How a Wedding Led to an Assassination That Led to a War
Now I realized that when Aleksander 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. —Rebecca West
Draga Mašin was not a stupid woman. She had been educated in multiple languages, written short stories, and published several original articles in different magazines and newspapers. She served on the editorial board of the women’s magazine Domaćica, and she translated French and German novels into Serbian.
Left an orphan when her father died in a mental hospital and her mother drank herself to death, Draga had married young. Unfortunately, her husband (a noted gambler (and alcoholic) had died three years into their marriage and left her with significant money problems. Draga was lucky – she was able to secure an appointment to serve the Serbian Queen Mother Natalija as one of her ladies-in-waiting. It wasn’t living the high life, but it was definitely an upper class and comfortable existence. It came as even more of a blessing because, although there was no evidence that she had caused his death and copious amounts of evidence that the man was a terrible and abusive husband whose dissolute lifestyle had caught up with him, Draga was still stained by association. Unconvinced of her innocence, her brother-in-law Alexander Mašin, kept her in his targeting sights. Because he was a high-ranking officer in the Serbian military, it was an easy proposition for him to keep tormenting her.
Although she had already lived a lifetime of highs and lows, Draga’s strange path was not yet straight nor finished. In 1895, while she was serving Queen Natalija in Biarritz, she saved Natalija’s son from drowning. Natalija’s son was no child – he was the nineteen-year-old King of Serbia, Alexander I Obrenović. That moment set in motion a chain of events that ended with the fall of empires, because Alexander fell in love with Draga.
The Balkans had long been the intrigue playground of Empires. The tug-of-war between the native Bosnians and the Hungarian Empire allowed the area to be conquered by the Ottoman Empire. Belgrade itself became a pawn in wars between the Ottomans and the Austrians. The Russians, considering themselves the Big Brother of the Slavic world, had dabbled in fomenting and funding uprisings and was playing a shadow game with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, both agitating behind the scenes to control the largest piece of the Balkans. Gentleman’s agreements and treaties were drawn up, but routinely flouted. Occasionally fighting broke out through proxies. Assassins were paid, nobles were paid off, and incentives to the rulers of the Balkan countries flowed.
It was into this backdrop that Alexander fell in love with a completely inappropriate woman.
In truth, Alexander I Obrenović was no marital prize. An American attache described him thus:
King Alexander, or King Sasha as he is nicknamed, is one of the most offensive And displeasing youths that could be found anywhere from the Bosphorus to the banks of the Tagus. His manners are coarse and brutal in the extreme, fully in keeping with his beetling brows, low forehead, and almost bestial nose and jaw, while the opinions which he vouchsafes in regards to women in general are characterized by an affection of cynicism and disillusion that is revolting indeed.
His father, the former King Milan, had abdicated and renounced his Serbian citizenship in favor of Alexander in 1889. His conservatism and dedication to the Austro-Hungarians (culminating in a war Serbia lost against Russian-backed Bulgaria in1885) had pushed his nobles and the Serbian people to the brink. He contrasted badly with his wife, the Queen Natalija, who was one of the most beautiful queens in Europe, beloved by the Serbian people, and an avowed Slavophile.
Alexander was caught between a father who was loyal to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a mother who was devoted to the Russians. But rather than turning away and forging a unique Serbian path, the young and weak king would shuffle back-and-forth between the two larger nations. Whichever parent had the last word would influence the next action.
His personal life was no better. The parental tug-of-war and the ridiculous actions taken by both parents (his father had managed to get his mother dragged from the palace by the military and forcibly expelled from Serbia upon Alexander’s ascension to the throne) gave Alexander no basis upon which to build a steadfast character. He waffled back and forth between extreme authoritarianism and loosening the reins of power. He refused to consider any of the possible marriage matches his father and mother tried to arrange for him despite the fact that he was the last of the Obrenović line. “Everybody wanted me to marry,” Alexander told Herbert Vivien. “Every politician had some perfect match up his sleeve, but I believe in a question of this kind a man should consult his own heart.”
From 1895 on, Alexander’s heart told him that no woman but Draga would do.
Serbians of all social classes began to revile her, gossiping about her past and making up “facts” to titillate more audiences. Their twelve-year age gap made her the scheming older Jezebel to the stupid and naive young king. Alexander Mašin gleefully repeated his assertion that Draga had killed his brother. She was described as scheming and yet stupid. She was thought to be an agent of Russia.
It didn’t help matters when Alexander appealed to the Russian Okhrana (Czar’s Secret Police) for protection. He was beginning to fear his own military. But that action just convinced everyone that Draga was manipulating him according to Russian plans.
Certainly the Russians were leaving nothing to chance – in 1899 they paid an assassin to kill the former King Milan, correctly assessing that Milan was the main instigator in attempts to turn Serbia to the sphere of Austrian influence. The attempt failed and Alexander was forced to jail several radicals connected to Russia and cause a diplomatic uproar.
To cement an alliance with the German-speaking world, in 1900 Alexander’s father Milan left for Germany to try and arrange a marriage to a German princess. Alexander took that moment to announce his upcoming marriage to Draga Mašin.
