Serbian Royalty: Basic History

Figure 1.--

The history of Serbia and other Balkan states is less familar than that of many Western European countries. We thus are roviding some basic historical information to put the Serbian royal family in historical perspective. We trace the country's history from the Medieval era through the Ottoman Empire to the creation of Yugoslavia. Serbia was a medevial Christian kingdom until conquered by the Ottoman Empire in the 14th century after the battle of Kosovo Polje. Serbia remerged in the 19th century, first during the Napoleonic Wars, but after being again suppressed by the Ottomans, again later in the 19th century. Several other Balkan states rmerged as Ottoman power receeded. he lack of defined boundaries and mixed populations created a unstable situation and several wars, both with the Ottomans and other Balkan states. Serbian nationalism was the spark that set off World War I. After the War, Serbia became the nucleus for Yugoslavia

The Slavs

The Barbarian tribes which invaded the western Roman Empire or best known to history. The Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire as conronted by the same problem. The modern Serbs descend from the barbarian tribes who invaded the Byzantine Empire from the north. Barbarian raids into Byzantium continued throughout the 5th century. There is no historical consensus as to just which Barbarian tribes were involved. Historical sources mentioned Scythes, Bulgarians, and Goths. At the beginning of the 6th century, during the reign of Justin I (518-527), a raid of Slavs (Antis), who lived in steppes north of the mouth of the Danube, was mentioned in Byzantum records for the first time.

Medieval Serbia

The Serbs by the second half of the 9th century had been converted to the Orthodox Christianity. Other Slavs like Albanians and Croats adhered to Roman Catholic church. The Byzantine Emperor designated provincial administrators ("Zupans") to rule in their name. There were a variety of military campaigns both with Byzantium and the encroaching Bulgars. Even so the Slavs for many years continued to accept the their position as a vassal entity within the Byzantine Empire. Finally one Byzantine zupan, Stefan Voyislav ( -1050) proclaimed himself Prince of Serbia. He was succeeded by his son, Michael ( -1080) and grandson Constantine ( -1106) as Serbian Kings then by a great-grandson, Vladimir ( -1115) and Grubesha ( -1122). With the extinction of this line, the great-grandson of Zupan Vukan of Rascia, Stefan I Nemanya ( -1200), emerged as paramount Prince or King of Serbia. The second of his two legitimate sons, Saint Sava ( -1237) became Archbishop of Serbia and subsequently the Serbian patron. Stefan's elder Stefan II seceeded his father as King of Serbia (1217). A descendent Stefan Dushan (Urosh IV) ( -1355) proclaimed himself Emperor of the Greeks and Serbs (1346). Dusha's son Stefan Urosh V was murdered by Lazar Grebelyanovich ( -1367). Lazar married Milica, a distant descendent of Stefan II througgh an illegitimate son--Vuk, Prince of Zeta. The marriage provided Lazar a certain legitimacy.

Kosovo Polje (1389)

Lazar Grebelyanovich was killed at the Battle of Kosovo Polje 1389 when the Serbs suffered a disatrous defeat at the hands of Turkish Sultan Murat I. This ended the Serbian royal line and devestated the Serbian nobility. This ended the existance of Serbia as an indepebdent state. Serbia and the Ottoman Empire fought the Battle of Kosovo Polje on St Vitus' Day (June 28). The basic oitline of the battle is know as well as the outcome. It essentially settle the fate of the Balkans for 500 years. Actually there are few reliable sources surviving and the battle continues to inflame political passions in the 21st century. This is because most Serbs know the battle through emotionally charged epic poetry. Historians other than Serbian nationalists question the view of the battle surviving in poetic sources. Ottoman Sultan Murad (1326?–1389) was one of the great warrior Ottoman sultans. He was the son and successor of Orkhan to the Ottoman throne. Murad greatly expanded Ottoman territory in Europe, although he was unablr to take Constantinople because of the massive fortfied walls, although he forced Byzantine Emperor John V to pay tribute (1373). He conquering Macedonia and made Adrianople his residence. The southern Balkans became the Ottoman province of Rumelia. He persued a feudal policy of granting Muslim suporters conquered lands as fiefs. Murad initiated the policy of taking Christian youths as slaves who were used to form the feared Janissaries. Murad organized a massive force and struck into the Balkans. His army contained units from both the the Anatolian heartlands and Rumelia, the southern Balkans previously conquered. King Lazar of Serbia who had receently seized the crown organized a Christian coalition to resist the Ottoman Army. Lazar's force consisted of Serbs resiforced by Bosnians. Lazar's force was, however, much smaller than Murad's invading army. Reliable historical accounts of this battle are scarce, and they've been largely displaced in the Serbian tradition by the epic poetry, which tell a distorted picture of the events. The two armies fought at Kosovo Polje. The Balkan army was commanded by and Lazar's son-in-law, General Vuk Branković, on the left flank, Lazar commanding the center, and Bosnian Duke Vlatko Vuković commanding the right flank. The actual battle was confused by the assaination of Sultan Murad. Miloš Obilić posing as a deserter managed to enter the Sultan's camp. He managed to enter Murad's tent and stabbed him with a poisoned dagger. Murad's son Bayezid quickly took control. After the battle Bayezid ordered the death of many Balkan prisoners. The Serbs began the battle with a charge of their heavy armored cavalry. This severely damaged the Ottoman flank commanded by Jakub Celebi. The Serbs also pushed back the Ottoman center. It was Bayezid's command that heald steady against attacks from Vlatko Vuković's Bosnian force. The Ottomans counter attacked and heavily damaged the Balkan army as fighting continued. Both the Balkans and Ottomans suffered heavy losses, bith withdawing from Kosovo Polje. The losses sustanied by the Balkan army, however, were catastrophic from which the country could not recover. The Serbian nobility meaning the political elite was decestated. King Lazar and most of the Serbian warrior knights were killed. The Ottomans were able to seize control of both Serbia and Bosnia.

