Thursday, June 6, 2013

Story of Monarchy: Serbia

The history of the Serbs is an extremely long one, going all the way back to the “Dark Ages”. For a while, in the Middle Ages, Serbia got to be a pretty big deal by gobbling up Byzantine territory when the East Roman Empire was occupied fighting the Turks or each other -so there was plenty of opportunities for Serb expansion. Eventually though the place was conquered by the Ottoman Turks and we can see the beginning of the history of Serbia as we know it today. In the early 19th Century the Serbs began a series of rebellions against the Turks, fighting first for autonomy within the Ottoman Empire and later for complete independence. Two leaders emerged during these independence wars; Milos Obrenovic and George Petrovic, better known as “Black George” or Karageorgevich. The two families would dominate the early history of modern Serbia all while fighting each other for power and basically doing their best to wipe each other out. For example, the Obrenovic were early leaders in rebellions against the Turks, gaining some autonomy and a place of importance. When Karageorgevich led another rebellion and set up a government of his own, the Obrenovic had him assassinated. This left them in the best position to oversee Serbian independence but it also left the Karageorgevich family hungry for revenge. The fighting between the Serbs and Turks eventually got the attention of the other Great Powers for Europe who “encouraged” Turkey to back off.

King Milan I
1867 was the big year for Serbia with the last Turkish troops pulling out and the local government asserting total independence from the Ottoman Empire. All of this came about under the reign of the Obrenovic family which ruled in Serbia, for the most part, since 1815. Originally it was the Principality of Serbia and, in 1867, the reigning monarch was Prince Mihailo III, a very forward-thinking ruler who had the support of the Austrian and Russian Empires and who hoped to organize a Slavic federation across the Balkans aimed at rolling back Turkish power in the region. However, he was not an independent ruler for long before Mihailo III was assassinated, by members of the Karageorgevich family the Obrenovic have always claimed. He was succeeded by Prince Milan who leaned more toward friendship with Austria rather than Russia and who finally obtained Ottoman recognition of Serbian independence. This resulted from the Treaty of Berlin by which Serbian independence was recognized so long as the Serbs drop their claim to the political hot spot of Bosnia which would remain Ottoman territory in name while in fact being occupied by the Austrian Empire. In 1882 the prince got a promotion when he was named King Milan I of Serbia. However, things were never calm or tranquil in Serbia or in the royal household. King Milan I and his wife did not get along, being very different in their values and opinions, she favoring a closer friendship with Russia and he preferring to stay on good terms with Austria-Hungary.

At one point Milan I abdicated in favor of his son, King Alexander I, but later returned and led the Serbian army quite capably. King Alexander I was something of a reactionary, abolishing the more liberal constitution of his father in favor of one that gave the King greater power. However, he later moved back in a more liberal direction, enacting another constitution and giving Serbia a bicameral legislature for the first time. It didn’t quite work out for him though as his efforts to maintain royal authority over the upper house earned him some powerful enemies and in 1903 the King and Queen were murdered by a group of army officers intent on replacing the House of Obrenovic with the House of Karageorgevich on the Serbian throne. There were also wider, international aspects to the regicide. The main ringleader was in the pay of the Russian government which wanted to see Serbia move in a direction that was friendlier to Russia and more hostile to Austria-Hungary. The secret society known as “The Black Hand” was also involved and, likewise, wanted to end the period of relative friendship that has existed with Austria-Hungary in favor of a nationalist agenda at Austro-Hungarian expense. The change in royal dynasties also factored into this as the Obrenovic had been known for good relations with Austria-Hungary whereas it was no secret that the Karageorgevich intended to move Serbia into the Russian sphere of influence and had an openly antagonistic attitude toward Austria-Hungary.

