Alexander I (December 16, 1888 – October 9, 1934), also known as Alexander the Unifier, was a prince regent of the Kingdom of Serbia from 1914 and later a King of Yugoslavia from 1921 to 1934 (prior to 1929 the state was known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes). He was assassinated by the Bulgarian Vlado Chernozemski, during a 1934 state visit to France.
Alexander Karađorđević was born on December 16, 1888 in the Principality of Montenegro as the fourth child (second son) of Peter Karađorđević (son of Prince Alexander of Serbia who thirty years earlier in 1858 was forced to abdicate and surrender power in Serbia to the rival House of Obrenović) and Princess Zorka of Montenegro (eldest daughter of Prince Nicholas of Montenegro). Despite enjoying support from the Russian Empire, at the time of Alexander’s birth and early childhood, the House of Karađorđević was in political exile, with family members scattered all over Europe, unable to return to Serbia.
In 1903, while young brothers George and Alexander Karađorđević were in school, their father Peter, and a slew of conspirators pulled off a bloody coup d’état in the Kingdom of Serbia known as the May Overthrow in which King Alexander and Queen Draga were murdered and dismembered.
The House of Karađorđević thus retook the Serbian throne after forty-five years of absence and Alexander’s 58-year-old father became King of Serbia, prompting George’s and Alexander’s return to Serbia to continue their studies. After Alexander’s 15th birthday, King Peter had Alexander enlisted into the Royal Serbian Army as a private with instructions to his officers to only promote his son if he proved worthy. On March 25, 1909, Alexander was suddenly recalled to Belgrade by his father with no explanation offered other than that he had an important announcement for his son.
On December 1, 1918, The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was created by the unification of the Kingdom of Serbia (the Kingdom of Montenegro had united with Serbia five days previously, while the regions of Kosovo, Vojvodina and Vardar Macedonia were parts of Serbia prior to the unification) and the provisional State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs (itself formed from territories of the former Austria-Hungary).
In a prearranged set piece, Alexander, as Prince Regent, received a delegation of the People’s Council of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs, an address was read out by one of the delegation, and Alexander made an address in acceptance. This was considered to be the birth of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.
In August 1921, on the death of his father, Alexander inherited the throne of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which from its inception was colloquially known both in the Kingdom and the rest of Europe alike as Yugoslavia. The historian Brigit Farley described Alexander as something of a cipher to historians as he was a taciturn and reserved man who loathed to express his feelings either in person or in writing. As Alexander kept no diary or wrote no memoirs, Farley wrote that any biography of Alexander could easily be titled “In search of King Alexander” as he remains an elusive and enigmatic figure.
On June 8, 1922 he married Princess Maria of Romania (1900 – 1961), who was a daughter of Ferdinand I of Romania and Princess Marie of Edinburgh. Princess Marie of Edinburgh was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom by her second son, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and reigning Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
Alexander and Maria had three sons: Crown Prince Peter, and Princes Tomislav and Andrej. Alexander was said to have wished to marry Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna of Russia, a cousin of his wife and the second daughter of Emperor Nicholas II of Russia, and was distraught by her untimely death in the Russian Civil War.
The Russophile Alexander was horrified by the murders of the House of Romanov-including the Grand Duchess Tatiana-and during his reign was very hostile towards the Soviet Union, welcoming Russian emigres to Belgrade.
The lavish royal wedding to Princess Maria of Romania was intended to cement the alliance with Romania, a fellow “victor nation” in World War I which like Yugoslavia had territorial disputes with the defeated nations like Hungary and Bulgaria. For Alexander, the royal wedding was especially satisfactory as most of the royal families of Europe attended, which showed that the House of Karađorđević, a family of peasant origins who were disliked for slaughtering the rival House of Obrenović in 1903, were finally accepted by the rest of European royalty.
Until January 6, 1929, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was a parliamentary monarchy. On that day, King Alexander I abolished the Vidovdan Constitution (adopted in 1921), prorogued the National Assembly and introduced a personal dictatorship (so-called January 6, Dictatorship). He officially renamed the country the Kingdom of Yugoslavia on October 3, 1929 and, although granted the 1931 Constitution, continued to rule as a de facto absolute monarch.
After the Ustaše’s Velebit uprising in November 1932, Alexander said through an intermediary to the Italian government, “If you want to have serious riots in Yugoslavia or cause a regime change, you need to kill me. Shoot at me and be sure you have finished me off, because that’s the only way to make changes in Yugoslavia.”
The French Foreign Minister Louis Barthou had attempted in 1934 to build an alliance meant to contain Germany, consisting of France’s allies in Eastern Europe like Yugoslavia, together with Italy and the Soviet Union. The long-standing rivalry between Benito Mussolini and King Alexander had complicated Barthou’s work as Alexander complained about Italian claims against his country together with support for Hungarian revisionism and the Croat Ustaše terrorist group.
As long as France’s ally Yugoslavia continued to have disputes with Italy, Barthou’s plans for an Italo-French rapprochement would be stillborn. During a visit to Belgrade in June 1934, Barthou promised the King that France would pressure Mussolini into signing a treaty under which he would renounce his claims against Yugoslavia. Alexander was sceptical of Barthou’s plan, noting that there were hundreds of Ustašhi being sheltered in Italy and it was rumoured that Mussolini had financed an unsuccessful attempt by the Ustaše to assassinate him in December 1933.
