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Draga (1867–1903)

Draga (1867–1903)

Queen of Serbia and consort of King Alexander, whose marriage to him in 1900 constituted a major political scandal and destabilized an already chaotic political landscape. Name variations: Draga Lunyevitza-Mashin; Draga Mashin; Lunjevica-Mashin. Most likely born in 1867 (some sources cite 1865 or 1866); murdered in a palace coup during the night of June 10–11, 1903; granddaughter of Nikola Panta Lunyevitza; had three sisters and two brothers; married Svetozar Mashin (a civil servant), in 1884 (died 1885); married Alexander Obrenovich or Obrenovitch, king of Serbia (r. 1889–1903), on July 21, 1900.

Born in 1867 into a distinguished but relatively poor family, Draga Lunyevitza was part of a clan that could boast of having played an important role in Serbia's colorful but troubled history. Her grandfather Nikola Panta Lunyevitza, a prosperous cattle breeder and Serbian patriot who bankrupted his personal holdings by financing rebellions against the Turkish occupiers, was a friend of the first king of modern Serbia, Milosh Obrenovich. Draga's father appeared to have a distinguished public career ahead of him, having already served as a popular prefect of Shabats province, but unfortunately he went insane and died in an asylum. With the death of Draga's father, the Lunyevitzas' financial situation became precarious and the large family had to struggle with very limited means. Draga dealt with the situation in a traditional fashion, by marrying at age 17. Her husband Svetozar Mashin, a mining engineer and civil servant, was also an alcoholic who cruelly abused her. After barely a year of marriage, he died in 1885 due to his imprudent lifestyle, and as a widow she once again was faced with impoverishment. In later years, rumors spread in Belgrade by enemies of the king who attempted to destroy her reputation, suggesting that as a poor widow Draga Mashin had relied on payments from a number of gentlemen friends for financial survival. More likely is the fact that Draga now began to seek a safe haven from which she could make plans for the next stage of her life.

The opportunity presented itself in 1889 when she began to move in royal circles, traveling with Queen Nathalia Keshko , consort of King Milan II. After Milan's abdication that year in favor of his and Nathalia's young son Alexander, Draga lived with Nathalia at her estate in Biarritz. Some years after this, Alexander fell head over heels in love with Draga, although she was at least a decade older than he. To complicate matters, she was a commoner and had no dowry. Politically, she also presented problems because her brother-in-law, Colonel Alexander Mashin, hated both her and young King Alexander. Mashin was a partisan of the Karageorgevitch family, which claimed the Serbian throne and hoped to overthrow the Obrenovich family which Alexander headed.

For several years, Draga was Alexander's mistress and much of Serbia seethed with hatred of both her and the king. Alexander was seen as weak, subject to the influence of his mother, father, and several foreign powers including Russia and Austria-Hungary. Stubbornly Alexander pushed ahead with his plans to marry Draga, acting in an increasingly despotic fashion and equating criticism of his marriage plans with treason. Despite overwhelming public opposition, Draga and Alexander were married on July 21, 1900. The king banned his parents from attending the ceremonies, ordering the police to prevent his father from entering Serbia and threatening to try his mother for treason in absentia for her anti-Draga activities which included writing insulting letters and postcards vilifying Alexander's beloved. Marriage to Draga did not result in any lessening of Alexander's anger toward his real or imagined political foes. Instead, his fury resulted in a purge of members of his Cabinet as well as of the court and army. Several leading politicians thought it wise to flee the country, and many army officers were pensioned off, some being forbidden to ever wear their uniforms again.

In the months following his marriage to Draga, Alexander made a number of clumsily pathetic attempts to win popularity for his new queen. Important civil and military posts were given to individuals who opportunistically declared themselves in favor of the marriage. Draga's name was given to schools, regiments, and even villages. A splendid court dress, based on medieval frescoes of long-dead Serbian queens and imitating the royal garb of ancient Byzantium was made for Draga, who, however, looked conspicuously like an actress in a modern pageant when she wore it. Only a month after their wedding, Alexander announced to his sullen nation that Draga was pregnant, and she began to wear maternity clothing. This quickly turned into a fiasco when physicians discovered that she was in fact suffering from a benign tumor. Earlier in their relationship, she had in fact had on several occasions announced what turned out to be false pregnancies.

