King Alexander and Queen Draga of Serbia Assassinated

Richard Cavendish describes how King Alexander and Queen Draga of Serbia were assassinated during the night of June 10th/11th, 1903.

A thread through the murky labyrinth of Serbian nineteenth-century history is the feud between the country’s two leading families, the Obrenovich and Karageorgevich dynasties. Both were founded by leaders of the Serbian struggle for independence from the Turks and the original Karageorge (‘Black George’) was murdered in 1817 by his rival Milos Obrenovich, who had him killed with an axe and sent his head to the Sultan in Constantinople. During Serbia’s gradual emergence from the Ottoman empire, the two families alternated as rulers. In 1882 Milan Obrenovich, the reigning prince, declared himself King of Serbia, but found things so difficult that in 1889 he abdicated, leaving his twelve-year-old son Alexander to succeed him with a council of regency, while he betook himself abroad.

In 1893, aged sixteen, Alexander proclaimed himself of age and in the following year Milan returned. From then on he was the power behind his son’s throne until 1900, when Alexander asserted himself, and against his father’s wishes announced his intention to marry his mistress, Draga Mashin, a beautiful widow of doubtful reputation, ten years older than himself. The furious Milan resigned as commander-in-chief, the cabinet quit and the army was deeply affronted.

Alexander, unkindly compared to a doctored tom-cat by Rebecca West, who called him ‘a flabby young man with pince-nez who had a taste for clumsy experiments in absolutism’, married Draga that summer.

Meanwhile, there was an alternative candidate for the throne waiting in the wings in Geneva in the person of Prince Peter Karageorgevich. Now close to sixty, the grandson of Black George, he had spent most of his life in exile in France, distinguishing himself in the French army. Draga did not produce a child and rumours began to spread that Alexander intended to make one of her brothers the heir to his throne. His increasing arbitrariness alarmed his opponents and approaching midnight on June 10th, 1903, a group of army officers broke into the royal palace in Belgrade. Shooting down the commander of the royal bodyguard, they somehow fused the lights and blundered about swearing angrily in the dark until they burst into the royal bedroom and found the petrified Alexander and Draga hiding in a cupboard. A fusillade of bullets killed Draga instantly and wounded Alexander. The bodies were thrown out of the palace window, but according to one story, Alexander managed to cling on to the railing until one of the assassins cut his fingers off with a sword and he fell to his death. He was twenty-six.

Exactly how much Prince Peter Karageorgevich had to do with this is uncertain, but the army lost no time in proclaiming him king and he made a far better one than either of his Obrenovich predecessors. No action was taken against the murderers, whose mastermind was a ruthless Serb nationalist, Colonel Dragutin Dimitryevich. He later founded an undercover terrorist group called Union or Death, known as the Black Hand, which was involved in the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 that sparked off the First World War. Serbia did not survive the war, but King Peter did, emerging in 1918 as monarch of the new kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, soon to be Yugoslavia.