Last October, a chapter of Serbian history was rewritten. There has been no rain for months, and the streets of Belgrade were parched and dusty. But the crowds that flocked to the White Palace were thinking not of summer, but of winter—the winter of 1941.
Serbia then was cold and tumultuous. The Nazi war machine was massing on the Yugoslav borders; spies and politicians were manoeuvring to unseat their rulers. Tanks circled the White Palace, poised not to protect but to attack. Peering from the palace windows, the royal family could see enraged crowds. The prince regent, Paul Karadjordjevic, was distraught—and with good reason. On March 27th, he was forced to flee the country, branded a traitor, never to return.
Princess Elizabeth, Paul’s only daughter, was just four when her family went into exile. More than 70 years on, as we sit together in a restaurant near the Danube in Belgrade, her memories of the departure are fragmentary but vivid. They were given four hours to leave, and her brother read her a story, giving the nurse time to pack. In the mayhem, they left their dog behind, but "someone went back and retrieved him", so they arrived late for the train waiting for them at a little station near the White Palace.
Arriving in Athens, the family (both her parents, her two brothers, Nurse Ede and a Greek maid) stayed briefly with Elizabeth’s maternal grandmother, Grand Duchess Elena Vladimirovna of Russia, beloved but now cool towards her son-in-law Prince Paul. "I’ve never been in therapy," Elizabeth reflects, "but I probably should have—it was all so dramatic and frightening." A sense of trauma persisted through her childhood. Even when, after three years under house arrest in Kenya, the family moved to South Africa at the invitation of General Smuts, she still felt "dislocated". "I remember thinking, ‘if I shut my eyes long enough and tight enough, and walk around a tree, I’ll open them and be back home.’"
"Home" was never spoken of. Elizabeth’s parents took the line that "since you can never go back, there’s no point in learning Serbian", and spoke to her in English; and she was told to accept her new life and new identity and "move on". In her presence, her father drew a veil of silence over the events leading up to his exile. Unlike her brothers, however, Elizabeth had been born in Serbia, in a room in the White Palace, and she became determined that, one day, she would return.
The country to which Elizabeth dreamed of returning has a dark history. Culturally rich, it has been repeatedly impoverished, on a human level, at almost every turn of the past millennium. Nearly one in five Serbians died during the first world war, and the Jewish community of the former Yugoslavia was all but eradicated in the second. Tens of thousands of Serbs were dispatched by Croatian Ustase leaders with a viciousness judged excessive by no less an authority than Heinrich Himmler. In Novi Sad, Jews were fed alive to the frozen Danube, one by one, through a hole that had been cut in the ice for the purpose.
During Tito’s Communist rule, those Serbs known to have sympathised with the nationalist "Chetnik" movement were persecuted. In the early 1990s, Yugoslavia was ripped apart by ethnic enmities; in July 1995, 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered in Srebrenica, in what the UN secretary-general described as the worst crime on European soil since the second world war—a crime for which the former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic, the "butcher of Bosnia", now stands trial in The Hague. In 1999, Belgrade was subjected to 78 days of NATO air strikes. The list goes on. The country has been invaded, occupied and humiliated so often it is no wonder it now chooses to keep some of its history hidden.
Elizabeth's father, Prince Paul, was until recently a part of this hidden past. Born in 1893, he went up to Christ Church, Oxford, in 1913. He was a member of the Bullingdon Club and as a young man moved easily in British high society. His friends included the Duke of Kent, his future brother-in-law, and the Duke of York, later King George VI, who was his best man when, in 1923, he married Princess Olga of Greece and Denmark. Paul inspired deep affection—the American-born politician and diarist Sir Henry "Chips" Channon described him as "the person I have loved most"—and was a connoisseur of European art, building up a collection that included works by Monet, Titian and van Gogh. But in 1934 the course of his life was forcibly and dramatically altered. His first cousin King Alexander I of Yugoslavia was assassinated in Marseille by agents of Mussolini and, as primary regent for Alexander’s 11-year-old heir, Peter, Paul was obliged to take over the reins of a country beset with problems.
It was an unenviable role. During the late 1930s, the regent and his envoys looked on with increasing dismay as Germany rearmed. They begged for British and American help in preparing Yugoslavia’s defence but, for all Prince Paul’s Anglophilia and youthful friendships, none was forthcoming. Then, at the beginning of 1941, Britain changed tack. Churchill and Eden wanted a united Balkan front, and Yugoslavia was expected to drop her neutrality and fight.