Refusing to be frustrated, Draga told Alexander on subsequent occasions that she was pregnant. Somewhat wiser by now, and having been deeply humiliated by the earlier announcement, Alexander no longer believed her, and he ceased making public proclamations regarding a royal pregnancy. Supposedly, Draga then worked out a complex plan with her sister Hristina , who was married and pregnant, in which Draga feigned pregnancy to the point where she could "give birth" to a baby that was in fact her sister's. Hristina's child would be palmed off as Draga's and thus the Serbian kingdom and the Obrenovich dynasty would finally have "a legitimate heir" and with it presumably some political stability. Unfortunately, the press got wind of this plot—if it in fact ever existed in the first place—and both Alexander and Draga were now more unpopular with the Serbian people than ever before. More important, being without issue Alexander's dynasty now depended on how long he lived; inevitably, one day sooner or later his death would spell not only the end of his reign but the demise of the Obrenovich family. For many Serbian patriots, a barren queen and a resulting dynasty without an heir meant a nation profoundly at risk.

Even after this catastrophe, a desperate Alexander persisted in trying to make Draga popular with his people. He continued naming schools and hospitals after her, and went so far as to turn her birthday into a national holiday complete with parades. Women who were seen as having distinguished themselves in the service of the king, royal house, or state were awarded a special medal struck in honor of Draga. None of these measures succeeded in turning the tide of overwhelmingly hostile public opinion, which was exacerbated by Draga's relentless advancement of the interests of her family. Her two brothers, who were widely believed to be mentally unstable, were conspicuously present at court where contrary to protocol they customarily stood next to the royal couple. Draga even sought, unsuccessfully, to have them declared members of the Royal House. Had there been a royal heir, this might have been dismissed as a minor issue, but given her childlessness it aroused great anger. Rumors circulated that Draga's younger brother Nikodije would soon be adopted by Alexander and thus be placed directly in the line of succession. Only a public denial of the rumor by Alexander that Nikodije, well known in Belgrade for his drunken orgies, was not being considered as a successor was able to somewhat calm an outraged public.

Soon after the marriage of Alexander and Draga, a somber mood regarding their future had begun to emerge. A superstitious people looked for omens and often found them, including the destruction of an ancient tree at Takovo under which Milosh Obrenovich had almost 90 years before proclaimed his insurrection against the Turks. Others regarded the conversion of Queen Mother Nathalia Keshko to Roman Catholicism as not only her rejection of the Serbian Orthodox faith but a profoundly deep repudiation of her son Alexander and his Obrenovich dynasty. More disturbing signs of national disaffection included the radicalized students of Belgrade who rioted against the regime and what they regarded as its cowardice on matters of national honor. Academic youth regarded Alexander as a pitifully spineless sovereign who was the primary cause of the nation's stagnation and humiliation. As for the all-important army, Alexander unwisely neglected it. He alienated many of its officers by delaying payment of salaries for months and demoralized its enlisted soldiers with substandard uniforms and inadequate food.

As early as August 1901, a small group of junior army officers hatched a plot to murder the royal couple at the queen's birthday ball on September 24. Perhaps warned of the conspiracy, Alexander and Draga did not appear at the ball. Another plan to kill Alexander alone, while he was attending military maneuvers in the autumn of 1901, was not brought to completion. But various plans to kill the royal couple continued to be discussed and outlined by a growing number of conspirators. The individual who would most benefit from the end of the Obrenovich dynasty, Peter Karageorgevitch (Peter I), grandson of one of the founders of the Serbian state, lived in Switzerland but held aloof from

these plans. A man of principle, he did not want to ascend the throne he considered rightfully his while drenched in blood. Thus he waited patiently in exile for events to unfold in his troubled homeland.

The end of the Obrenovich dynasty came dramatically in 1903. First of all, Alexander's unrealistic foreign policy goals had needlessly alienated any possible ally, be it Austria-Hungary, Russia, Bulgaria, or even the Ottoman Empire, whom he offered a military alliance in the event of a war with Bulgaria. The impression that Alexander's foreign policy often tilted toward Austria-Hungary infuriated nationalist zealots who dreamed of a Pan-Serbian state. The grave danger of diplomatic isolation was matched on the home front by the deep hatred toward Alexander and Draga exhibited by many junior officers in the Serbian army. Several regarded the king's marriage to Draga as having brought shame to the nation. Added to their idealistic grievances were the more practical ones of shattered career plans for the numerous officers who had been denied promotion or pensioned off because of their hostility to the queen. The bond of trust linking ordinary Serbians to the crown, if indeed it ever existed, was severed on April 5, 1903. On that day, a demonstration of young workers and apprentices was bloodily suppressed by the police and army. With many of the demonstrators denouncing the royal couple and calling for a republic, the marchers were shot down without mercy. Many were left dead and wounded on the street.

