During the long struggle to establish a Bulgarian state outside the Ottoman Empire there was little agreement on how to govern the new state. Many of the Bulgarian activists and revolutionaries, like Levski and Botev were republicans who wanted ‘a decent and honest republic’ in the words of the Apostle of Freedom, Vasil Levski. But in 19th century Europe, ‘Republic’ had the whiff of revolution and of Paris in 1789. Many voices, including the influential Russian court favoured a Monarchy. And that was to be the destiny of Bulgaria for the first period of Independence. From Liberation until the Referendum of 1946, Bulgaria had a prince or a king as head of state. We are accustomed to thinking of Ferdinand, Boris and Simeon as the rulers. The House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha provided the rulers from 1886 to 1946 but there was an interlude before they appeared on the scene.
To most of us in Britain, Battenberg is familiar as the family name of Prince Philip, consort of Queen Elizabeth. We may also think of Lord Louis Mountbatten who presided over the partition of India and British withdrawal from the Raj, before he was murdered in the ‘Troubles’ in 1979. ‘Mountbatten’ of course is the anglicized version of Battenberg. During a period of intense anti-German feeling in the First World War the name was adapted. Perhaps to some ‘Battenberg’ is more familiar as the name of a pink and yellow sponge cake with a marzipan covering !
When the first Constituent Assembly after liberation met, in Veliko Turnovo, events developed that led to the formati on of a Principality. The struggle for full independence was lost. At the discussions that led to the Treaty of Berlin the Great Powers refused to agree on a powerful and independent Bulgarian State. The compromise was a small Bulgaria, still owing allegiance to the Ottoman Sultan and to a separate Principality of Eastern Rumelia, centred on Plovdiv.
A Principality must have a prince and the leading politicians of the new state set about the search for suitable candidates. The Bulgarian aristocracy had disappeared over time, either liquidated by the victorious Ottomans or absorbed into the ruling class of the Empire. And so the eyes of Bulgaria’s men of state were set abroad, outside this troubled Balkan land. Where better to go than Germany, that land with hundreds of small states, mini-kingdoms, duchies and earldoms? Many of the royal families of Europe had German connections.
And so the choice was made of Alexander Battenberg, born in Verona in 1857. He was the son of Alexander of Hesse. The fact that Maria, Empress of Russia was from the same family must have made it easier for the Tsar in Moscow to accept this choice. Imperial Russia had paid with her soldiers’ blood for the liberation of Bulgaria. In the war of 1876-1878 the real price of freedom from ‘the Turkish yoke’ had been paid by the armies of the Tsar.
On 17th April 1879 (old style, i.e. Julian calendar) the Narodno Sobranie ( parliament) meeting in that beautiful building in Veliko Turnovo accepted Alexander Battenberg as Prince of the new state. The title in Bulgarian was ‘Knyaz’ and this reflects the fact the the new ruler was not a King and was still subject to the Sultan in Istanbul. This young man who had been a lieutenant in the Prussian Guards at Potsdam was at the age of 22 now at the centre of the Balkan intrigues in Sofia. He had to deal with his uncle, the Russian Tsar on one hand, and the Bulgarian politicians on the other. The Tsar expected the new prince to do as Holy Russia wished. The Bulgarian politicians had different ideas.
Political struggles and assassinations made politics a dangerous business. In 1881 with the approval of his uncle the Russian Tsar, Battenberg suspended the democratic constitution. This only increased the number of his enemies amongst Bulgarian politicians especially those in the ranks of the Liberals and Radicals.
In the next two years Prince Alexander struggled also with General Sobolev and General Kaulbars, who had been sent from Moscow to direct policy in the young principality. The unfortunate German Prince seemed to create enemies on all sides. Opposition to him was particularly strong in the Bulgarian Army which had a large number of Russophiles (pro-Russians). Relations between Moscow and Sofia deteriorated and events led swiftly to great changes in the Balkans.
In September 1885 civil disturbances in Plovdiv (Felibe in Turkish, Philipopolis in Greek) led to the annexation of Eastern Rumelia By Bulgaria. The Greater Bulgaria dreamed of by Bulgarian nationalists was still a long way off, but this was a move in that direction. The union of the ‘Two Bulgarias’ may have pleased many in Bulgaria but it was not popular in Moscow, or in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.
With encouragement for the Russians, the Serbian army invaded Bulgaria in an attempt to reverse the annexation of Eastern Rumelia. With Prince Alexander, the ex-Prussian officer, commanding, the Bulgarians counterattacked. At Slivnitza and Pirot the Bulgarians led by Battenberg defeated the Serbians and this ensured the permanence of the annexation. Sultan Abdulhamid accepted the fait accompli but pro-Russian forces in the army were not happy with the chain of events. A group of Russophile officers seized the prince in his palace in Sofia and forced him to sign his abdication.
He was sent into exile in Lemberg (Lvov) but made a comeback thanks to Stefan Stambolov, one of the anti-Russian party in Bulgarian politics. It is interesting to note that this thread of Russophiles and Russophobes has continued in Bulgaria until the present day. You can divide Bulgarians even today into two camps – the Russophiles and the Germanophiles. Never the twain shall meet. And if you want to establish which camp they are in, ask what they think about Stambolov !
Given the attitude of the Tsar (and of Bismarck) it was impossible for Battenberg to remain. His comeback was brief and he left Bulgaria again on 8 September 1886. He was not to see his adopted country again. He was made a Count in Austro-Hungary and became an officer in the army in that country. He died in 1896 and his remains were brought to Sofia.
After his departure the search had to be made again for a suitable candidate as Head of State. The fertile ground of German principalities and duchies was the ground that was searched and the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was the winner. Ferdinand became prince but his career too, was to end in tragedy, with his abdication, the premature death of his elder son and the execution of his younger son by the People’s Court.
Today you can pay your respects to Prince Alexander of Battenberg, Prince of Bulgaria, at the Mausoleum in Sofia. The ‘Grobnitsa Pametnik Aleksandur Purvi Batenberg” is a striking building in neo-classical style in the centre of Sofia. It was closed to the public from 1947 to 1991 but is now open again. Visit it and think about the tragedy of this young German officer who was Bulgaria’s head of state for a few brief years.