Mussolini had come to believe that it was only the personality of Alexander that was holding Yugoslavia together and if the King were assassinated, then Yugoslavia would descend into civil war, thus allowing Italy to annex certain regions of Yugoslavia without the fear of France. However, France was Yugoslavia’s closest ally and Barthou invited Alexander for a visit to France to sign a Franco-Yugoslav agreement that would allow Barthou to, in his words, “go to Rome with the certainty of success”.
As a result of the previous deaths of three family members on Tuesdays, Alexander refused to undertake any public functions on that day of the week. On Tuesday, October 9, 1934, however, he had no choice, as he was arriving in Marseille to start a state visit to France, to strengthen the two countries’ alliance in the Little Entente.
While Alexander was being slowly driven in a car through the streets along with French Foreign Minister Louis Barthou, a gunman, the Bulgarian Vlado Chernozemski, stepped from the street and shot the King twice, and the chauffeur, with a Mauser C96 semiautomatic pistol.
Alexander died in the car, slumped backwards in the seat, with his eyes open. French Foreign Minister Louis Barthou was also killed by a stray bullet fired by French police during the scuffle following the attack. It was one of the first assassinations captured on film; the shooting occurred in front of the newsreel cameraman, who was only metres away at the time. While the exact moment of shooting was not captured on film, the events leading to the assassination and the immediate aftermath were. The body of the chauffeur (who had been wounded) slumped and jammed against the brakes of the car, allowing the cameraman to continue filming from within inches of the King for a number of minutes afterwards.
The assassin was a member of the pro-Bulgarian Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO or VMRO) and an experienced marksman. Immediately after assassinating King Alexander, Chernozemski was cut down by the sword of a mounted French policeman, and then beaten by the crowd.
By the time he was removed from the scene, the King was already dead. The IMRO was a political organization that fought for the liberation of the occupied region of Macedonia and its independence, initially as some form of second Bulgarian state, followed by a later unification with the Kingdom of Bulgaria.
A prominent diplomat with the Palazzo Chigi, Baron Pompeo Aloisi, expressed fears that the Ustashi based in Italy had killed the King, and sought reassurances from another diplomat, Paolo Cortese, that Italy had not been involved. Aloisi was not reassured when Cortese told him that with Alexander dead, Yugoslavia was about to break up.
Public opinion and press in Yugoslavia held that Italy had been crucial in the planning and directing of the assassination. Demonstrations took place outside of the Italian embassy in Belgrade together with the Italian consulates in Zagreb and Ljubljana by people blaming Mussolini for Alexander’s assassination.
An investigation by the French police quickly established that the assassins had been trained and armed in Hungary, had traveled to France on forged Czechoslovak passports, and frequently telephoned Ustaše leader Ante Pavelić, who was living in Italy.
The incident was later used by Yugoslavia as an argument to counter the Croatian attempts of secession and Italian and Hungarian revisionism. The participants in the assassination were Ivan Rajić, Mijo Kralj, Zvonimir Pospišil and Antun Godina. They were sentenced to life in prison although the Yugoslav authorities had expected that they would be sentenced to death. In 1940, after the fall of France they were released from prison by the Nazis.
Pierre Laval, who succeeded Barthou as foreign minister, wished to continue the rapprochement with Rome, and saw the assassinations in Marseille as an inconvenience that was best forgotten. Both London and Paris made it clear that they regarded Mussolini as responsible and in private told Belgrade that under no circumstances would they allow Il Duce to be blamed.
In a speech in Northampton, England, on October 19, 1934, the British Foreign Secretary, Sir John Simon, expressed his sympathy to the people of Yugoslavia over the king’s assassination while also saying he was convinced by Mussolini’s speech in Milan denying his involvement in the assassination.
When Yugoslavia made an extradition request to Italy for Pavelić on charges of regicide, the Quai d’Orsay expressed concern that if Pavelić were extradited, he might incriminate Mussolini and were greatly reassured when their counterparts at the Palazzo Chigi stated there was no possibility of Pavelić being extradited. Laval cynically told a French journalist “off-the-record” that the French press should stop going on about the assassinations in Marseille because France would never go to war to defend the honour of a weak country like Yugoslavia.
The following day, the body of King Alexander I was transported back to the port of Split in Yugoslavia by the destroyer JRM Dubrovnik. After a huge funeral in Belgrade attended by about 500,000 people and many leading European statesmen, Alexander was interred in the Oplenac Church in Topola, which had been built by his father.
The Holy See gave special permission to bishops Aloysius Stepinac, Antun Akšamović, Dionisije Njaradi, and Gregorij Rožman to attend the funeral in an Orthodox church. As his son Peter II was still a minor, Alexander’s first cousin Prince Paul took the regency of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
A ballistic report on the bullets found in the car was made in 1935, but the results were not made available to the public until 1974. They revealed that Barthou was hit by an 8 mm Modèle 1892 revolver round commonly used in weapons carried by French police.
After the assassination, relations between Yugoslavia and France became colder and never returned to the previous level. Also, the Little Entente and the Balkan Pact lost their importance. For the part of the Yugoslav public, it was shocking that the assassination had happened on French soil. In the coming years, the new Regency of Prince Paul attempted to keep neutral balance between London and Berlin until 1940–41 when he was forced under heavy pressure to join the Tripartite Pact.