The next time the red light of violence shone out it seemed of no importance, an irrelevant horror. When I was ten years old, on June 11, 1903, Alexander Obrenovich, King of Serbia, and his wife Draga were murdered in the Palace at Belgrade, and their naked bodies thrown out of their bedroom into the garden. The Queen’s two brothers and two Ministers were also killed. It was the work of a number of army officers, none of whom was then known outside Serbia, and the main characters were not interesting. Alexander was a flabby young man with pince-nez who had a taste for clumsy experiments in absolutism, and his wife — who strangely enough belonged to the same type as Marie Vetsera, though she had in her youth been far more beautiful — was understood to have the disadvantages of being disreputable, possessing an ambitious family, and lying under the suspicion of trying to palm off a borrowed baby as an heir to the throne.
There can be no question that these people were regarded with terrified apprehension by the
Serbians, who had freed themselves from the Turk not a hundred years before and knew that their independence was perpetually threatened by the great powers. It lingered in the mind only because of its nightmare touches. The conspirators blew open the door of the palace with a dynamite cartridge which fused the electric lights, and they stumbled about blaspheming in the darkness, passing into a frenzy of cruelty that was half terror. The King and Queen hid in a secret cupboard in their bedroom for two hours, listening to the searchers grow cold, then warm, then cold again, then warm, and at last hot, and burning hot. The weakling King was hard to kill: when they threw him from the balcony they thought him doubly dead from bullet wounds and sword slashes, but the fingers of his right hand clasped the railing and had to be cut off before he fell to the ground, where the fingers of his left hand clutched the grass. Though it was June, rain fell on the naked bodies in the early morning as they lay among the flowers. The whole of Europe was revolted.
Edward VII withdrew his Minister, and most of the great powers followed his example.
That murder was just a half-tone square, dimly figured with horror, at the back of my mind: a
Police News poster on the front page of a tabloid, seen years ago. But now I realize that when
Alexander and Draga fell from that balcony the whole of the modern world fell with them. It took some time to reach the ground and break its neck, but its fall started then. For this is not a strictly moral universe, and it is not true that it is useless to kill a tyrant because a worse man takes his place. It has never been more effectively disproved than by the successor of Alexander Obrenovitch.
Peter Karageorgevich came to the throne under every possible disadvantage. He was close on sixty and had never seen Serbia since he left it with his exiled father at the age of fourteen; he had been brought up at Geneva under the influence of Swiss liberalism and had later become an officer in the French army; he had no experience of statecraft, and he was a man of modest and retiring personality and simple manners.
But Peter Karageorgevich was a great king. Slowly and soberly he proved himself one of the finest liberal statesmen in Europe, and later, in the Balkan Wars which drove the Turk out of Macedonia and Old Serbia, he proved himself a magnificent soldier. Never was there worse luck for Europe.
Austria, with far more territory than she could properly administer, wanted more and had formed her Drang nach Osten, her ‘Hasten to the East’ policy. Now the formidable new military state of Serbia was in her way, and might even join with Russia to attack her. Now, too, all the Slav peoples of the Empire were seething with discontent because the free Serbians were doing so well, and the German-Austrians hated them more than ever. The situation had been further complicated since Rudolf’s day because the Empire had affronted Slav feeling by giving up the pretense that Bosnia and Herzegovina were provinces which it merely occupied and administered, and formally annexing them. This made many Slavs address appeals to Serbia, and she, as was natural in a young country, sometimes answered boastfully.
The situation was further complicated by the character of the man who had succeeded Rudolf as the heir to the Imperial Crown, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This unlovable melancholic had upset all sections of the people by his proposals, drafted and expressed without the slightest trace of statesmanship, to make a tripartite monarchy of the Empire, by forming the Slavs into a separate kingdom. The reactionaries felt this was merely an expression of his bitter hostility towards the Emperor and his conservatism; the Slavs were unimpressed, and declared they would rather be free like Serbia. The Austrian Chief of General Staff, Conrad von Hotzendorf, was speaking for many of his countrymen and most of his class when he ceaselessly urged that a preventive war should be waged against Serbia before she got too strong. None of these things would have happened if Alexander Obrenovich had not been murdered and given place to a better man.
Then, on June 28, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Government allowed Franz Ferdinand to go to
Bosnia in his capacity of Inspector-General of the Army to conduct manoeuvres on the Serbian frontier. It was strange that he should wish to do this, and that they should allow him, for it was St.Vitus’s Day, the anniversary of the Battle of Kossovo in 1389, the defeat of the Serb provinces by the Turks which meant five hundred years of enslavement. That defeat had been wiped out in the Balkan War by the recapture of Kossovo, and it was not tactful to remind the Serbs that some of their people were still enslaved by a foreign power. But Franz Ferdinand had his wish and then paid a visit to Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, where the police gave him quite insufficient protection, though they had been warned that attempts were to be made on his life. A Bosnian Serb named Princip, who deeply resented Austro-Hungarian misrule, was able without any difficulty to shoot him as he drove along the street, and accidentally killed his wife as well. The Austro-Hungarian Empire used this as a pretext to declare war on Serbia. Other powers took sides, and the Great War started.