The modern Serbian monarchy was unique among Balkan royalty. Not only was it ethnically Serbian, it was also fiercely contested, with the crown switching back and forth between the rival Karađorđević and Obrenović dynasties. Even in a land of unstable thrones, the Serbian crown was particularly insecure: out of ten monarchs, only one reigned continuously and died of natural causes. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that he only reigned 26 days.
Karađorđe (r. 1804-1813)
When the Serbs rose up in 1804 against the janissaries occupying Serbia and the Ottoman Empire that ruled the region, Karađorđe (Black George), the son of a pig farmer, was chosen as the leader of the revolt. When the First Serbian Uprising was put down in 1813, Karađorđe fled Serbia. When he tried to return in 1817, he was killed by Miloš Obrenović. Miloš was a fellow rebel, who had launched the Second Serbian Uprising in 1815, but he feared that Karađorđe’s popularity would undermine his own power. Miloš stressed to the Ottoman sultan that his goal was to heal Serbia, not to win Serbian independence. In a deal with the Ottoman sultan, Miloš had Karađorđe, whom the Ottomans considered far more dangerous, killed.
Miloš Obrenović (r. 1815-1839)
So were sowed the seeds of dynastic conflict for the remainder of the century. But for now, Miloš, unchallenged ruler of the Serbs, ruled undeterred. The Second Serbian Uprising was at its end, and although Serbia now had some autonomy, it would be 13 years until Serbia was granted an official autonomous status by the Ottoman Empire. In 1830, Serbia was declared autonomous and Miloš was declared hereditary prince of Serbia. Further decrees expanded the size of this budding Serbia.
But some Serbs wanted more: several rebellions demanded a constitution from Miloš. In 1835, he agreed to the rebels’ demand, but faced much more powerful pressure from the Austrian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires. Seeing in a liberal Serbian constitution potential demands of their own populaces against their autocratic regimes, they insisted on getting rid of the (too liberal) constitution. The Ottoman government declared a new constitution, which had Miloš create a council of 17 senators. As soon as they were appointed, they demanded Miloš’ abdication. Miloš headed off to what was effectively exile in Wallachia (present-day Romania).
Milan Obrenović (r. 1839)
With Miloš gone, his son Milan came to the throne. Milan was a sickly man, and was actually unconscious for much of his 26-day reign. He possibly never even knew that he was Prince of Serbia. But he does have the honor of being the only modern Serbian monarch to reign continuously and die of natural causes.
Mihailo Obrenović (r. 1839-1842)
He was in turn followed as prince by his brother, Mihailo. Mihailo, only 15 at the time of his ascension to the throne, couldn’t hand the volatile situation he was handed, and in 1842 he was forced from the throne by yet another rebellion.
Aleksandar Karađorđević (r. 1842-1858)
Re-enter the Karađorđevićs in the guise of Aleksandar Karađorđević, now chosen as the Prince of Serbia. When he had time between avoiding Obrenović plots, he undertook several modernizing steps in Serbia, such as implementing a code of civil rights and establishing schools, museums, and libraries. But his actions during the Crimean War (1853-1856) proved to be his downfall. Austria pressured Aleksandar into being neutral during the war, which upset many Serbs who supported pan-Slavism and therefore wished to enter the war on the side of its fellow Slavic nation, Russia. In 1858, Aleksandar was forced to abdicate.
Miloš Obrenović (r. 1858-1860) – Second Reign
With Aleksandar gone, Miloš was asked back as prince and he soon resumed his old autocratic ways. Austria and the Ottoman Empire had both increased their influence over Serbia during Aleksander’s reign, and Miloš tried to push back, but he died before he was really able to do much.
Mihailo Obrenović (r. 1860-1868) – Second Reign
Now that Miloš was dead, Mihailo came back to the throne, albeit this time as an adult. He is generally considered a relatively enlightened monarch, got the Ottomans to pull the last of their troops out of Serbia in 1867, achieved a Greek-Serbian alliance, and reintroduced Serbian coins for the first time since the Middle Ages. But in 1868 his reign came to a bloody end when he, his lover, and his lover’s mother were shot by the Radovanović brothers.
Milan I Obrenović (r. 1868-1889)
Mihailo’s murder ended the main line of the Obrenović Dynasty. To find the next closest relative, Serbia had to go to a distant cousin, Milan. Milan was only 14, so a three-man regency ruled in his place that squashed an attempt to get rid of both the Obrenović and Karađorđević dynasties. Although the regency had made Milan unpopular from the start, his extravagant spending, his refusal to assist Slavic rebels in Bosnia, and eventually his concessions to Austria-Hungary, only increased his unpopularity. When Bosnia revolted against the Ottoman Empire in 1875, the Karađorđević heir fought alongside the rebels while Milan refused to support them, much to the chagrin of his pro-Slavic Serbian subjects.
Although Austro-Hungarian support came at a cost, it helped Serbia to not only become completely independent, but also for it to gain territory. While most Serbs wanted a pro-Russia policy, Milan further courted the Austro-Hungarians, providing such concessions as linking their railroad systems and even agreeing not to make treaties with other nations without Austria’s approval. For this, however, Milan did have Austria back him up when he declared Serbia to be a kingdom in 1882.
This pro-Austrian policy led to Milan being forced to abdicate in 1889. He went off to live in Paris as the Count of Takovo. Although he did later return to Serbia to serve as a military commander for his son and successor, he never ruled again, unlike his two Obrenović predecessors who had been forced from the throne.
