Historical Notes: Brutal murder in Serbia: 1903

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ON 15 June 1903, the prime minister Arthur Balfour told Parliament that diplomatic relations between Britain and Serbia "came ipso facto to an end with the death of the King of Servia". The brutal murder, four days earlier, of the unpopular king Aleksandar Obrenovic and his heirless queen Draga, by a group of army officers, provoked condemnation throughout Europe.

Yet, the position of other countries, including Austria-Hungary and Russia, was much softer than that of the British: they condemned the regicide, but, however reluctantly, soon recognised the new Serbian government and king, and restrained from breaking off diplomatic relations with Belgrade. Great Britain, however, refused to recognise the new order in Serbia until those responsible for the regicide were removed from public life. What was the reason behind the British stand?

The news from Belgrade had shocked the British public. The Times wrote on 12 June 1903 that, with the murder,

Servia, the land of assassinations, abdications, pronunciamientos, and coups d'etat, has surpassed itself and caused all previous achievements to pale into insignificance . . . enough is [already] known to characterise the tragedy of Belgrade as unique in contemporary history.

King Edward VII was particularly appalled by the fact that a group of officers in a European country brutally massacred their king and queen, however unpopular they may have been. Furthermore, the Serbian public enthusiastically received the news of the murder of the royal couple, whose reign had been characterised by a scandalous marriage and political and economic turmoil. Relations remained severed "due to the personal sentiments of King Edward and especially of Queen Alexandra", Milovan Milovanovic, the Serbian minister to Rome and later the prime minister, was told by a French ambassador to Italy.

Although the conspirators invited politicians to form a coalition government, they continued to exercise, directly or indirectly, strong influence on the politics of Serbia. Their control over the army and the royal court in Belgrade seriously threatened the fragile democratic institutions established, ironically, after the regicide. Neither the dissent within the army, which resulted in two so-called counter- conspiracies, nor divided political parties, nor the new king seemed able or willing to reduce the conspirators' influence in military and political institutions.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries were eventually renewed on 11 June 1906, the third anniversary of the regicide, after the government of Nikola Pasic succeeded in persuading the conspirators to take early retirement. With the re-establishment of relations with the new Liberal government of Campbell-Bannerman Serbia was once again a full member of the "international community".

It was the end of the so-called "conspiracy question", but not of the influence of the military on Serb politics. In 1911 a group of officers who originated the anti-Obrenovic conspiracy, led by Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic-Apis, founded the secret organisation "Black Hand" (a.k.a. "Unity or Death") which was closely connected with the "Young Bosnia" group, a member of which, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated the heir to the Habsburg throne while on a visit to Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 (the Kosovo Battle anniversary and a sacred day in the Serbian national calendar).

Because this time Serbia was an ally, Britain did not break diplomatic relations with Belgrade - on the contrary it entered the war on its side. Nor did the British condemn the bloodless military coup of 27 March 1941, when a group of Serbian officers of the Yugoslav army deposed a government which had signed the Tripartite Pact two days earlier. Morality in foreign policy was obviously not a primary issue and could be afforded only if it served or did not affect national interests.

Dejan Djokic is a contributor to `The Times History of the 20th Century' (HarperCollins, October)