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The May Overthrow (Serbian: Мајски преврат, Majski prevrat) was a coup d'état in which Serbian King Alexander Obrenović and his wife, Queen Draga, were assassinated inside the Royal Palace in Belgrade on the night of 28-29 May 1903 by the Julian calendar (10-11 June by the Gregorian calendar). This act resulted in the extinction of the House of Obrenović which had been ruling Serbia since the middle of the 19th century. The assassination of the royal couple was organised by a group of army officers led by then-Captain Dragutin Dimitrijević Apis. After the May Overthrow, the Serbian throne passed to the rival House of Karađorđević. The coup had a significant influence on Serbia's relations with other European powers; the house of Obrenović was allied to Austria-Hungary, while the Karađorđević dynasty had close ties both with Russia and France. Both dynasties were receiving financial support from their powerful foreign sponsors.
From the time Serbia was freed from Ottoman Turkish control following the Serbian Revolution in 1804–1835, it emerged as an independent principality, ruled by various factions surrounding the Obrenović and Karađordević dynasties. These, in turn, were sponsored by the rival Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. The Obrenović family was mostly pro-Austrian while their hereditary enemies, the Karađordević family, were mostly pro-Russian. Each dynasty was financially aided by their powerful foreign sponsors.
After the assassination of Prince Mihailo Obrenović on 29 May 1868 (Old Style), his cousin, Milan Obrenović, became the newly elected Serbian prince. Milan was married to Natalie Keshko, a Moldavian boyar's daughter. He was an autocratic ruler and very unpopular among the people. During his rule, Serbia became an independent country and gained territory at the 1878 Congress of Berlin. Since Russia gave its support to Bulgaria at the Treaty of San Stefano, King Milan relied on Austria-Hungary as his ally. He proclaimed himself King in 1882. His military defeat in the war against Bulgaria and the Timok Rebellion, led by elements of the People's Radical Party, were serious blows to his popularity.
The situation was not any better in his private life. After ten years of marriage, quarrels between the King and the Queen were fiercer and more frequent. King Milan was not a faithful husband and Queen Natalija was greatly influenced by Russia. In 1886, the couple, mismatched both personally and politically, separated. Queen Natalija withdrew from the kingdom, taking with her the ten-year old Prince Alexander (later King Alexander I). While she was residing in Wiesbaden in 1888, King Milan was successful in recovering the Crown Prince, whom he undertook to educate. As a reply to the Queen's remonstrances, Milan exerted considerable pressure upon the metropolitan and obtained a divorce which was later declared illegal.
On 3 January 1889, Milan adopted the new constitution which was much more liberal than the existing 1869 Constitution. Two months later, on March 6, Milan suddenly abdicated the throne in favor of his son. No satisfactory reason was given for this step. Upon abdication, former King Milan put up a Regency to rule in the name of young King Alexander and retired to Paris to live as an ordinary citizen. Members of the Regency were Jovan Ristić, General Kosta Protić and General Jovan Belimarković. The Radicals were forgiven and allowed to return to political life. The Radical Sava Grujić formed a new government, which was succeeded by the Government of Nikola Pašić, the leader of the Radical Party. After King Milan's pro-Austrian policy, the Radical-led Government became closer to the Russian Empire. In the summer of 1891, Prince Alexander and Pašić visited Russian Tzar Alexander III Romanov. Romanov promised that Russia would not allow Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and that Russia would support Serbian interests in "Old Serbia" and Macedonia.
Alexander's mother, former Queen Natalija, while in the process of divorcing Milan, was banished from Belgrade upon Alexander's request and went to the French coastal resort Biarritz, together with her lady-in-waiting and the future queen Draga Mašin.