Prince Paul faced an intractable dilemma. If he did what Churchill asked, a German offensive against Yugoslavia would become almost inevitable—not only that, but he would essentially sacrifice the north, including Croatia and Slovenia, since these areas would be impossible to defend. Germany, meanwhile, was marshalling troops across the border in Romania, and Italy’s forces, having overrun Albania, threatened to invade from the south and west. On March 4th, Prince Paul was summoned to Berchtesgaden where, in a five-hour meeting, Hitler tried once more to force him to join the Axis powers by signing the Tripartite Pact. Paul returned home; the cabinet argued. Hitler had offered a special clause honouring Yugoslav sovereignty, and stipulating that German troops should not travel through Yugoslavia, and that it would not be obliged to enter the war and fight. Three weeks later, despite a telegram from King George VI begging him not to form any kind of partnership with the Germans—"whose word is never, and least of all now, to be trusted"—Paul allowed his prime minister, Dragisa Cvetkovic, to sign.
When news of this reached Belgrade there were riots. Hitler had ordered that the special clause be kept secret, and Yugoslavs believed they would now have to fight for Germany. The day after the pact was signed, the military pulled off a coup d’état and Prince Paul, denounced as a pro-Nazi quisling and dubbed "Prince Palsy" by Churchill, was sent into exile. Peter, at 17, became King Peter II—only to be forced into exile himself shortly after Yugoslavia fell to the Nazis.
The years that followed were bleak for Elizabeth. Normally cheerful, her mood darkens as she speaks of them, and her sharp humour dulls. While her brothers were sent to boarding school, she was taught for some years by Nurse Ede, bereft of the company of other children. Princess Olga was often away. Prince Paul remained severely depressed for some years after going into exile: silent, unable to function, desperately thin.
When Elizabeth finally started school in South Africa, she remembers "the weird feeling of being surrounded by children". She was nine. "I had always been alone. But I thought it was wonderful. We lived in a suburb, I went to school on a bus—we had normality. We had a fantastic cat, more like a dog, and I would sit in a tree with my book, a radio and the cat. I was happy then."
Although her parents didn’t discuss it, the past cast a long shadow. Aged ten, Elizabeth hit a classmate who had called her father a Nazi, and was sent home from school. Another child, making a similar accusation, held her under water in the swimming pool. When, at 13, she was sent to a "horrible boarding school" in England—Tudor Hall—she tried to remain inconspicuous by calling herself simply "Elizabeth George". She was still taunted, even by one of the teachers.
When Elizabeth was in her late teens, tragedy struck. First, her favourite brother, Nicholas, was killed in a car accident; then, in quick succession, both her grandmother and an aunt died. "There was a deep feeling of gloom and doom in our home," she remembers. "No music was played, and for three years only black was worn. I had no social life, and in fact I think I had no friends. The future looked bleak."
Fearing she might become a bluestocking, her father forbade her to try for Oxford. Instead, she studied piano and history of art in Paris—"neither with much enthusiasm"—all the while slipping deeper and deeper into depression. "I was nobody, and nothing," she says. "I didn’t belong anywhere, and was burdened with a stupid, antiquated title. Every morning when I woke up I dreaded having to see and live through another day." Close to despair, and fearing she was "headed for the nuthouse", she accepted an invitation to New York from a handsome Jewish dress manufacturer, Howard Oxenberg, whom she had met skiing. They were married in 1961.
"My experiences may have made me pick a lot of unsuitable men in my life," Elizabeth laughs. But if none of her three marriages was built to last, each of her husbands has played some part in supporting her return to Serbia, either practically or psychologically. The marriage to Oxenberg was, she admits, "a disaster"; but "he saved my life because he enabled me to run away and get out of Paris," and he later encouraged their daughter Catherine, an actress, to write a film script based on Prince Paul’s story. Her second husband, an English banker, Neil Balfour, wrote a biography of his ex-father-in-law, "Paul of Yugoslavia: Britain’s Maligned Friend" (1980). And her third, a Peruvian senator, Manuel Ulloa Elías, was able to facilitate Elizabeth’s return by providing her with diplomatic status and securing permission from the Yugoslav government for her to travel back to Belgrade.
It was in 1987 that she finally returned to the country she had left as a small girl. She recalls staring out of the train window on her homeward journey. "We’d left Serbia by train all those years ago, so I felt I must go back by train. I watched the dawn break in the sky over the north, and a big red sun rising. It was an extraordinary feeling. I cried and cried."
As she remembers her homecoming, a waiter approaches and he and Elizabeth discuss, in Serbian, a clumsy translation on the menu which makes them both laugh out loud. "When I came back I tried learning Serbian from a book," she says, "but it was hard, so I had occasional classes at a foreign-language school in Belgrade. It’s still frustrating, sometimes, when I’m trying to express myself properly."
