Sunday, October 11, 2009

King Alexander I Karageorgevich of Yugoslavia 1888-1934 // Remembering a Royal Legacy

Portrait of King Alexander I Karadjordjevich
 of Yugoslavia
By Kosta Hakman

Aleksandar Karadjordjevic
World War One

King Alexander I Karageorgevich of Yugoslavia

Remembering a Royal Legacy

By Aleksandra Rebic

October 9, 2009 marks the 75th anniversary of the assassination of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia. This assassination of the Serbian king by a Macedonian terrorist working with Croatian separatists never garnered the notoriety that the June 28, 1914 assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand by Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip did. However, the impact of the assassination of King Alexander I and French Foreign Minister Louis Barthou in Marseille, France, though not as “immediate” as the Sarajevo assassination in 1914 that precipitated World War I, was a harbinger of the even greater cataclysm that was coming. Given the climate in Europe in 1934 and what was brewing in Germany, the assassination in Marseille was one of those singular moments that should have served as a red flag that the “peace” being enjoyed in 1930s Europe was in peril. Who was King Alexander I Karageorgevich of Yugoslavia and why did his life and death matter?

This was a man who was born into a family with an already incredible legacy and a legendary name. Alexander I Karageorgevich was born the second son of King Peter I of Serbia and Princess Zorka of Montenegro in Cetinje, Montenegro on December 16, 1888. His grandfather was Prince Alexander Karageorgevich who had ruled the Serbian state from 1842-1858. His great grandfather was George Petrovich, “Karageorge” (“Black George”), founder of the Karageorgevich dynasty and leader of the First Serbian Uprising against the Turks of the Ottoman Empire in 1804.

Alexander’s childhood was spent in Montenegro and Geneva, Switzerland, where his family was living prior to their return to Serbia. His grandfather, Prince Alexander, had abdicated in 1858, leaving Serbia and taking his family into exile. His son, Peter, would return from exile to his Serbian homeland in 1903 to become the first elected constitutional monarch of Serbia, King Peter I. The Karageorgevich’s return to Serbia followed the death of King Alexander Obrenovich during a violent coup in Belgrade on June 11, 1903 that ended the reign of the Obrenovich dynasty. Unlike his father Prince Alexander who had abdicated in 1858, King Peter I would become one of the most respected and beloved figures in the history of the Serbian people. His oldest son George would have been first in line to King Peter’s throne, but because George was involved in incidents and scandals that forced him to renounce his inheritance of his father’s throne, Peter’s second son, Alexander, came to the head of the line in 1909, becoming Crown Prince Alexander Karageorgevich.

Crown Prince Alexander’s military training began in 1904 when he joined the Russian Imperial Corps in St. Petersburg, Russia. He would distinguish himself in the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. In the First Balkan War of 1912 he fought victorious and significant battles at Bitola and Kumanovo as commander of the First Army. During the Second Balkan War in 1913 his army was victorious once again at the Battle of Bregalnica. The Balkan Wars would be good training for what was coming just around the corner.

Because King Peter I was in ill health, he was persuaded to name his son as Prince Regent of Serbia on June 24, 1914, handing over royal power to Alexander. Peter I would, however, remain King and, despite his ill health, would conduct himself over the course of the next four years in such a way that would forever endear him in the hearts and minds of his people. Less than two months later, upon the onset of World War I, Prince Regent Alexander would inherit the role of Supreme Commander of the Serbian Army, the commander in chief, although in reality the true command of the Serbian Army would lay in the hands of four men who would distinguish themselves valiantly in the annals of warfare – Stepa Stepanovic, Radomir Putnik, Petar Bojovic, and Zivojin Misic.

The Serbian government would once again find itself in exile, this time leaving Belgrade and finally settling on the island of Corfu, where it would remain for most of the duration of the war. The Serbs, though brutally attacked by the superior Austro-Hungarian forces, immediately distinguished themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the Battles of Cer and Kolubara in 1914, successfully evicting the Austro-Hungarian invaders from their country. This success, however, was fleeting, for in 1915 the vicious onslaught of the combined alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria against the Serbs forced them to withdraw in order to survive and regroup. The Serbs had no choice, and survival was not guaranteed. Things were very bad. Many would fall, never to rise again, as they withdrew through the difficult Albanian mountains. Finally, those who survived the “Albanian Golgotha” of the winter of 1915/1916 reached the Greek Island of Corfu. King Peter I, despite his health, had marched right along with his people, remaining with them no matter what. Despite their huge human losses, both military and civilian, the unforgiving terrain and weather, the diseases that ravaged them, the lack of adequate arms, and the paucity of necessary reinforcements during their long and difficult march, the Serbs were able to regroup on Corfu in 1916. Those that survived would ultimately be victorious over the enemy, contributing splendidly to the significant and decisive Allied breakthrough on the Salonika Front at Kajmakcalan in September of 1918 that forced Bulgaria’s surrender and signaled the beginning of the end of WWI.