King Peter I
So the House of Obrenovic was out and the House of Karageorgevich was in with the leader of the dynasty becoming King Peter I of Serbia on June 15, 1903. The conspirators had named him king immediately but it took a few weeks for the Serbian parliament to formally vote him into office as it were. A new constitution was enacted (yes, another one) based on the Belgian model and King Peter I wasted no time in making it clear that Serbia was the friend of the Russian Empire and the French Republic and no longer the friend of the “Dual-Monarchy” of Austria-Hungary. King Peter I was pretty widely popular. Democracy and parliamentary monarchy were firmly entrenched, the Balkan Wars ended with Serbia gaining Kosovo and other territories from a rapidly crumbling Ottoman Empire and there was much joy and merry-making as they say. Pan-Slavic nationalism was also on the rise, spurred on no doubt by the victories over the Turks, as was a desire for expansion and the creation of a “Greater Serbia”. The problem with the “Greater Serbia” idea was that it demanded a great deal of territory then being held by other countries that they would probably insist on fighting for. But there were those who said, ‘let it come’ and proclaimed it their duty to liberate their Serb brethren living under Hapsburg rule in Austria-Hungary, particularly Bosnia which the Austro-Hungarians annexed outright in 1908 after diplomatically outmaneuvering Russia.

Everyone knows what happened next. In 1914 the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife were assassinated in Bosnia, Austria-Hungary sent an ultimatum to Serbia which, backed up by Russia, the Serbs rejected and the First World War was off and running. King Peter I reigned over a country of determined people and an army of tough veterans of the Balkan Wars. When Austro-Hungarian forces first invaded Serbia, the Serbs sent them packing in quick order with a bloody nose. Eventually, however, Austria-Hungary, backed up by Germany and later Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, conquered Serbia, pushing the Serb army out until it was rescued on the coast by the Italian navy. The Serbs reestablished themselves on a new front and fought on to the final Allied victory in 1918. Serbia did extremely well in the settlement after the war and the long-held dream of the “Greater Serbia” seemed to be an accomplished fact. King Peter I, by then acted for by his son and regent, was proclaimed King of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes to account for all of the territory formerly part of Austria-Hungary that was given to Serbia. This later became the less wordy Kingdom of Yugoslavia, reigned over by King Alexander after the death of Peter I in 1921.

Prince Regent Paul and that other guy
So, things are going pretty great for Serbia. Right? Well, not exactly. Not everyone was happy about being part of Yugoslavia, especially the Croats and Slovenes and King Alexander had a hard time keeping everyone on side. Politics was an often chaotic and even bloody business and finally King Alexander took total control in his own hands and tried to make Yugoslavia a more firmly united country, a country of “Yugoslavs” rather than Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. There was also other minority groups (Italian, Hungarian etc) who wanted no part of the new country at all. To a degree, the Serbian Royal Family was suffering many of the same problems the House of Hapsburg had dealt with. In 1934 King Alexander was assassinated and succeeded by his son, King Peter II, acted for by the Prince-Regent Paul. The country was in a precarious situation, most friends being far away and with many neighboring countries nursing grudges for the territory they had lost to Serbia in the First World War. Prince Paul tried to mitigate these problems by reversing the previous policy of centralization and allowing for more regional autonomy. He also tried to end foreign support for dissident elements by embracing their backers in Germany and Italy.

It was with this in mind that, in 1941, Prince Paul signed up to the Tripartite Pact, making Yugoslavia a (very lukewarm) member of the Axis powers. This has to be seen in context. France (a traditional ally) had already been defeated and Britain looked to be going down too and it seemed that Yugoslavia would have little chance for survival unless they came to terms with Germany and Italy. However, that was not to be as Prince Paul was quickly ousted from power in a British-backed military coup that quickly took Yugoslavia out of the Axis and into the Allied camp with King Peter II being declared of age and assuming his full powers. It was this which prompted the German intervention in the Balkans with Yugoslavia quickly being conquered and divided into German and Italian occupation zones. King Peter II had to flee to the United Kingdom where he finished his education and joined the Royal Air Force while in Yugoslavia communist and royalist factions fought the occupying forces and each other. A key moment came in 1943 when the Allies, having agreed that Eastern Europe would fall under the influence of the Soviet Union after the war, dropped their support for the royalists and backed only the communist partisans. The young King Peter II was pressed to do the same and to name the communist leader “Tito” the commander of the army and prime minister.