With a few civilians brought into their conspiracy, a large number of officers (authorities disagree as to exactly how many there were, as few as 86 and possibly as many as 120) drew up a final plan to kill the royal couple in the spring of 1903. Alexander and Draga became aware of the evolving plot and took special steps to ensure their personal security. While Alexander rarely left the royal palace (and with enhanced security when he did so), Draga never left its confines, believing she would be safe there. The palace guard was doubled. While these precautions were put in place, Alexander organized his last, and, as it turned out, Pyrrhic victory. With the opposition boycotting the bogus elections that took place on June 1, 1903, the government-approved candidates registered a clean sweep on the basis of obviously falsified returns. With his candidates receiving 180,000 votes and the opposition only 1,500, the personal regime of King Alexander finally seemed secure. But it was to last less than a week.

The night of the planned attack, June 10–11, 1903, was the anniversary of an earlier bloody event in Serbian history, the 1868 murder of Prince Michael Obrenovich. This conspiracy was fated to be even bloodier. Among its leading members was Colonel Alexander Mashin, Draga's brother-in-law during her first brief marriage. Mashin had become embittered when after the death of King Milan in 1901 he stopped receiving royal funds and no longer was sent on diplomatic missions. Draga's indifference to his loss of royal favor turned him into her implacable enemy. Other conspirators were much less fanatical in their resolve. One of them, the royal equerry who was designated to open the outer door to the royal quarters and lead the conspirators to the royal bedchamber, had a last-minute change of heart. Instead of telling the king, he simply drank himself into a stupor, thus hoping to somehow avoid involvement in what was about to transpire.

When the door was not opened as planned, the conspirators blew it away with dynamite, alerting the royal couple and a few loyal officials. Both telephone lines and lights in the palace no longer functioned, and soon a small battle raged in the royal chambers area of the palace. In the midst of the chaos, one of the leading officers in the plot found the drunken equerry and shot him dead as a traitor. In the darkness, the royal bed was eventually discovered, and it was still warm. Where were Alexander and Draga? The king's wounded aide-de-camp, still loyal to his sovereign, lied when interrogated by the plotters about the couple's whereabouts, giving them precious time to hide. Alexander and Draga were able to find refuge in a small wardrobe room reachable only through a secret passage from their bedroom. On two occasions each of them separately attempted to rouse loyal guards below to save them; Alexander's entreaties were simply ignored, and Draga's desperate plea for help resulted in revolver shots being directed against her in the darkness. The wild shots missed her.

For about two hours, the royal couple eluded detection in their little chamber. Soon after Draga's failed effort to win over the soldiers below, one of them informed the rest of the conspirators about the location from which her voice seemed to originate. They concluded there was a secret chamber, quickly found it, and began to break down its camouflaged door with an axe. One of the conspirators asked Alexander if he would now abdicate, but he refused, crying out, "No, I am not King Milan, I am not to be overawed by a handful of officers." These words resulted in a volley of revolver shots that mortally wounded the king who fell into Draga's arms. Alexander's last words addressed one of the officers, asking him how he could do such a thing. At this moment, the revolvers were emptied into the body of Draga, who died instantly.

The officers then proceeded to strip the royal couple of the hastily improvised garb they had worn in their refuge, hacking the bodies, gashing their faces, and splitting open their bellies. The carnage was concluded when the naked, mutilated corpses were thrown out the window, intended for the gardens below. But Alexander was still barely alive and clung onto the balcony with one hand. In a murderous frenzy, one of the officers severed the king's fingers with his sword before the body finally crashed to the lawn. With his last ounce of strength, Alexander's remaining intact hand closed on some blades of grass as he breathed his last.

An appalled world read the shocking accounts of royal butchery in the Balkans in their newspapers over the next few days. Diplomatic protests attempted to bring Serbia back into what was defined as the civilized community of nations (before they initiated their own, much larger, acts of mass carnage in 1914). The new king, Peter I, who had not been part of the plot, felt compelled for reasons of state to retain some of the regicides in his government. Over time, however, he was able to ease some of the most odious among them—including Colonel Mashin—out of the circle of royal favor. Serbia continued on its difficult path of political evolution as the 20th century unfolded, earning global admiration for its fierce refusal to be conquered in two World Wars, only to be classed as barbaric once more over its genocidal policy of "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo in 1999.


Harding, Bertita. Royal Purple: The Story of Alexander and Draga of Serbia. London: G.G. Harrap, 1937.

Mijatovic, Cedomilj. A Royal Tragedy, being the Assassination of King Alexander and Queen Draga of Serbia. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1907.

Petrovich, Michael Boro. A History of Modern Serbia 1804–1918. 2 vols. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

Vivian, Herbert. The Serbian Tragedy, with Some Impressions of Macedonia. London: G. Richards, 1904.

West, Rebecca. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia. NY: Penguin, 1994.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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