen finds herself, however, subject to the whim of the dictator, determined to keep the royal family in a purely ceremonial role. Indeed, in the years that follow, Antonescu systematically excluded the King and his mother from political responsibility and didn't even bother to warn them of his decision to declare war on the Soviet Union in June 1941.
In this difficult context, Michael I sometimes was prone to bounts of depression and Helen then concentrate all her efforts to made him more active. Aware of the deficiencies of his formation, the Queen Mother appealed to historians of the right to form his son in his role as sovereign. She also guide the King in his talks and pushes him to oppose Antonescu when it deems that his policy endangers the Crown. Alerted about the anti-Jewish persecutions by the Rabbi Alexandru Șafran, Helen personally appealed to the German ambassador Manfred Freiherr von Killinger and Antonescu to convinced them to halt the deportations, being supported in her efforts by Patriarch Nicodim. For his part, the King vigorously protested to the Conducător at the time of the Odessa massacre and notably obtained the release of Wilhelm Filderman, president of the Romanian Jewish community.
Despite these few attempts of emancipation, Helen and her son spend most of the conflict playing as hosts of the German officers passing in Bucharest. The Queen Mother even met Hitler twice: firstly informally, with her sister Irene, to discuss the fate of Greece and Romania within the new Europe (December 1940) and secondly formally with Michael I during a trip in Italy (winter of 1941). Above all, Helen and her son have no choice but to officially support the dictatorship of Antonescu. Thus, it's Michael I who gives the Conducător the title of Marshal (21 August 1941) after the reconquest of Bessarabia by the Romanian Army.
In the fall of 1942, Helen played a major role in stopping Antonescu from his plans to deport all of the Jews of the Regat to the German death camp of Bełżec in Poland. According to SS Hauptsturmführer Gustav Richter, the counselor for Jewish Affairs at the German legation in Bucharest in a report sent to Berlin on 30 October 1942:
"The Queen Mother told the King that what was happening . . . was a disgrace and that she could not bear it any longer, all the more so because [their names] would be permanently associated . . . with the crimes committed against the Jews, while she would be known as the mother of "Michael the Wicked". She is said to have warned the King that, if the deportations were not immediately halted, she would leave the country. As a result the King . . . telephoned Prime Minister Ion Antonescu and . . . a meeting of the Council of Ministers took place."
The coup of Michael I and end of the war
From 1941, the participation of the Romanian army in the invasion of the Soviet Union further damaged the relations between Antonescu and the royal family, who disapproved the conquests of Odessa and Ukraine. However, it's the Battle of Stalingrad (23 August 1942 – 2 February 1943) and the losses incurred by the Romanian side that finally forced Michael I to organize around him a resistance against the dictatorship of the Conducător. During an official speech on 1 January 1943, the sovereign publicly condemns the participation of Romania in the war against the Soviet Union, triggering the wrath of both Antonescu and the Nazi Germany, who accused Helen of being behind the royal initiative. In retaliation, the control to which are subject Michael I and his mother was strengthened and Antonescu threat the royal family to abolish the monarchy in case of further provocation.
Over the months, the suspicious death of Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria (28 August 1943) and the successive arrests of princesses Mafalda of Savoy (23 September 1943) and Irene of Greece (October 1943) after the overthrow of Mussolini by King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy (25 July 1943), prove to Michael I and his mother how the opposition to the Axis powers was dangerous. The return of the Soviets in Bessarabia and the american bombing over Bucharest forced the King, despite everything, to end with the regime of Antonescu. On 23 August 1944 Michael I organizes a coup d'état against the Conducător, who was imprisoned. In the process, the King and his new government declared war on the Axis powers and asked the Romanian forces not to resist the Red Army, which nevertheless continues his invasion to the country.
In reaction against this betrayal, the Luftflotte bombed Bucharest and Casa Nouă -the main residence of the sovereign and his mother since 1940-, who was largely destroyed (24 August 1944). Nevertheless, the Romanian forces gradually manage to push the Germans out of the country and to attack Hungary to liberate Transylvania (Siege of Budapest, 29 December 1944 – 13 February 1945). This doesn't prevent the Allies from immediately recognize the reversal of Romania and the Soviets from entering the capital on 31 August 31, 1944. An armistice was finally signed with Moscow on 12 September 1944, but the Kingdom must accept the Soviet occupation. A climate of uncertainty swept the country while the Red Army multiplies their requisitions.
