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And His Sling Was in His Hand

By Wojciech Góralczyk | Pajiba Storytellers | May 23, 2011 |

By Wojciech Góralczyk | Pajiba Storytellers | May 23, 2011 |

In the 19th century, a whole bunch of countries popped up. It was just that time of the millennium. If they happened to sprout in the western hemisphere, they were almost by definition republics. The exceptions to this rule - like the Empire of Brazil, which was basically the House of Braganza renaming their summer home to something more fancy after Napoleon crashed their Portugal — were all circumstantial and quite short-lived.

In Europe, however, if you wanted a country, you needed a proper prince. It was as simple as that (except way harder). And just like in fairytales, the prince had to be handsome, brave, and not related to any of the major ruling houses in a way that could upset the delicate balance of power. This choice was usually pretty superficial, since monarchs were slowly turning into figureheads as the continent marched towards constitutionalism. (Here, the exception was France, which instead decided to harness the power of epileptic seizures, and spasmed from monarchy to republic to empire to monarchy to republic to empire to republic* as the rest of us struggled to avoid eye contact.) In at least one case, however, it directly impacted the history of a newborn country, and the shape of its region.

So gather ‘round, children, for a 2-part epic about two princes bound by uncanny symmetry: one seemingly anointed by fate only to be brought down by its sudden reversal, the other almost self-made and ultimately self-destructive. Oh, and it all takes place in Bulgaria.

Naturally, it starts with a death. In this case: the slow, agonizing death of the Ottoman Empire. It’s been going at it for quite some time now, an anachronistic not-quite-cadaver rasping and wheezing its way into the modern age, but it can’t seal the deal even if it wanted to. Its capital straddles the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles — two important straits that no one (mostly Great Britain) wants to fall into anyone else’s (mostly Russia’s) hands - so it just sits there, rotting live, with chunks falling off from time to time. Some of these chunks have names — Egypt, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania — and poised to pick them up as soon as they land are the region’s major players. The formula here is pretty straightforward: if you have a Mediterranean coast that can be obliterated on a whim, you spread ‘em for Great Britain. Otherwise, you have a choice between Russia and Austria-Hungary.

Bulgaria’s situation was further complicated by the fact that it was created (in 1878) at Russia’s behest, following her victory over the Ottoman Empire. Still, its political leaders set out to find a ruler that would sit well with all three Great Powers - and eventually they found one, namely Alexander Battenberg (Michael Fassbender, in military uniform, 24/7). Battenberg was German, which secured him the Austro-Hungarian vote, and held in high esteem by Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), which placated the British. Most importantly, he was Tsar Alexander II’s (aged Sad Keanu, for the exploding bit) favored nephew, and Russia’s ruler simply adored him. He was the perfect choice, and so he was promptly crowned Prince of Bulgaria. Everyone rejoiced.

With one tiny exception.

Imagine, if you will, that you grew up being constantly compared to your perfect cousin, bombarded with stories of his amazing exploits, watching your father shower him with affection … And that then, all of a sudden, daddy is no more, and you’re granted almost limitless power with zero oversight. Can you see where this is going?

On 13th March 1881, Tsar Alexander II made an appearance in his very own Looney Tunes skit. A bomb-wielding assassin made an attempt at his life, but the bulletproof carriage he was traveling in shielded him from the blast. The Tsar emerged from it unscathed and went ‘Ha-hah!” (or at least let’s assume so, for comedy’s sake) — just as a second bomb landed at his feet.

He was succeeded by his son, Alexander III (Michael Sheen). For Bulgaria, the proverbial fan wasn’t even in the picture - it was just endless fields of shit, as far as the eye can see. From beloved “little sister,” Battenberg’s country became Russia’s enemy #1, and soon the new Tsar was given the perfect opportunity to strike. In 1885, Bulgarian troops occupied a part of the Ottoman Empire that they considered to be rightfully theirs. Prince Battenberg wasn’t 100% behind this initiative, but reluctantly sanctioned the fait accompli. In response, the Ottomans began mobilizing. At this point, Tsar Alexander III commissioned an analysis of the Bulgarians’ defensive capabilities should the Russians withdraw their support, and upon hearing that they would stand no chance, recalled all Russian officers, leaving the Bulgarians with no military commanders. The good news was that the Ottomans were bluffing. The bad news? Serbs decided it meant it was their turn to tango, and in autumn 1885 their army invaded Bulgaria.

But wait, it gets worse. The Bulgarians actually won. In 2 weeks. Battenberg became a national hero, and his stunning victory was celebrated throughout Europe as a huge FU to the Tsar - who obviously went ballistic. Common people rejoiced, while the Powers That Be started slowly backing away from the ticking time bomb. The Prince himself realized his predicament and quickly issued a statement thanking the Russians for preparing his army so well, but it was hopeless - the Tsar stated that he was not interested in the words of someone who “shall disappear within 6 months”, and the Bulgarian government was notified that there would be no reconciliation as long as Prince Battenberg was in the picture.

Now, some dude being a total jerk to poor Fassbender might not seem like that big a deal, but look at it this way: if you’re Nicaragua, you do not want to be on Reagan’s shit list. And if the removal of but one person could remedy the situation… needless to say, the Tsar got his wish. Eight months later, a group of insurrectionists stormed into the Prince’s chambers and demanded that he abdicate to save his country. Battenberg signed the necessary documents and was promptly shipped to the nearest Russian port. Politicians across the continent clapped politely and made a note to start treating Bulgaria as a Russian satellite again. However — as was often the case in the 19th century — no one bothered to check in with the Bulgarians themselves, which is what makes what came next even funnier.

It turned out that the Bulgarian insurrectionists were unable to create a new, pro-Russian government, as all prominent politicians declined to take part in it. What’s more, the president of the Bulgarian parliament, Stephan Stambolov (Gabriel Byrne, possibly, Irish accent and all), a jaw-droppingly brilliant politician, rallied people to mount a counter-insurrection and stabilize the country. He sent out missives to Alexander Battenberg - who had since been released by the over-confident Russians — urging him to come back. And eventually, encouraged by Queen Victoria, the deposed Prince made his triumphant return. Unfortunately, while waving to the cheering masses with one hand, he was simultaneously shooting himself in the foot with the other. Upon his arrival in Sofia, he sat down with the Russian consul, who convinced him to make one final attempt at reconciliation with the Tsar. What resulted was a rather infamous telegram, which ended with the words: “As I have received my crown from the Tsar of Russia, I am ready to return it to him at any time.” It is a testament to Stambolov’s resilience that he didn’t have a coronary there and then.

The secret telegram was of course instantly published, along with the Tsar’s response, which amounted to “Cool, gimmeh.” And so, having painted himself into a corner, Prince Alexander Battenberg abdicated one last time, and rode off into the sunset, probably while being pelted with rotten fruit by assorted Bulgarian patriots.

With the throne vacant, Russia sent General Nikolai Kaulbars to Bulgaria to assess the situation and further destabilize the country, giving the Tsar a pretext for a direct intervention. On November 17th 1886, Kaulbars and all Russian officials were recalled from Sofia, which was seen as a sign that a full-on Russian invasion was mere days away. With their homeland crumbling all around them, a small Bulgarian delegation departed Sofia in a desperate attempt to find a new ruler for their country, before it was too late …

But that’s another story.

* no, I am NOT making this up

Wojtek lives in Poland, where rainbows are gray. Sometimes he likes to think he does other things as well.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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