A Bloody Coup In The Balkans

On the night of 10-11 June 1903, 115 years ago today, officers of the Serbian Army staged a palace coup by murdering with almost unimaginable brutality Serbian King Alexander and his Queen Draga in the Royal Palace in Belgrade.

Serbia styled itself a kingdom, yet to the majority of Europe it was viewed as a principality. Though Serbia had been independent of the Ottoman Empire in fact for more than 70 years by 1903, its status as a truly independent state had only been confirmed by the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Serbia’s internal politics had been notably turbulent throughout the 19th Century, and the competition between the dominant noble families often led to bloodshed. To a certain extent, though the bloody coup of 1903 horrified Europe, no one was really greatly surprised; it was, after all, Serbia. Therefore the coup was met by expressions of shock and official condemnations, but beyond the recalling of ambassadors, the powers of Europe declines to intervene.

In the aftermath of the coup, the Serbian legislature, guided by leaders of the coup, selected a new king. Butchered King Alexander was of the house of Obrenović which had dominated Serbian politics for almost a century. After the coup, the rival house of Karađorđević was placed upon the throne. The Obrenović rulers had long gravitated toward the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whereas the Karađorđević clan favored the Russian Empire. Many of the key leaders of the coup were quietly removed from their military duties to placate other European nations’ demands for justice for the murdered royals, but these conspirators were either pensioned off or “kicked upstairs” to positions of greater power and influence.

Do seemingly minor events of long ago and far away matter much? Is there any point at all in studying the past?

Naturally, I am convinced that the answer is a firm and resounding “Yes!” In studying the events that led up to the ignition of the First World War, the assassination of Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife Sophie has always seemed especially difficult to understand. The most challenging aspect of the assassination, which has been referred to as “the spark that touched off the powder keg,” is the astonishingly self-destructive role that Serbia played in the crime. Why did Serbia sponsor and supply the assassins? What did Serbia hope to gain from such barbarity?

I must honestly admit that I cannot supply an answer to that question. Yet I do perceive a potent connection and a possible line of inquiry. For this Serbian coup (known as the “May Coup” because Serbia remained officially on the Julian calendar) was principally planned and the actual assassinations were led by a young officer named Dragutin Dimitrijević. His role in the coup was rewarded, and he eventually rose to become Serbia’s Chief of Intelligence. Dragutin Dimitrijević had an almost fanatical commitment to the unification of all Serbs, including those living under the rule of Austria-Hungary; he was a prime figure in the secret Serbian nationalist organization known as “The Black Hand.”

It was Dragutin Dimitrijević who sponsored the Young Bosnian assassins of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and who supplied them with bombs, poisons, and guns.

So: do seemingly minor events of long ago and far away matter much? Is there any point at all in studying the past?

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

If there is ever another war in Europe,
it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.

— Otto Von Bismarck, 1890

Reflections On ANZAC Day 2012

Today, 25 April, is honored as ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand. It is now a day akin the Memorial Day in the United States. It was first observed in 1916 to remember those who served in the Australia-New Zealand Army Corps at the Gallipoli Campaign of World War I.

That bloody campaign saw great sacrifice and suffering on the part of all involved, but the ANZACs stood out especially among the forces deployed by the British Empire against the Ottoman Turkish empire. The ANZACs came close to dislodging the Turkish forces who held Gallipoli, but at the crucial moment, when the Turkish troops were exhausted and nearly out of ammunition, a leader appeared who rallied the nearly broken line and repulsed the British Empire’s forces, setting the stage for a long and entrenched stalemate which was so much a feature of WWI combat. Colonel Mustafa Kemal, later honored as “Atatürk,” or “Father of the Turks”, became the Turkish hero of Gallipoli for his success in salvaging eventual victory in the face of near-sure defeat.

The Gallipoli campaign was ghastly and bloody, and among the hardest fought struggles in a ghastly and bloody war. And in the end, it accomplished nothing at all. The Ottoman Empire eventually capitulated with the fall of its allies, but the slaughter at Gallipoli had little effect on this outcome.

Wars end, however. Mustafa Kemal went on the lead the broken and fragmented nation of Turkey from chaotic Ottoman imperial collapse into its status as a modern nation. Kemal was a warrior and a politician. But he was also a man of vision and a man whose preordinate aims for his nation are expressed in the simple phrase, “Yurtta suhl, cihanda suhl” which appears on monuments and memorials throughout modern Turkey. It means “Peace at home, peace in the world.”

Kemal was indeed a peacemaker. The great and victorious warrior also knew compassion and forgiveness, and he was careful to make it clear that the end of war meant not merely a cessation of fighting, but an encouragement of community and true peace. Famously, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk said of the soldiers buried at Gallipoli, both Turks and ANZACs:

“Heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives! You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

This is inscribed on the Atatürk Memorial at, Gallipoli and at the Kemal Atatürk Memorial, Canberra.

The world could use more such leaders.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

“Mankind is a single body and each nation a part of that body. We must never say “What does it matter to me if some part of the world is ailing?” If there is such an illness, we must concern ourselves with it as though we were having that illness.”

— Atatürk