Crown Prince Alexander II has finally been allowed to bury his ancestors in their homeland – and he does not rule out a return to monarchy
Four wooden coffins lie in a row, each draped in a subtly different red and blue standard. Behind them, an ornate iconostasis rises 20 feet to the cupola of the royal chapel. In front of them, crucifixes in Cyrillic script record the names of the coffins’ inhabitants. “This is my father, my mother, my grandmother, and my uncle,” says the crown prince, gesturing at each in turn.
Republics do not often throw state funerals for royals, still less for four at once. Nor do they have princes, princesses and palaces. But Crown Prince Alexander II, heir to the throne of what for a short time before World War II was the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and is now a mosaic of republics in sometimes unhappy coexistence, is untroubled by such apparent contradictions. After a decade of lobbying, he succeeded last month in burying four members of the Karadjordevic dynasty in what was once their kingdom.
On an overcast May morning in Oplenac, an hour’s drive west of Belgrade, thousands of Serbs queued for hours to get a glimpse of the prince as he arrived for the service. He stood to kiss a crucifix held aloft by Patriarch Irinej, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, before watching men in national costume bear the coffins to the royal mausoleum, where one day he, too, will be buried.
The sun finally appeared just before he emerged to address the crowd, interrupting their chants of “Long live the King!”
“The Karadjordevics’ lives are the reflection of what happened to their people and their homeland,” he said. “Their wanderings and their exile lasted for too long. Today they are in Oplenac, among their family and among their Serbs.”
He showed no obvious sign of emotion – but then the deaths he was mourning were far from recent. In fact, Peter II, his father, and the last King of Yugoslavia, had been buried in Illinois more than 42 years previously. His grandmother, Queen Maria, died in 1961; his mother, Queen Alexandra, in 1993; and his uncle, Prince Andrej, in 1990.
The reason for this delay revolves around two events that took place at Claridge’s Hotel in London, 55 years apart. The first was on July 17 1945, when Queen Alexandra gave birth to Alexander in suite 212. Technically, though, the crown prince was born in Yugoslavia – Winston Churchill declared the suite part of the country for the day so that the child might one day inherit the crown.
It was a grand gesture, but Churchill owed the family a debt. Some 11 years earlier, Alexander I of Yugoslavia was assassinated in Marseille, and his son, Peter, became king aged just 11. His uncle acted as regent, but was deposed in a military coup in March 1941 for signing a pact with Nazi Germany. The 17-year-old Peter was installed, but only ruled for a month before he had to flee when Germany invaded. He hoped to return soon afterwards, but Churchill eventually backed the communist partisans, rather than the royalists, in the civil war that ensued.
“He was let down a lot,” explains the Crown Prince as we tour the Twenties Royal Palace on a hill above Belgrade. “Britain changed allegiance to the partisans because they accused the loyalist forces of collaborating with Germany. Actually we had a civil war going on, and everyone was trying to outmanoeuvre each other. Even the partisans collaborated.”
By the time Alexander was born, Marshal Tito had transformed Yugoslavia into a socialist republic and neither he nor his parents were welcome back. He was instead baptised at Westminster Abbey, watched by his godparents, King George VI and the future queen, Princess Elizabeth.
Back in Belgrade, the new regime set about expunging evidence of its predecessor. “Tito put through a decree in 1947 stripping us of our nationality and our rights,” he says. Tito moved into the White Palace, next door to the Royal Palace, and destroyed any reminders of the former royal family and their religion. When Slobodan Milošević came to power in 1989, he also barred the family from the country while presiding over horrific ethnic cleansing and a decade of “negative nationalism and negative religion” from Tito’s old office.
The crown prince was a “professional refugee” for much of his life. He was schooled at Gordonstoun then Millfield, and became a captain in the British Army, serving in Northern Ireland before working in finance in America.
Throughout his lifetime, his father dreamt of returning to the country. “He was very homesick,” he says. “He would always say, ‘I do hope we can go back home.’ ” His marriage ran into trouble and he struggled with drink. He died prematurely aged 47, after a failed liver transplant. After his death, Alexander appeared resigned to the fact that he would never return to his father’s home. He chose not to take the title of king, deciding it would be meaningless without a kingdom to rule.
It took another encounter at Claridge’s to change his mind. On March 12 2001, the Yugoslav interior minister presented the Crown Prince with his citizenship – in suite 212. Six months beforehand, Belgraders had overthrown Milošević in a relatively bloodless uprising. “We came three days after the revolution, on the demand of Dindic, who became the democratic prime minister. Then we came back in December and started talking about moving back here, into the family home,” he says.
He celebrated his 56th birthday by moving into the palace with his Greek second wife Katherine, and two of his sons, Philip and Alexander. (His eldest son, Peter, had already left home.) “It was quite extraordinary walking through the front door and seeing the palace my grandfather had built. My father used to talk about his home here, his room and what he did. It was amazing.”
In his sixth decade, Alexander faced a momentous task: returning to a country he had only been allowed to visit a handful of times, mastering the language and carving out a role for his family in a republic. He began by restoring the palace, but left the changes its former occupants had made. “I don’t cleanse history. Only dictators do that. We wanted to keep all the symbols of the past.”
His task was made harder by the dissolution of his family’s kingdom. Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia and Macedonia all gained independence in the Nineties; Montenegro split in 2006. Kosovo declared itself an independent republic in 2008, but Serbia still regards it as its territory. “It was rather tragic everything broke up,” he says now.
Faced with such division, he was keen to repatriate his relatives as a reminder of a time when the various nations had been united, rather than torn apart. But it took 10 years to persuade the country’s politicians to support his efforts and then to negotiate for the bodies in Windsor (for which he needed the Queen’s permission), Greece and the USA to be repatriated.
The Crown Prince’s sons flew over from their homes in the US and London for the funeral. Does he hope for a restoration so that one day Peter will become king? “An independent poll was done [in Serbia], and I read it with interest,” he says. “Some 40 per cent were in favour of constitutional monarchy, which was a very pleasant surprise. The concept of having a neutral head of state who is not a member of any political party and not dealing in daily politics is quite important for unity, stability and continuity.”
He stresses that he won’t campaign for the monarchy’s return and the decision lies with ordinary Serbs. After a life so dominated by past sorrows, this man who would be king is determined to live in the present.
By Tom Rowley