After the death of the Regent Protić on 4 June 1892, a conflict emerged between Pašić, who wanted the vacant position in the Regency for himself, and the Regent Ristić, who disliked Pašić. In 1892, Ristić transferred the government to the Liberal Party, the party he had always been linked with, and appointed Jovan Avakumović as the new Prime Minister. This step and the subsequent conduct of the Liberal politicians caused serious discontent in the country. On the 1st (13th)of April 1893, Prince Alexander, by a successful stratagem, imprisoned the Regents and the Ministers in the palace and, declaring himself of age, called the Radicals to office. In quick succession the new Prime Ministers were Radicals Lazar Dokić, Sava Grujić, Đorđe Simić and Svetozar Nikolajević. One of the guardsmen that helped Alexander imprison the Regents and the Ministers was then-Colonel Laza Petrović.
At the beginning of his reign, King Alexander was prescribing a program of Government in matters of the military, the economical and the financial life of the state. He disapproved an unprincipled party competition and in order to suppress the Radicals, on 9 January, he invited his father back to Serbia. The Radical Government immediately resigned and moved into opposition. The influence of ex-King Milan in state affairs could be seen immediately after his return to Serbia.
King Alexander tried to keep a policy of neutral governments but he did not have much success. Therefore, on 9 May 1894 he conducted another coup, abolished the Constitution from 1888 and put into force the old one from 1869. Milan's return to Serbia did not last long because he quickly got into a conflict with his son. A week after his departure, Queen Natalija was allowed to return to Serbia. Natalija invited Alexander to come to Biarritz. When he visited his mother, he met Draga - who was 12 years older than him - and immediately fell in love with her. Natalija knew about this affair but did not pay much attention to it believing that it would only be a short-lived adventure.
In the meantime, the progressivist Stojan Novaković formed a new government. On his father's command, King Alexander paid a visit to Vienna where, as a sign of Austro-Serbian friendship, he awarded the Austrian Minister of Finance Béni Kállay, who was also the Minister for Bosnia and Herzegovina. This was not well received in Serbia because of the Austro-Hungarian tendency to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Marriage to Draga Mašin Lunjevica
King Alexander invited his father to return once more to Serbia. Upon the arrival of former King Milan in Serbia on October 7, 1897, a new Government was formed with Vladan Đorđević as the new Prime Minister. Milan was appointed to the position of Supreme Commander of the Active Army of the Kingdom of Serbia. Together with the new Government, Milan tried to find a suitable princess from some Western court to become Alexander's bride not knowing that Alexander was meeting regularly with Draga.
Due to the growing involvement of King Milan in daily Serbian political life, and especially due to his anti-Radical policy, an unemployed worker tried to assassinate Milan on 24 June 1899 causing Milan to begin reckoning with the Radicals in every way. However, Alexander now had to find a way to get rid of his father so that he could marry Draga. He decided to send King Milan and Prime Minister Đorđević outside the country. Under the pretext of negotiating his marriage to the German Princess Alexandra zu Schaumburg-Lippe, Alexander sent his father to Karlsbad and Prime Minister Đorđević to Marienbad to sign a contract with Austro-Hungary. As soon as he removed the opponents, Alexander was able to announce his engagement to Draga Mašin.
King Alexander's popularity further declined after his marriage to Draga Mašin, the former lady-in-waiting of his mother Queen Nataly and widow of engineer Svetozar Mašin. Draga was 12 years older than Alexander. At that time it was very unusual for a king or heir to the throne to marry a woman who was not a member of the nobility. Alexander's father, the former King Milan Obrenović, did not approve of the marriage and refused to return to Serbia. He died in Vienna in 1901. Another opponent of the marriage was the Dowager Queen Nataly who wrote a letter to Alexander containing all of the ugliest rumors regarding Draga that were circulating in Russia. Minister of Foreign Affairs Andra Đorđević visited the Belgrade Metropolitan and asked them to refuse to give their blessing. Alexander also visited the Metropolitan and threatened that he would abdicate if he could not receive their blessing. As a sign of protest, the entire Đorđević's government resigned. Among the fiercest opponents to the marriage was Đorđe Genčić, Minister of the Interior in Vladan Đorđević's government. Due to his public condemnation of the engagement, Alexander had him jailed for seven years. The situation was resolved by Russian Tsar Nicolas Romanov who agreed to be Alexander's honorary best man.