Aleksandar Obrenović (r. 1889-1903)
Aleksander succeeded his father when he was just 12, but even after he declared himself of age four years later, his decisions remained rather poor. In a highly unpopular marriage, Aleksander married his mother’s former lady-in-waiting, 36-year old widow Draga Mašin, who was 12 years older than him. He also suspended the constitution for an hour, just enough time to pass several unconstitutional decrees. The final straw came when Aleksandar tried to name Draga’s brother as the heir-presumptive.
A coup captured and murdered the royal couple, and mutilated and disemboweled their corpses. The corpses of Aleksandar and Draga were then thrown out the second floor window of the royal palace, where they landed on a pile of manure. With that, the Obrenović line was extinguished.
Petar I Karađorđević (r. 1903-1921)
With the last of the Obrenovićs gone, Serbia turned to its other royal dynasty that had been out of power for nearly 50 years: the Karađorđević Dynasty. The Serbian National Assembly duly invited Petar Karađorđević to become the king of Serbia.
Things should have been looking good for Petar I when he took the throne. The Obrenović Dynasty was no more, and unlike the young boys that characterized Obrenović successions, Petar was an experienced leader of 58. Having grown up in Western Europe, he was familiar with constitutional monarchies and instituted liberal policies in Serbia such as freedom of the press (a big shift from the authoritarian policies of Aleksandar Obrenović).
In the course of the Balkan Wars, Serbia gained new territories in the Sanjak and Macedonia, but in the aftermath of the assassination of Austro-Hungarian heir Franz Ferdinand, Serbia was completely outclassed. Austro-Hungarian, German, and Bulgarian troops overran Serbia in 1915, and Petar and the Serbian army retreated to the coast, where the French fleet carried them off the Greek island of Corfu. Petar was in exile on Corfu for the next two and a half years until the Central Powers were defeated by Serbia’s Entente allies. Following the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Serbia united with other South Slavs to form the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (later renamed Yugoslavia under Aleksander I), of which Petar was duly proclaimed the king. Although he had been away for several years, Petar returned to Serbia for the last years of his life, dying naturally while still king in 1921.
Aleksandar I Karađorđević (r. 1921-1934)
It was an auspicious start to Petar’s son, Aleksandar’s, reign: Serbia’s position was vastly improved and Petar had governing experience, having served as regent for his father during World War I. Instead, Aleksandar’s reign proved to be an authoritarian dictatorship. He abolished the constitution in 1929, discontinued parliament, and declared the “January 6th Dictatorship.” His new constitution in 1931 reassigned all executive power to him and removed private ballots for voting.
Aleksandar had learned from the deaths of his ancestors: three of them had died on Tuesdays, so he refused to perform public functions on that day of the week. But this was unavoidable when he was on a state visit to France to strengthen their alliance, the “Little Entente.” On October 9, 1934, in the French city of Marseille, Aleksandar was shot to death by Vlado Chernozemski, a Bulgarian and a member of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) that wanted Macedonia to be free from Yugoslavia. Aleksandar has the dubious honors of being one of the first filmed assassinations and being the last European monarch to be assassinated.
Petar II Karađorđević (r. 1934-1945)
Aleksandar’s son, Petar, was only 11, and so a regency was set up under Aleksandar’s cousin, Prince Paul. As Europe staggered towards World War II, Paul tried to maintain a balancing act between the Axis and Allied powers. He supported Greece against Italy, but signed the Tripartite Pact in 1941. Two days after signing the Pact, the British-backed Yugoslav military declared Petar II of age and packed Paul off to house arrest in Great Britain.
Germany, incised by the pro-Allied coup, attacked Yugoslavia, now under 17-year old Petar. As the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, and Hungary annexed parts of Yugoslavia, Petar fled the country after only three months of personal rule. Even after the war ended in 1945, Petar was not allowed to return home. The Allies had supported the Yugoslav communists as eastern allies against Nazi Germany, and were unsympathetic to the monarchist cause. Petar never returned to Yugoslavia, but also never abdicated his throne.
The Serbian monarchy had lasted over 100 years, the earliest and longest lasting out of the Balkan monarchies that were set up in the 19th century. They were also one of the only native dynasties: while the Greek, Bulgarian, Romanian, and short-lived Albanian kingdoms were ruled by foreign (German or Danish) dynasties, Serbia was ruled by ethnic Serbs. Besides Serbia, only Montenegro, the Ottoman Empire, and the Zogu Dynasty of Albania could claim the same ethnic origins as their people.
But while it may have had these honors, the Serbian monarchy was a dangerous one. Out of ten leaders, seven were forced to leave their nation, either through forced abdication, deposition, or foreign military occupation (although two of these later returned to rule again). Four came to the throne in their early teens. Three were assassinated. It was a highly volatile throne, even after the Obrenović and Karađorđević rivalry that plagued Serbia for much of its modern history was settled with Aleksander’s murder in 1903. But in spite of the plots and coups, the modern Serbian monarchs made their mark on the Balkan nation. Under their leadership, Serbia emerged from the Ottoman Empire and into the modern world.
Modern Serbian Monarchs
Karađorđe (de facto) 1804-1813
Miloš Obrenović 1815-1839
Milan Obrenović 1839
Mihailo Obrenović 1839-1842
Aleksandar Karađorđević 1842-1858
Miloš Obrenović (restored) 1858-1860
Mihailo Obrenović (restored) 1860-1868
Milan Obrenović 1868-1889
Aleksandar Obrenović 1889-1903
Petar I Karađorđević 1903-1921
Aleksandar I Karađorđević 1921-1934
Petar II Karađorđević 1934-1941