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SPIRIT OF UNITY
A magnificent liturgy was held at St George’s Church in Oplenac on 6 October to mark the burial of Prince Paul of Serbia, his wife, Princess Olga, and their son, Prince Nicholas. Royal biographer HUGO VICKERS was in the congregation
This was the last act in a long journey of reconciliation between Prince Paul and the Serbian people. Finally, the man who was Regent from 1934 until 1941 was given the full honours of his country and buried in the family vault of the Karageorgevics.
Prince Paul was born in 1893, the son of Prince Arsene Karageorgevic, a highly decorated and brave general, himself the grandson of the legendary ‘Black George’, who rose against the Turks in 1804 and became leader of Serbia. Paul’s mother, Princess Aurore Demidoff, was descended from a Russian blacksmith. The young Paul only saw his mother twice as she remarried when he was four and went to Italy. He was consigned to Arsene’s elder brother, Peter, then in exile in Switzerland. In 1903, when Paul was 10, the rival Serbian rulers, the Obrenonives, were killed and Peter was elected King of Serbia.
From this unpromising start, Prince Paul grew into a cultivated young man who yearned to study at Oxford. As he developed his cultural, artistic and intellectual interests, the career he said he coveted most was to be Director of the Ashmolean Museum. At Christ Church he made important friendships, notably with the future Duke of Buccleuch, Marquess of Salisbury, Prince Serge Obolensky and Viscount Gage. The Balfours of Newton Don, near Kelso, were special friends. Later he became a close friend of ‘Chips’ Channon, the social politician and noted diarist.
He was also an early friend and admirer of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who was part of that set. He was something of a suitor and was surprised, as were many others, when she married Prince Albert, Duke of York in 1923. He commissioned Sargent to sketch her as a wedding present.
Soon afterwards the Duke and Duchess of York were present at his marriage to Princess Olga of Greece and Denmark, the oldest of three strikingly beautiful sisters, one of whom was Princess Marina, later the Duchess of Kent. Prince and Princess Paul had two sons and a daughter: Alexander, born in 1924, Nicholas (1928) and Elizabeth (1936).
For years, friends such as Cecil Beaton and Michael Duff used to imitate the sisters with their deep voices and fondness for the phrase ‘Och, poor thing!’ Once, at Vaynol in the 1960s, when Princess Olga and Princess Marina were in hoots of laughter, Prince Paul commented: ‘I’ve spent half my life not being able to understand what those two sisters are laughing about.’
Prince Paul’s life was changed beyond recognition in October 1934 when his cousin, King Alexander I, was assassinated in Marseilles by a Bulgarian terrorist in the pay of a Croatian terrorist. He found himself Regent during the minority of the boy King Peter II, then aged but 11.
Though politics was by no means his first love, Prince Paul did a good job as Regent, striving hard to reconcile Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and preserve Yugoslavia intact in trust for the young King. However, when war came, he found himself in an impossible position. Deeply anglophile, he was aware that six of the neighbouring seven states had thrown their lot in with Nazi Germany. He knew that Yugoslavia was in danger. He frequently asked the British for military and financial aid but it never came. So he kept his country neutral in the best interests of Yugoslavia. Until January 1941 the interests of Yugoslavia never contradicted those of Britain.
Meanwhile the Special Operations Executive was paying off generals (with up to £500,000) in Belgrade to depose Prince Paul and his family and force Yugoslavia into the war. Because he trusted Britain, Prince Paul did not permit any wire tapping of the British Legation so he did not know about this plot.
Then Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, sent a message to say that neutrality was not good enough; Yugoslavia must join a united front and British troops would land in Greece. They must declare war against Germany. Prince Paul knew that this would be fatal for his country so he stalled for time.
Churchill commented: ‘Prince Paul’s attitude looks like that of an unfortunate man in a cage with a tiger, hoping not to provoke him, while steadily dinner time approaches.’ On 4 March he refused Hitler’s invitation to sign the tripartite agreement and resolved to fight. But his Council of State vetoed this.
Prince Paul further delayed matters by insisting that three clauses be put in – that German troops would not march through Yugoslavia; that Germany would respect the integrity of his country; and that Yugoslavia would not be obliged to enter the war unless they decided to. On 25 March his government signed the Protocol of the Pact.
Two days after the pact was signed a British-inspired coup overthrew him; within 10 days Hitler had invaded Yugoslavia and destroyed it.
Prince and Princess Paul were forced into exile, first in Cairo, then in Kenya (where he was placed under house arrest) and finally in South Africa. For many years he suffered acute depression. A major turning point was the visit to them by the King and Queen on their 1947 South African visit, which the British Foreign Office discouraged. I knew one of the courtiers on that trip and so secret was the visit that he had no idea it had taken place.
From the 1940s Prince Paul lived under the stigma of ‘treacherous quisling’. He was called a traitor by the British – for being patriotic – and then a war criminal by the Communists in 1945, which enabled them to steal his property and discredit the Yugoslav monarchy. The Communists refused Prince Paul permission to return to his country. He was treated abominably until the end of his life.