The Ottomans

The Serbian kingdom was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire after Lazar was killed at the disatrous battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389. Various of Lazar’s descendants ruled in a much reduced Serbia as Despots under the Turks until the late 16th century, and a further descendant George (d 1711) established his rule there in the early 18th century.

The Southern Slavs

The independence of the southern Slavs had been a dream for the centuries of Ottoman rule, despite their profound religious and cultural difference which continue in the countries formed from Yugoslavia today. The final steps toward independence from the Ottoman Empire resulted in the establishment of the Karageorgevitch dynasty which is now two centuries old.

Napoleonic Wars

The Karageorgevitch dynasty was established during the Napoleonic era when the map of Europe was being redrawn. A wealthy Serbian clan chief and merchant, Djordje Petrovic--known to his followers as Karadjordje (Black George, after his dark looks) --led the Serbs in an 1804 uprising against the Ottoman Empire that at the time controlled the Balkans. Karadjordjevic founded one of Serbia's two competing royal dynasties. His revolution was successful for a time. He established a government in Belgrade and during 1811 was confirmed as lawful ruler and the right of succession was vested his family.

The 19th Century

The Ottoman Turks returned to Belgrade in 1813. Russia and Austria at the time was focused on defeating Napoleon. Karadjordje was forced to fled to Austria. Another revolt broke out, this time led by the founder of a second Serbian dynasty. Usually a royal dynasty consists of several monarchs and then passes from history and is replced by a new dynasty. This was mot the case in Serbia, The two dynasties achieved and lost power several times. Karadjordje's son, Prince Alexander, returned to rule Serbia in 1842, but was deposed in 1858. The Balkans in the late-19th century emerged as the most unstable area in Europe. The new states that emerged from the declining Ottoman Empire did not have well defined borders. Thus disputes and claims both with the Ottomans and among themselves. The situation was further destabilized by the conflicting interests of Russia and Austria. Another problem was that under Ottomon rule, the different etnic and linguistic groups had mixed to a considerable degree. This complicated the ability of the new Balkan states to peacefully resolve border issues.

Early 20th Century

King Aleksandar and his controversial wife was briutally murdered by the Servian Army (1903). The Serbian Army named his replacement Prince Peter Karadjordjevic--grandson of dynasty's founder, Black George--came to the throne. The choice was approved by the Sebian Parliament after the restoration of the 889 constitution. King Petar I brought democracy and leadership to Serbia. He had John Stuart Mills' essay "On Liberty" translated into Serbian. The Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913 resulted in the expansion of Serbia, the annexation by Austria of Bosnia-Herzegovina. This enraged both neighboring Serbia and the people of Croatia. Nationalist aspirations for independence from Austria finally led to the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo during 1914 and within days the First World War had engulfed Europe.

World War I

The Austrian Army encountered difficulties in their offensive against Serbia suported by the Russians. Finally with the support of the German Army, the Serbian Army was smashed and Serbia occupied by the Central Powers. The subsequent formation by the southern Slavs of an exile committe promoting national unity paved the way for the creation of a Yugoslav state. This committe and representatives of the Serbian Government in exile signed the Corfu Declaration in 1917 which provided for the establishment of a federated constitutional monarchy under the Karageorgevich line of Serbian kings.

