Obituary: Princess Paul of Yugoslavia

Neil R. Balfour
Monday 03 November 1997 00:02

Princess Olga of Greece: born Tatoi, Greece 11 June 1903; married 1923 Prince Paul of Yugoslavia (died 1976; one son, one daughter and one son deceased); died Paris 16 October 1997.

Princess Paul of Yugoslavia, born Princess Olga of Greece, was one of three sisters considered to be the great beauties of their era. Thanks both to her birth, and to her marriage to Prince Paul of Yugoslavia, much of her life was dominated by the impossibly tricky political situation in the Balkans before and during the Second World War.

She was the eldest daughter of Prince Nicholas of Greece and Denmark (son of King George I of Greece) and of the Romanov Princess, the Grand Duchess Helen Vladimirovna of Russia. Born in 1903, she was one of three daughters, the youngest of whom, Marina, was to become the Duchess of Kent. Of the three, Princess Olga was generally acclaimed the most beautiful.

Her early life in Greece was punctuated by periods of exile and relative poverty, as her parents followed the fortunes of the Greek royal family - into exile in 1917, back to Greece in 1921 and then again into exile the following year. She was devoted to both her parents, though her character was shaped more by her powerful and pious imperial Russian mother than by her artistic, relaxed and more liberal father. Indeed, she was naive, almost child-like in her simplicity and devoutness, yet showed a stern and uncompromising exterior.

After a brief engagement to Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark, Princess Olga married, on 22 October 1923, Prince Paul of Yugoslavia, the only son of Prince Arsene of Serbia and Aurore Demidoff, Princess of San Donato. Prince Paul was intelligent, civilised and Anglophile and, for the remaining 53 years of his life, he was to be her gentle and courteous husband.

From 1923 to 1941, Prince Paul and Princess Olga lived quietly in Yugoslavia, making frequent trips abroad to visit relatives and friends - particularly to London where they flourished as part of the Chips Channon set. Though Prince Paul created a Modern Art Gallery in Belgrade and made himself generally available to his cousin, King Alexander, he was given neither government nor official responsibilities. Until 1934, he lived a peaceful but frustrated existence.

Then, in 1934, the year that Princess Olga's sister Marina married the Duke of Kent, King Alexander of Yugoslavia was assassinated in Marseilles. Prince Paul was appointed Regent until King Peter reached his majority in September 1941. This was to change his life and the life of his wife and family for ever.

As an Oxford educated life-long supporter and admirer of Great Britain, whose father-in-law was the Duke of Kent, whose "best man" at his wedding in 1923 had been the future King George VI, Prince Paul sought, as Regent, to steer a course for his country which was consistent with his own pro- British sympathies internationally and with his instinct for tolerance and compromise at home.

For seven years Princess Olga could bask in the reflected glory of his successes. Domestically, he kept the disparate religions and races which comprised the recently formed South Slav Kingdom of Yugoslavia and internationally he had preserved the territorial integrity of his nation.

Until January 1941 Prince Paul was able to count on one important factor: the interests of Yugoslavia never crossed those of Britain. Deprived of military and financial aid from London, his government had had no option but to opt for a policy of neutrality. This was supported by Britain. In 1939 Churchill had pressed Chamberlain to send help to the Balkans: "If these states remain exposed to German and Italian pressure while we appear, as they may deem it, incapable of action, they will be freed to make the best terms possible with Berlin and Rome."

On 6 January 1941 the British Ambassador Sir Ronald Campbell called on Prince Paul and informed him that Churchill had decided neutrality was no longer enough. Britain needed to create a "side show" in the Balkans. Yugoslavia was to join a united Balkan front and British troops were to land in Greece. This, as Prince Paul knew only too well, would provoke Hitler into a Balkan offensive. Britain was calling for an act of Yugoslav suicide and in the end the whole of the Balkans would be overrun.

Prince Paul decided to play for time. He refused Hitler's invitation to sign the Tripartite Pact on 4 March. He returned to Belgrade the next day, resolved to fight. His Council of State, however, voted otherwise.

Within two weeks a British-inspired coup had toppled him. Twelve days later, Belgrade lay in ruins and Yugoslavia had been overrun. While the Germans advanced on Greece and the commonwealth troops sent there from North Africa were being decimated, Prince Paul, Princess Olga and their children were beginning their years of imprisonment and exile in Kenya.

On 27 August 1942, Prince Paul heard that Princess Marina's husband, and his loyal friend, the young Duke of Kent, had been killed in an aeroplane crash. King George arranged for Princess Olga to fly to London to comfort her sister.

If Princess Olga needed any convincing of how quickly and dramatically the British war-time propaganda could set to work, she saw it first hand that September in London. The press and even the House of Commons seemed filled with hatred for her husband.

When she returned to Kenya, she found he had gone to pieces. Living in the dilapidated home of the recently murdered Lord Errol, Prince Paul had given up hope. She set to work on his diaries and on the house with courage and humility. "If only the house was less depressing - still one must be grateful for a roof and food compared to the misery of others."

In late spring of 1943, at the instigation of General Smuts, Prince and Princess Paul were allowed to move to the Cape and their lives began to improve. Yet the official "treacherous quisling" line on her husband continued to hound them. In August 1946 their daughter Elizabeth, aged 10, struck a girl at school for taunting her that "her father had been friends with Hitler".

The moment when emotionally Britain's hand of friendship was once more held out to them came in early 1947 when King George and Queen Elizabeth visited South Africa. Despite official objections, the King and Queen insisted on receiving their old friends. This display of loyalty and affection changed Prince Paul's life.

They eventually returned to Europe in 1949 and settled in Paris. Their eldest son Alexander had joined the RAF, their younger son Nicholas had gone up to Oxford and Elizabeth was a boarder in England. At last they seemed to have found peace. But fate had one last cruel blow in store for them. In 1954 Nicholas was killed in a car accident. In many ways the family never recovered from this.

For the remainder of their lives, Prince Paul and Princess Olga were welcomed by all their old friends. They were invited to Buckingham Palace and Windsor. Gradually, the truth of what had really happened in 1941 began to trickle out. Prince Paul, to his wife's complete amazement, remained, to the end, a true friend of Britain.

Prince Paul died in Paris in 1976. Princess Olga lived for a further 21 years in their small and elegant corner house near the Trocadero. She retained her beauty and dignity (and her severe exterior) to the end.

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