In the cauldron of Balkan politics, King Peter I of Serbia (1844-1921) was considered a national hero for ending the deadlock between two warring families, the Karadordević and the Obrenović dynasties, who fought for the Serbian throne. When Prince Peter was born, his father the Karadordević Prince Alexander ruled. Prince Alexander had been brought-up under the patronage of Russia’s Tsar Alexander II and this allegiance would prove to be his undoing. When urged to join the allied armies of France, Britain and the Ottoman Empire against the Russians in the Crimean War (1853-6), he refused. Russia was defeated and Prince Alexander was forced to abdicate in 1858 in favour of Obrenović Prince Milan.
Prince Peter was fourteen when the ex-royal family fled to Wallachia then on to Geneva and eventually France where he studied at the prestigious Ecole Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr in Paris. As a deposed prince from a dynasty that had little likelihood of being reinstated, Prince Peter’s prospects were low. He resolved to fight and, between 1870 and 1871, he served as a mercenary in the Franco-Prussian War. He joined the Foreign Legion taking the nom de guerre Kara and led a guerrilla unit of Bosnian Serb insurgents who united to fight the Turks in 1875 when Serbia instigated an uprising against the ailing Ottoman Empire known as the Great Eastern Crisis.
In 1883 the nomadic Prince Peter married Princess Zorka, the eldest daughter of King Nicholas I of Montenegro and the couple lived at the Montenegran court for a decade before drifting to Paris and Switzerland. Unlike her sister Elena who would become Queen of Italy as consort of King Victor Emanuel III, Princess Zorka did not live to see her husband crowned king. She bore the prince five children but died in childbirth in 1890.
By the end of the nineteenth century, thunder rolled around the throne of Serbia. King Alexander I had married a commoner, Draga Masin, who was lady-in-waiting to his mother the Dowager Queen Natalija. Not only was Queen Draga divorced, she was also twelve-years Alexander’s senior. Her father died in a lunatic asylum and her mother was a dipsomaniac. The concern from the political class and the military was that the childless Queen Draga would persuade King Alexander to proclaim one of her two brothers heir to the Serbian throne.
In 1903 the Royal Palace of Belgrade was invaded by troops headed by Captain Dragutin Dimitrijević and Norman Perovic. Perovic was a member of Black Hand, a Serbian terrorist society that would assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 and light the touch paper for World War I. The king and queen were dragged from their hiding place in a wardrobe, brutally stabbed, shot at, dismembered then thrown out of a first floor window onto a compost heap in the gardens below.
In the wake of this brutal regicide, Prince Peter was proclaimed King of Serbia and restored the throne to the Karadordević dynasty for the first time in forty-five years. King Peter was fifty-eight years old when he returned in triumph to Belgrade and was crowned in 1904. Thus began a reign remembered as the Golden Age of Serbia. The king supported a benign, constitutional monarchy ruled by a democratic parliament. He was also a vocal supporter of a unified Yugoslavia. As an ambassador for his country, King Peter visited Paris, St Petersburg and London where he was feted as the peacemaker of a troubled and troublesome region.
Heir Crown Prince George, who was demonstrably unsuited to rule, was the thorn in King Peter’s side. A wild, reckless man, Crown Prince George attacked one of his servants in 1909; kicking him repeatedly in the stomach until the poor man haemorrhaged and subsequently died. With pressure from the military and the political class, Prince George was forced to renounce his claim in favour of younger brother Alexander. It was a supreme irony that when the monarchy was finally toppled by General Tito, Prince George was the only member of the Karadordević family allowed to remain in Belgrade.
As the Ottoman Empire suffered its death throes, King Peter led Serbia into the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 and in doing so doubled the size of his country with territories previously occupied by Turkey. But ailing health forced King Peter to retire from public duties and cede his duties to Crown Prince Alexander. With the outbreak of World War I, the king visited Serbian troops in the trenches and it was reported that the old solider picked-up a rifle and began shooting at enemy troops.
In 1915, Serbia was invaded by the combined forces of Germany, Austro-Hungary and Bulgaria. King Peter mobilised the home guard and personally led tens of thousands of civilian refugees up to and over the Albanian mountains towards the Adriatic Sea where allied ships transported them to the Greek island of Corfu. Serbia’s government in exile chose Corfu as their seat of high command and the king remained on the island for the duration of the war. In December 1918, King Peter was proclaimed King of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. He returned to the Royal Palace in Belgrade where he died in 1921 aged seventy-seven.