The thought of leaving the throne did not appear or develop suddenly in King Milan. Faced with challenges and complications, which he exaggerated, since, according to the testimony of Slobodan Jovanović, he was nervous and hesitant, he was often preoccupied with the thought of resigning. Just one year after the Timok Rebellion, at the moment when he was the complete master of the situation in the Principality, when he acted, due to the agreement with Austria-Hungary, decisively and steadfastly, the possible agreement of the neighbouring monarchy with Russia in Skernjević and the possible loss of its support led the king to is considering abdication. Expecting a major conflict and war between the two empires in the Balkans, faced with indignation from Saint Petersburg and constant hostile action, unconvinced of the unconditional support of the official Vienna, which was followed by a disagreement with Queen Natalie, the Serbian king did not believe that he would be able to persevere in his position for a long time. His unsuccessful attempt to supplement the Secret Convention in 1885, by which Serbia was handed over to Austria-Hungary and became almost its province, reveals Milan’s discouragement and weariness. The energy with which he had conducted political affairs since 1880 began to wane. Milan’s courage and persistence were short-lived, the Serbian king was able to deal with adversity and difficulties in a rush, but he could not methodically and unwaveringly overcome complications day by day, he could not last long in an uncertain and dangerous situation. According to Slobodan Jovanović, he looked like a man with a sea of secret worries and gave the impression of a mentally ill person.

After Slivnica

Defeat in the war with Bulgaria was a new blow for the King Milan. The once haughty master looked broken and exhausted, excited, and languid. The Serbian ruler decided to abdicate the throne immediately after the military failure. The king went to Niš and planned to continue to Belgrade, take his wife and child with him and flee the country. Milan’s journey was stopped by Milutin Garašanin, who on November 27th, 1885, together with the Minister of Finance Vukašin Petrović and the Minister of National Economy Dragomir Rajević, persuaded him to give up his resignation and remain on the throne. At the same time, the thought of the regency of Queen Natalie, who did not crave power, but was ready to defend her son’s throne, appeared. The distrustful and suspicious King Milan was convinced that she had tried to overthrow him, and this further worsened the already bad relationship between the spouses. The Serbian ruler seemed tired and sad, but already at the end of February 1886, he abandoned the idea of absence, resignation, and changes in foreign and domestic policy.

Le Monde Illustre no. 1498, December 12, 1885, Paris, Balkan War, Position of the Serbs at Slivnica on November 19, illustration, Historical Collection of the National Museum Kraljevo (I-1540).

The Wiesbaden Scandal, the Divorce of the Royal Couple and the Final Decision on Abdication

In mid-April 1887, the conflict between the Serbian royal couple escalated, which temporarily ended with the departure of the queen and the heir to the throne from the country. In the conflict with his wife, Milan asked for the support of Austria-Hungary, and when he did not get it, he hinted that he would resign or change his policy. The creation, in June 1887, of the government of Jovan Ristić, the cabinet of the liberal-radical agreement, meant a break with the earlier external orientation of the Serbian ruler and a confirmation that in his desire to get rid of his wife, the king does not choose allies and that he is ready to abdicate. The Serbian ruler planned to convene the Grand National Assembly in mid-August and to announce his resignation in favour of his son. The king believed that after his abdication there would be riots in Serbia and that after no more than two years, he would be called to restore order as the victorious dictator. Milan Obrenović abandoned such ideas, which looked more like a novel than reality, in July of the same year, after a friendly letter from the Austro-Hungarian ruler and a visit to Vienna, when Franz Joseph persuaded him to promise that he would not resign.