The conversation returns to her father. "It wasn’t only the injustice with which he’d been treated that pained me," she says. "It was the erasure of his memory." When she first went back she found that Serbs knew more about her family from the American soap opera "Dynasty", in which Catherine Oxenberg played the glamorous Amanda Carrington, than from their history lessons. She smiles as she recalls a visit to the monastery at Studenica during which a monk rushed up to her and said, "You’re Amanda’s mother! Please write in the visitors’ book that you’re Amanda’s mother."
"The previous night’s episode", she says with a wry smile, "had been particularly raunchy."
For her father, she says, signing the Tripartite Pact was traumatic—"but he had to put the country first". She believes that, had there been no coup, "then within two weeks Hitler would have gone off to Russia, and everything would have been different." As it was, within ten days of her father’s exile, the Nazis had invaded. The accusations of betrayal against Prince Paul were swift and bitter. Both for the British government and for the incoming Communists, he was a handy scapegoat. "It’s been taught in schools that he was a traitor, pro-German—not a real Serb," Elizabeth says. "It’ll be one hell of a job to change the textbooks."
Her campaign to restore her father’s good name began the moment she set foot back on Serbian soil, and has never ceased. Her husband Manuel Ulloa Elías became, she admits coldly, "irrelevant" to her after her return. But, supported by her new partner Dragan Babic, a fellow Serb, she has travelled across Serbia "a hundred times"—from the National Museum (where her ex-husband Neil’s biography of Prince Paul was launched in Serbian in 1991) to the drawing rooms of European royals—arranged presentations, made speeches and talked to lawyers, prelates and politicians.
It has been a long, testing struggle, but she has been pleasantly surprised by displays of support. Thousands came to the presentation she organised in the National Museum in 1991, and her audience included many young people who could not have remembered the second world war. At first, she was amazed to be spontaneously recognised and greeted by people on the street. "Now," she says, "I’m frequently recognised as I’ve been living here for so long, although still not enough people know about my father."
In 1990, as the threat of war loomed, she created a foundation to bring in supplies of food and clothes, medicine and medical specialists, as well as organising musicals and concerts in New York to raise funds. But her involvement in Serbia has been political as well as humanitarian. In 2004, a group of friends persuaded her to run for president. "People kept saying ‘do it’," she says. "‘It’ll be a citizens’ party.’ I felt I could offer a fresh face to political life here and be a bridge from the old to the new. And it was a challenge for a woman—only one other female candidate ran—especially as this country is so patriarchal." A whirlwind three-week campaign ensued. Although hers was a late bid, with "no time, no party and no money", 62,700 citizens voted for Elizabeth’s candidature, placing her sixth in a race of 15.
The exposure had a positive effect on her campaign to restore her father’s name. She sought out specialists and people of influence for specific tasks. In the drive to change school history books, she enlisted the support of the historian and political scientist Professor Slobodan Markovic, the leading expert on Prince Paul. The Communists under Tito had ruled that Paul was a war criminal, and at the end of the war the entire family had been declared enemies of the state. In challenging this, Elizabeth sought help from a lawyer, Oliver Antic, now senior adviser to Serbia’s president, Tomislav Nikolic. In December 2011, her efforts were rewarded: the Serbian Supreme Court ruled that Prince Paul was neither a war criminal nor an enemy of the state.
Her campaign continues. There are details she would still like corrected. In the parliament building is a room hung with a portrait of every ruler since the early 19th century—except Prince Paul. She has offered them a lithograph of her father’s portrait by Savely Sorine, painted in 1937.
Elizabeth has not achieved all her goals and, at times, her actions have involved bitter conflicts. Her presidential bid was strongly opposed by her cousin, Crown Prince Alexander, son of King Peter II. If the royal family were ever restored, he is the man who would be king, and he firmly believes that royals should stay out of politics. He now lives in the White Palace, while Elizabeth lives in a light, airy penthouse in the centre of the old city, surrounded by photographs of her family and mementoes of a grander past.
To some, aspects of her campaign might appear self-centred, or obsessive—or both. But she is adamant that she is not fighting for herself or even simply for her father’s memory, but to help her country come to terms with its past and learn from it. "Saying sorry helps people move forward," she insists. "You don’t have to look very far: Srebrenica, Armenia…Refusing to recognise all the genocides of the 20th century is just plain stupid." She lightens, adding, "Men can never say sorry. We need more women in positions of power—as long as they don’t become masculine."
Time is fluid around Elizabeth Karadjordjevic. She is petite, delicate and strikingly good-looking; it is hard to believe she is 76. She holds you in a gaze that is both challenging and humorous, and her speech is punctuated with modern words and idioms. She is completely at home on an iPad, e-mail and Facebook, but has telegrams and old letters at her fingertips when talking of the years of exile. Her conversation ranges from Hollywood icons of a bygone era (she was once engaged to Richard Burton, and was a girlfriend of Warren Beatty) to the latest global events and issues. She shows a keen understanding of both the past and the present, and perhaps the greatest achievement of her life has been to bring about a measure of reconciliation between the two.