The wedding took place on 23 July 1900. One of officers in the procession was Dragutin Dimitrijević Apis. Over strained relations with the outside world due to his unpopular marriage, King Alexander's foreign policy turned to Russia. The King had previously released the radicals from prison who had been accused of backing the Ivandan attempt on former King Milan.
After the death of his father Milan, King Alexander, as a sign of good will due to the Queen's alleged pregnancy (a public secret existed that she was actually sterile since an accident in her youth, which Alexander refused to believe), pardoned all political prisoners, including Đorđe Genčić and the remaining Radicals. On 20 March 1901, he put together a new government led by the Radical Mihailo Vujić. The government consisted of representatives from the People’s Radical Party and the Liberal Party. King Alexander then brought about a new octroyed constitution whose main feature was the introduction of a bicameral system consisting of the Senate (upper house) and the National Assembly (lower house). The new constitution gave the monarch the right to appoint the majority of the Senators, which would defend his interests.
The false pregnancy of Queen Draga created a huge problem for King Alexander. The first reaction came from Russian Tsar Nicholas II who did not want to receive the King and Queen upon the latter's planned visit to Russia. Alexander blamed Radicals for it, made a new coup and installed a government headed by General Dimitrije Cincar-Marković on 6 November 1902.
Due to increasing repulsion by the Russian court, King Alexander again tried to approach Austria in the autumn of 1902. He had taken some earlier steps in January 1902 when he sent his personal secretary to Vienna with the promise that it would solve the question of his successor in agreement with the neighboring monarchy by adopting one of the descendants of female line of Obrenovićs, living in Austria-Hungary. On the other hand, Draga believed that Alexander should adopt her brother Nikodije Lunjevica for the succession.
Dimitrije Tucović organized a rally of dissatisfied workers and students on 23 March 1903 which turned into open conflict with the police and the army resulting in the deaths of six people. Knowing that he would not be able to win new elections, the king staged two coups within one hour. With the first coup Alexander abolished his octroyed constitution and disbanded the Senate and National Assembly. Then the King appointed new members to the Senate, the State Council and the courts. In the second coup, the King restored the constitution he had abolished just a few hours earlier. Following this, the government conducted elections on 18 May 1903 (31 May by Gregorian calendar) which the government won. This was the final political victory for King Alexander I.
Army officers conspiracy
Junior officers had complained that the Queen’s false pregnancy diminished the international reputation of Serbia. They were also unhappy with the constant temper tantrums thrown by her brother Nikola Lunjevica, himself a junior military officer who once killed a policeman whilst drunk. Nikola, as the king's brother-in-law, had also demanded that senior officers report and salute to him.
In August 1901, Cavalry Lieutenant Antonije Antić (Genčić's nephew), Captains Radomir Aranđelović and Milan Petrović, and Lieutenants Dragutin Dimitrijević and Dragutin Dulić organised a plot to assassinate the King and Queen.
The first meeting was on 6 September 1901 in Lieutenant Antić’s apartment. Later, Lieutenant Milan Marinković and Lieutenant Nikodije Popović joined the conspiracy. According to the original plan, Alexander and Draga were to be killed by knives dipped in potassium cyanide at a party at Kolarac Endowment for the Queen's birthday on 11 September, but the plan failed since the royal couple never arrived. After the details of the plot were laid out among the military ranks, the conspirators decided to acquaint other politicians and citizens with their intentions. The plot was first introduced to Đorđe Genčić. Genčić discussed the idea with foreign representatives in Belgrade and also travelled abroad trying to find out how to create changes to the Serbian throne if the King died without children. It turned out that Austria-Hungary did not intend to nominate any of its princes as it expected difficulties and obstacles to be put forward by Russia. Russia, for the same reasons, fearing resistance from Vienna, was not willing to outsource one of its princes. Among the conspirators was Aleksandar Mašin, a retired staff colonel and brother of Draga's first husband.