The former King Milan lost his temper, and Alexander permanently banned him from Serbia. Queen Natalija sent letters begging, pleading, and setting out examples of behavior that made her former lady-in-waiting completely unsuitable for the role of Queen of Serbia. Natalija was also banned.
The Interior Minister, Đorđe Genčić, shouted at Alexander in front of the entire court, “Sire, you cannot marry her! She has been everyone’s mistress, mine among the rest!”
Alexander immediately struck Genčić across the face, reminded him that Milan had repeatedly slept with Genčić’s wife, and then had him imprisoned.
It was only when a message from Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II arrived congratulating Alexander and Draga and offering to be their principal witness and best man by proxy that the Serbian government and people reluctantly backed down. Nicholas was Alexander’s godfather, but he was also giving education and sanctuary to young Alexander Karađorđević – the son of a possible rival to Alexander’s throne. The chance to play both ends off the middle proved to be too much for one of the main manipulators of the Balkan region.
On 5 August 1900 Alexander and Draga were married at St Michael’s Church in Belgrade. Although they participated in the ceremony, a cabal of Serbian military officers dated their conspiracy to unseat the weak king from that day. The love affair between Alexander I Obrenović and Draga Mašin was destined to end tragically.
All through this long period, many of the traitors were enjoying the confidence and even the generosity of the sovereign they had sworn to kill: eating at his table, wearing his livery, fawning for promotion and presents. — Herbert Vivian
Austria-Hungary and Russia continued their manipulations as well. Russia dangled the offer of a state visit to St Petersburg in front of the hapless young monarch. Austria-Hungary was actually able to secure a visit, and while there Alexander gave a State Order to the Austrian Finance Minister (who was also governing Bosnia) as a sign of Serbian friendship.
Sensing that they were losing the proxy war, the Russians made the decision that their position in the Slavic Balkans would be far better served if they were to bring back the rival Karađorđević family. To that end, the Russians inserted their own agent, Novak Perisic, into the Black Hand. Perisic was able to advance to a leadership position and begin to agitate heavily toward an extreme course of action. All the cabal was waiting for was an excuse.
They didn’t have long to wait. In 1902 King Alexander announced Draga’s pregnancy. The pregnancy proved to be false – after eight months there was no baby, and the entire nation knew there never had been. Rumors began to circulate that Draga was infertile and had planned to substitute her sister’s child in the place of the one she was unable to give birth to. Even worse, Draga’s dissolute brothers were behaving in completely unacceptable manners. They were constantly drunk and forced the generals to salute them, even though they were of lower rank.
As the nation was reeling from the news of the false pregnancy, the rumor that Draga had convinced Alexander to make her detested brother his heir began to circulate. That was all it took – the time was right for action.
On the night of June 10-11 (May 28-29 on the old calendar) 1903, the military conspirators met at the Srbski Kruna coffeehouse. They drank rakija to excess and waited until the earliest morning hours, then made their way to the Stari Dvor, where they had convinced other military officers to make the palace ready for them by cutting the electricity and leaving doors open.
The operation did not go as easily as planned. The king and queen had hidden themselves well, and although they threatened the king’s aide-de-camp Lazar Petrović with death, he refused to give them up. The conspirators killed him. After two hours of searching, the cabal tortured a servant, who nodded to the wardrobe the doomed Alexander and Draga were hidden within.
There are three versions of what happened after the royal couple were dragged from their wardrobe hiding place, each more gruesome than the last. In the first Alexander was told to abdicate, to which he responded, “I am not King Milan!” before being killed with his wife.
In the second and third, the cabal shot the two indiscriminately before setting upon them with sabers and knives and throwing them out the window so that the entire city of Belgrade could see what had become of them.
Whichever story is true, the cabal then went on to ransack the palace. While their attention was diverted with smashing and stealing, the Russian ambassador sent his servants to collect the bodies of the dead former monarchs.
This action was a final play in the manipulations of the Russian government’s attempts to seem neutral while molding situations to their best benefit. The Ambassador “rescued” the bodies and had them hosed off outside his residence before bringing in a doctor to perform autopsies. The doctor found that Alexander was mentally unstable and that Draga was infertile.
The conspirators had the excuse they needed for the wider world.
The new King, Petar Karađorđević was installed and his son – the future King Alexander I Karađorđević was sent from the St Petersburg court to finish his education in Serbia, his loyalty to Russia already assured.
Petar Karađorđević installed several members of the May Coup conspiracy in the highest levels of his government, where they continued to agitate to remove Austro-Hungarian power from the Balkans and create a “Greater Serbia” that united the Slavs of Southern Europe. Dragutin Dimitrijević, the leader of the royal assassination, was created the Head of Military Intelligence in 1913.
The conspiracy itself was joined after the fact by both Crown Prince Alexander and Prince Mirko of Montenegro after it changed its name in 1911. The new name was The Black Hand.
And so it happened that a weak young king fell in love with an older woman, leading to the creation of the organization that first assassinated the King of Serbia and then, eleven years later, planned, and facilitated the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. In a way it could be said that Draga Mašlin was the reason for World War I.
- May 20, 2020