The Marseilles Murders, 1934

Stephen Clissold uncovers a brutal crime with its roots deep in the rank soil of Balkan politics.

On the afternoon of October 9th, 1934, King Alexander of Yugoslavia landed at Marseilles from the warship Dubrovnik to begin his state visit to the French republic. He was greeted by M. Louis Barthou, the elderly but active Foreign Minister with whom he had been collaborating to strengthen the Little Entente between Rumania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia and the more recently formed Balkan Pact between Greece, Yugoslavia, Rumania and Turkey, which both statesmen hoped would curb the revisionist ambitions harboured by Hungary and Bulgaria with the tacit encouragement of Fascist Italy.

As the cortege moved up the Canebiere and approached the Bourse, a man broke through the cheering crowd, jumped onto the running-board of their open car, and discharged his Mauser at its occupants. The King was killed instantly; the Foreign Minister died some hours later, as did the assassin, who was cut down by the escort and trampled under foot.

He was found to be carrying a Hungarian passport but was identified as a Bulgarian - a professional murderer previously employed by the notorious Macedonian Internal Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) - a man of many crimes and many names, among them those of Georgiev, Chernozemski or simply Vlada the chauffeur.

The sensational crime had its roots deep in the rank soil of Balkan politics which, twenty years earlier, had spawned the murder of the Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo and the First World War. Europe was restless again in the new climate of violence fomented by Fascism but had not yet polarized into two opposing camps.

Terror was in vogue as a political weapon. Hitler had used it to eliminate his rivals Roehm and Schleicher, and his supporters in Austria to murder Chancellor Dollfuss. But he was not yet ready to turn his attention to the Balkans, which remained primarily a field for Mussolini’s intrigues.

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