Prince Mirko of Montenegro was one of the candidates for the Serbian throne. However, it was revealed that the candidacy of Peter Karađorđević, who lived as an ordinary citizen in Geneva, would not be met with any obstacle. Therefore, Nikola Hadži Toma, a merchant from Belgrade, was introduced into the plot and sent to Switzerland to meet with Peter to acquaint him with the conspiracy. Peter did not want to commit himself to regicide and, relying on his mood, a group of older conspirators, which was headed by General Jovan Atanacković, tried to impose his opinion that they only force King Alexander to abdicate the throne and exile him from the country. However, thinking this to be the worst solution and might trigger a civil war, was put forward by Captain Dragutin Dimitrijević and accepted. Therefore, it was firmly decided that the King and Queen should be assassinated.
After another failed attempt to kill the Royal couple on the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Belgrade Choral Society, the group decided to stage the killing in the palace. They also decided to recruit officers of the Royal Guard. Lieutenant Colonel Mihailo Naumović, a grandson of Karađorđe's bodyguard Naum, who was killed together with Karađorđe in Radovanjski Lug in 1817 by order of Miloš Obrenović, and thus having sympathy toward Karađorđevićs, agreed to take part in the plot.
Rumors about the plot leaked out to the public but at first the King dismissed them as false and someone's propaganda. Eventually, a few officers were brought before the military court but they were acquitted due to lack of evidence. Fearing that they could be discovered, conspirators decided to act on the first occasion when Naumović was in charge, during the night of 28-29 May (Old Style).
The assassination of the royal couple was carried out by conspirators who were all Army officers. They were led by Captain Dragutin Dimitrijević Apis who was in the pay of the Russians and the leader of the secret society Ujedinjenje ili Smrt (Union or Death), popularly referred to as the Black Hand, which supported the plot. The killings took place as planned on the night between the 28th and 29th of May, (Old Style calendar - still in use in Serbia at the time).
The conspirators from the interior arrived in Belgrade the day before, under various pretexts. Together with their Belgrade comrades, they were divided into five groups and spent the night in various pubs in town. That night King Alexander had dinner with his ministers and the Queen's family. Naumović gave a sign to the conspirators that the royal couple was asleep by sending one of his subordinates to bring his tippet from his home. After midnight Captain Dragutin Dimitrijević Apis commanded the departure toward the royal palace. At the same time, Colonel Aleksandar Mašin went to the 12th regiment barracks to take command. Lieutenant Colonel Petar Mišić was preparing to depart with his 11th regiment toward the court.
Several units of conspirators surrounded the houses of the Prime Minister Dimitrije Cincar-Marković and senior officers loyal to King Alexander. Guard Lieutenant Petar Živković, on duty that night, unlocked the gate at 2:00 AM. Searching for the royal couple was unsuccessful for nearly two hours. During this time, Captain Jovan Miljkovic, an aide familiar with the conspiracy but who refused to participate, and Mihailo Naumović (unknown to the conspirators) were killed. The doors to the King’s bedroom were shattered with dynamite, but no one was in bed. Unknown to the others, Apis spotted someone escaping down the stairs into the courtyard. He thought it was the King and ran after him. It turned out to be one of the King's loyal guardsmen and in the gunfight that erupted, Apis was wounded with three bullets to his chest, surviving due to his strong constitution.
Nervous because of the failure of the search, the approaching dawn, and the disappearance of Apis, who was lying wounded in the basement of the palace, the conspirators believed that the plot had failed. They had soldiers bring the King's first aide-de-camp, General Laza Petrović, who had been captured as soon as the conspirators entered the courtyard. He was ordered to reveal whether there was a secret room or passageway, threatening to kill him within ten minutes if he failed to comply with their demands. Petrović peacefully waited for the expiration of the deadline. The subsequent course of events is not precisely known.
