The History of Serbia's Royal Family

The resting place of the entire Karadjordje Dynasty
The resting place of the entire Karadjordje Dynasty | © Predrag Lukic/shutterstock
Photo of John William Bills
22 February 2018

Serbia doesn’t like to do things in a standard way, and this is no less true when it comes to the tumultuous history of the royal family. That should be plural, as two dynasties have played hot potato with the Serbian crown over the last 200 years. The houses of Kardjordjević and Obrenović tell the story of modern Serbia.

A little bit of background

When historians talk of the centuries of Ottoman rule in Serbia, it is important to stress that the Serbs didn’t exactly go meekly into subjugation. Uprisings were every bit as common as mass migrations, many of the latter happening because of horrifically brutal responses to the former. The Serbs didn’t lie down and accept Ottoman rule, but they lacked the firepower to liberate themselves.

Everything changed at the beginning of the 19th century, when the corruption inside the Ottoman Empire made revolution a genuine possibility. The Ottomans tried to quell the rising tide of nationalism in Belgrade by allowing the Serbs to arm themselves against the violent ruling Janissaries, a decision that looks fairly idiotic in hindsight. The Sultan wanted the Serbs to fight for him, but the taste of freedom attained was just too strong.

The Serbian flag flying proud | © only_point_five/Flickr

Black George

The Serbs needed a ruler, and they found one in the shape of a huge pig farmer by the name of Djordje Petrović. Known as Karadjordje (Black George), Petrović was every bit as ruthless as the Janissaries that he helped overthrow. He was an illiterate man of peasant stock with a famously wild temper, a set of characteristics that worked well with his hands-on style of leadership. He led from the front, to say the least.

Karadjorde led the First Serbian Uprising, an attempted revolution that lasted from 1804 all the way through to 1813. It seemed as though it was going to be successful, until the Russians abandoned the Serbs at the Treaty of Bucharest in 1812. Karadjordje fled to Austria, leaving a vacuum at the head of the Serbian revolution.

Karadjordje leads his men at the Orašac Assembly in 1804 | © WikiMedia Commons

Miloš Obrenović

A very different style of leader stepped into the breach, beginning the battle for national domination that would last well over a century. Miloš Obrenović was political where Kardjordje was violent, initially gaining favour with the Ottomans because of this. He manoeuvred into a strong position, and the Second Serbian Uprising wasn’t followed by a third. When it ended in 1817, Serbia was a de-facto independent state.

Serbia was still a Principality however, and the reign of Prince Miloš came to an end under Russian pressure in 1839. His son Milan took over, but he was plagued by the fact that he was dying. He perished without ever knowing he was in charge. His ‘rule’ lasted just 26 days, before his brother Mihailo took over,. Mihailo didn’t have much more luck, and by 1842 he was ousted in favour of Karadjorde’s youngest son, Alexander.

The traditional meeting point in the centre of Belgrade | © Peter Kurdulija/Flickr

Back and forth

The Karadjorjević family was back in charge for just 16 years, but the weakness displayed by Alexander led to calls for Miloš Obrenović to return from exile. The former Prince returned to the throne in 1858, lasting two years before passing it to his brother once again. Mihailo did a better job second time around, but his reign was cut short when he was stabbed to death in Belgrade’s Košutnjak park.

His 13 year old brother ‘took over’, and it was under the watch of Milan Obrenović IV that Serbia became a Kingdom on March 6, 1882. This was little to do with the man in charge, who was every bit as useless as his namesake. He abdicated seven years to the day after he took over, eventually being replaced by his son Alexander.

Košutnjak Park, where Mihailo was assassinated | © WikiMedia Commons

The end of the Obrenović dynasty and the current day

Alexander was a wildly unpopular ruler, not least because of his socially questionable decisions when it came to romance. He married a women 12 years his senior, making the production of an heir extremely unlikely. This would eventually become a historical footnote, as Alexander and his wife were brutally murdered in 1903. They were shot and thrown out of the window of the Old Palace, a grisly end to the Obrenović dynasty. Which family replaced them on the Serbian throne?

The House of Karadjorjević, of course. Peter I took over following the coup, ruling for a solid 15 years. It was during this time the the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was established, the precursor to Yugoslavia. His son Alexander took over from him, the final character of note in this tempestuous story.

Alexander declared a royal dictatorship in 1929, changing the name of the country to Yugoslavia in the process. He ruled with an iron fist, telling the Italian government that if they wanted regime change in the state then they would have to kill him. In 1934, he was assassinated in France, the first assassination to be captured on film and the last European monarch to perish in this manner.

The Karadjordjević dynasty continued in name but little else. Petar II was the last reigning monarch, but he had very little influence. His son Alexander claims to be the rightful heir to the throne, but nobody is listening.

Oplenac, Serbia | © Goran Kovacevic / WikiMedia Commons

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