Post World War I

The disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the final months of World War I gave trmendous impetus to the southern Slav independence movement. representatives of three southern Slav peoples, before the end of the War in 1918, proclaimed by mutual consent a new "Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes" under the Crown of Peter I. The Montenegro National Assembly voted to join the other southern Slavs.

Prince Alexander, Serbian Regent, during the illness of his father, Peter I, reigned under a provisional giovernment. The establishment of constitutional government was delayed by a series of boundary disputes with neighbiring countries, including former World War I ally Italy. Despite opposition by the Croats, a highly centralized Yugoslav Government was established by a conservative coalition.

Alexander was crowned King in 1921 after the death of his father King Alexander I, who had acted as Regent for his ailing father since 1914, had earned national fame as a soldier in the Balkan Wars and the First World War. He married Princess Marie of Romania in 1922. They had three sons: Crown Prince Peter, Prince Tomislav, and Prince Andrej (figure 1). I have little information on how the princes were raised and dressed.

Figure 1.--King Peter II between his brothers Prince Tomislav and Prince Andrej.

The new kingdom faced many threats. Neighboring states coveted many countries territories and internal rivalries between the Serbs and Croats increased tensions still further. Some Yugoslavs believe that it was clear by 1929 that the King had no option but to impose a Royal dictatorship. Serbian domination of the government had caused resentment by Croats, Slovenes, and other natiionalities. A crisis resulted from the killing of a Croat national leader. Civil war seemed imminent. The King claimed he assumed power reluctantly and he promised to restore democracy to the newly renamed Kingdom of Yugoslavia once unity had been achieved and bureaucratic corruption expunged. His goverment vigorosly repressed opposition. He was assassinated during 1934 in Marseilles by a Macedonian terrorist working with Croatian extremists, reportedly with Hungarian and Italian support. The French Foreign Minister, Louis Barthou, also died in the attack.

King Alexander's son, Crown Prince Peter, was only 11 years old at the time of his death when he became King. Three Regents were appointed. His great-uncle Prince Paul--married to Princess Olga of the Hellenes (Greece)-- became the Prince Regent. Constant pressure from The German Government after the NAZI rise to power brought Yugoslavia increasingly into the German orbit through a series of trade and diplomatic agreements. This policy was unpopular, especially with the Serbs.

Figure 2.--Prince Paul, Princess Olga, Prince Alexander, Prince Nicholas and Princess Elizabeth.

The Second World War

All but one of Yugoslavs neighbors by 1941 were under NAZI domination or influence. Prince Paul to avoid bloodshed felt obliged to sign a formal pact with Germany and Italy. Shortly afterwards, however, on March, 27 1941, he was unseated in a coup and the young King Peter II was declared of age. Within a week, Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Italy invaded Yugoslavia and the government was forced to surrender. While a military disaster for the Yugoslavs, the Germans action in forced them to delay the planned invasion of Russia. The precious weeks of delay was a critical element in the German failure to smash the Red Army before the onset of winter in 1941. King Peter II, with the Yugoslav Government, made his way via Athens, Jerusalem and Cairo to London where he joined numerous other governments in exile from NAZI occupied Europe.

The Germand divided Yugoslavia to satisfy Italian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, and demands and established a puppet Croat state proclaimed. The atrocities which followed, primarily directed at the Serbs is an important element in the emnity which emerged after the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1992. After the collapse of the Yugoslavian army in 1941, two rival resistance groups to the occupying forces eventually formed. The first was the Royalist Chetniks, led by the loyalist General Draza Mihailovic, Minister for Defense in the exile government. The other was the revolutionary Partisans led by the communist Josip Broz, known to the world later as Tito. A bitter civil war followed as the same time they fought the Germans.

The Allies, having initially supported Mihailovic, then threw their support behind Tito. Yugoslavia was the only occupied country to liberate pats of the country with partisan forces. The Germans were fonally cleared from the country when Partisans entered Belgrade during 1944 in the wake of Soviet tank brigades and established a Communist Government, but one independent from Moscow. The communists in November 1945 the abolished the monarchy. This was done without a referendum and Yugoslavia remained a totalitarian single party state for more than four decades. King Peter II never abdicated.


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Created: December 8, 1998
Last updated: 2:26 AM 9/11/2006