According to one version, the officers again entered the Royal bed chamber where Cavalry Lieutenant Velimir Vemić observed a recess in the wall which appeared to be the keyhole of a secret door. The King and Queen were hidden there. According to another version, which was partially accepted for the script of the series The End of Obrenović Dynasty, the King and Queen were hiding behind the mirror in the Royal bedroom where there was a small room used for the Queen's wardrobe. Cupboards covered a hole in the floor which was the entrance to the secret passage (which allegedly led to the Russian Embassy located opposite the palace).
Upon the conspirators call to come out, Alexander demanded from the conspirators that they confirm the oath. According to one version, they did and according to another, they threatened to bomb the palace if Alexander didn't open the passage. After Alexander and Draga came out, Artillery Captain Mihajlo Ristić fired at them using all the bullets in his revolver, followed by Vemić and Captain Ilija Radivojević. The King fell dead from the first shot. The Queen tried to save his life by blocking his body with her own. General Petrović was killed immediately afterwards and the bodies of the King and Queen were thrown from a window.
What is certainly known of the events of that night is that the King and Queen were eventually discovered hiding inside a wardrobe and then both savagely killed. Their bodies were mutilated and afterwards tossed from a second floor window onto piles of manure. Diplomatic correspondent, historian and author C. L. Sulzberger relates the account given to him by a friend of his who had participated in the assassination under Captain Apis: The assassination squad "burst into the little palace, found the King and Queen cowering in a closet (both in silken nightgowns), stabbed them and chucked them out the window onto garden manure heaps, hacking off Alexander's fingers when he clung desperately to the sill". This account would indicate that King Alexander was killed after he had been thrown out of the palace. The assassination of King Alexander coincided with the 35th anniversary of the assassination of his predecessor Prince Mihajlo. The remains of the Royal couple were buried in St. Mark's Church.
That same night, the Queen’s brothers Nikodije and Nikola Ljunjevice were killed by a firing squad commanded by Lieutenant Vojislav Tankosić. Prime Minister General Dimitrije Cincar-Marković and Minister of Military General Milovan Pavlović were killed in their homes. The third member of Cincar-Marković's government, Interior Minister Velimir Todorović, who was also marked to be killed, was instead severely wounded and lived until 1922.
Members of the new interim government soon gathered under the Presidency of Jovan Avakumović. Aleksandar Mašin was appointed Minister of Civil Engineering, Jovan Atanacković was appointed Minister of the Army, while Đorđe Genčić became Minister of the Economy. Besides conspirators, members of the new government were: Radical Stojan Protić, Liberal Vojislav Veljković, leaders of the Serbian Independent Radical Party Ljubomir Stojanović and Ljubomir Živković and progressivist Ljubomir Kaljević. Nikola Pašić, Stojan Ribarac and Jovan Žujović were also considered to be members of the new government but were absent from Belgrade at the time of the overthrow.
The National Assembly had a session on 4 June 1903, voted Peter Karađorđević as King of Serbia and elected the mission which went to Geneva to bring him back to Serbia. He ascended the Serbian throne as Peter I.
The news of the coup was received with mixed feelings by the Serbs. Many who had blamed the king for the situation in the country were satisfied, while those who supported him were disappointed. In Parliamentary elections a few days before the coup, the King’s candidate had received a full majority. Angry elements within the Army mutinied in Niš in 1904, taking control of the Niš district in support of the fallen King, and demanding that the assassins be tried for their crimes. Their aim was also to show that the army as a whole was not responsible for the coup of May 1903. As a supporter of the Obrenović dynasty, the future Field-Marshal Živojin Mišić retired in 1904.