Visiting Sinaia at the time of the royal coup d'état, Helen finds her son the next day at Craiova. Back in Bucharest on 10 September 1944, the King and his mother moved into the residence of Princess Elizabeth, whose relations with Helen remain tense despite their reconciliation in 1940. With the increased instability in Romania, the Queen Mother was extremely concerned about the safety of her son, fearing that he eventually could be killed, like Prince-Regent Kiril of Bulgaria, shot by the Communists on 1 February 1945. The Queen Mother also disapproved the influence of Ioan Stârcea over the sovereign and, following the information from one of the palace servants, accused him of espionage in favor of Antonescu. She was also concerned about the machinations of Carol II, who apparently waited the end of the war to return to Romania, and observes with anxiety the political crisis that prevents the King George II to regain power in Greece. In this difficult context, Helen has the joy of learning that her sister Irene and her little nephew Amedeo are alive, although still in German hands.
Despite these political and personal concerns, the Queen Mother continue her charitable activities. She thus provides support to Romanian hospitals, and manages to save some of the equipment of the Red Army requisitions. On 6 November 1944 she inaugurated a soup kitchen in the ballroom of the Royal Palace, who served not less than 11,000 meals to children in the capital for three months. Finally, despite Moscow's opposition, the Queen Mother sends aid to Moldavia, which was raging a terrible epidemic of typhus.
Imposition of a communist regime
With the Soviet occupation, the staff of the Romanian Communist Party, which count with only a few thousand of members during the coup of Michael I, explode and demonstrations against the government of Constantin Sănătescu multiply. At the same time, acts of sabotage are occurring all over the country, preventing the Romanian economy to recover. Faced with the combined pressures of the representative of the Soviet Union, Andrey Vyshinsky, and the People's Democratic Front (offshoot of the Communist Party), the King must find a new government and called Nicolae Rădescu as the new Prime Minister (7 December 1944). Nevertheless, the situation remains tense in the country and when the new Head of the government calls for municipal elections on 15 March 1945, the Soviet Union reasumed their destabilizing operations in order to impose a government of their liking. The refusal of the United States and United Kingdom to intervene on his behalf led the sovereign to consider the abdication but he abandoned his project on the advice of representatives of the two major democratic political forces, Dinu Brătianu and Iuliu Maniu. On 6 March 1945 Michael I finally called Petru Groza, leader of the Ploughmen's Front, as the new Head of a government who didn't count with any representative of either the Peasants and the Liberal parties.
Satisfied with this appointment, the Soviet authorities are more conciliatory with Romania. On 13 March 1945 Moscow transfers to Buchares the administration of Transylvania. A few months later, on 19 July 1945, Michael I was condecorated with the Order of Victory, one of the most prestigious Soviet military orders. Still, the Sovietization of the Kingdom was accelerated. The purge of personalities "fascists" continues while censorship was strengthened. A land reform was also implemented, causing a drop in production and ruined the agricultural exports. The King, however, managed to temporarily prevent the establishment of People's Tribunals and the restoration of the death penalty.
After the Potsdam Conference and the reaffirmation by the Allies of the need to establish democratically elected governments in Europe, Michael I demand the resignation of Petru Groza, who refuses. Faced with this insubordination, the sovereign began, on 23 August 1945 a "royal strike" during which he refuses to countersign the acts of the government. With his mother, he locks himself for six weeks in the Elisabeta Palace before departed to Sinaia. The resistance of the monarch, however, wasn't supported by the West, who after the Moscow Conference of 25 December 1945, asked Romania to enter the government, two opposition figures and this without even give their ministries. Disappointed by the lack of courage of London and Washington, the sovereign was shocked by the attitudes of Princesses Elisabeth and Ileana, who openly supported the communist authorities. Disgusted by all these betrayals, Helen supports, in turn, fewer meetings with Soviet officials and worried every day for the life of her son.
The year 1946 was marked by the strengthening of the communist dictatorship, despite active resistance of the sovereign. After several months of waiting, the parliamentary elections are held on 19 November 1946 and officially won by Ploughmen's Front. After that date, the situation of the King and his mother becomes more precarious. In their palace, they have no access to running water for three hours a day and the electricity was off most of the day. This doesn't prevent Helen to maintain her charitable activities and to continue to send food and clothing to Moldavia. In early 1947, the Queen Mother also obtained permission to travel abroad to visit her family. She then reunited with her sister Irene, weakened after her deportation to Austria, attends the funeral of his elder brother, King George II, and participates in the marriage of her youngest sister, Princess Katherine, with the Major Richard Brandram.