As it became increasingly evident during the war that the Dual Monarchy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, might become relegated to history and that the peoples who lived on its territories would be liberated and finally have the opportunity to enjoy autonomy and self-determination, the issue of the post war reality and political organization of these peoples and territories had to be dealt with. Even as World War One raged, Prince Regent Alexander found himself having to contend with how things would be established and organized once the war was finished. The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (the precursor to “Yugoslavia”), formally established on December 1, 1918, was born out of the combined desire for unification manifested during the war between the parties for whom the postwar fate of the southern Slavs was relevant, and this included the Americans. King Peter I, who survived the war, would be King of this new “country” and would remain so until his death in 1921. Upon his death, Prince Regent Alexander would take the throne on August 16th. At that time, Alexander was seen as the channel by which Yugoslav (southern Slav) unification and solidarity could be achieved most effectively.

It can be argued, and has been passionately, whether or not this new “unified Yugoslav state”, comprised of specific groups of southern Slavs who now found themselves liberated from both the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian Empires, was a good idea based on the best of intentions and principles, or the making of a tragedy whose consequences would be far reaching. King Alexander I Karageorgevich would soon learn that this new Kingdom of which he was now the supreme ruler was not going to be the postwar Utopia that some had hoped for.

On January 6, 1929, due to internal political conflicts that were escalating, King Alexander took the decisive measure of establishing a sort of necessary “dictatorship” in order to restore order. He abolished both the parliament and the constitution. It was impossible to assume that a cohesive and stable government could function given the conflicts that had developed between all the different political factions that existed within it. Despite the now proven difficulties, Alexander would continue attempting to unify the various elements in Yugoslavia. The measures he took included outlawing religious, ethnic, or regionally based political groups. Anyone knowing the make-up of the southern Slavs who comprised Yugoslavia would have appreciated the difficulty inherent in trying to enforce such measures.

On October 3rd of that year he also formally changed the name of the country to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which, in light of developments in the future, would become known as “The First Yugoslavia”.

Among the diplomatic goals King Alexander I would accomplish during his reign was bringing his country into the “Little Entente” with Czechoslovakia and Romania in 1933. It was a time when the nations of Europe were once again seeking to establish alliances. These alliances would have great bearing on future events.

King Alexander I Karageorgevich’s merits as ruler of Yugoslavia have been argued and debated and will continue to be. What would have become of Yugoslavia as the peaceful 1930s progressed into the nightmare years of the Second World War that would begin at the end of that decade had King Alexander I continued his reign was left to conjecture on October 9, 1934.

One of the smart men of Europe, who was trying to organize an effective proactive front in the early 1930s against Germany’s new leader Adolf Hitler early enough when it was still possible, was French Foreign Minister Louis Barthou. His foreign policy was to create an anti-Hitler defense ring to be achieved by what was known as the Eastern Pact - binding the Soviet Union and Poland and the Little Entente, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania, to France. But while he was trying to organize a defense against German territorial expansions three months after he became foreign minister, the British were going in the opposite direction. In May of 1934 the British Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sir John Simon, insisted that Germany should be permitted to rearm even though re-armament had been expressly forbidden by the Versailles Peace Treaty.

Barthou went to Belgrade, Serbia at the end of June 1934 for successful introductory talks regarding a Franco-Yugoslav alliance, and it was agreed that King Alexander would pay a two week state visit to France starting on October 9th to lay the groundwork for an anti-Hitler alliance. French support against the terrorist activities of the Croatian separatists and their sponsor, the fascist dictator of Italy Mussolini, was also going to be negotiated. But as soon as Alexander’s planned visit to France was announced, Mussolini began working with his Italian Military Intelligence Service and the Croat and Macedonian terrorists to plan King Alexander’s assassination. The plan for the assassination was finalized by Vancha Mihailov, the leader of Macedonian terrorists, and Ante Pavelic, the leader of the Croatian terrorists.

On October 9, 1934 the terrorists made their move and succeeded. King Alexander I of Yugoslavia and Jean Louis Barthou were assassinated in Marseilles, France. This assassination, though never assigned the significance that Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 was, turned out to be a precursor of the events to come in 1939. With the Franco-Yugoslav bond now weakened with his and Barthou’s deaths, Germany would tighten her economic hold in the Balkans. This would further augment Hitler’s growing confidence and the Balkans would provide more resources for Nazi Germany. It is said that Hitler watched the film that was taken of the assassination that day and upon observing the panic of the crowd and the inability of the police to deal with it effectively, he was reassured that France was weak and that she could be beaten. Whether he watched the film or not, there is no question that he grew more confident. Every subsequent action he would take in the following years would reflect a hubris that only grew with the parallel incompetence of the democracies to stop it from manifesting.