In the late summer of 2012, after a long crusade, and in the teeth of considerable opposition, Elizabeth won two victories. The first was to persuade the Swiss authorities that her parents and her brother Nicholas should be exhumed; the second to rally the Serbian church and state, and her family, behind their reinterment on Serbian soil.
In September, supported by her daughter Catherine and her son Nicholas, Elizabeth witnessed the exhumation in Lausanne. "We watched the coffins being pulled out of the ground. Then we went into the crypt and actually saw the bodies as the coffins were opened." It was the first time she had seen her brother Nicky since she was 17, and he was almost shockingly well preserved. "Even his hair looked normal, as did his lifelike, folded hands. There was a terrible smell and lack of air, and I felt overcome with grief and awe."
In early October, she stood with Catherine on the border with Croatia to greet the coffins as they reached Serbian soil, then drove behind them to Belgrade. All the roads from the border and the streets of the city had been closed off. Outside the Patriarchate of the Serbian Orthodox Church soldiers in bright blue coats, trimmed with gold, formed a guard of honour to escort the coffins into the Cathedral Church of St Michael the Archangel. The patriarch was standing at the top of the stairs, and inside, President Nikolic, ambassadors and members of the family were waiting for the cortège. From Greece, Germany, Russia, Spain and Britain, Elizabeth’s friends and relations had gathered—royals and commoners, descendants of those who had been ministers in the 1940s, along with current ministers and well-wishers.
After an official ceremony, knights in medieval costumes stood guard while Serbians of all ages and backgrounds paid their respects to the coffins. They filed past until the cathedral was closed at midnight, and then again the following day—kneeling, crossing themselves, kissing the crosses in front of each coffin, then crossing themselves again.
The following evening the coffins were transported from Belgrade to Topola, the small town where King Peter I (1844-1921) built a church and mausoleum for the royal family. The church stands at the top of a hill, Oplenac, gleaming white and domed. Crowds waited to see Elizabeth and her family. The knights were once again in attendance, sweating in their red tunics and chain mail, their hands encased in metal gauntlets, grasping Karadjordjevic swords at their hips. Tall, broad men, they dwarfed the princess as she walked between them along the red carpet and up the steps into the church.
As the service began, the heat of the crowds warmed the air, which was filled with the scent of beeswax candles and the haze of incense. Monks and priests looked on in robes of red, white, gold, and pale and dark blue; the bells pealed until the choir, hidden away high up on a balcony, began to sing.
Some monks wielded incense-burning censers; others brandished cameras and mobile phones. Royals in black were seated on orange velvet cushions. The few nuns, shrouded in black, stood out like dark spots amid the glitter and jewels of bishops. The presiding prelate, Bishop Irinej Dobrijevic, in a pale mauve surplice, sat sometimes on a velvet throne, sometimes hidden behind the marble screen in front of the high altar. When he sang, his voice filled the high dome of the church. Crosses were kissed, cups were kissed, the rings on the bishops’ fingers were kissed.
Silent and sober at the heart of this drama, the three coffins lay draped in Serbian flags. The medals and orders of Prince Paul and Princess Olga were displayed on velvet cushions next to the traditional plates of wheat cake doused with red wine for the departed.
After an exile of 71 years, Paul Karadjordjevic received the funeral he would have felt appropriate. One foreign guest summed up the occasion: "All acknowledge now that Paul was shoddily treated by the British, and by the Tito regime." But the state burial marked much more than just the restoration of one man’s honour. It appears to have brought about a degree of reconciliation between Elizabeth and Alexander—who initially opposed the reinterment, but whose own father’s body has also now been returned home, to be buried at Oplenac later this year. And it was a crucial step in Serbia’s coming to terms with its troubled past.
President Nikolic’s diary for that day encapsulates the point. A former member of the Serbian Radical Party, he raced 70 miles from a memorial to Nazi victims at Jajinci to be present at the burial of Serbian royals at Oplenac, and gave unifying speeches at both. At Jajinci, where the Nazis executed almost 80,000 Jews and Communists between 1941 and 1944, he was speaking to the heirs of the Partisans—Communists; at Topola he was addressing the heirs of the Chetniks—royalists. He commented on the irony of this, and to both audiences he insisted that, with the reinterment of Prince Paul and his wife and son, a great wrong had been righted.
And what of Princess Elizabeth? She says the funeral service was "so lovely", and represented the culmination of so many years of heartache, that when eventually it came to a close she felt a twinge of sadness "at the finality of it all". As the coffins of her father, mother and brother were laid to rest in the crypt, however, her overwhelming emotion was joy. "After so many years of pain and alienation, I knew that now the three of them would be together for eternity, in this beautiful church, in their home country."