The signing of the Paris Peace Treaties, on 10 February 1947, marks a new stage in the sidelining of the royal family by the communist regime. Deprived of any official duties, the King was found even more isolated that during the "royal strike". Under these conditions, the Queen Mother considering exile with more determination but she was concerned that they didn't possess any foreign resources, because his son refused to save money outside Romania. Being guests of the marriage of Princess Elizabeth of the United Kingdom with Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark (Helen's first-cousin) on 20 November 1947, this event provides an opportunity for Michael I and his mother to travel together abroad. During this stay, the King fell in love with Princess Anne of Bourbon-Parma, with whom he became engaged much to Helen's delight. This trip was also an opportunity for the Queen Mother to place in a Swiss bank, two small paintings of El Greco from the royal collections.
Abolition of the Romanian Monarchy and Michael I's wedding
Deposition of Michael I and the first months of exile
Despite the advice of their relatives, who urged them not to return to Romania to escape the communists, the King and his mother returned to Bucharest on 21 December 1947. They were coldly greeted by the government, which secretly hoped to see them stay abroad to abolish the monarchy. Their plan didn't work, and then the Prime Minister Petru Groza and the General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej decided to compel the sovereign to abdicate. On 30 December 1947 they ask an audience with the king, who received them es with his mother. The two politicians wanted that Michael I signed a declaration of abdication. The King refused, and the two men threatened him if he persists, thousands of young monarchists would be executed in retaliation. Forced with this blackmail, Michael I renounced to the crown. Only hours after the announcement, was proclaimed the Socialist Republic of Romania. Michael I and Helen leave Romania with some partisans on 3 January 1948. Despite their close links with the Communists, Princesses Elisabeth and Ileana were also forced to leave the country a few days later, on 12 January.
In exile, Michael I and Helen settled for some time in Switzerland, where the deposed sovereign observes bitterly the Western acceptance of the establishment of a Republic in Romania. For her part, Helen was mostly concerned with the state of their finances, because the Communists allowed them to parted with almost nothing. Despite their promises, the new Romanian authorities nationalized the properties of the former royal family (20 February 1948) and deprive the former monarch and his relatives from their nationality (17 May 1948). At the same time, the King and his mother have to deal with the intrigues of Carol II, who still considers himself the only legitimate sovereign of Romania and accused his ex-wife to keep him away from their son. To achieve his ends, Carol II doesn't hesitate to involve Frederick, Prince of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen (Head of the dynasty) and Prince Nicholas of Romania in his intrigues. These concerns don't prevent Michael I and his mother to undertake several political trips to the United Kingdom, France and the United States to meet with government leaders and representatives of the Romanian diaspora.
Marriage of Michael I and Anne of Bourbon-Parma
Another source of concern from Michael I and his mother during their first months of exile was his marriage with Princess Anne of Bourbon-Parma. To discredit the former monarch, the Romanian authorities are indeed rumors that Michael I gave up his dynastic rights to marry the woman of his heart, as his father did in 1925.
Added to this, the most serious difficulties were related to the religion. Being a Catholic, Princess Anne had to obtain a papal dispensation to marry with an Orthodox. However, the Holy See has been extremely reluctant to grant his consent because, for dynastic reasons, the couple's children should be raised in Michael I's religion. After Prince René of Bourbon-Parma, father of the bride, having failed in his negociations with the Vatican, Helen decided to go to Rome with Princess Margaret of Denmark (Anne's mother) to meet Pope Pius XII. However, the meeting ended badly and the Pope refuses to agree to the marriage. In these circumstances, Princess Anne has no choice but to override the pontifical will and renounce to the Catholic marriage. In doing so, she incurred in the wrath of her uncle, Prince Xavier of Bourbon-Parma, who forbade the members of his family to attend the royal wedding under threat to be excluded from the House of Bourbon-Parma. Once again, the Queen Mother tries to mediated, this time with Anne's family, but without success.
