Too much, too young? Petar Karađorđević II King of Yugoslavs
The history of governments-in-exile residing in London during the Second World War often includes the fate of European monarchs being forced to flee their countries and finding themselves in unaccustomed circumstances. One rather tragic example of a refugee monarch during the London Moment is the underaged Yugoslav King Petar Karađorđević II, who appears to rarely have been up to the task.
Crown Prince Petar II Karađorđević (often referred to as Peter II) was born in 1923 in Belgrade, the capital of the first united Yugoslavian state, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. In 1934, his father King Alexandar I was shot by a Macedonian nationalist in Marseille. Since Crown Prince Petar II was only 11 years old at that time, Alexander’s cousin Pavle II ruled the country as Prince Regent. The plan was that Prince Petar II would take over as ruler once he reached adulthood.
While Petar was being taught by a private teacher in Belgrade to prepare him for the tasks ahead, the threat from a German invasion was increasing daily since the Second World War had begun. For this reason, the government under Pavle II – like other Balkans states – decided to take the step of entering the Tripartite Pact on March 25, 1941. Only two days later, however, the de facto surrender of Yugoslavia to the Axis powers together with the dominating Serbian fraction’s discontent over the relative autonomy granted to the Croatian ‚Banovina‘ led to a coup by Dušan Simović, Air Force General and later first Prime Minister of the government-in-exile. Prince Regent Pavle II was ousted and 17-year-old Petar II declared of age and consequently instated as King of Yugoslavia. Petar, however, was not informed about the coup and took a generally passive role in the confusing events between the entry into the Tripartite Pact and his arrival in London in June 1941. In his memoirs, Petar writes that he was surprised to hear about the coup on the radio.1 This great influence of the ministers, generals and advisors on the young king remained a constant in the reign of Petar II, even under the somewhat more stable conditions of the government-in-exile in London.
The pro-Allied coup went fairly straightforward without anyone getting killed. Churchill even commented on the coup that „[f]ew revolutions have gone more smoothly.“2 In a brief moment of euphoria the young king was cheered by the population of Belgrade. However, the collective relief was quickly followed by drastic disillusionment only a few days later. On April 6, German troops started the invasion of Yugoslavia. An estimated 50 percent of all Belgrade houses were destroyed and thousands perished in the aerial bombardments.3 Without being able to offer any significant resistance, the Yugoslav army officially surrendered on April 17. Few days before the surrender, Petar and his ministers escaped via Athens, Jerusalem and Cairo to London, where they remained from June 1941 to September 1943. Although he did not act differently than other European monarchs, Petar was framed as a traitor in the postwar propaganda of the victorious communist government because of his flight.4 Not only was the monarchy abolished in Tito’s Yugoslavia, but Petar was also expatriated and never allowed to return. Additionally, from the winter of 1943, he was seen as a traitor by some Serbian nationalists, too. The reason for this was that the Allied forces – against Petar’s will – had decided to drop Draža Mihailović’s nationalist Četnici guerilla and instead to support Tito’s communist partisans.5
The rule of 17-year-old Petar II has been described as de facto the rule of his advisors, in particular, of Court Minister Radoje Knežević. The ministers of the Yugoslavian government-in-exile were divided by many issues which meant potentially greater decision-making power in favour of the young king as Head of State. Nevertheless, the king’s immediate influence on political decisions remained small. This leeway presented to the king was taken advantage of by said advisers. It was only towards the end of the war – when Petar realised the possibility of him not being able to return to Yugoslavia – that he would try to play a more adamant role. For example, while the British authorities had moved to support Tito in summer 1943, it took Petar II until September 1944 to call on Yugoslav army members to join Tito’s Yugoslav National Army.6
The Yugoslav government-in-exile under Petar II had five different prime ministers from June 1941 to November 1944. It consisted of representatives of many different parties in Yugoslavia, who, furthermore, belonged to different ethnic groups. The fact that the fascist vassal state Independent State of Croatia (NDH) emerged in the Croatian part of Yugoslavia in which Jews, Romani people and Serbs were persecuted and killed, or that the Serbian collaborationist regime was executing ethnic cleansing against Jews and Muslims, did not help stabilising the government. The ongoing dispute over controversial Minister of Defence Draža Mihailović, who was accused of collaborating with the Serbian Quisling regime, falls into the same category. The Ambassador of the United Kingdom to Serbia, George Rendell, who was in daily contact with the Yugoslav government-in-exile during this period, gives a vivid insight into Yugoslav everyday affairs in his memoirs The Sword and the Olive, despite his slightly condescending tone.7
After it had been received very euphorically in London because of the pro-democracy coup, the Yugoslav government-in-exile quickly lost prestige with the British authorities, who therefore became increasingly determinative in Yugoslav policy.8 There are a lot of reasons why the Yugoslav government was unpopular with British authorities. One reason was personal conflicts within the government and conflicts between Serbs and Croats, which were difficult to comprehend by the British, and were not considered appropriate for the historical crisis the world had found itself in. Meanwhile, King Petar was sent to Clare College in Cambridge and was later attached to the Guards Mechanized Division of British officers in Wiltshire, to compensate for „qualities he seemed to lack.“9 Petar, however, did not seem too interested and was often absent with „not always watertight“ excuses.10
There is another episode in Petar II’s tenure that underlines his odd handling of the agency he had at his disposal and his contribution to the chaos in exile: He wanted to get married in London while the Yugoslav people were at war and his government was facing difficulties, such as the organisation of the post-war national order or the previously mentioned handling of obstructive conflicts within the government. King Petar quickly proposed to Princess Alexandra of Greece after he had met her in November 1942. At first, his ministers and Churchill deterred him from pulling through, as a wedding in London would make a terrible impression in occupied Yugoslavia, by now also beset by increasingly civil-war-like clashes between partisans and Četnici.11 In March 1944, the time had finally come and Petar and Alexandra were allowed to get married. Presumably, Božidar Purić accepted Petar’s condition of accommodating the latter’s wedding plans for being appointed as the fourth prime minister of the government-in-exile.12 The wedding took place at the Yugoslav Embassy, with fellow British and exiled royals present, and widely covered in British news.