King Peter II
This amounted to the signing of the death warrant for the Kingdom of Yugoslavia as there was no way that the communists were going to allow the old regime of constitutional monarchy to be restored. As expected, at the end of the war in 1945 the communists, who had taken control of the country with Soviet support, declared King Peter II deposed. Tito became dictator of what was in 1946 renamed the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia (later the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia). At first there was also talk of merging Yugoslavia and Bulgaria but the Soviet dictator Stalin put a stop to that idea. Some have tried to romanticize post-war Yugoslavia as the “good” communist dictatorship that refused to be dominated by Soviet Russia. Rest assured, it was nothing of the sort and was just as repressive, brutal and criminally inept as every other communist dictatorship the world has ever seen. Ethnic tensions were suppressed but never eradicated, the economy varied only from poor to disastrous and eventually the communist regime fell and Yugoslavia broke apart completely with vicious fighting and charges of ethnic cleansing leaving scars that are still sensitive today. Slovenia, Croatia and later Bosnia broke away leaving only Serbia and Montenegro until 2006 when Montenegro became independent, leaving only the Republic of Serbia.

However, the bad news did not end there for Serbia with the Kosovo region declaring independence in 2008. Serbia has, of course, refused to recognize this but many in the European Union have and the dispute has still not been settled. King Peter II died in exile in 1970 at which point the leadership of the Serbian Royal Family passed to his son Crown Prince Alexander (who should be King Alexander II), a very successful royal who has been forced to live most of his life in exile. It was a happy occasion then when Crown Prince Alexander was first able to return to Serbia in 1991. He moved there permanently after the downfall of the last communist dictator in 2000. The citizenship of the Karageorgevich family was restored as was the use of their property (actual ownership remains ‘up in the air’) and Crown Prince Alexander quickly became a respected figure in Serbian national life. In a way that should be an example to royal exiles everywhere, Crown Prince Alexander has supported worthy social causes while all the while making the case for the restoration of the monarchy and arguing for the superiority of constitutional monarchy as a system of government. The Serbian Orthodox Church has backed a restoration of the monarchy and support for the Royal Family has been growing steadily. It is unfortunate that the political power holders in Belgrade have, so far, refused to take action to restore the Serbian monarchy but, especially compared to many other countries, there remains considerable room for hope and reason for optimism when it comes to the cause of monarchy in Serbia.

Crown Prince Alexander
In conclusion, the fall of the monarchy in Serbia was really an act of treachery and it would be hard to see how any royal figure could have done anything differently to have avoided it. The Serbs fought hard for years to break away from the Ottoman Empire, bedeviled by infighting every step of the way. The First World War was a traumatic event but it ended greatly to the benefit of Serbia. However, that victory brought about a new political entity, Yugoslavia, that suffered many side-effects of its own success. The patriotic nationalism that had driven Serbia in the past became rather unhelpful all of a sudden and Yugoslavia inherited many of the same problems with ethnic tensions that Austria-Hungary had suffered. Given the situation today, it is hard to see how the Kingdom of Yugoslavia could have long survived, however, the crime that brought it down must be emphasized. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and thus the Serbian monarchy, was lost almost entirely due to the duplicity of the Allied powers. King Peter II was betrayed as were all of the heroic royalist Chetniks who were carrying on a desperate struggle in his absence against the most inveterate enemies of the kingdom. The monarchy was not brought down by a revolution or an uprising of the public or a democratic referendum but simply by the poor faith of the Allies. It is a dark page in Serbian history and a shameful one for the Allied nations.


  1. I have high hopes for restoration in Serbia, but I fear the republican bureaucrats in charge will never allow it to happen; the situation in Albania comes to mind, with the people voting massively in favour of HM King Leka, but the government lying about the results in order to remove the threat that the King presented to their entrenched republican system. But if a concerted effort is applied upon the Serbian government to organise a fair referendum, and the remaining European monarchs (mainly the British, Dutch and Spanish) turned out to support their Serbian counterparts, there is a possibility that we may at last see the restoration of the Karađorđević dynasty to Serbia. And if that is possible, I see no reason why we cannot keep rolling back republicanism throughout Europe. But first and foremost, monarchist efforts should be poured into Serbia.

    Excellent article, as usual. Your work keeping the flame of monarchy alight is much appreciated.