Without having to worry about Britain or France or Italy, Hitler was able to proceed with enhancing his war machine. Seeing an opportunity to side up with an obvious future victor, Mussolini distanced himself carefully from England and France to eventually join Hitler. When the free world woke up to the reality of what was evolving it was too late to change the course of the future of Europe. The greatest war machine ever built up to that time was poised to march and conquer the world.

King Alexander I established his legacy during pivotal times in the history of his people in the Balkans. He participated in war after war and survived as a successful hero who went on to become King. An assassin’s bullet ended his reign, and we will never know how he would have handled the events that led his country into yet another war just a few short years later, this time the biggest and baddest of them all. His young son, Peter II Karageorgevich, would be the one to inherit that legacy.

Church of St. George on Oplenac in Serbia
Photo by Katarina Stefanovich

What we do know is that he is well remembered and remains honored in the hearts of his family and his people on this, the 75th anniversary of his death, October 9, 2009. He is buried in the beautiful Church of St. George Mausoleum on the hill of Oplenac in Serbia, where so many of the other members of the Karageorgevich dynasty lay as well. The record of the final decisive event in King Alexander’s life remains one of the most significant pieces of history captured on film that exists to this day.

Aleksandra Rebic
October 2009


From the Office of HRH Crown Prince Alexander II of Serbia
October 9, 2009


Belgrade, 9 October 2009 – A Memorial Service was held at Oplenac today, on the occasion of 75th Anniversary of the assassination of His Majesty King Alexander I of Yugoslavia.

The Holy Liturgy in the blessed memory of HM King Alexander I was served by His Grace Bishop of Sumadija Jovan and clergy of Sumadija Diocese in the Church of St. George in Oplenac. HRH Crown Princess Katherine attended the Holy Liturgy service, and afterwards she was guest at lunch that His Grace Bishop of Sumadija Jovan, HM King Peter I Foundation and Mr. Dragan Jovanovic, Mayor of Topola have organized for distinguished state and clergy guests.

With church bells ringing, Their Royal Highnesses Crown Prince Alexander II (grandson), Prince Philip (great grandson), Prince Vladimir (grandson), Crown Princess Katherine and Princess Brigitta, together with members of the Crown Council laid wreaths at HM King Alexander I tomb in the mausoleum of the Church of St. George in Oplenac. Wreaths were laid by members of the diplomatic corps, HE Mr. Dragan Sutanovac, Minister of Defence and by H.E. Mr. Boris Tadic, President of the Republic of Serbia on behalf of the State.

After the commemoration, an exhibition “Statesman and warrior path of King Alexander I Karadjordjevic” was officially opened at HM King Peter I house in Oplenac by H.E. Mr. Dragan Sutanovac, Minister of Defence. Academician Prof. Dr Slobodan Perovic, member of the Crown Council, H.E. Mr. Dragan Sutanovac, Minister of Defence and HRH Crown Prince Alexander II addressed the guests.

Following the ceremony in Oplenac, Their Royal Highnesses, together with the members of the Crown Council and H.E. Mr. Nils Krister Bringeus, Ambassador of Sweden, went to Avala, where they laid wreaths at the Monument of Unknown Hero. Members of the Crown Council who went to Avala were Mr. Matija Beckovic, Prof. Dr Dragoljub Kavran, Mr. Dusan Babac, Prof. Dr Miroslav Gasic, Mr. Djurdje Ninkovic, Prof. Dr Slobodan Perovic, Mr. Vladan Zivulovic, Mr. Predrag Markovic, Mr. Milan Parivodic, Dr Igor Georgijev, Mr. Darko Spasic, Ms. Ana Godjevac and Mr. Milan Markovic, counsellor to Minister of Economy.

Earlier today in Marseilles, Their Royal Highnesses Crown Prince Alexander II and Prince Philip attended a commemoration for the Late King and the late Monsieur Louis Barthou, Foreign Minister of France in Marseille, France, together with H.E. Mr. Vuk Jeremic, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Serbia and H.E. Dr Dusan Batakovic, Serbian Ambassador to France and member of the Privy Council.

HM King Alexander I of Yugoslavia was assassinated on 9 October 1934 in Marseille at the beginning of his State Visit to France. The French Foreign Minister Mr. Louis Barthou was also killed.

