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Brooke Shaffer

Author, Ski Patroller, and Pasta-Eater Extraordinaire

Famous Coups, Part 2: Serbia

Continuing the series on famous coups in history, let's look at one which may have actually contributed to the start of World War I.

Serbia gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in the Serbian Revolution, beginning in 1804 with bloody clashes that would last more than a decade until a ceasefire was reached in 1817.  Serbia was officially recognized as a state in 1830, and the first Constitution was drafted in 1835.  Serbia actually became suzerain, that is, Serbia became a tributary or vassal state to the Ottomans.

Serbia's monarchy was split primarily between two dynasties, the Obrenović and the Karađordević, as well as their various supporting houses and political factions.  These dynasties were supported by very different foreign interests.  The Obrenović were pro-Austrian, and the Karađordević were pro-Russian.

In 1868, Prince Mihailo Obrenović was assassinated, and his cousin Milan was named the new prince.  Milan was a very unpopular ruler and not liked by the people.  His popularity declined even more when he declared himself king in 1882, and further after a series of humiliating military defeats.  Furthermore, he favored Austrian sponsorship, while his wife was pro-Russian.  Milan was also an unfaithful husband, and the king and queen finally separated, even divorcing though it was declared illegal.

On March 6, 1889, Milan suddenly abdicated the throne to his son, Alexander.  No satisfactory reason was ever given, and Milan retired to Paris.

With Alexander too young to rule, a Regency was installed.  These regents set up a radical, pro-Russia government.  In 1891, King Alexander and Tsar Alexander III met to secure an alliance, Russia promising to look out for Serbian interests in Old Serbia and Macedonia.

Soon after, with the death of one of the ruling regents, discord came about in the Regency as control was shifted from the Radical Party to the Liberal Party.  Fights broke out until King Alexander simply had all of the regents imprisoned.  He then invited his father, ex-King Milan, back to Serbia.  This angered the Radicals and they moved into opposition.

King Alexander discarded the Constitution of 1888 and instead reverted to the Constitution of 1869.  He then took a trip to Vienna to attempt to keep friendship with Austria.  This did not go over well with the Serbian people.

In 1897, Milan was named Supreme Commander of the Active Army.  Attempts were also made to find a suitable princess for Alexander to wed, though he had secretly been having an affair with his mother's lady-in-waiting, Draga.

In 1899, with the government encroaching more and more in daily Serbian life, as well as increasingly unpopular policies from the throne, an assassination attempt was made on Milan.  Milan struck back at the Radicals behind the assassination attempt.  But the attempt provided an opportunity for Alexander to get his father out of the way, and he sent Milan and the Prime Minister to foreign lands, one to discuss a contract with Austria-Hungary, and one to allegedly arrange a marriage with the German princess.  Once the two were gone, Alexander announced his engagement to Draga, his mother's former lady-in-waiting.  This did not go over well with anyone, as Draga was not only 12 years older than Alexander, but she was a commoner.  Milan especially disapproved of the marriage and never returned to Serbia, dying in Vienna in 1901.  The wedding took place in 1900, with Tsar Nicholas Romanov of Russia as the best man.

After the death of Milan, Alexander, as a gesture of good will, pardoned all political prisoners.  He drafted a new constitution which made Serbia's government bicameral and included representatives from all the major parties, most notably the Radical Party and the Liberal Party.  Alexander also started a rumor that his queen was pregnant, though numerous other rumors proclaimed her to be sterile.

Russia greatly disapproved of the new government and constitution, and the major political parties also disapproved of it.  When it was discovered that the queen was not pregnant, many also complained that the king was only hurting the international reputation of Serbia.

Seven army officers, known in history as Black Hand, made a plot to assassinate the king and queen.  Their first attempt was a knife dipped in potassium cyanide, but the royal couple never showed up to the party where the attempt was to take place.  Details were made known, and the officers decided to bring in other political allies to aid them.  Messages were sent, officers and politicians looking for a replacement for the throne.  Neither Austria nor Russia were willing to get involved, for fear of retaliation from the other.

Prince Mirko of Montenegro was one candidate for the throne, but it was discovered that Peter Karađordević could be installed instead with no obstacles.  Peter was unwilling to go along with the plot and suggested that the couple be forced to abdicate and go into exile.  The officers disagreed, saying that it could trigger a civil war.

After a second failed attempt, it was decided that the killing should take place at the palace itself, and more officers, including the Palace Royal Guard, got involved.  Details of the plan leaked, but Alexander dismissed them as fantasy.

On the night of May 28, all the conspirators arrived in Belgrade, separating into five groups to innocuously enjoy themselves at various pubs around town.  The head of the Royal Guard sent word to the assassins once the royal couple had fallen asleep.  Several of the groups surrounded the Prime Minster's house, as well as the houses of other groups loyal to the king.

The gates to the palace were unlocked at 0200 on May 29.  While some of the royal guard were involved, most were not, and secrecy was paramount.  Even so, after two hours of searching, the assassins still hadn't found the king and queen.  The head of the conspirators, Apis, saw someone running down a flight of stairs.  Thinking it to be the king, he gave chase alone.  In the ensuing gunfight, it was discovered that the man was one of the king's loyal guardsmen.  Apis was shot three times and left to die, though he did survive.

Another conspirator was also captured and ordered to speak under threat of being killed.  He was given ten minutes, and he waited that ten minutes in silence.

The rest of the group believed the attempt had failed.  According to one version of events, they again entered the royal bed chamber where one of the officers discovered a hidden door, behind which the royal couple was hiding.  According to another version, they were hiding in the queen's vast closet.  A third version states they were hiding in a secret passage that led directly to the Russian embassy.

The king and queen were brutally murdered, their bodies mutilated and tossed from a second-story window into a pile of manure.

It was the thirty-fifth anniversary of the assassination of Prince Mihailo.

Peter Karađordević was named King of Serbia in 1903, as Peter I.  Members of the conspiracy and assassination were appointed to various positions in the government.  Austria and Russia both condemned the assassinations, and even allied to diplomatically boycott Serbia, while a number of nations imposed sanctions.  This prompted Peter I to remove the conspirators from court, though he gave them grand positions elsewhere.

Life in Serbia returned to normal.  Not wishing to oppose the Black Hand which got him into power, Peter I was a king of minimal influence in politics.

It is believed that members of Black Hand were responsible for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, thus setting off World War I.  Assassination attempts against Black Hand members were made, though they were taken to trial.  Some were executed.  Others, like Apis, who had taken three bullets, remained in prison but were eventually released after World War II.

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