  2. I would like to applaud you on your conclusion concerning the fall of the monarchy in Serbia. I would also like to add a couple of facts about the rest of the article. Black George Petrovich (1768-1817) and Milosh Obrenovich (1780-1860) were, respectively, leaders of the First (1804-1813) and Second (1815-1817) Serbian Uprisings. After the failure of the First Uprising and Karageorge's escape to Russia, Milosh - who had been a general in Karageorge's army - led another uprising, which ultimately gained Serbia autonomy within the Ottoman Empire and for Milosh the hereditary title of Prince. Karageorge returned at the end of the uprising, with plans of continuing the war against the Turks, which would have been most inopportune for the fledgling Serbian state. He was murdered on the order of Prince Milosh in 1817. The dynasties that descended from these two great men had two different approaches to the goal of uniting all Serbian lands: the Obrenovich took a more diplomatic stance in their dealings with neighbouring powers (Austria, Ottomans), while the Karageorgevich had a more active and confrontational approach.

  3. The roots of the Yugoslav idea can be traced to the Illyrian movement of the 1820's and 1830's among the Croat intelligentsia, its main proponents being Ljudevit Gaj and bishop Josip Juraj Strossmayer. Bishop Strossmayer envisioned Yugoslavia as being a union of the South Slavic peoples, but centered around Catholic Zagreb, which would have been autonomous of the Imperial and Royal governments in Vienna and Budapest.

    The sentiment in Serbia towards Yugoslavism was very different, as the Obrenovich dynasty and the populace aimed at the unification of strictly Serbian lands (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slavonia, Dalmatia) and had no interest in creating a Yugoslav state. With the ascent of the Karageorgevich and the First World War, these views changed, and there was an increasing diplomatic exchange between the Serbian Royal Government and the Yugoslav Committee in Zagreb.

    When the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was proclaimed on December 1, 1918, it was seen as the fruition of these efforts. The Croats did not see it as such, having expected to gain a leading role in this new state (in line with their strain of Yugoslavism), even though they had not contributed either militarily, economically or politically to its establishment. They had a deep resentment towards the Orthodox Christian Serbs (whom they viewed as schismatics), and outbreaks of anti-Serb sentiment in Croatia under Austria-Hungary were common, culminating in the anti-Serb pogrom of 1895 in Zagreb and the High Treason Trial of 1909, which jailed 52 eminent Serbs of Austria-Hungary under false accusations.

  4. Concerning the Crown Prince Alexander and the reestablishment of monarchy, most people in Serbia view the return of monarchy favorably, though some hold issue with the facts that Alexander does not speak the language of his people, nor does he understand their customs and sentiments in this turbulent time for Serbia.

    Best regards,

    A Serbian Monarchist

  5. Very good article, but few mistakes slipped thru, it is probably due to intense communistic propaganda and remaking of history.
    1. George Petrovich Karagiorge (Turkish Kara-black and Georgios his name). Karagiorgevich is name of family that descended from him (similar to Swedish son; ich is diminutive appendix in Slavic languages)
    2. Karagiorge rebellion was first (1804) and with support from Russia, but it crashed in 1813 when Russia had to fight Napoleon. After rebellion Karagiorge escaped to Russia. In the meanwhile Milosh Obrenovich started new rebellion in 1815. Soon he stopped military actions and started to fight the Turks diplomatically. Karagiorge came back to Serbia to continue the fight, which is when Milosh have ordered him to be killed.
    3. Paul did not sign Yugoslavia to Tripartite pact; instead he just made a contract with Tripartite pact allowing them to transport their troops thru Yugoslav territories. Meaning Yugoslavia wouldn’t fight on Germany side, remaining neutral, while letting them troops pass on southern front (Greece). Every time Germans would also have to ask for permission to pass.
    Sorry for bad English. My intent was to stop commies assaulting this topic based on few mistakes, so when you fix errors please remove this post. I don’t want to undermine common cause in any way.

  6. Serbia is the only country in Europe where I entertain some reasoned, as opposed to blind, hope for a restoration. Polls have repeatedly showed support for a monarchist restoration. Of course as an earlier comment noted, there is the question of purely republican politicians.

  7. It is a shame how the Balkans went from some of my favorite monarchies in history to the pathetic limping republics they are now. If only Albania and Bosnia would once again read the Qur'an, and learn that God wants monarchy (24:55). The only thing that has come out of the Balkans in the past 50 years that isn't horrible is turbo-folk (which is awesome no matter how you slice it).


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