Helen has better luck with her own family. Her brother, King Paul I of Greece, offered to Michael I to organize his wedding in Athens, despite official protests from the Romanian government. So the wedding finally celebrated in the Greek capital on 10 June 1948 with Archbishop Damaskinos himself officiating the ceremony. Celebrated in the throne room of the Royal Palace, the wedding brings together most of the members of the Greek dynasty but no representative of the Houses of Bourbon-Parma or Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. In fact, Carol II wasn't invited to the wedding, despite Helen wrote to him about the marriage.
Exile and later years
Return to Villa Sparta
After the marriage of Michael I and Anne, Helen returns to Villa Sparta in Fiesole. Until 1951, she hosts her son and his family, which stay home with her at least twice a year. Over the years, the family of the former King grew with the successive births of princesses Margareta (1949), Elena (1950), Irina (1953), Sophie (1957) and Maria (1964). Between 1949 and 1950, Helen also houses her sister Irene and her nephew Amedeo, whom later settle in a neighboring residence. Over the years, the two Greek princesses retain a strong bond, which ended with the death of the Duchess of Aosta in 1974. Throughout her life, Helen also remains deeply attached to Amedeo and his first wife, Princess Claude of Orléans.
Helen also made many trips abroad to visit her relatives. She travels regularly as the United Kingdom to see her granddaughters, who are doing their schooling there. Despite her sometimes stormy relationship with her sister-in-law, Queen Frederica, Helen also spent long periods in Greece and participates in the cruise of the Kings (1954), the marriage of Princess Sophia with the future King Juan Carlos I of Spain (1962) and the events organized to mark the centenary of the Greek dynasty (1963).
Despite this, Helen's life wasn't solely devoted to her family. Passionate about Renaissance architecture and painting, she spends much of her time visiting monuments and museums. A gardening enthusiast, she devotes long hours to the flowers and shrubs of her residence. Regular host of the British Consulate, she also frequents the intellectuals who, like Harold Acton, have settled in the region of Florence. Between 1968 and 1973, Helen had a romantic relationship with the twice-widower King Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden, with whom she shares the love for the art and plants. At one point, the Scandinavian sovereign asked her to marry him, but she refused.
From 1956 (when she consents to Arthur Gould Lee published her biography), Helen's life was also marked by financial difficulties, which continue to worsen over time. Despite being still deprived of income by the Romanian authorities, the Queen Mother economically supports her son, and also helps him to find a job, first as a pilot in Switzerland, then as a broker at Wall Street. Helen also supports the studies of her eldest granddaughter Margareta, and even welcomes her at Villa Sparta for a year before she joined a British University. To do this, Helen was forced to sell her assets one by one and in the early 1970s, she hardly left her nothing. In 1973, she mortgaged her residence and three years later, she sells the two Greco paitings that she had brought from Romania in 1947.
Life in Switzerland. Death
Become too old to live alone, Helen finally leaves Fiesole in 1979. She then moved to a small apartment in Lausanne, located 45 minutes from the residence of Michael I and Anne, before moving with them at Versoix in 1981. Helen, Queen mother of Romania died one year later, on 28 November 1982 aged 86. She was buried without pomp in the cemetery of Bois-de-Vaux and the funerals were celebrated by Damaskinos Papandreou, the first Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Switzerland.
Eleven years after her death, in March 1993, the State of Israel gives Helen the title of Righteous Among the Nations in recognition for her actions during World War II in favor of the Romanian Jews, which she manages to save several thousands between 1941 and 1944. The announcement was made to the royal family by Alexandru Șafran, then Chief Rabbi of Geneva.
In Popular Culture
- The character of Helen appears in the film Oglinda (1993) by Romanian director Sergiu Nicolaescu.
Titles, styles and honours
Titles and styles
- 2 May 1896 – 10 March 1921: Her Royal Highness Princess Helen of Greece and Denmark
- 10 March 1921 - 4 January 1926: Her Royal Highness The Crown Princess of Romania
- 4 January 1926 - 8 September 1940: Her Royal Highness The Princess Mother of Romania
- 8 September 1940 - 28 November 1982: Her Majesty The Queen Mother of Romania
- Greek royal family: Dame Grand Cross of the Order of Saints Olga and Sophia
- Romanian royal family: Dame Grand Cross of the Order of Carol I
- Romanian royal family: Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the Crown
- Romania: Recipient of the Military Virtue Medal
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