The Arbiter of Balkan Destiny
By Sydney Brooks
(London Correspondent of The Independent)
[The Independent; October 4, 1915]
When somebody sits down to write the inner history of the Balkan League of 1912, of the war that broke out among, its victorious members in 1913, and of the infinitely tangled developments which for the past year and more have kept the Balkan States in an equilibrium of explosive neutrality and agitated inaction, on the very edge of the greatest conflict of all time; when we, or our children, or our grandchildren are privileged to walk familiarly behind the scenes of these stupendous dramas, one figure in all probability will stand out supreme—Ferdinand Maximilian Karl Leopold Maria, King of Bulgaria. He was the hero of the great dash upon the Turks by the Balkan Powers; he was both the victim and the villain of its tragic sequel when the allies fell to fighting one another over the very body of their common foe; and on him and his ambitions and his desire for revenge the whole Near Eastern situation, so far as it affects the policies of the Balkan States, has really pivoted during the past fourteen months.
Until Bulgaria is satisfied neither Greece nor Rumania can make a move. If King Ferdinand had thrown in his lot with the Allies both Greece and Rumania would follow suit and Constantinople would be in their possession in a month. If, on the other hand, he joins with Turkey and the Germanic Powers, all the energies of the Balkan States will be consumed in another, fratricidal war. He holds the key to the position and his aims are clear enough. He wishes to smash the Treaty of Bucharest, to incorporate the Bulgar-speaking districts of Macedonia that were taken from him after the Balkan war of 1913, to occupy Kavala, now in the hands of the Greeks, to wipe out the memories of the bitter and humiliating peace that his former allies constrained him to sign at the sword's point, and to recover the territories he was obliged to yield in the north to Rumania and in the south to Turkey. Until the fulfilment of those aims is guaranteed not only will he remain passive himself but he will continue to block the road to any action by his immediate neighbors.
I conceive King Ferdinand as by no means displeased with the opportunities thus thrown in his way, with the abnormal prominence and power they have brought him, or with the referential attentions and solicitations heaped upon him by the Great Powers. It is the sort of game he revels in, not only because it ministers to his importance but because there are very few players more skilled than he. In his passion and aptitude for intrigue he is a true Coburger. He made a prodigious error in 1913 when grasping at too much he all but lost everything. That was the solitary mistake in a career of phenomenal and uninterrupted, success. He has no intention of repeating it now. When he makes his decision—and it may be disclosed at any moment—it will only be after having measured all the possibilities and made very sure of his ground.
Thirty-one months ago all Europe was pondering a mystery that at once invited speculation and eluded it. Whose brain conceived the Balkan League? Who was it who saw that the hour had struck, that the general idea of the fighting strength of Turkey was mistaken, and that with a decisive and united push the Ottoman power could be toppled over? Who was the unknown Bismarck of the Balkans? Whose diplomacy was it that composed the inveterate jealousies and feuds that had hitherto kept Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece apart, and had made the very notion of a Balkan Federation for any purpose, warlike or peaceful, seem the idlest of dreams? And whose judgment was it that so nicely and accurately calculated the impotence of the Great Powers in the face of a determined front and the accomplished fact? Possibly the historian of the future may lift the veil and discover the true author and begetter of the Balkan League in some statesman or soldier whose very name is barely known to the Europe of today. If so, those of us who are alive then will smile with senile superiority and mutter the usual epigrams about the credulous fallibility of history. For the opinion has already crystallized into something like a conviction that Ferdinand was the man who spun the webs and that, so far as the four-cornered onslaught on the Turks was conceived, designed, completed and launched by a single mind and a single will, that mind and will are to be looked for under the crown of Bulgaria's King. True, in a moment of madness he so mishandled, his triumph that it became his undoing, and seemed only to have created the League in order to be destroyed by it. But nothing can impair the fact that for one brilliant hour, he raised Bulgaria by diplomacy and war to the undoubted primacy of the Balkans.
To Ferdinand himself probably no reputation could be more pleasing than that of a successful arch-plotter. His mother, the Princess Clementine, the daughter of Louis Philippe and one of the ablest women of her day, with all her father's shrewdness and a good deal more charm and generosity than he ever possest, dedicated; her son almost from boyhood to the study of statecraft. It is said that a gipsy prophesied to her that having come into the world as the daughter; of an uncrowned king, she would leave it as the mother of a crowned monarch, and that from the moment of his birth she fixed upon Ferdinand, her youngest son, as the one who would fulfil her hopes. Against all reason and probability she never wavered in her faith that her adored child, tho an insignificant Coburg princeling, would one day be admitted to the company of monarchs. For this future she trained him with inflexible resolution, persistent tours round the capitals of Europe, having him instructed in a variety of languages, insisting that he should take to soldiering, for which he had no natural inclination, and that he should master some trade or craft—he chose the curious hobby of bird-stuffing—and perpetually currying favor on his behalf with a vast array of exalted relatives.
It was no easy work, even for the cleverest princess of her time. Ferdinand developed early and has never lost a genius for unpopularity. His strongest passion then as now was a cold, malicious relish in the scandal and tittle-tattle of courts and council chambers. Perhaps no ruler who has ever lived has made a more careful study of the weak points of the statesmen and officials beneath him. His dossier of their frailties and vulnerable points, of their backslidings and personal habits and relations—a dossier collected by an indefatigable army of private spies—has been one of the bulwarks of his rule, in Sofia. By the time he was twenty Machiavelli's own "Prince" was nothing to Ferdinand. A thoro training in diplomatic finesse and in the regal art of using words to conceal not merely thoughts but a state of intellectual nudity, formed the basis of his education for kingship.
