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?
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