Life had one further tragedy in store for him – the death of his favourite son. Prince Nicholas had been born in London in 1928 and went to school there. He shared his parents’ exile in South Africa before returning to study at Christ Church, Oxford. Like his brother, Alexander, he enjoyed flying and was a member of the Oxford Air Squadron, later becoming a pilot officer in the RAF. He embarked on a career as a banker. When Princess Margaret visited Paris in 1951, he was called upon as an escort, and he was also present at the funeral of Queen Mary in 1953.
Early one morning in April 1954 Prince Nicholas was returning home from Winkfield in his open sports car. At Ditton Corner, near Datchet, the car skidded and overturned, landing upside down in a ditch. The Prince was pinned inside it and drowned. The car radio was still broadcasting from a foreign station when a neighbour summoned help. He was first buried in Iver cemetery, near Coppins, the country home of his aunt, Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, and later transferred to Lausanne.
In Paris and at his inherited villa above Florence, filled with Demidoff treasures, Prince Paul lived out his days. I saw him twice – once when he attended Princess Marina’s funeral in August 1968, and the following year, when, as a guest of the Queen, he was present at the dedication of the King George VI Memorial Chapel, wearing his Garter star and seated under the banner that hung above his stall until 1976. When he died, aged 83, the Queen, Prince Philip and the Queen Mother were represented by the three children of Princess Marina at his funeral, after which he too was buried in Lausanne.
Princess Olga lived on at the rue Scheffer. She travelled widely, often to Switzerland and she attended events in Britain such as the funeral of Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone and the wedding of the Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer, both in 1981. I met her several times, first in London after a service for Noël Coward in Westminster Abbey and memorably in Paris when her granddaughter took me to lunch with her. There was a suggestion that I might help her with her memoirs, sadly one of the great unwritten books, since she had a considerable story to tell.
Eventually ill health caused Princess Olga to be moved to a nursing home at Meudon. Her principal visitor was her old butler, who brought her soup each day. Once she told the nurses that the Prince of Wales was coming to see her. They did not believe her and were very surprised when he arrived and stayed for a long chat. She died in the nursing home in October 1997 aged 94.
For many years Princess Elizabeth, Prince Paul’s daughter, fought a lone battle to have her father’s reputation restored in Belgrade. Earlier this year she won. The Serbian Supreme Court ruled that he was not a war criminal, and President Tomislav Nikolic agreed that the former Regent, his wife and son, should be returned to Belgrade for a state funeral with full honours.
The Bois-de-Vaux cemetery in Lausanne, where the family had lain for so many years, also contains the graves of ‘Coco’ Chanel and Queen Helen of Romania, the Florentine neighbour of Prince and Princess Paul in Italy. Queen Helen and Princess Olga used to say they wanted to be buried looking out towards the lake. At the end of September the coffins were exhumed. The bodies were placed in new coffins and brought to Serbia.
There they were received by the Patriarch of Serbia (spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox Serbs), by Bishop Kyr Irinej of Australia and New Zealand and by other church representatives at St Michael’s Cathedral in Belgrade. President Nikolic was there and later said that he was surprised that his predecessor had not given his blessing for the return years before. The key mourners were Prince Paul’s two surviving children – Princess Elizabeth with her daughter Catherine Oxenberg (former star of Dynasty) and her son, Nicholas Balfour, and Prince and Princess Alexander of Yugoslavia, with other members of the family.
Many members of the Yugoslav royal house attended the burial service at St George’s Church in Oplenac on the Saturday, where they were joined by Crown Prince Alexander and Crown Princess Katherine and his sons by an earlier marriage, Prince Michael of Kent (Princess Olga’s nephew), Count Hans Veit Toerring and Archduchess Ferdinand of Austria (the children of Princess Olga’s sister, Elisabeth), Prince Nicholas of Greece (second son of King Constantine), Neil Balfour (who was formerly married to Princess Elizabeth and wrote an important biography of Prince Paul) and others.
The liturgy lasted for three hours. Some said this was the traditional length for a former head of state, others that the president was due to attend but was delayed at another ceremony, refused to fly by helicopter and so made the long journey by car. So while some of the priests chanted on, other priests monitored his estimated time of arrival by mobile telephone.
After the service, there were speeches outside to the enormous group of Serbians who had waited patiently for hours in the autumn sunshine. In a conciliatory speech, the President said that Serbia was repaying a great debt to Prince Paul and his family that freed them of a heavy burden. He made the point that in his lifetime Prince Paul ‘was truly noble and never defended himself against slander’.
The Serbian Bishop of Australia and New Zealand in his homily spoke of ‘a new day hovering over an ancient landscape in which truth has once again shone forth in order to gather together that which was scattered and now returned in glory!’
This was indeed the spirit of the occasion to which I was privileged to be a witness. Members of the family, the government and the Church in Belgrade and elsewhere had not always dwelt in harmony, but on that Saturday all came together in a magnificent spirit of unity. It was a tribute to Princess Elizabeth that these burials had been achieved and, as she said afterwards, she hoped it would have ‘a positive effect on this place and on history in general, as this is so important’.
Centre for Research of Orthodox Monarchism is pleased to bring you an article written by the well-known royal biographer Mr Hugo Vickers, about the funeral of HRH Prince Paul, published in the renowned London magazine “Majesty” in December 2012. We take this opportunity to sincerely thank the editor of “Majesty”, Mr Joe Little and the author Mr Vickers, for kindly giving us the rights to translate and publish the article.