However, in July 1888, the Wiesbaden incident took place, a scandal against court etiquette and civil decency, which showed the whole of Europe the seriousness of the conflict between the Serbian ruling couple. Serbia has become the subject of a scandalous European chronicle. King Milan filed for divorce, and as he could not obtain it through the regular means, he said with despair that he would resign for the sake of the monks and priests. The Serbian ruler took an irregular route and forced Metropolitan Theodosius to unilaterally, illegally, divorce the marriage of the royal couple on October 24th, 1888. After these events, Milan’s reputation was never lower, he felt disgraced and considered it impossible to stay on the throne. The thought of resignation overcame the king also because of the inconsistency of his foreign and domestic policies with the direction of the radical government. Milan was ready to step down rather than give up its direction. King was pushed to resign and fuelled by his love for Artemisia Hristić, the wife of Milan Hristić, an official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Serbian ruler was ready to marry her, and in order to do so he had to resign. Finally, in September 1888, King Milan announced his intention to abdicate to the Austro-Hungarian representative Hengelmüller. Viennese diplomacy took it lightly, considering that whenever the king is in difficulties, he talks about resigning and that his problems should not be interfered with. Milan Obrenović interpreted this restraint as a sign that Austria-Hungary had given up on him and all his courage had disappeared. The king was determined to leave the throne.

King Alexander I Obrenović, around 1889, laminated photograph, 16 x 11 cm, Franz Padovay, Historical Collection of the National Museum Kraljevo (I-638).

The Constitution of 1888 and the Resignation of King Milan

Before resigning, King Milan had to take care to determine the position of his minor heir. Reconciliation with the radical party was achieved with the adoption of the new Constitution. On October 26th, 1888, the Serbian ruler published a proclamation in which it was stated that on December 2nd, elections would be held for the Great National Assembly, whose task is to change the Constitution. The king wanted the change of the highest legal act to be a joint work of all parties. Already on October 27th, a committee was formed under the presidency of Milan Obrenović whose task was to prepare a draft of the new Constitution, which the Grand Assembly would only have to approve. The draft was completed on December 6th, and the Constitution was, according to the king’s express wish, adopted, cover to cover, and promulgated on January 3rd, 1889, that is, December 22nd according to the old calendar, and is called the Constitution of 1888. The parliamentary regime was established by the Constitution. The rights of Serbian citizens are guaranteed, especially the freedom of the press. The administrative guaranteed system was abolished, and citizens could directly sue officials in court. The responsibility of the ministers was expanded, the independence of the courts was declared, and the legislative and financial rights of the Assembly were expanded. People’s representation remained unicameral, government parliament members were abolished, but qualified ones were introduced, in order to ensure the presence of representatives of the intelligentsia. Municipal, county and district self-government were declared by the constitution.

The constitution also resolved the issue of electing the Regent of the minor King Alexander, who was chosen by the outgoing ruler. Milan Obrenović appointed Jovan Ristić, General Jovan Belimarković and General Kosta Protić as Regents. All three did not sit well with Queen Natalie, the generals were loyal to the dynasty and the king could interfere in the politics of Serbia through them, and the political direction of the Regency was determined by Ristić. In the domain of foreign policy, the Serbian ruler did not give in to the radicals. Governor Jovan Ristić agreed to stick to the letter of the Secret Convention and its validity was extended, with certain additional interpretations of individual members, until January 1st, 1895.

Radical champions from the time of the 1888 Constitution, Illustrated Radical Almanac, Belgrade, Graphic Society Makarije A.D. Belgrade-Zemun, 1924, Study Collection of the History Group of the National Museum Kraljevo.

After resolving political issues, King Milan also had to resolve certain personal issues, first of all, his financial situation. A loan of one million francs was taken from the state treasury to pay off foreign debts. The debt to the Serbian state was supposed to be covered by 700,000 thousand francs sent by the Austro-Hungarian government. All that, however, did not solve the financial problems of the Serbian ruler.

King Milan carefully hid his intention to abdicate, which he revealed only to Jovan Ristić and the Berlin and Vienna courts. On the day of the solemn proclamation of the kingdom, March 6th, 1889, at a ceremonial reception in the court, the Serbian ruler, to the surprise of foreign diplomats and domestic politicians, read the text of his resignation. In the general confusion, the most sober was the king, who theatrically swore allegiance to the new ruler, his minor son. After the abdication, Milan Obrenović behaved cheerfully, as if he had relieved himself of a great burden. He walked in civilian clothes on the streets of Belgrade with his dog and said that in the future he would live as a free man, for himself and his pleasure. He voluntarily ended his political career at the age of 35.

Darko Gučanin
historian, archivist
Director of the National Museum Kraljevo

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