The King’s death deeply moved the whole of Yugoslavia and sent shockwaves throughout Europe. Hundreds of thousands of people paid their respects all along the funeral route through Yugoslavia to the Royal Crypt at Oplenac. HM King Alexander I was buried in the Mausoleum of the Church of St. George, built by his father HM King Peter I.

In recognition of his greatest accomplishments, namely the fact that the King Alexander I led the Serbian Army during the Balkan War and World War One and was the key person in the unification of Southern Slavs into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the National Parliament and the Senate of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia named him Knight-King Alexander I the Unifier.

HM King Alexander I was the Supreme Commander of the Serbian Army in the First World War. On 24 June 1914 he was appointed the Regent of Serbia. After the death of his father, HM King Peter I in 1921, he ascended the throne and became King of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. In 1929 he became King of Yugoslavia. HM King Alexander I and HM Queen Maria had three sons, HM King Peter II (father of Crown Prince Alexander II), HRH Prince Tomislav and HRH Prince Andrej. In 1934 HM King Peter II succeeded HM King Alexander I as King of Yugoslavia.

The Royal Family would like to thank all those who came to Oplenac today and paid their respects to HM King Alexander I of the blessed memory.


In France:

October 9, 2009


Marseille, 9 October 2009 – A wreath laying ceremony was held this morning in Marseille, France, on the occasion of 75th Anniversary of the assassination of His Majesty King Alexander I of Yugoslavia and Monsieur Louis Barthou, Minister of Foreign Affairs of France.

The official state ceremony was organized by the French Government at the location where the assassination took place in Marseilles, France of HM King Alexander I of Yugoslavia and Monsieur Louis Barthou the French Foreign Minister. The ceremony was attended by HRH Crown Prince Alexander II, grandson of HM King Alexander I, accompanied by his son HRH Prince Philip, great grandson of HM King Alexander I, H.E. Mr. Vuk Jeremic, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Serbia, who laid a wreath on behalf of the State of Serbia and H.E. Dr. Dusan Batakovic, Ambassador of Serbia to France.

HRH Crown Prince Alexander II said it was a day of sorrow for him, and added that his grandfather was a first victim of fascism. “I came here with my son Philip to mark this sad day”, said HRH Crown Prince Alexander II. HRH Crown Prince Alexander II thanked H.E. Mr. Vuk Jeremic, the Government of Serbia and H.E. Boris Tadic, President of Serbia, as well as France and Marseille, for making this commemoration possible.

“Laying a wreath at my great-grandfather’s monument is very special moment for all of us, and makes us think where we were 75 years ago, and where we are today”, said HRH Prince Philip and went on that he was very moved by today’s ceremony and warm welcome.

“We were together in wars, victories and losses, and today we are together in peace, with desire to live in united Europe”, said H.E. Mr. Vuk Jeremic, minister of Foreign Affairs of Serbia and added “Bullets fired at King Alexander, who was a victim of fascist and ustashe terrorism were fired at our country and European peace. King Alexander I was a Unifier, a man with deep respect for the history of his nation and profound vision of unity and integrations, which made him a first European leader in our history”.

In the afternoon following their return from France, Their Royal Highnesses Crown Prince Alexander II, Crown Princess Katherine and Prince Philip will lay a wreath on His Majesty’s tomb in the Church of St. George in Oplenac.


OCTOBER 9, 1934:


"Ubistvo i sahrana Kralja Aleksanda I Karadjordjevica (tonski video zapis)"

Posted by "123Nemanja" on "You Tube"

With Serbian narration


"Assassination! King Alexander and Louis Barthou 1934"

Posted by UniversalNewsreels

With English Narration


"The Assassination of the Yugoslavian king Alexander, video 3"

"Music Video"

Posted by "bugarash"


If you would like to get in touch with me, Aleksandra, please feel free to contact me at



Unknown said...

Great coverge of this time in our history Aleksandra, thanks...I read every word!

Anonymous said...

This coverage has three advantages: 1. The sound: military orders can be heard to stand to attention and start some regimental fanfare, then we hear a part of the French hymn (some source say the hymns were forgotten--we stay in the dark for the Yugoslav hymn); 2. The place of the assassination: a traffic island prevents the motorcade from staying in the middle of the pavement and constrains it to the right side, closer to the crowds; 3. The reaction to the assassination: the right-flank horseman, Mountain Infantry Lt. Col. Piollet (i.e., not a cavalryman and not a bodyguard professional), has had to turn his mare around after he hears the shots, to get to the assassin and strike him with his dull, parade sabre--in other words, he was not just behind the right-rear fender of the old landaulet (with damaged fenders) with a retracted back roof, as when the procession started, with a full view of the king and the space between the king and the crowd: he had let himself trot ahead to the right-front fender, with the king and most of the car behind him, out of his viewing range!