In the meantime, the partisans had become the dominant force of resistance in Yugoslavia and were given full Allied support at the Teheran Conference in December 1943. In an attempt to retain a position of power, the government-in-exile was forced to start negotiations with Tito. The negotiations were handled by the last prime minister of the Yugoslav government-in-exile, Ivan Šubašić, who signed several agreements with Tito between June 1944 and March 1945 that had heavily weakened the king’s position. Petar was forbidden to return to Yugoslavia even after the end of the war. Instead, a regency council had been formed to replace him until a referendum on the constitutional form of the state decided on whether Petar was to return or not. Tito, at that point, was in a significantly stronger bargaining position, so he was able to provide most of the ministers (23 out of 28) in the transitional government and thus got his way. After a probably rigged plebiscite that ruled in favour of a republic and a constituent assembly held on 29 November 1945, it was determined that Petar II would not be allowed to return. This day marked the beginning of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as well as another low-point in the dramatic life of now only 22-year-old Petar II Karađorđević.
Never completely abandoning the unrealistic hope that someday it might be possible for him to return to his homeland, Petar II led a resentful life in France and the USA after the end of the war.13 He became involved in anti-communist associations of Yugoslav exiles in the USA and had an appearance on the US television program Ford Festival: The James Melton Show in 1951 but was soon dismissed by NBC after one episode while serious problems were creeping into his private life. Petar II had money problems since all his payments from the Yugoslav state were frozen soon after his deposition. Moreover, he developed severe alcoholism and died in 1970 at the age of 47 after a liver transplantation failed in Denver, Colorado.
Petar’s remains were initially buried in the USA. In 2013, however, thanks to his son Alexandar’s effort and as one element of a larger revitalisation of a nationalist agenda in the countries of former Yugoslavia, Petar’s grave was disinterred and moved to the family grave in what is today Serbia.14 According to the myth, Crown Prince Alexander was born in London but apparently also on Yugoslavian soil in July 1945, only a few months before the monarchy was abolished.15 According to some sources, Churchill is said to have declared the room 212 of the Claridge’s Hotel in Mayfair, London to Yugoslav soil. Despite this effort, Alexander was not allowed to travel to Yugoslavia until 1991, and he eventually moved to Belgrade in 2000. Despite lacking basic Serbian language skills up to this day, he is still advocating for Serbia’s return to a constitutional monarchy.
(1) Petar Karađorđević II: A King’s Heritage. The memoirs of King Peter II of Yugoslavia, London 1955, pp. 68-69. For more information on the coup of March 27 see also: Iaremko, Marta: Belgrade Coup D’État of March 27, 1941, in: Proceedings of the History Faculty of Lviv University (15): pp. 119–128.
(2) Osborn Jr., John W.: Belgrade Blitz. German forces overran Yugoslavia rapidly in the Spring of 1941, in: Warfare History Network, 4 Jan 2019.
(3) Pavlowitch, Stevan K.: Hitler’s New Disorder. The Second World War in Yugoslavia, New York 2007, pp. 17-18.
(4) The Daily News, Perth, 30 November 1945, p. 1.
(5) Prince Tomislav arguing against the accusations that Petar was a traitor in a Serbian documentary (in Serbo-Croatian): Jugoslavija u ratu. Jugoslovenska vlada u izbeglištvu 13/23, Radio-televizije Beograd.
(6) Torkar, Blaž: The Yugoslav Armed Forces in Exile. From the Yugoslav Royal Guard Battalion to the Overseas Brigades, in: Geaney, Kathleen Brenda/Smetana, Vit (Ed.): Exile in London. The Experience of Czechoslovakia and the Other Occupied Nations, 1939-1945, Prague 2018, pp. 111-121, here p. 117.
(7) Rendell, George: The Sword and the Olive. Recollections of Diplomacy and the Foreign Service, pp. 210-231.
(8) Kay, M.A.: The Yugoslav Government-in-Exile and the Problems of Restoration, in: European Quarterly 25/1, 1991, pp. 1-19, here p. 3.
(9) Rendell, The Sword and the Olive, pp. 221f.
(11) Tomasevich, Jozo: War and Revolution in Yugoslavia. The Chetniks, Standford 1975, p. 304. See also: Pavlowitch, Stevan K.: Out of Context. The Yugoslav Government in London 1941-1945, in: Journal of Contemporary History 16/1, 1981, p. 112.
(12) Kay, The Yugoslav Government-in-Exile, p. 13.
(13) Moser, Whet: The Sad Life of Peter II, and the Curious Disinterring of the King of Yugoslavia From Libertyville, in: Chicago Magazine, 23.01.2013.
(14) Ristic, Marija: Last Yugoslav King’s Remains Return to Serbia, in: Balkan Insight, 20 January 2013.
(15) Amos, Owen: Did a London hotel room become part of Yugoslavia?, in: BBC News, 17 July 2016.