But for all his mother's assiduity nothing in the early eighties seemed more unlikely than that Ferdinand, who had not the shadow of a claim to any crown whatever, would one day be called upon to show his capacity for rulership. There were no thrones going a-begging; Europe was disappointingly tranquil; and it looked as tho the young Prince had nothing before him but a life of unamiable discontent as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army and as one of the hapless group of unemployed Highnesses, Then suddenly Alexander, Prince of Bulgaria, was kidnapped, the principality was left without a ruler, and Ferdinand's chance had come. The Bulgarian emissaries who promptly set forth to scour Europe for an occupant of their vacant throne had not thought of Ferdinand as a possible candidate. He had to suggest himself. Nobody else would take the job. Bulgaria at the time was like a red-hot iron which was hurriedly dropt by every aspirant for a throne. The principality was in a state of chaos; the army was honeycombed with conspiracies; and any ruler who stepped, into the absent Alexander's shoes except under the auspices of Russia could be fairly certain that he would have all the Great Powers arrayed against his government, and that in all human probability he would be quickly assassinated. Ferdinand stipulated that the consent of all the powers should be forthcoming before he entered Bulgaria as its ruler. Not a power, however, would move in the matte; and after waiting three weeks Ferdinand waived the condition he had imposed, took his courage in both hands, left Austria secretly, sailed down the Danube, and in his 'twenty-sixth year (August, 1887) reached Sofia.
His position seemed an impossible one. He had air Europe against him. Russia contested the legality of his election and declared that he was merely Prince Ferdinand of Coburg, de facto but not de jure ruling the Bulgarians. Turkey insisted that his accession was contrary to the provisions of the Berlin Treaty. France, Germany and Austria all stood aside. One power and one only, Great Britain, looked favorably on the Prince. Lord Salisbury upheld the right of the Bulgarians to choose their own ruler and warned both Russia and the Porte that any foreign occupation of Bulgaria would lead to the gravest complications. England's solitary voice saved the Prince, and possibly also the peace of Europe.
But even so Ferdinand found himself little more than a figure-head. The real ruler of Bulgaria was Stambouloff, the innkeeper's son; and he and Ferdinand, the rough, curt, remorseless Slav and the vain, cultured, half-French, half-Austrian aristocrat, represented the opposite poles of humanity. It looked for a while as tho Ferdinand had only left his old life and incurred the displeasure of all Europe to serve as Stambouloff's puppet. All the arduous training in statecraft was brushed aside as of no account; he was not consulted; Stambouloff decided everything. And while the statesman thought only of Bulgaria and of how to protect her against Russia and the Porte, the prince thought only of how to secure the formal recognition of the powers and above all of Russia. While Stambouloff was reorganizing the army, conciliating Rumania, meeting and foiling an endless succession of plots and intrigues, and trampling put the embers of sedition, Ferdinand was building up a court with a ceremony even stiffer and more punctilious than that of Vienna, was wheedling every power in turn for recognition, and was forming that private information bureau which has since developed into the right arm of his Government. A breach between the two men was sooner or later inevitable. His marriage with the Princess Marie Louise and the birth of a son strengthened Ferdinand's position, and in 1894 he felt able to dismiss his rugged and domineering minister. A few months later Stambouloff was murdered in the streets of Sofia, and, rightly or wrongly, Europe has never quite acquitted Ferdinand of complicity in the crime.
For the past twenty-one years Ferdinand has been the absolute ruler of the state. At the moment of his accession no one would have given him six months' purchase of his throne. Yet today his throne is as secure (tho that, I agree, is not saying much) as any in the Near East or in other parts of Europe. In the face of incredible obstacles he has achieved everything on which his heart was set. He began as an unrecognized prince; he is today a fully-fledged king. He found a hostile Russia and he has forced its approbation. When he came to the throne Bulgaria was the shuttlecock of Near Eastern politics; she is now, as I have said, the pivot of the whole Balkan situation. He found her a vassal and tributary principality; he has raised her to the dignity of a sovereign and independent state. He found her in a condition of partial subjection to the Turks; he not only liberated her, but has completely thrashed the Turks on the battlefield. Under his auspices, and very largely owing to his inspiration and his power of hard and intelligent work, railways and schools have covered the country, bringing with them a vast influx of prosperity, and the army has been raised to a state which in 1912 won the admiration of the whole world. No Balkan, state has more fully justified the wisdom of the policy of freedom from Turkish rule. Her people have become penetrated with a glowing pride and consciousness of nationality and in all the elements of national well-being are today incomparably better off than when Ferdinand began to reign.
A sovereign who has accomplished all this is no comedy king. He has the real stuff of leadership in him. And Ferdinand, remember, is still under fifty-five. High as he has climbed, he may climb higher yet. As a ruler and a statesman, indeed, he appears capable of anything except of the art of making himself liked. The simple and democratic peasants over whom he rules feel his strength, acknowledge his intellectual quickness, are grateful for what he, has achieved, and submit themselves to his guidance; but they are very far from loving him. Cold, cunning, secretive, the author of many deeds that do not bear looking into, a ruthless exploiter of the worst parts of human nature, a man of bitter, brutal, scoffing temper and equally disfigured by venom and vanity—there are those who declare the keynote of his whole character to be an utter lack of honor and principle. And there are those, too, who declare that at bottom he is an artist even more than he is a statesman and who praise his ready sensibilities, his vivacious talk, and his elaborate, perfumed manners. But no one has ever pretended that he is liked. He stands alone, a gifted, sinister, enigmatical figure, Yet, such as he is, he more than any man at this moment is the arbiter of the destinies of the Balkans.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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