International outrage over the coup came swiftly. Russia and Austria-Hungary vehemently condemned the brutal assassination. The United Kingdom and the Netherlands withdrew their ambassadors from Serbia, thus freezing diplomatic relations, and imposed sanctions, which were not abolished until 1905. British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour condemned the assassinations four days later in his speech in the House of Commons saying that British Ambassador Sir George Bonham was only accredited in front of King Alexander, thus with his death, relations between United Kingdom and Serbia were terminated. Bonham left Serbia on June 21. The British government demanded Belgrade punish the regicides as a sign of regret. However, the conspirators were so powerful that it was unrealistic for the Serbian government to act on British demands.
Austrian Ambassador Konstantin Dumba persuaded Austrian Foreign Minister Agenor Gołuchowski to coordinate with Russian Foreign Minister Vladimir Lamsdorf to diplomatically boycott Serbia until officers involved in the coup were removed from influential positions in the government and the army. The boycott had an almost complete success. As of January 1904 only the ambassadors of Greece and the Ottoman Empire stayed in Serbia.
As a result, new King Peter decided to remove from court aide-de-camps that had taken part in the coup, while at the same time promoting them to higher positions. Aleksandar Mašin became Acting Chief of Staff, while Colonel Čedomilj Popović became Commander of Danube Division. This satisfied Russia, who returned its ambassador and was followed by other states, leaving only the United Kingdom and the Netherlands alone in boycotting the new Serbian government.
During this time, Serbian statesmen became more and more nervous because of Britain's (then the world's leading empire) refusal to reestablish diplomatic relations, especially after the Ilinden uprising and due to the deteriorating situation in Macedonia. The government of Ljubomir Stojanović was ready to fulfill British demands, but it was Nikola Pašić's government which finally did so. The conspirators were brought to trial, which forced some into early retirement. Other junior conspirators were never punished for their complicity in the assassination. Dimitrijević was later promoted to the rank of colonel and served as an officer in the intelligence sector of the Serbian Army. British-Serbian diplomatic relations were renewed by decree signed by King Edward VII three years after the May Overthrow.
After the coup, life in Serbia continued as before, however now with King Peter exerting minimal interference in politics, not wishing to oppose the Black Hand which had become increasingly powerful. The turnaround in the external policy between Serbia and Austria-Hungary led to the Customs or Pig War from which Serbia emerged as the victor. With senior conspirators forced into retirement, Dimitrijević was the de facto leader of the conspirators. In 1914, the Black Hand would order the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, carried out by members of Mlada Bosna launching World War I.
Dimitrijević and the Black Hand were involved in another scandal. Nikola Pašić decided to get rid of the most prominent members of the Black Hand movement, by then officially disbanded. Dimitrijević and several of his military colleagues were arrested and tried on false charges of the attempted assassination of Regent Alexander I Karađorđević. On 23 May 1917, following the so-called Salonika Trial, Colonel Dimitrijević, Major Ljubomir Vulović and Rade Malobabić were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. A month later, on 11, 24 or 27 June they were executed by firing squad. After World War II, Apis and his associates were rehabilitated.
- Serbian Revolution
- Alexander I of Serbia
- Black Hand
- White Hand
- Mlada Bosna
- Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria
- Salonika Trial
- C. L. Sulzberger, The Fall of Eagles, p.202
- Sulzberger, p.202
- Sulzberger, p.201
- Ćorović, Vladimir (1997). Istorija srpskog naroda.
- Sulzberger, pp.202, 221
- Note:Although Foreign Affairs correspondent and historian C. L. Sulzberger states in his book The Fall of Eagles that The Black Hand was already formed by May 1903, author Micheal Shackelford claims the society came into existence under the name The Black Hand on 9 May 1911
- Slobodan G. Marković. "Kriza u odnosima Kraljevine Srbije i Velike Britanije". NIN. Retrieved 20 July 2010.
- C. L. Sulzberger The Fall of Eagles, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1977
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